Austin ISD has a backlog of special education evaluations. A disability rights group wants action.
Disability Rights Texas sent a letter Thursday to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath calling for an investigation into the Austin Independent School District. The advocacy group said Austin ISD is violating federal and state law by failing to evaluate in a timely manner students who may have disabilities. The evaluations are used to determine whether students are eligible for special education services.
“Until that evaluation is done, they receive no special education services," said Kym Davis Rogers, an attorney for Disability Rights Texas. "So they’re not getting anything they’re entitled to receive under the law.”
The group said in the letter to Morath that the Texas Education Agency has known for several years that Austin ISD is not complying with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. It requires an initial evaluation be conducted within 45 school days once a parent or guardian provides consent. Disability Rights Texas filed a federal lawsuit against Austin ISD in March 2021 over the delayed evaluations that the district unsuccessfully tried to get dismissed. The group has also previously asked TEA to investigate the district.
“There have been many promises and statements that Austin has made that they are addressing the problem, but we recently received numbers that show actually the delay for initial evaluations is worse than it was when we first learned about this in the fall of 2020,” she said.
According to Disability Rights Texas, Austin ISD had 647 delayed initial evaluations in December of 2020. Rogers said initial evaluations for 875 students were delayed as of December 2022, and another 956 students who had previously been evaluated were overdue for an updated one as of November 2022.
Austin ISD Interim Superintendent Matias Segura spoke with reporters on Thursday and addressed the letter from Disability Rights Texas. He apologized to families for the backlog.
“We’re sorry,” he said. “This is a problem that has been going on for quite some time. We have identified and brought on partners to help us get this right.”
One of those partners is Stetson & Associates, Inc. The education consulting firm previously analyzed and produced a 90-page report on Austin ISD’s special education services. The report recommended, among other things, that the district increase pay for educational diagnosticians and licensed specialists in school psychology (LSSPs) — who conduct the special education evaluations — to be more competitive with other school districts in Central Texas.
Segura said staffing remains a challenge. The district has about 70 positions for diagnosticians as well as LSSPs, and currently just over 20 of them are filled.
“That was brought about due to a couple of different things including the pandemic. So we are being very aggressive in identifying compensation packages to bring our LSSPs back,” he said.
Austin ISD is now offering up to $20,000 in annual incentive pay for LSSPs and diagnosticians if they meet evaluation targets and deadlines. The midpoint salary is about $73,000.
The hiring effort comes in the wake of upheaval within the district’s special education department. In 2021, before Segura’s tenure as interim superintendent, Austin ISD reorganized the special education department citing a “toxic work environment." Then-Chief Academics Officer Elizabeth Casas said the lay-offs, which included evaluators, and subsequent restructuring were key to finding the right people.
“If we want to get different results, we have to do things differently,” she said.
At that time, according to the district, there was a backlog of more than 900 evaluations.
Now, with the backlog of initial evaluations and reevaluations totaling more than 1,800, Rogers said it is time for TEA to take more drastic action.
“Concrete action has to be taken. Austin has had more than two years to try to remedy this problem, and they haven’t,” she said. “And we believe that either a conservator or a management team should be appointed to oversee the special education department in Austin ISD.”
Segura said, ultimately, he wants to do what is best for students. He added that improving special education services is the top priority for him and the Austin ISD school board, which gained four new members during the November election.
“I think there’s an opportunity to collaborate with TEA. We’ve been doing that, so certainly no option is off the table for me,” he said. “The more great minds we have tackling this problem, the more opportunity we have to solve it.”
Currently, Austin ISD meets with TEA on a monthly basis. The agency does have an ongoing investigation into the district.
Segura also pointed out that other school districts in Texas are struggling with providing special education services, adding that there are fewer than 300 LSSPs in the Central Texas region. But Rogers said Austin ISD has had a larger backlog for longer when compared with other districts of its size. She said that other districts that have faced similar issues, such as Dallas ISD, have been more transparent as well.
“Dallas ISD, a couple of years ago, recognized that they also had a backlog of evaluations,” she said. “They took very public steps to acknowledge it, to correct it. They put weekly updates on their progress to a public website.”
Segura said he is committed to being transparent about Austin ISD’s efforts to address its backlog. That could include creating a web page to show how the district is progressing. He said the district has also developed a new internal tool that allows school principals to track the evaluation process for students on their campuses. But he said this is a long-standing problem that won’t be fixed overnight.
“We’re making improvements, but we have a ways to go,” he said. “This is not a six-month fix. This is an 18-month fix to really get it to where it needs to be.”