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North Forest still fighting as the deadlines approach

Never give up, never surrender.

North Forest ISD has spent more than $595,000 appealing the state’s order to shut down, newly obtained records show, and the school district is continuing the court fight as its July closure date nears.

Despite the district’s ongoing appeal before an Austin court, the Texas Education Agency has ordered North Forest officials to start making serious plans to close – including taking action by May 1 to terminate the contracts of all employees for next school year.

The TEA’s appointee to oversee the closure, Doris Delaney, wrote a letter to North Forest ISD leaders this month ordering them to turn over personnel records to HISD – though they can withhold teachers’ job evaluations. She also instructed Superintendent Edna Forte to back up the district’s electronic files and took away the school board’s authority over spending.

“Effective immediately,” Delaney wrote in the April 13 letter, “the Board of Trustees and the superintendent are directed to obtain the consent of the conservator before making or approving any agreement, contract, purchase or payment.”

Delaney, given authority by TEA Commissioner Michael Williams, also told North Forest to grant HISD officials access to inspect the district’s campuses and buses.

[Superintendent Terry] Grier and several dozen HISD employees walked through the nine North Forest schools two weekends ago. He said the newer schools were in good shape but several need maintenance work. He’s particularly worried about the condition of one school, indicating that students may have to move campuses next year, but declined to specify.

Chris Tritico, the attorney hired by the North Forest school board, is holding out hope that the courts will side with him and allow the 7,000-student North Forest district to continue to exist.

[…]

HISD officials said they soon expect to get the North Forest personnel files. They also are seeking student records, but North Forest has raised questions about the release, arguing it may violate the federal educational privacy law.

“We don’t know exactly what we’re going to get,” HISD spokesman Jason Spencer said. “That information’s pretty critical as we try to figure out summer school and what kind of services students are going to need.”

In addition to the continued appeals and likely legal action to follow, the North Forest ISD Board of Trustees has dug in its heels, too.

The North Forest school board on Monday defied a state order to fire all its teachers for the next school year, leaving Texas Education Agency officials pondering their next move as the district is supposed to be taken over by Houston ISD come July 1.

Doris Delaney, a TEA appointee at the school board meeting, told the trustees that they had to take action to fire the teachers under state law, but the board refused, voting against the agenda items or simply not seconding the motions.

Trustees explained that they considered the state’s order “awful” and “immoral,” and community members at the packed meeting agreed, calling out, “Don’t do it. Stand up to them,” said Sue Davis, a spokeswoman for the North Forest Independent School District.

State law requires teachers in any district to be notified before the school year ends if their contracts will not renewed the following school year.

What a mess. HISD is not required to hire any of the North Forest teachers, and Superintendent Grier has said that he can’t guarantee jobs for them or any of the 900 existing North Forest employees. I have no idea what effect the board’s intransigence will mean – the TEA said it was “researching” its options.

Meanwhile, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the most prominent backer of NFISD, continues to rally support for the charter school proposal that would keep North Forest alive. The latest administrative appeal for NFISD will be decided by May 29, but given the things that are supposed to happen or begin happening by today to get the merger into HISD started, it’s hard to imagine a different outcome. Given that one reason for NFISD’s problems historically has been low or negative cash balances, the amount they’ve spent on the appeals probably isn’t helping with that. The strongest argument for NFISD is that they’re as good as neighboring schools in other districts; against that, you have the longstanding mismanagement by the NFISD Board of Trustees. I don’t see how NFISD can prevail at this point, but deadlines or no deadlines I don’t think this will be settled anytime soon.

On a related note, Jay Aiyer takes to the op-ed pages to encourage HISD to think outside the box when it takes over North Forest.

HISD should consider an approach that brings the community directly into the educational policy process through a new kind of charter school model.

[…]

A new approach, developed by the Austin Independent School District and known as the community driven “in-district” charter model changes this. It brings teachers, parents and community leaders together to lead the conversion of several campuses in the Austin school district to create in-district community charter schools. This approach takes the success of charters and places it in the traditional “ISD” context. In sharp contrast to traditional charter conversions – existing teachers, campus union leaders, parents, school staff, community members and principals all share responsibility for the development and execution of each school’s instructional programs. While traditional models of reform impose change from the top down, this approach seeks immediate community buy-in on the front end, and allows them to direct reform.

At the core of this approach is the concept of self-directed schools – schools that are run by teachers, parents, principals and community leaders. What differentiates this from other charter concepts is the combination of substantial community and parental involvement with the great professional teacher autonomy and leadership opportunities that exist in traditional charters. The in-district community charter school concept combines the independence of the best charter schools and embeds it in the public school context.

Houston Independent School District has been at the forefront of many innovative approaches to school reform – Apollo20, magnet school choice, Early Colleges/HILZ, etc. While each has been successful in its own way, all of them have been top-down reform initiatives. The community-charter approach would allow the community to choose any of these or other reforms it wants to turn around community schools. They could even choose to partner with KIPP, YES Prep or other traditional charters.

There is certainly evidence that the community wants to maintain some form of self-governance, and that they support the charter schools’ proposal. It would be worthwhile to explore this option and see how well it fits. The more the community is engaged, the better off everyone is likely to be.

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  1. […] affected by the forthcoming SCOTUS ruling on the Voting Rights Act. The NFISD Board of Trustees has refused an order from the TEA to terminate its teachers in anticipation of the IHSD takeover, so one way or another there’s […]

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