Texas Education Agency moves to appoint conservator for Austin ISD

The Texas Education Agency on Friday said it will move to appoint a conservator to oversee the Austin Independent School District, citing the district’s failings in serving students receiving special education.

The TEA said in a statement that it had been investigating the district’s special education department and found that it had "systemic issues."

"The Agency has developed a rigorous plan for AISD to implement, so it can return to state and federal compliance and begin appropriately serving students in need of special education services as quickly as possible," the statement said.

Austin ISD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The announcement comes two weeks after the TEA announced it would replace the Houston Independent School District's current superintendent and the school board with its own "board of managers" in response to years of poor academic outcomes. Houston ISD had a conservator in place before the TEA moved to take over the district.

Civil rights organizations on Friday launched a federal complaint against the agency’s takeover of Houston ISD, claiming that move takes away the rights of voters of color to choose their own school officials.

A conservator acts as a manager of the school district, ensuring that the school board and superintendent are taking the necessary steps to solve any issues flagged by the state’s education agency. According to the TEA’s website, a conservator can "direct the action of a campus principal, superintendent, or board of trustees."

State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, said in a press release that she is aware of Austin ISD’s shortcomings regarding special education but believes the district is on the right track after electing four new board members and putting an interim superintendent in place this past November.

"They have briefed me on their plans to turn around the special education department in AISD. I believe that we were finally on track to do right by our kids," she said. "I am dismayed by [TEA Commissioner Mike] Morath’s decision to install a conservatorship in our school district at this time."

Hinojosa said there is bipartisan anger at TEA over the way the agency has imposed itself on districts, adding that lawmakers could find ways to scale back the agency’s authority.

"This is a severe intervention," Hinojosa said. "This is the first step taken against Austin ISD."

Austin ISD is currently facing a lawsuit over its special education practices. In the suit, Disability Rights Texas, an advocacy organization, alleges that the district had been behind on evaluating more than 800 students who might need special education services.

This is a developing story; check back for details.

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