TEA leans on troubled school districts to use chosen remedy

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About 10 percent of Texas’s 1,031 public school districts are now under some form of state oversight, a degree of control made possible by laws passed in 2015 and 2017.

And when the Texas Education Agency does take the reins in those failing districts, the move often comes with a push for the district to accept the TEA’s favorite remedy.

The Lone Star Governance program, a school board training program advocated by one of the TEA’s top commissioners, is highly suggested as a way to get things on track.

The program aims to get district leaders to work together by focusing on student outcomes. It also provides guidance on legal responsibilities, optimal use of time and management of finances.

When the Houston district was struggling in 2016, threatened with measures ranging from the imposition of a state-appointed board to the closure of several consistently underperforming schools, Lone Star Governance was offered as a way out.

A.J. Crabill, then the TEA’s head of governance, suggested in a letter to the school board president and superintendent that he might hold off on other measures if the district would agree to “include agency-directed governance training for the Board of Trustees and Superintendent in its turnaround and implementation plans.”

That “agency-directed” program was LSG.

While Crabill, who was appointed by TEA Commissioner Mike Morath in early 2016, didn’t come out and say LSG was a way out, it was at least implied. He has a lot of faith in the LSG program, after all — he helped develop it as a community activist and school board president in Kansas City, Mo.

But some trustees feel the program is being pushed on them as a condition of approval from the state.

With regard to LSG training, “The state has not hesitated to say ‘We expect you to follow this,'” said Joy Baskin, director of legal services at the Texas Association of School Boards. The training is an option for all districts, whether in trouble with the state or not. But a TEA spokeswoman denied that LSG is a mandatory part of a troubled district’s reform.

The state has the statutory authority to require LSG training, said TEA spokeswoman Ciara Wieland, “but there are plenty of districts that have their turnaround plan approved without taking Lone Star Governance.”

Still, for districts under sanction or where the state has exerted some kind of authority over decision-making, enlisting the board and superintendent in LSG is a way to grease the skids for a more favorable ultimate ruling from the state, ideally a full release from oversight.

Few people outside the educational establishment are familiar with either the TEA’s system of monitors and boards of managers, who can replace the elected school boards in troubled districts, or the LSG training seminars.

“What most people don’t know is that when something like this [TEA takeover] occurs, a state intervention, it is a very aggressive move,” said Cathy Mincberg, a former Houston school district trustee who now provides board training.

She noted the laws passed in 2015 and 2017 “have gotten very specific … ‘If this [a particular finding or development] happens, we will close the school and get an outsider to run this.’ And that is new.”

Most recently, the LSG program was proposed as a remedy for the South San Antonio district, where the state has been trying to get the board and its superintendent on the same page since 2015.

A state-appointed monitor, Laurie Elliott, noted in a recent report that the district had failed to apply the principles of the LSG training that officials had received.

The district’s 19 schools have failed to keep pace with state test score averages for several years. Last year, the district received an overall D grade from the state.

The report concludes that little progress has been made either in patching up the rancorous relationship between trustees and superintendent or in implementing the LSG program.

 “The monitor continues to remind the board as a whole that the board is not in compliance with Lone Star Governance,” Elliott wrote in her report, which was obtained by The Texas Monitor through an open records request. 

Requiring districts to follow the LSG program, Elliott said in an interview, is likely to become more common.

Lone Star Governance “is nothing more than really good governance,” she said.

Since 2016, board members in over a dozen school districts deemed to be poorly performing by the Texas Education Agency have been advised to attend the two-day training program.

School districts or campuses that receive five consecutive failure ratings must implement a reform plan, often led by a state-appointed figurehead. The ratings are based primarily on test scores.

Morath, a former Dallas school board member, is as much an advocate for Crabill as he is the Lone Star Governance program. The two served as directors for the national nonprofit Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 75 of the country’s largest urban school districts, aimed at improving inner-city education.

Crabill was hired by the Dallas district to train the board during the last part of Morath’s term as a trustee there.

Crabill, then going under the name Airick West, charged the district $5,000 a day for the training and another $650 an hour for “coaching.” Records show Crabill donated his $24,100 fee to the district.

Several months later, with Morath at the head of TEA, Crabill was hired by the state agency at an annual salary of $180,000. Crabill quickly sent letters to 11 districts, letting them know trustees had to take a training program or face sanctions that could include the shuttering of campuses or, in dire cases, the school district itself. In the letters, he did not specify that they had to use Lone Star Governance, but wrote that the law required “agency-directed governance training.”  Crabill does not benefit financially from school districts’ adoption of the training.

The South San Antonio district has challenged authorities since 2015, when it was first deemed to be in need of outside help.

Infighting among leadership and poor financial oversight and practices led the state to appoint a conservator to oversee the district.  The conservator was removed in early 2018, after Crabill determined the Lone Star Governance program had worked.

But Elliott, who was appointed to monitor the district after the conservator was removed, said trustees and the superintendent continue to butt heads.  She has suggested a conservator again be put in place. Despite LSG’s apparent failure to reform the South San ISD, she remains an advocate for the training.

“[LSG] transforms school boards and districts and its keeps them all working together,” Elliott said.

District spokeswoman Jenny Collier did not respond to an interview request for this story.

Crabill was reassigned in June from overseeing governance of school districts to the post of special assistant to the commissioner.  The TEA would not give permission for Crabill to speak with The Texas Monitor.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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