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EduLege Tracker 12-14-17

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EduLege Update Volume V, Number 86
December 14, 2017
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

But is he listening?

Governor Greg Abbott wants education commissioner Mike Morath to apply some leniency in grading the public schools in the areas along the Gulf Coast and Coastal Bend of Texas that were hit hard by Hurricane Harvey.

District officials in the Harvey-affected region of Texas have been pleading with Commissioner Morath not to penalize their students in the wake of a storm that triggered catastrophic flooding, damaged schools, delayed the start of classes and displaced thousands of students and campus staff.

To date, the commissioner has balked at applying any leniency.

In recent legislative testimony, Commissioner Morath maintained that the state would face the loss of federal education funds if it didn’t administer the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness next spring and apply academic ratings to districts based on student performance on that battery of tests.

But the governor urged Mr. Morath to seek a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education that would give Texas the option of not rating certain campuses without the loss of federal dollars.

"In times of crisis, it is important to re-examine some regulations related to accountability placed on those living in devastated areas. With that in mind, consider ways to help relieve some of the pressures on students in areas most affected by Hurricane Harvey,” the governor wrote to Mr. Morath.

There is precedent for relaxing such standards. After Hurricane Ike swept across Galveston Bay in 2008, state officials gave storm-affected districts a "Not Rated" grade if they performed worse than the previous year, or were deemed "Academically Unacceptable."

School superintendents across the hurricane-damaged regional have said they would be willing to have their students take the STAAR tests, but don't want to be labeled or punished based on the results.

Earlier this year, the Texas Legislature approved evaluating schools and districts on an A-F letter grade system, based on various performance factors, including student scores on the STAAR exams. Districts are scheduled to receive letter grades in August, with individual schools getting the grades in 2019.

"For us, ‘F’ stands for flood, not a failing district," said Charlotte Baker, executive director of the Regional Education Service Center that is headquartered in hurricane-battered Victoria. "It should not stand for a district dealing with the social and emotional challenges of the community and schools as we allocate all efforts towards recovery."


Meanwhile, Houston school officials have now decided to demolish four elementary campuses that were ravaged by Harvey, and rebuild them—a plan that would keep students away from their home campuses for several years.

Students would eventually return to four new, elevated campuses in 2020 on the same sites as the current facilities, according to the $126-million construction proposal.

Thus far, Houston is the only district that is planning to completely demolish any schools following the hurricane. All other districts with heavily damaged schools, including Humble, Katy and Sheldon, are proceeding with extensive repairs to existing buildings.

The four Houston schools sustained catastrophic flood damage.

Houston officials decided to start from scratch due to the extent of damage, the age of the buildings, and the need to elevate the campuses to avoid future flooding, the district’s Chief Operating Officer Brian Busby said. The campuses were built between 1956 and 1966, when local building codes didn't require higher elevations inside floodplains.

"At the end of the day, this just makes a whole lot of sense from all angles," Mr. Busby said. "Throwing good money at old buildings is just not considered wise in the long term.”

Until the new campuses can reopen in January 2020, students at the shuttered schools—which served 2,870 kids in the 2016-2017 school year—will continue to attend classes at temporary locations.

Palace intrigue…

A series of text messages obtained by the Austin American-Statesman are raising questions about why the Texas Education Agency fired its Special Education director after just four months on the job.

Laurie Kash was fired in late November, one week after a lawsuit accused her of trying to cover up the sexual abuse of a six-year-old girl while she worked as the Special Education director of a small school district in Oregon. TEA maintains that Ms. Kash did not tell them about the allegations, and that, if she had, they would never had hired her.

But text messages released by Kash suggest that she did provide the agency with at least some information about the situation before she was hired.

As reported by the Statesman, in a text exchange with Justin Porter, TEA’s Executive Director for Special Populations, Ms. Kash seemed to acknowledge that a disgruntled district employee in Oregon had filed a lawsuit over the incident: “It’s that crazy employee I told you about this summer. I was cleared of everything but she decided to sue the district.”

