School District in Poor Town Fights Closure

     GALVESTON, Texas (CN) – An East Texas school district sued the commissioner of education Tuesday, claiming it lost its accreditation and will be shuttered next year because he retroactively applied new finance rules.
     La Marque Independent School District and three of its board members sued Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael L. Williams in Galveston County Court.
     La Marque, pop. 15,000, is an hour southeast of Houston. Its median household income of $41,679 is nearly 20 percent below the statewide median of $51,704. It’s a 10-minute drive from Texas City, a port city on Galveston Bay that’s home to Texas’ second-largest oil refinery, owned by Marathon Petroleum.
     La Marque ISD has six schools, more than 2,000 students and 63 percent of its staff is black, according to the lawsuit.
     “LMISD’s student population is 70 percent African-American, 16 percent Anglo, 1 percent Asian, 14 percent Hispanic, 53 percent male and 47 percent female, with a low socioeconomic status of 78 percent,” the complaint states.
     Williams said in November that his agency was revoking La Marque ISD’s accreditation, closing it effective July 1, 2016. It will be annexed into neighboring Texas City ISD.
     The jobs of La Marque ISD’s more than 300 employees are at stake, because Texas City ISD has said it will be “voiding all employment contracts and releasing all non-contract employees effective at the close of business on June 30, 2016,” according to the complaint.
     Williams initially notified the district in February that he was revoking its accreditation and shutting it down.
     School district officials requested an informal review, leading to a settlement whereby the district could survive if it passed the Texas Education Agency’s academic and financial standards, according to the complaint.
     The TEA calculates a district’s accreditation rating by measuring its students’ academic performance and auditing its finances.
     “The financial accountability rating system, referred to as the FIRST rating, is a computer-generated review of the financial data school districts provide to the commissioner,” the complaint states.
     Plaintiff Nakisha Paul, the school board president, claims that when the district signed the settlement on April 27, its FIRST rating for the 2014-2015 school year met state standards, as did its academic review.
     “What La Marque ISD did not know is that at the time of inking the agreement, the commissioner had in the works proposed regulations that would assure La Marque ISD did not pass their FIRST Rating,” the lawsuit states.
     Williams published the proposed rule changes on May 22 and they took effect on Aug. 6, the district says.
     Williams then retroactively applied the new standard to La Marque ISD, Paul says, so its finances did not pass muster and Williams pulled its accreditation. The TEA denied La Marque ISD’s appeal in September.
     The school district claims Williams does not have the authority to shut it down.
     Williams, who is African-American, is a former federal prosecutor. Then-Gov. Rick Perry appointed him to lead the TEA in 2012. He plans to leave the office at the end of the year, according to the lawsuit.
     The school district on Tuesday asked Galveston County Judge Kerry Neves for a restraining order, to stop the TEA from swearing in a board of managers, the next step in the state’s closure plan.
     Neves denied the request and set a hearing for Dec. 29.
     TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said the agency will waste no time.
     “Because the TRO was denied, the commissioner is moving forward with the next steps we need to take to install the board of managers and get them in control of La Marque ISD,” she said in a telephone interview.
     Culbertson said in an email that the TEA will swear in the management board at a meeting on Friday at noon in a La Marque ISD administration building.
     “We’re hoping to announce the names of the board of managers before the end of the week,” she said.
     La Marque ISD is represented by Christopher Tritico with Tritico Rainey in Houston. He did not respond to a request for comment.

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