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Austin ISD requests review of state’s plan to manage its special education department

An elementary school hallway with a sign that says "In December, I learned about ..."
Patricia Lim

The Austin Independent School District announced Monday it is requesting an informal review of the state’s plan to oversee the district’s special education department. Texas Education Agency officials announced last month that they wanted to install conservators because Austin ISD was failing to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

"We are requesting a delay in the decision about a conservatorship and are instead seeking a TEA monitor to ensure the best possible alignment between our efforts as a district and the efforts of the state for the ultimate benefit of our students," AISD Board President Arati Singh said in a statement Monday.

Interim Superintendent Matias Segura told AISD families the option would allow the district to show the state what it has accomplished in the past few months, information it may not have had before proposing the conservatorship.

The TEA's move was the result of an investigation into Austin ISD.

“TEA has determined that AISD repeatedly failed to meet special education requirements under state and federal statutes, rules, and regulations,” Adam Benthall, the agency’s director of special investigations, wrote in a report released March 31.

One area where AISD has failed to comply with state and federal law is evaluating students suspected of having a disability within a timely manner. Districts are required to complete what is known as a “Full and Initial Evaluation,” or FIIE, no later than 45 school days after getting the consent of a parent or guardian.

The evaluations determine whether a student has a disability and if so, which services and supports the district must provide. About 1,800 evaluations and reevaluations were overdue as of late March, according to Austin ISD officials.

The TEA investigation also found AISD failed to develop and implement individualized education programs for students with disabilities. An individualized education program, or IEP, is a binding document that details the services a student must receive to ensure they get a “free and appropriate public education” as required by law.

Segura has repeatedly assured staff, families and the public that the district will continue efforts to improve special education services whether or not the TEA appoints conservators.

“We believe that the least disruptive way to build momentum toward sustainable, transformational improvements to special education is to allow time for our comprehensive special education plan, which was developed earlier this year, to fully take hold,” he said in a statement Monday.

Segura, as well as the AISD Board of Trustees, have said they are open to working with the TEA to improve special education services. However, they hoped the agency would appoint a monitor instead of conservators. While conservators can make recommendations that AISD must follow, a monitor would observe steps the district is taking and report back to the TEA.

A spokesperson for Austin ISD said if the TEA does appoint conservators the district will pay them at a rate of $85 per hour.

The TEA’s plan to appoint a management team to oversee Austin ISD’s special education department has drawn mixed reactions from employees, families and other stakeholders.

Disability Rights Texas, an advocacy group that sued AISD in 2021 over its evaluation backlog, praised state education officials for getting involved.

“For years, hundreds and hundreds of students with disabilities have been denied timely evaluations and special education services. There can be no further delay,” Kym Rogers Davis, a litigation attorney for the group, said in a news release. “The needs of students must come first, and DRTx believes it will take both TEA and Austin ISD to resolve this crisis.”

In contrast, a union that represents Austin ISD employees criticized the TEA and pointed out the federal government previously investigated the agency for illegally limiting the percentage of students who could receive special education services.

“Education Austin vehemently objects to TEA placing AISD into conservatorship. TEA has not proven itself to be good stewards of educational responsibilities in our state,” the group’s executive board said in a statement. “We believe TEA currently being under federal investigation for their mistreatment of special education issues in Texas negates their credibility to make judgments for AISD and our students.”

Parents who have children receiving special education services in the district have told KUT that while they’re unsure of whether the TEA will be able to effect real change, there is a desperate need for change in the district to ensure students’ needs are being met.

It is not clear how long it will take the TEA to respond to Austin ISD’s review request.

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
Sangita Menon is a general assignment reporter for KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @sangitamenon.
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