Instead, Ms. Kash’s lawyer insists that his client was fired by TEA for filing a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education about a no-bid $4.4 billion contract with SPEDx, a Georgia company that the agency hired to analyze data of Special Education students in Texas.  

In her federal complaint, Ms. Kash wrote that she was worried that parents do not realize their children’s private information is being provided to a for-profit company; that TEA should have obtained bids from other companies and that SPEDx doesn’t have the expertise to perform the work for which it is being paid.

Ms. Kash filed the complaint Nov. 21. One day later, she was fired.

“TEA is lying about why they fired Laurie Kash,” attorney Bill Aleshire alleged. “They fired her for complaining about the illegal, no-bid, multimillion-dollar SPEDx contract.”

The federal Inspector General’s investigation of Ms. Kash’s complaint is ongoing.

She’s got moxy…

Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin wants more money for her state's teachers—in part to keep Dallas and school districts elsewhere in Texas from poaching them for their own workforce.

Governor Fallin recently attended a three-day recruitment fair that the Dallas school district was hosting at a hotel in Oklahoma City, and used it as a backdrop for her most recent call to arms. She posted a video on Facebook standing in front of DISD's promotional banner.

“The Dallas school system's saying that they pay their teachers over $50,000 a year,” Governor Fallin said in the video. “We pay, on the average, about $32,000 plus benefits.  We have to invest in education. We have to invest in our state. We have to make sure that we have a teacher in every classroom. We cannot have school districts that have four-day school weeks...for our families. That's just unacceptable.

"So, Oklahoma, let's get busy. Let's fix our problems. Let's solve our budget issues. We can do better, and let's invest in the state of Oklahoma, so we can have the type of future that all of our families deserve and want.”

The two-term governor is at odds with the Oklahoma Legislature over its budget.

So far, however, Oklahomans haven't answered Fallin's call. In November 2016, 58.8 percent of the state's voters rejected a one percent state sales tax increase that would have provided $600 million for educational spending, including a $5,000 raise for teachers.

Oklahoma is poised to become the nation's laggard in teacher pay. The “Boomer Sooner” state ranked 49th in the country in average teacher salary ($45,276), according to 2016 data from the National Education Association, above only Mississippi and South Dakota. But both of those states recently passed legislation that will increase teacher salaries.

Texas' average teacher salary, according to the NEA, is $51,890.

Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Shawn Sheehan, made headlines last summer when he and his wife, who is also a teacher, left their posts for jobs in Texas. Mr. Sheehan now teaches at Lewisville Harmon High School, his wife at Hebron. Mr. Sheehan posted a side-by-side comparison of his workload and compensation, highlighting that his family earns $40,000 more in Texas than they would have in Oklahoma.

“Yes, some things cost more here in Texas,” Mr. Sheehan wrote. “And when we begin to look at buying a house, that's going to change things, too. But at the end of the day, we have something here in Texas that we likely never would have had teaching in Oklahoma: financial stability.”

Another one steps forward…

Just as the filing deadline was approaching, Granbury superintendent Jim Largent announced earlier this week that he will challenge State Representative Mike Lang for the District 60 seat in the Texas Legislature next year.

Representative Lang, R-Granbury, is seeking a second term.

“I am very concerned that too many politicians today are taking marching orders from powerful special interests and no longer represent the people who elected them,” Superintendent Largent said. “When politicians care more about pleasing a handful of wealthy elites than standing up for their districts, communities like ours lose our representation.”

Superintendent Largent and Representative Lang will face each other in the March 6 Republican Primary.

Mr. Largent says that he will remain Granbury’s superintendent during the primary campaign.

EduLege is provided by the Texas School Public Relations Association as a service to its members.

Long-time TSPRA member Andy Welch, the retired Communication Director for the Austin School District, compiles and writes EduLege.  Questions or comments may be directed to him at andywelch1@gmail.com.

For more updates on education news from throughout the state, visit the TSPRA website.