Socorro ISD Requests TEA Conservatorship: State Intervention and the Threat to Our Public Schools

The public education community in Socorro ISD (SISD) was shocked last week to learn that following a closed-door session, the school district’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously on Tuesday to request that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) appoint one or more conservators to oversee the district’s operations.

Why did the SISD Board of Trustees make this drastic decision? While the board has not been fully transparent with the community regarding the reasons for this move, TEA has since confirmed that SISD accepted a proposed agreement from the agency to settle eight ongoing special investigations of the district through the appointment of one or more conservators by Commissioner Mike Morath and the public release of a final report into the investigations. 

In fact, the agenda item at Tuesday’s school board meeting that concluded with the acceptance of TEA’s proposed agreement listed case numbers for eight distinct special investigations of the district between 2020 and 2023. Though SISD has provided no details regarding the investigations and urged people to wait for the final report to be released to learn more, the district has previously acknowledged the opening of an investigation in 2020 into whether a small number of students were allowed to graduate without meeting certain state requirements.

The final report is expected to include details about the eight investigations and their findings. TEA intends on publishing this report at the end of the month and making it available to the public.

About TEA Conservators

Texas Education Code (TEC) 39A.002 gives the commissioner of education options to remedy school district issues, including 1) “appointing an agency monitor to participate in and report to the agency on the activities of the board of trustees of the district or superintendent” or 2) the more drastic step of “appointing a conservator to oversee the operations of the district.” The education commissioner may appoint a monitor or conservator if a school district or charter school “fails to satisfy accreditation criteria, academic performance standards, or financial accountability standards, or on the basis of a special investigation.”

A commissioner-appointed conservator is supposed to “support, coach, and recommend specific actions to improve the district in the area of deficiency and report to the agency on the progress the district is making to correct the issue(s).” Conservators also have the authority to 1) “direct an action of the board of trustees, superintendent and/or campus principals,” and 2) “approve or disapprove of an action taken by the board of trustees, superintendent and/or campus principals.” These powers amount to strong oversight authority over locally elected school boards.

SISD will be responsible for paying $125 per hour for each appointed conservator, an amount established by commissioner rule. According to TEA, it is likely that the school district will have to pay for two conservators to oversee the district’s operations.

Under state law, conservator placements are reviewed at least every 90 days to ensure the placement is necessary for effective governance of the school district or delivery of instructional services. However, the conservator placement could last for years. State oversight of El Paso ISD, which began in 2012, lasted more than two years. TEA has yet to appoint a conservator to SISD in response to the board’s unanimous vote.

The Stakes of State Takeovers

While the installation of a conservator is a dramatic intervention into the governance of a school district, it is a less aggressive intervention than state takeover and the appointment of a board of managers to replace the current board of trustees. Unlike under state takeover, the current SISD board will maintain its governing authority while the conservators are in place (though a conservator has the authority to direct the board’s actions and veto board decisions, potentially undermining the democratically elected board’s governing authority).

The Socorro chapter of the Texas American Federation of Teachers (Socorro AFT) strongly opposes the recent decision by the Socorro ISD Board of Trustees. This abrupt decision, made with little transparency and without providing the community with an opportunity for input, is a betrayal, especially by board members who local educators and school employees campaigned to elect.

The board members were elected to make difficult decisions and advocate for the district, not surrender control to the state. We have seen what happens when TEA enters a district. We are watching the situation in Houston ISD, which began with a TEA conservator and resulted in the takeover of a B-rated school district. The results have been increased teacher and staff turnover, reduced student services, and the replacement of certified teachers using student-centered, adaptive lessons with a horde of uncertified, ill-prepared teachers merely delivering  a scripted (often inaccurate) lesson.

This is not the future we want for Socorro ISD’s neighborhood public schools, and that fate will not be accepted without a fight.

After the SISD board’s Tuesday vote, TEA finally appointed a conservator to oversee IDEA “Public” Schools on Wednesday after nine years of scandals, as we wrote about in last week’s Hotline. Though TEA eventually opened a special investigation into IDEA’s malfeasance in 2021, the delayed appointment of a conservator after many years of financial impropriety and the subsequent approval of IDEA’s massive proposed expansion just a handful of days later — despite the conservatorship — raise questions about potential bias at the agency. That TEA’s former deputy commissioner of governance who was responsible for investigating IDEA was hired to be the charter network’s superintendent in 2022 exemplifies the issues with the privatization of our public schools.

SISD is the second-largest school district in El Paso with almost 48,000 students enrolled in 2022-2023. Although its students have a recent track record of academic achievement, like many districts across the state, SISD is facing disruptive challenges, including a $33 million deficit and the threat of layoffs, along with the superintendent’s departure after this school year. This moment is pivotal for SISD’s public schools as the district faces the specter of state intervention and all its unknowns.

From Houston ISD to Round Rock ISD (TEA’s recent monitorship lasted nearly twice as long as originally stated), we have seen that TEA’s actions can reshape our schools and the agency has been more aggressive in recent years in its exercise of power over elected school boards. This loss of local control over neighborhood public schools can happen anywhere, including in your school district.

We must understand the stakes of state intervention, organize to hold our elected officials accountable, continue standing up for what is best for students, and fight for educators, school employees, and the greater public education community to have a voice as this consequential process plays out in the months (and potentially years) to come.

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