The Ector County Independent School District Board of Trustees met in closed session to talk with attorneys Mike Atkins and David Thompson about laws that govern districts with chronically low-performing schools.
Atkins is the attorney for the school district and Thompson is with the law firm of Thompson & Horton LLC.
Zavala, Ector and Noel Elementary School are in their fifth year of improvement required status under state accountability standards.
ECISD has eight campuses on improvement required status under state accountability standards. With Zavala and Noel Elementary schools and Ector Middle School in their fifth year of improvement required, if they don’t come off, the campuses will face closure or the Texas Education Commissioner will appoint a board of managers over the whole district.
Under a law passed by the legislature in 2015, TEA must take action if campuses cannot get off IR after five years. Superintendent Tom Crowe has said it used to be up to seven years and then they “may” close the campus or campuses or put in a board of managers. That language has been changed to must.
Thompson reviewed options under Senate Bill 1882 passed in 2017 and House Bill 1842, which contains the language about what the education commissioner must do.
Senate Bill 1882 allows a partnership with an in-district charter school. Thompson has said an in-district charter is something a district can create itself. It could use a nonprofit organization in the community, another government entity, an institute of higher education or some combination of those.
House Bill 1842 revised the accreditation sanctions and contains the language that if a district is on improvement required or low-performing for a long enough period of consecutive years that ultimately the Texas Commissioner of Education has to close the campus or take over the operation or management of the district as a whole, Thompson has said.
“Not just in Ector County right now, but in many other districts around the state, districts are looking very seriously particularly at some of their low-performing schools. I want to note Ector County’s made extraordinary progress in terms of reducing the number of low-performing schools. That’s something that’s very commendable. I think it’s something people are very much aware of in Austin and around the state,” Thompson said after the closed meeting.
When Crowe became superintendent, there were 22 schools on improvement required status. There are now eight.
Thompson said ECISD can keep working and improve the three fifth-year schools and there are options to enter into some local partnerships that could bring additional resources from the state to help improve those schools. This could include a stay on the accreditation sanctions.
“Our time tonight was really spent as attorneys just discussing the statutes and making the board aware of those options and I think the board working with Superintendent Crowe will probably be bringing some more information for it in the near future about what options they might want to pursue,” Thompson said. “But I think the good news is the board has some options to look at and to consider to continue the progress they’ve been making for the few remaining schools that are still needing work.”
House Bill 1842, which passed in 2015, was passed before the current commissioner, Mike Morath, was in place. Thompson said the law limits the commissioner’s powers.
Crowe said Tuesday that he thinks the meeting with Atkins and Thompson gave clarity to everybody on the district’s choices and what needs to happen from this point forward. He added that he couldn’t say much more because it was a closed session.
“It was good to hear from somebody who is working with several large districts across the state” that are facing the same issues as ECISD, Crowe said.
“It’s like Carol (Board President Carol Gregg) and I have talked about, it’s the best among bad choices that we have to make. The rule isn’t good. It’s a bad rule, but it is a rule so we’ve got to abide by the rule and just make the best choice we can based upon that rule,” Crowe said.
On a separate item, trustees discussed the next steps in its ongoing self-evaluation.
Trustees have completed Lone Star Governance training with the Texas Education Agency and has a series of actions on which to focus its attention, information from Public Information Officer Mike Adkins said in an email.
The actions include setting a vision and goals, monitoring the progress towards those goals, evaluating quarterly, evaluating the superintendent, the structure of meetings and community engagement, the email said.
The board members looked at areas where they have not yet met the state’s parameters and how they may improve those areas.