Racial Implications in Texas School Takeover

     HOUSTON (CN) – Houston’s biggest school district laid off more than 60 employees without due process after taking over what used to be the state’s largest black-run district, workers claim in three federal lawsuits.
     Lead plaintiff Reba Carter and 61 others used to work for North Forest Independent School District, which was Texas’ largest black-run district until state officials orchestrated its takeover by Houston ISD in July 2013 .
     Carter sued Houston ISD, its superintendent Terry Grier, Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams and former North Forest ISD Superintendent Edna Forte in Federal Court.
     Carter’s lawsuit is one of three nearly identical complaints filed on May 22 by Houston attorney Donna Roth.
     Roth said in an email that one lawsuit involves teachers, one teachers and administrators, and one custodians, security guards, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, school nurses and office staff. All of them claim that Houston ISD, the largest public school district in Texas, refused to renew their employment contracts after taking over North Forest ISD.
     The move came on the heels of financial and academic troubles that dogged North Forest ISD.
     From 2007 to 2011 North Forest ISD was controlled by state appointees who were supposed to guide its recovery, but TEA Commissioner Williams grew impatient with its poor academic performance and moved to close it down in 2013.
     It didn’t help that nearly all of North Forest’s students came from poor families.
     “At the time of HISD’s annexation/consolidation of North Forest ISD, North Forest ISD had a student body that was 99.9% economically disadvantaged,” Reba Carter’s complaint states.
     Carter and seven co-plaintiffs claim that on May 21, 2013, on the eve of the HISD takeover, Williams ordered Superintendent Forte to terminate all North Forest ISD teacher contracts, and Forte did so, in violation of rules that only a district’s board of trustees can issue termination letters.
     “The North Forest ISD Board of Trustees refused to terminate any of its teachers’ contracts,” Carter says in the complaint.
     Carter adds that all the North Forest employees who were laid off were older than 40.
     Though Houston ISD invited Carter and her co-plaintiffs to reapply, the offer was empty, Carter says.
     “Plaintiffs were qualified to perform their respective jobs; were told by HISD employees they were qualified to reapply for their respective jobs or similar positions; reapplied for their respective jobs or similar positions; and were not rehired by HISD for their respective jobs or similar positions,” the complaint states.
     Yet Carter claims that HISD, which took over some schools formerly run by North Forest ISD, needed teachers for those schools and “had over 300 unfilled teaching positions on July 1, 2013.”
     But HISD “adopted a policy, procedure, custom, practice or protocol of not giving individual consideration to North Forest ISD teachers and staff over the age of forty,” according to the complaint.
     She lost pay and benefits and seeks punitive damages for breach of contract, civil rights violations and conspiracy.The Texas Education Agency declined to comment on the lawsuits. Houston ISD did not return a request for comment.

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