Judge rules TEA must pay whistleblower $200K

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A U.S. Department of Education administrative judge ruled Friday that the Texas Education Agency must pay more than $200,000 to a whistleblower who was fired after complaining about a multimillion-dollar, no-bid contract that the agency awarded, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

Administrative Judge Robert Layton ruled that former TEA special education director Laurie Kash’s complaints about the $2.5 million contract that TEA awarded to SPEDx in 2017 led to her firing the next year. SPEDx got a contract to analyze personal data about children who have individualized education plans, often due to learning disabilities.

“The strength of TEA’s reasons for firing Kash are, at a minimum, murky and unconvincing,” Layton said in the ruling.

The just ordered TEA to pay Kash $202,711.20, which includes back pay and attorneys’ fees.

After the contract was awarded, Kash filed complaints with several local, state and federal agencies, including the district attorney’s office in Travis County, the newspaper reported. She noted that SPEDx’s founder had a personal relationship with TEA deputy commissioner Penny Schwinn.

TEA pulled the contract months after awarding it, the Statesman noted, and the state auditor found that the agency failed to ensure contracting safeguards before awarding the contract. Although SPEDx got the full $2.5 million, it finished one task worth $150,000, according to the audit report.

Kash’s attorney, Andrew Levy, told the newspaper the ruling validates that “this was a blatant case of retaliation against her for blowing the whistle on some pretty outrageous malfeasance.”

TEA said in a statement on Friday that the ruling was “extremely disappointing,” but “it does not change this essential fact: Texas needed to make serious improvements to its special education program. The commissioner took responsibility for fixing the program — and that included making personnel changes.” 

TEA said it would appeal the ruling to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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