A preview of things to come, perhaps.
The Texas Education Agency announced a new appointed board and a new superintendent Friday for a tiny East Texas school district with two schools that had failed to perform well for years.
Although the state’s takeover of its largest school district, Houston Independent School District, is tied up in court, no such roadblocks existed preventing the takeover of Shepherd ISD, about 60 miles northeast. Shepherd ISD’s elementary and intermediate schools had failed to meet state academic standards for five years, which required the state to either close the schools or seize power from the school board, under Texas law.
“The Board of Managers is comprised of members of the Shepherd ISD community who are committed to service on behalf of the students of the district and the community,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a letter Friday.
He also appointed Jason Hewitt, the director of the Texas Education Agency’s Special Investigations Unit, as superintendent over the district, replacing Rick Hartley, who had headed Shepherd ISD for just over three years.
The new appointed board — which includes a former Shepherd ISD school board president as well as members of the community — will have power to make hiring and budgetary decisions for the school district; the elected board will still be in place but will no longer have control over Shepherd’s schools. Eventually, the state will transition power back to the elected school board, once the schools improve.
Charles Minton, Shepherd’s mayor, heard the news late Friday afternoon. He has one child in the high school and another in the middle school, which is a target of the state’s intervention.
The tiny East Texas town has been split in half by the news, with some angry at the loss of local control and others open to giving the state a chance to turn the schools around, Minton said.
Shepherd ISD had also sued to stop the takeover, but they were not successful. The new Board of Managers was to be officially seated at a meeting on Monday. Their task in this small, rural ISD is going to be a lot different than it is in HISD, but it’s still in its way a test of how it might work (or not) here. The past track record of state takeovers isn’t great, but maybe this time there will be more focus and more resources and the results will reflect that. Or maybe it will be another idea that doesn’t actually address the real causes of the poor performance and we’ll find ourselves back where we started, with more kids having gone through the system in the meantime. Not much to do but see how it turns out.
UPDATE: Hold that takeover!
State officials planned Monday night to swear in a board of managers, appointed by the Texas Education Agency, that would take control of hiring, budgeting and operations — a penalty for years of poor academic performance in two schools. The elected school board would lose all its power, until the state decided otherwise.
Board members and community members strolled into the district administration building Monday night planning to watch the transfer of power. Instead, they were notified that a court order had come down in Austin that afternoon temporarily stopping the state from taking any action.
The news was a surprise to nearly everyone in the building Monday night. State education officials waited for guidance from their lawyers. District employees waited for guidance from state officials. And two sets of school boards stood in the entryway to the board room wondering which would be allowed to gavel in: the one elected by residents or the one appointed by state officials.
Back in November, Jeff Cottrill, the TEA’s representative in Shepherd, had gripped the edges of a wooden podium and explained to an audience of more than 100 people that a state takeover was a necessary and prudent result of prolonged failing ratings in multiple schools. He answered hours of questions about what the loss of local control would mean for students and teachers in the small community.
Shepherd ISD sued the state over its plans, but after a Travis County state district court judge denied the district’s request to temporarily stop the state takeover, the school board decided not to appeal that decision. Still, lawyers for the state appealed the suit to the Third Court of Appeals to try and prevent it from moving forward in a lower court.
But Shepherd ISD lawyers, though many people didn’t know it, had decided to continue the case pro bono. And on Monday, they informed the appeals court of a “current emergency” since the state planned on installing a board of managers that night, an action that would be legally irreversible.
“The Court must act now,” wrote David Campbell, who is also representing Houston ISD as it fights a pending state takeover.
The court agreed and temporarily stopped the state from installing its chosen board.
No one is exactly sure what’s happening in Shepherd ISD right now. I’ll keep an eye on it.