Texas seizes power from small East Texas school district, splitting town opinion

The Texas Education Agency announced a new appointed board and a new superintendent Friday for a tiny East Texas school district with two schools that had failed to perform well for years.

Although the state’s takeover of its largest school district, Houston Independent School District, is tied up in court, no such roadblocks existed preventing the takeover of Shepherd ISD, about 60 miles northeast. Shepherd ISD’s elementary and intermediate schools had failed to meet state academic standards for five years, which required the state to either close the schools or seize power from the school board, under Texas law.

“The Board of Managers is comprised of members of the Shepherd ISD community who are committed to service on behalf of the students of the district and the community,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a letter Friday.

He also appointed Jason Hewitt, the director of the Texas Education Agency’s Special Investigations Unit, as superintendent over the district, replacing Rick Hartley, who had headed Shepherd ISD for just over three years. Shepherd ISD will hold a special board meeting Monday evening to seat its new board of managers.

Last year, Shepherd ISD sued the state and asked for a temporary injunction to stop the takeover until the end of the trial. But in January, a state judge in Travis County denied the request, prompting the school board to give up on the lawsuit.

The new appointed board — which includes a former Shepherd ISD school board president as well as members of the community — will have power to make hiring and budgetary decisions for the school district; the elected board will still be in place but will no longer have control over Shepherd’s schools. Eventually, the state will transition power back to the elected school board, once the schools improve.

Charles Minton, Shepherd’s mayor, heard the news late Friday afternoon. He has one child in the high school and another in the middle school, which is a target of the state’s intervention.

The tiny East Texas town has been split in half by the news, with some angry at the loss of local control and others open to giving the state a chance to turn the schools around, Minton said.

“We just want our schools to produce great students, and we want to be successful and we want to be compliant with the TEA. For me, whatever that path consists of is a path that we need to take,” he said.

Morath is waiting for the courts to take action before he can seat an appointed board in Houston ISD. In early January, a state judge temporarily blocked the state from taking over its largest school district — with more than 100 times the number of students in Shepherd ISD — until she issues a final ruling on the case. She set a trial date for June 22, months after the state had planned on finalizing the takeover. State lawyers appealed that decision to the Third Court of Appeals and are waiting for a decision.

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