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Austin ISD considers whether to appeal state oversight of its special education department

The wall of a classroom is covered in educational posters, like calendars and the alphabet.
Gabriel C. Pérez
The Texas Education Agency announced last week it wants to install a management team to oversee Austin ISD’s special education department, citing systemic issues. The AISD school board has until mid-April to request a review of the agency’s proposed conservatorship.

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Austin ISD is deciding whether to appeal the Texas Education Agency’s plan to install a management team to oversee the district’s special education department.

TEA released a report last week recommending the state education commissioner appoint conservators because AISD has repeatedly failed to provide services that are required by law to students with disabilities. A sticking point for TEA is the district’s ongoing backlog of special education evaluations as well as the failure to implement individualized education programs, which outline the services students must receive.

The Austin ISD school board held a meeting Monday to consider their options and hear feedback from the community on TEA’s findings.

Several parents criticized the district’s handling of special education services. They said state intervention is necessary at this point to ensure Austin ISD is meeting the needs of students with disabilities. One parent said their child has been waiting more than 140 days for an evaluation. Evaluations are legally required to happen within 45 days.

But a union representing AISD employees, Education Austin, expressed opposition to the conservatorship. Ken Zarifis, the group’s president, said Austin ISD has had issues with special ed services for a long time, but he believes in the district’s current leadership.

“Right now, we have an interim superintendent and a board that we believe will work with us to problem solve for special ed students,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, our students are the most important priority in this district.”

Zarifis said he does not have a lot of faith in TEA because of its own track record on special education. In 2018, a federal investigation found the agency violated federal law by limiting the percentage of students in Texas who could receive special education services. The U.S. Department of Education also said TEA encouraged some districts to refuse services to students who qualified for them.

TEA’s plan to take over Houston ISD is also raising concerns for Zarifis. HISD had a conservator for a couple years before Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced plans last month to replace the district’s superintendent and democratically elected school board.

“You want to help us? Help us," Zarifis said. "This is not help; this is fear on the heels of the HISD takeover."

The conservatorship TEA is proposing in Austin leaves the current school board and interim superintendent intact. The management team would work within the special ed department; any recommendations they make would be binding.

Eric Ramos, an Austin ISD teacher who used to work in special education, said he doesn't think TEA oversight is going to help because what the district needs is more resources and staff. In fact, he said, the conservatorship could make it harder to recruit and retain employees.

“Because all it’s going to add is another layer of someone to report to, which is just an additional add to the workload," he said, "and the workload is what’s driving people away."

District officials said only 22 of 75 available positions that can evaluate students — educational diagnosticians and licensed specialists in school psychology — are filled.

If the TEA appoints conservators, Austin ISD would pay their salaries at a rate of $85 per hour. District officials expect two to three people to be appointed.

The school board and interim superintendent have said they are willing to work with TEA because improving special education services is their top priority. But they were hoping the agency would install a monitor, rather than conservators who can issue directives.

“A monitor reports to the TEA about a district’s activities. I can tell you that is what Austin ISD requested from TEA,” said Pam Kaminksy, a legal counsel whom the district and school board hired in late January.

Kaminsky said Austin ISD wanted a monitor because the district does have detailed plans it began implementing this year to improve special education.

Assistant Superintendent of Special Education Dru McGovern-Robinett outlined the district’s plans to address systemic issues for the board of trustees. She told the board about efforts to better track evaluations. She said AISD also has aggressive plans to complete overdue evaluations during weekends, holidays and the summer. She said a key piece of this plan is training administrators and campus staff so everyone is on the same page to make the district more inclusive of students with disabilities.

Interim Superintendent Matias Segura also said that, since he started in January, Austin ISD has been committed to more transparent communication about special education.

“We are going to share information with our community to help them understand where we are,” he said.

School Board Vice President Kevin Foster said he thinks the district is finally turning a corner so the timing of the TEA proposal is disappointing.

“We have to prove it before the community kind of comes with us because we’ve been saying we’re going to get better for a long time and we haven’t yet,” he said. “And yet I do have that optimism, and it’s an optimism I haven’t had in a long, long time.”

Austin ISD has until April 17 to appeal the TEA plan. An AISD spokesperson said no board action is required for the district to appeal.

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Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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