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Texas Education Agency appoints monitors to oversee Austin ISD's special education plan

Three people look down while seated at a dais
Renee Dominguez
/
KUT
Austin ISD Board of Trustees members Arati Singh, Ofelia Zapata and Noelita Lugo during a board meeting in August. The board voted 8 to 1 last month to approve an alternative plan with the Texas Education Agency to improve special education.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath on Thursday named a pair of monitors tasked with ensuring the Austin Independent School District is taking state-mandated action to improve special education services.

The appointment comes about six months after the Texas Education Agency released the results of an investigation that found Austin ISD was violating state and federal law by repeatedly failing to conduct timely evaluations and provide services to students with disabilities.

Morath told the school district in a letter that he is appointing Sherry Marsh and Lesa Shocklee to serve as monitors.

Austin ISD will be paying the monitors $125 per hour, according to Morath. The district will also cover the monitors’ travel expenses.

"We look forward to onboarding the monitors and continuing to implement our comprehensive plan to transform how our students and families experience Special Education in Austin ISD," the school district said in an email to KUT.

Marsh, who is now an education consultant, spent more than two decades working for one of the state's Education Service Centers.

The centers provide support services to districts, such as helping to improve student performance or comply with TEA policies and initiatives. Marsh was the special education component director for the Education Service Center in Region 20, which works with school districts in the San Antonio area. (You can hear an interview with her on an ESC-20 podcast here.)

Shocklee has worked in the special education departments of several North Texas school districts.

She currently serves as the executive director of special services for the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. That district has just over 13,500 students. Austin ISD has more than 73,000 students and about 13% qualify for or receive special education services.

Morath outlined Shocklee and Marsh's responsibilities in the letter he sent to Austin ISD. The two will oversee any action the school board or district administrators take related to special education, and conduct on-site inspections. Shocklee and Marsh will also be responsible for monitoring and participating in an external audit of Austin ISD’s special education services.

Another one of their responsibilities is reporting back to the TEA on whether Austin ISD is complying with the state's corrective action plan. The plan requires the district to meet a series of goals over the next few years including completing overdue special education evaluations, training staff and producing a public report on the state of its special education services.

Morath appointed the monitors after the Austin ISD school board voted last week to approve an alternative plan the TEA proposed. Initially, the agency was planning to appoint conservators to directly manage the district’s special education department. But, in August, TEA presented Austin ISD with another option that was less severe because it would involve monitors, rather than conservators.

While conservators can force the district and the school board to take action, the monitors can make recommendations and will largely report back to the state on what Austin ISD is doing. Austin ISD negotiated a few changes to the alternative plan before the school board approved it on Sept. 26.

One of the key changes that Austin ISD negotiated is that the district now gets 10 days to fix any issues the monitors and TEA identify. If the district fails to address any outstanding issues, Morath could then appoint conservators. Austin ISD has waived its right to appeal a conservatorship.

Austin ISD officials are expected to give trustees a special education update at the Oct. 12 school board meeting.

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