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Texas planned to have managers run Austin ISD's special ed department. Now it's got an alternative.

Free backpacks are provided to students at McCallum High School.
Renee Dominguez
Free backpacks are provided to students at McCallum High School before the start of the school year last year.

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State education officials are changing course on plans to install a team to manage Austin ISD's special education department.

AISD interim Superintendent Matias Segura said Wednesday the Texas Education Agency has presented the district with an alternative plan to a special education conservatorship, but shared few specifics.

"We appreciate the TEA acknowledging our progress toward implementation of sustainable, transformative improvements around special education," Segura said during a news conference.

The announcement comes months after Austin ISD appealed the TEA's plan to appoint conservators who would have had direct oversight of the special education department. A TEA investigation found Austin ISD violated state and federal law because it repeatedly failed to meet the needs of students with disabilities. The agency said the district did not evaluate students for special education services within the timeframe required by law. Back in March, the district said it had around 1,800 overdue evaluations.

The TEA investigation also found AISD failed to provide services that students were legally entitled to after they were evaluated.

Superintendent Segura said the district has made progress in reducing overdue evaluations by implementing new strategies and investing more resources into special education. He pointed out, for example, that pending evaluations have decreased by 35% since January and the district has more than tripled the number of staff who can conduct evaluations. However, he did not provide the latest numbers on overdue evaluations.

"As we review the TEA proposal and make a decision on our path forward, I'll continue to keep our community involved and advised on the important work," he said.

Segura said district officials and the school board will be reviewing the proposal over the next several days. He said a lot of the strategies Austin ISD officials came up with are reflected in the TEA recommendations.

"As of right now, some of those details and requirements are specifically around professional development, getting our backlog down to a point where it is zero over a period of time, and really being responsive to all of the needs of our students," he said.

School Board President Arati Singh, who joined Segura at Wednesday's news conference, said the board must decide whether to approve TEA's new proposal by Sept. 29. She expects trustees to vote during their Sept. 21 meeting.

"Our shared goal remains the same: We all support strong outcomes for our students by ensuring that all AISD students receive what they need and what they are entitled to under both federal and state laws," she said.

Singh also pointed out that the board increased funding for special education by $30.2 million in the current budget, bringing total spending to $156 million.

She said trustees plan to provide an update on TEA's proposal during Thursday's board meeting.

A TEA spokesperson told KUT the agency could not comment on the proposal until there is a final agreement.

Special ed advocates react to the proposal

Steven Aleman, a senior policy specialist with Disability Rights Texas, said the group would support the TEA's new proposal as long as it ensures students with disabilities receive the services they need.

"What we understand is that there will be a continued focus and engagement by TEA with Austin ISD regardless of there being a formal conservator," he said. "So, we do believe that the state will continue to be involved with the school district and ensuring that all of the past violations are corrected."

Disability Rights Texas previously called on the TEA to investigate Austin ISD and sued the district over delayed evaluations.

Aleman said while it is important for the district to complete overdue evaluations, the process should not be rushed.

"That does not serve the interests of a student with a disability to do a haphazard evaluation just in the interest of getting it done," he said.

Aleman added that improvements to special education services cannot stop with completing evaluations.

"When enough testing is done, there needs to also be a secondary assessment to what has been the harm to each individual student," he said.

And, he said, the district needs to come up with a plan to provide those students with what's known as compensatory services that seek to make up for what students missed while their evaluations were delayed.

Parent reaction

Leah Kelly, who has a child receiving special education services, said the TEA's decision to propose an alternative to the conservatorship is disheartening.

"I am extremely disappointed that TEA is not going to fulfill their duty to ensure that our children receive a free and appropriate public education," she said.

Kelly said she does not have confidence the Austin ISD administration will take the necessary steps to improve special education, which goes far beyond finishing overdue evaluations.

"I believe that they would like to, but I don't believe that they have the capacity to," she said.

Kelly said, for example, the district agreed to provide compensatory services to her child over the summer, but it's "three weeks into the school year and we're still waiting."

Kelly said she does not think an alternative to a conservatorship is going to benefit AISD students.

"They've made some improvements, but there are still hundreds and hundreds of children who, because they're just a number, there's no thought or consideration to how this impacts them," she said.

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