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For weeks, Texas school districts have been buffeted by changing state guidelines on reopening schools, pushback from teachers and families, and fluctuating local coronavirus conditions.
School districts have tried to adjust as required, but after yet another abrupt shift Tuesday, some district leaders have snapped instead of bending.
Just weeks ago, the Texas Education Agency assured districts they would be funded fully if a local health order forced them to close campuses and move instruction entirely online. But when Attorney General Ken Paxton issued nonbinding guidance Tuesday morning that stated local health authorities don’t have the power to levy blanket closure orders, the TEA responded hours later by stating that districts wouldn’t get funding for going fully remote under these sweeping orders.
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“As a state agency, we will follow the Attorney General’s guidance,” Commissioner of Education Mike Morath said in a prepared statement. “Consequently, a blanket order closing schools does not constitute a legally issued closure order for purposes of funding solely remote instruction for an indefinite period of time.”
On Tuesday night, Superintendent Brian Woods, leader of Northside Independent School District, threatened legal action in an attempt to halt the TEA’s guidance.
“Unless something changes very quickly around that [TEA] guidance, I suspect I will be coming to this board and recommending that we go along with many others I know and seek injunctive relief in court,” Woods said during a school board meeting. “Because the situation we are in essentially gives us the choice to not educate our students like we know that we can and should or to put health and safety potentially at risk. And that is not a situation that we’re going to find ourselves in.”
Woods’ district is the largest in San Antonio and the fourth largest in Texas, and as the president of the Texas Association of School Administrators he is an influential education leader statewide. The superintendent explained that he and the legal experts he spoke to didn’t believe Paxton’s guidance “carries the weight of law.” However, because the TEA changed its funding rules to incorporate Paxton’s guidance, districts are now in “an untenable situation.”
For the first eight weeks of the school year, districts have flexibility in how they open. They can delay welcoming all students back to campus for up to those eight weeks. San Antonio Metropolitan Health District already issued an order barring in-person classes until after Labor Day. Districts can comply easily by drawing on those first eight weeks. However, should Metro Health issue another order after the first eight weeks of the school year, districts will have to choose between complying and keeping their funding.
Several other superintendents echoed Woods’ frustration and said they would consider legal action against the TEA guidance.
Roland Toscano, superintendent of East Central ISD, said area superintendents would be discussing potential litigation – whether joint or individual – at a meeting as soon as Wednesday.
“We feel that injunctive relief gives us the ability to say we’re going to do what we need to do in our respective communities in concert with local officials and health guidance,” Toscano said. “And if on the back end it causes funding issues, then that’ll be another part of the lawsuit.
“These conditions of hanging funding over our head for some sort of flexibility that some of us need and some of us don’t … it’s just making it almost impossible to communicate clearly with our communities.”
The constant back-and-forth at the state level that has caused school districts to scramble, delivering updates to their community that often differ day-to-day. This can erode the trust of teachers and families in their schools, Toscano said.
“I do think everybody’s at their wits’ end at this point in time,” Toscano said. “Time is not on our side because schools are opening as soon as Aug. 10 and Aug. 17 depending on the district, and this whiplash, this ebb and flow, from [announcement to announcement] is just beating us to death. It is exacerbating the anxiety in all of our communities with staff and families.”
Jeanette Ball, superintendent of Judson ISD, said a lawsuit was an option she wanted to keep in mind as the situation unfolds further, describing the current rules as putting districts in a “really bad situation.” She said she hopes TEA will change course but will inform her board of trustees about possible legal options.
“Not that I want to lose the funding, but we are not going to open up and [put people at] risk,” she said. “This is somebody’s son or daughter we’re talking about. This is somebody’s mom, wife, sister, brother.”
During a San Antonio Express-News editorial board meeting held via videoconference Wednesday morning, Woods and the district leaders of Edgewood and San Antonio ISD addressed the issue.
Edgewood ISD Superintendent Eduardo Hernández said he would also recommend pursuing injunctive relief to his board if the TEA had not changed its funding rules by the time the school year was underway and if public health data indicated continuing high rates of infection.
Pedro Martinez, SAISD’s superintendent, did not specifically say he would support legal action, but stated he would not bring students back to campus if it was not safe.