AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Independent School District is hitting the reset button with its special education department.
For several years, the department has continually failed to meet state standards to evaluate students. More than 900 children are currently on a waitlist to receive an evaluation intended to secure special education services to those who need it — a process that should legally occur within 45 days after a parent formally requests it.
According to Chief Academic Officer Elizabeth Casas, the district will restructure the entire department after recognizing it is suffering from high turnover, low morale and a toxic work environment.
The changes start at the top with a new executive director taking the helm on May 17. Over the last five years, there has been three different executive directors who have filled that position and then vacated.
Below the executive director, the leadership hierarchy is also changing. Instead of three assistant directors overseen by the ED, five director positions will be created. Each director will be in charge of a different section of special education, including dyslexia, evaluations, operations and management and other related services.
Further down, the entire evaluation team was served with a notice on Friday, acknowledging they would need to reapply with the department if they want to stay with the team. The letter invites them to rejoin the department for the future but does not necessarily guarantee a job. Casas told KXAN that ensures “they choose us, and we choose them.”
In essence, Casas is ensuring only the most committed staff are on board in this department overhaul. The district said no positions are being eliminated.
“I ask our evaluation team to see this as an opportunity to recommit to the district,” Casas said. “We want to have such amazing services in Austin ISD that all of the families in surrounding districts are wondering, ‘what is Austin doing? And I want my child to go there.'”
These drastic changes are concerning to the families and lawyers who filed a federal lawsuit in March, seeking immediate remedies from the district for the hundreds of students in the queue for an evaluation. Back then, approximately 800 students were in limbo. With 100 more kids being added to the list within the last month, the chief counsel representing these plaintiffs said this feels like a step in the wrong direction.
“It should be about retaining everyone possible and expanding as much as possible, as quickly as possible,” David Peterson said. “This is kind of a huge, red flag. It sent off giant alarm bells for us.”
“I am hopeful that there is some progress that could be made here. It is obviously a drastic remedy, Austin is aware that they have a problem here. But it will be interesting to see if this is the solution that moves it into the right direction at all.”David Peterson, lawyer representing five AISD families in federal lawsuit
However, the district promised on Friday that all 900 evaluations would be complete by June 30. Casas said 66 outside contractors have also been on board to expedite the evaluations before the summer.
“We welcome the staff to come back and recommit to the district. Because we have high expectations, and we want to do amazing things,” Casas said.