Austin ISD board's decision to charter underperforming school puts it on brink of state takeover

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Thursday, December 9, 2021

An Austin ISD school that has repeatedly received low ratings from the Texas Education Agency could threaten the district's elected Board of Trustees autonomy if its rating does not improve next year, Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said during a Dec. 2 Austin ISD board meeting.

To avoid consequences from the state and to try to improve the school, the Board of Trustees will consider ending a contract with Texas Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Coalition, or T-STEM Coalition, a nonprofit that has been managing the in-district charter, Elizalde said.

In 2018, Austin ISD chose to turn Mendez Middle School into an in-district charter to prevent the state shutting it down, but a lack of improvement could lead to the state replacing all members of the district's Board of Trustees, Elizalde said.

After a school goes three or more consecutive years receiving a lower than C rating from the Texas Education Agency, state law requires the Texas commissioner of education to choose between closing the school or appointing a board of managers to replace the elected board members for a district. TEA began attempts to replace Houston ISD's elected board in 2019, though the decision has been winding through courts, according to court documents.

"If we have to have a closure of Mendez to maintain an elected board, we would have to do that," Elizalde said during the meeting. "Neither of those are good situations."

By 2017, Mendez Middle School was in its fourth consecutive year of receiving a failing rating from TEA.

SB 1882 gives districts a last resort option to prevent closure or board replacement. A district can convert a poorly performing school into an in-district campus charter through a partnership with an approved entity, such as a charter-management organization. Schools that undergo this transition get a two-year grace period to improve, during which the school does not receive a rating from the state. The school then gets two more rated years to get a passing score. If by the second rated year the school does not receive a C or higher, the Texas Education Agency chooses between a forced closure or replacing all trustees with appointed members, according to board documents for the Dec. 2 meeting.

Austin ISD used this mechanism to save Mendez in 2018, entering a partnership with nonprofit organization Texas Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Coalition (T-STEM Coalition), the documents say.

COVID-19 bought Mendez Middle School time, as it and all other Texas schools did not receive ratings in the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years. However, the campus received an F rating in its first rated year since becoming an in-district charter, which was 2018-2019. If it receives lower than a C rating in its second assessed school year, 2022-2023, Austin ISD could lose its elected board.

In response, the Board of Trustees is considering ending its partnership with T-STEM Coalition, Elizalde said.

Trustee Yasmin Wagner, vice president of the board, said she is not content to see Mendez shut down.

"We haven't been able to do right by Mendez yet, and the entire time I've been on this board, it's always been, 'Next year, we'll get it right. Next year, we'll get it right,'" Wagner said. "We have to get this right."

This story comes from our partners at Community Impact Newspaper.