San Antonio union files lawsuit to stop charter takeover, amidst more pushback against controversial accountability law

The pushback against school district partnerships with charter school chains continues after the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel–our local union for San Antonio ISD–filed a lawsuit Friday to stop the district’s contract with a charter company to run a local elementary school.

“School superintendents and school boards are not above the law, which is designed to protect the best interests of school employees as well as students and parents,” Alliance President Shelley Potter said. “School teachers, staff, our students’ parents, and the community were ignored in the district’s haste to turn over a neighborhood campus to a New York charter company with no ties to our community.”

San Antonio ISD contracted with Democracy Prep–a New York charter school chain–to run Stewart Elementary, which is facing a fifth year of Improvement Required (IR) state accountability ratings. Under House Bill 1842, passed in 2015, the commissioner of education is mandated to close a campus or even appoint a board of managers for the entire district if the campus receives five consecutive IR ratings. Thus, the ratings for just one campus could force a state takeover of the entire district. (While this law had some good components, we warned you about this provision and fought against it at the time.)

Another law passed in 2017, Senate Bill 1882, allows districts to partner with a charter school, higher education institution or non-profit to run schools with IR status. Doing so with a TEA-approved plan halts the interventions of closure or district takeover for two years, and it provides additional state funding for the campus. In other words, SB 1882  goes a long way in incentivizing districts to allow charter takeovers of neighborhood public schools.

In San Antonio, the campus in question–Stewart Elementary–has 33 Alliance members, including about 60 percent of the teachers at the school. If the contract with Democracy Prep succeeds, teachers would have to choose to be assigned elsewhere in the district or leave district employment to work for the charter as at-will employees without a contract.

The Alliance lawsuit argues that the district did not follow the law, which reads  “[b]efore entering into a contract [with the charter operator] as provided by this section, a school district must consult with campus personnel regarding the provisions to be included in the contract between the school district and the open-enrollment charter school.” The lawsuit states that the superintendent held one brief meeting with employees at Stewart to outline plans for the charter partnership after the contract already had been drafted, and without taking any input from the employees and the community.

The San Antonio Alliance obtained emails through the Open Records Act that revealed ongoing negotiations between Democracy Prep and San Antonio ISD.

The Alliance also has maintained that the district negotiated extensively and for months in secret about the plan without consulting the community. The School Board approved the contract in closed session in March.

Our union for Houston ISD, the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT), also objected last month to a district/charter partnership under SB 1882. Houston ISD proposed contracting Energized for STEM Academy, a local charter network that already operates four district schools, to run 10 schools facing closure for accountability ratings. HFT questioned the lack of transparency for the deal, as well as unusual financial and real estate dealings by the charter. The school board was scheduled to approve the contract with the charter on April 24, but after a tumultuous meeting–community members protesting the plan were cleared from the board room and three were detained by police–the board took no action.

Since TEA’s deadline for final plans under SB 1882 (what it calls “Turnaround Partnerships”) was April 30, the fate of the Houston schools–and whether TEA would really take over the largest district in the state–is uncertain. Texas AFT, HFT and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner have urged TEA to grant a waiver to halt the interventions for a year, citing the disruptive impacts of Hurricane Harvey as one reason. Some lawmakers–principally Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston–are calling for the repeal next legislative session of the harsh interventions prescribed by HB 1842.

Meanwhile, other districts are turning to actual charter chains under SB 1882  to try and halt accountability interventions. Austin ISD, for example, contracted with a team–the nonprofit Communities in Schools, the UT-Tyler STEM Academy, and UT-Austin’s UTeach Institute–to run Mendez Middle School. Hearne ISD contracted with a new foundation team made up of Texas A&M departments and Cy-Fair ISD. Ector ISD contracted with a new nonprofit with ties to Texas Tech–the Ector Success Academy Network, and Waco ISD contracted with a nonprofit community organization–Prosper Waco. TEA is expected to approve or deny the Turnaround Partnership plans in the week of May 21.

Updated to correct that Prosper Waco is a nonprofit, and not a charter operator.