AUSTIN (KXAN) —  After weeks of delaying a vote, Austin Independent School District board trustees voted on Tuesday 8-1 to approve a plan for the Texas Education Agency to bring in a state-appointed official to monitor and report back to the agency the way the district handles special education services. 

Trustee Kevin Foster was the only member who voted to reject the proposal.

The decision means the district remains in control of its special education operations for now. 

But it also means the district must meet several deadlines and requirements, including changing its school board policy, to stave off a conservator who would have the power to make decisions on special education operations. 

In order to get a less severe form of intervention than originally recommended, the district also waived its right to appeal increased sanctions in the event it is found out of compliance. 

“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and making a decision that will be the best thing for our district. And that’s been really hard. Most of you know I have been a teacher and advocate; I have a child who receives special education services,” Trustee Candace Hunter said. “I truly believe this is our way through.”

Last Thursday, the district was set to vote on the plan. But after nearly an hour in executive session, school board president Arati Singh announced trustees were going to postpone the vote. 

In a letter to parents on Tuesday, the district said it negotiated a new proposal with TEA with at least four changes. 

One of the changes would give the district 10 days after being found non-compliant to fix deficiencies. Only after those 10 days, or the cure period, would the education commissioner be able to appoint a conservator if the district is still not compliant. 

The agreement was also changed to give the district more flexibility when it comes to the requirement it spends 50% of board meeting time talking about student outcomes. 

The district would still have to meet the requirement, but now the agency would calculate the 50% based on the sum of three months of board meetings. The agency also agreed not to count time spent in closed sessions. 

How did they get here?

TEA announced its plan to intervene in the district’s special education operations in March. 

The agency released an investigative report finding the district violated more than 40 special education requirements since 2020, mainly delaying the evaluations of hundreds of students suspected of needing additional services. 

TEA investigators substantiated allegations submitted over the last three years that the district has sometimes waited as long as nine months to evaluate students needing special education evaluations.

State law requires school districts to evaluate students within 45 days of parental consent.

“We are in this position because the district failed students,” Trustee Lynn Boswell said. “We are also in this position due to the decisions of people who lead this state.”

The most recent data presented on Sept. 7 during the board meeting show the district is still behind on more than 400 evaluations. 

However, the data marks a significant decrease from the month before, when the district reported more than 1300 overdue evaluations. 

What’s in the plan?

Under the agreement, the agency would require the district to come into compliance with more than a dozen corrective action plans, including completing evaluations requested during the previous school year by Oct. 31.

By Jan. 1, the district would also have to determine how it will help students who did not get the services they needed because of delayed evaluations.

TEA would also require the district to commission a third-party audit, create a strategic plan, and publish a public report on its special education services this year.

The plan also places new requirements on the school board, including changing board policy only to allow the superintendent to make hiring decisions – from district staff to campus principals. The change would not just apply to special education-related positions.

Under the agreement, the district would have to implement a program called Lone Star Governance. The program is supposed to provide coaching for school boards.

The agreement requires the district to do quarterly self-evaluations using a Lone Star Governance model and achieve a “meets focus” score within two years of the board completing the program’s workshop.

Spending 50% of board meeting time on student outcomes is a part of the Lone Star Governance Model. The board is expected to accomplish that milestone no later than January.

A Lone Star Governance coach told the board on Sept. 14 that student outcomes could include discussing grades, test scores, and even how the districts’ sports teams performed. The agreement also stipulates student outcomes must include progress monitoring related to special education compliance and student outcomes for students with special needs.