AUSTIN (KXAN) – Austin Independent School District leaders began the process of appealing the state appointment of a conservator management team to oversee its special education operations on Monday.

Austin ISD Board President Arati Singh said in an interview Monday the district asked the Texas Education Agency to consider appointing a monitor instead of a management team. The difference between the two levels of intervention is decision-making power.

A management team, according to the TEA website, can direct the operations of a district in areas of insufficient performance. In contrast, the monitor reports to the TEA on the activities of the school board and superintendent.

“We’re not really denying the fact that there is a problem in the district. But what we are saying is, hey, we think we’re moving in the right direction, and having a conservator might disrupt some of the momentum that we have, and we don’t want anything to disrupt serving our students,” Singh said.

AISD has been under investigation by the Texas Education Agency since 2021 for repeatedly missing state and federal deadlines to evaluate students suspected of needing special education services.

The agency heightened its intervention on March 31 – announcing its plan to add a state-appointed management team to oversee the district special education operations.

The district has since held multiple meetings with parents and stakeholders explaining the impact of a more severe intervention from the state.

The district submitted a response to the TEA Monday asking for an informal review of the Texas Education Agency’s decision to appoint a team of conservators to oversee special education.

The district will also have the option to appeal the recommendation to the State Office for Administrative Hearings, or SOAH, following the state’s review findings. The SOAH decision would be final once made.

The agency’s final investigative report on the district showed the results of 43 investigations into its special education department since 2020. The agency found a “repetitive and pervasive pattern of violations.”

TEA investigators also said they found, in some cases, the district waited as long as 9 months after getting approval from parents to evaluate students. State law requires districts to do so within 45 days.

District officials have not denied the state of its special education evaluation backlog – and have largely blamed the delays on staffing challenges.

Segura said during a press conference on April 1 the district was down 51 employees who are qualified to do the evaluations.

Austin Independent School District terminated some of its special education evaluators last school year in an effort to reorganize the department and address “cultural issues within the department.” It’s a decision, Board President Arati Singh said, that was not brought to the board and was instead made by the administration.

“I think we lost about 75 people at that time and about 30 of them came back, and so that includes evaluators and other staff. So that definitely, I would say, was one of the issues that we are trying to deal with. So staffing hasn’t always been as much of an issue as it was, as it became after — after that decision,” Singh said.

The district said already this year it completed 45% more special education evaluations than it did in the previous school year. The district also said it already allocated more money to hire contractors to assist with evaluations, added sign-on bonuses to recruit staff, and created a data dashboard tracking the backlog.

“It’s a challenge for an organization of our size to get the number that we need to be able to perform the work. So, we’ve been looking at identifying different types of incentives to get them into AISD,” Segura said.

Austin ISD is the latest school district to face some level of state intervention. Earlier this year, TEA announced it plans to appoint a board of managers and to replace the superintendent of Houston Independent School District after years of low student performance at several campuses.

Texas Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, who has a student enrolled in an Austin ISD school, initially released information about TEA’s intentions. Hinojosa, a former AISD board president, said she was dismayed TEA would appoint a conservator at this time.

“The TEA has been under federal oversight by the Department of Education for its failings regarding special education since 2018. I have yet to hear from the Commissioner how or why the TEA is better equipped to address our pressing challenges,” Hinojosa said. “I have been aware of AISD’s shortcomings regarding students in special education for some time now. In fact, it has been a challenge to access these services for my own son in AISD.”