ECISD passes District of Innovation resolution

About 20 attended the Ector County Independent School District Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday to voice concern about a resolution to start the process for consideration of a designation as a District of Innovation.

The concept of a District of Innovation was passed by the 84th Texas Legislature in 2015 (HB 1842). The law allows traditional independent school districts to access most of the flexibilities available to Texas’ open enrollment charter schools. To be eligible, a school district must have an accountability rating of “met standard.”

The board approved moving forward with the district of innovation process Tuesday.

This is the first step in a specific process. The resolution requested flexibility in four areas, although a list of others is available:

>> The calendar (specifically the start date).

>> A 22-to-1 class size exemption for kindergarten through fourth grade classes. The district already applies for 22-1 waivers when it needs to.

>> Certification requirements for career and technology teachers.

>> And student performance as a factor in teacher and administrator appraisals.

With approval of the resolution, a public meeting will be scheduled for next week, a local development team will be appointed by the board to develop a plan that will be brought back to trustees for review, the board recap said.

Trustees had several questions about their ability to control and define the parameters of the district of innovation plan, for instance the length of the waiver, the annual review of the waiver and amendments to it, the recap siad.

Board member Carol Gregg asked that the district of innovation committee include a number of parents and community members, along with teachers.

Superintendent of Schools Tom Crowe said he has spoken publicly about requesting a waiver for the four areas because those are the ones he feels can benefit ECISD the most.

He said of those four, if the DOI committee chose to remove the 22 to 1 class size limit, that is the one he is least concerned about.

Crowe said the DOI committee will be the ones to decide what waivers are requested. The board must approve the plan before it can be submitted to the state.

Shari Story, a fine arts teacher at Blackshear Elementary Magnet and president of the Ector County chapter of the Texas State Teachers Association, which represents about 1,000 members, said she had asked whether the district might apply for a DOI designation at a meeting of top district officials and was told they would not.

A number of TSTA members attended a conference in 2015 and gathered lots of information about District of Innovation, but felt a “little blindsided” by the district wanting to obtain one. Story said she thinks district employees and the public need more information about what districts of innovation can and can’t do.

Story wanted the district to slow the process way down. Steven Copeland, a first-grade teacher at Sam Houston Elementary, said the average time taken for consideration of district of innovation plans was six to nine months.

Story said she had reviewed dozens of district of innovation plans and there are only 100 in the state out of thousands that think it is a good idea.

> Story said that since the designation was applied for so late in the year and people are so unfamiliar with it, “it’s kind of like asking you to buy something sight unseen.” She and other teachers didn’t like that the concept was being moved through so quickly.

> “It should have been discussed for months and we could have alleviated a lot of the stress, a lot of the uncomfortableness that the district is going through,” Story said.

Teachers also expressed cares about hiring non-certified teachers for career and technology positions, wanting to know what criteria would be used and that parents would be notified.

She added that the number of teachers at the meeting was unusual because instructors usually trust that the board and district officials will do the best for them.

“This shows quite a bit of concern throughout the district,” Story said.

Christopher Bartlett, a seventh grade reading teacher at Bowie Middle School and TSTA treasurer, said the organization knew the board would vote to move ahead to get more information.

“But we wanted to get out in front early, letting them know our concerns,” Bartlett said. However, like board member Carol Gregg said, just because she votes to hear the plan doesn’t mean she’ll vote for it.

Bartlett said TSTA will continue to let its voice be heard, its concerns be known and make sure that students, faculty and staff will be successful.

“As they said, there will be two people from our organization that will be on the committee that will come up with the ultimate plan. I will be one of those people,” Bartlett said.

He added that he wants to make sure students are taken care of and aren’t left vulnerable to things like big class sizes. If class sizes went over 22-1, he would want to know if there was a limit to the number of students.

“… If it does end up passing and we are on the committee, we at least want to be able to close any loopholes that may be abused by future leadership. As I said, we have complete trust in current leadership,” Bartlett said.

Although Bartlett said teachers “kind of knew” how the vote was going to go, he was glad the board listened to their worries.

“… I thought it was very sincere, the questions that they had that were brought up by our concerns and so I’m hoping that that affects the plan – that we get either a good plan, or we just kind of strike it down altogether,” Bartlett said.

In other business:

  • The special presentations included a performance by and recognition of the Austin Montessori Elementary guitar class; introduction of facilities director Gary Weatherford as the World Class Leader in Education award winner, and the announcement of awards to ECISD’s Student Crime Stoppers program at a recent conference.

The awards were the productivity award, top program award and administrator of the year, won by Crowe.