Shepherd ISD steps out of limbo and closer to state takeover

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Jeff Cottrill of the TEA answers questions for parents while the Shepherd Independent School District board of trustees is in executive session, before a vote in Shepherd on Friday, March 13, 2020. Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

SHEPHERD — Four days after a court order temporarily stopped Texas from taking over Shepherd Independent School District, elected school board members voted to effectively cede their control over the four-school East Texas district. They also fired the lawyers who got the takeover halted without a directive from the full school board.

With Friday's school board vote, Texas education officials are poised to appoint their own board of managers to oversee hiring, budgeting and operations in Shepherd ISD, a result of the long-standing academic failure at two of its schools. It would be Texas’ first state takeover as a result of a 2015 law requiring harsh penalties for districts that fail to improve long-struggling schools.

“I’m opposed in principle to this,” said Mike Courvelle, the loudest school board voice in disagreement with the decision. “Once the state comes in…we’re granting them total control.”

The Third Court of Appeals in Austin, which issued an order Monday that temporarily blocked the takeover, must still give the state permission before it can appoint a new board. Almost all the discussion Friday on the school board's votes happened behind closed doors in executive session.

Courvelle did get one win Friday: He and his colleagues unanimously tapped internal candidate Dianne Holbrook to serve as the district's new superintendent, refusing the option chosen by the state. They did so knowing the state would likely overturn that decision.

"We know her. She's here. We trust her," Courvelle said. "We expect it to be a short-lived decision anyway."

Jeff Cottrill, the Texas Education Agency's representative in Shepherd, agreed with the latter part of Courvelle's statement. "We look forward to the Third Court of Appeals bringing resolution to this litigation so the state-appointed superintendent Dr. Jason Hewitt as well as the board of managers can begin serving and uniting this community around improving student outcomes," he told The Texas Tribune after the vote.

What was set to be a benign transfer of power became unexpectedly dramatic earlier this week, when a surprise court order stopped state officials from swearing in their appointed board of managers.

When the TEA first announced the takeover last year, Shepherd ISD board members contracted with lawyers Kevin O'Hanlon and David Campbell, who are representing Houston ISD and other districts in similar lawsuits against the state. Last winter, they asked a Travis County district judge to temporarily halt the takeover and find that the state had exceeded its authority in penalizing Shepherd ISD. The judge refused to pause the takeover, but agreed to hear the case — prompting the state to appeal to a higher court.

Meanwhile, in January, Shepherd ISD school board members, exhausted of fighting, voted not to appeal and signaled they were ready to give in to the state.

School board president Susan Bailes was relieved last Friday when the TEA said it would officially seat a board of managers.

“I was glad to know that this was finally going to be over with and that we were going to move forward as a school district,” she said. But then, Monday night, as she sat in the rain at a track meet, she got a phone call telling her the board wouldn't be seated. Unknown to many, Campbell had asked the judge to stop the TEA in its tracks to give the case a chance to move forward.

The main confusion swirling around town this week: Why didn't the school board tell anyone the lawyers they hired were still fighting the takeover in court?

The day after the unexpected court order, Bailes’ phone kept ringing with inquiries from confused, frustrated constituents. She watched as community members used social media to demand transparency from the elected board, wondering how no one knew the legal case was still ongoing. And finally at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, she took to Facebook to publicly chastise her lawyers for notifying the court of the state takeover, without express permission from the school board. “This a PUBLIC school district and the PUBLIC deserves to know what is going on,” she wrote.

The lawyers say they had to notify the Third Court of Appeals Monday that the state was going to act that night. While the school board had voted to not continue fighting in trial court, it had not voted on what to do once the state appealed to a higher court, O’Hanlon told the Tribune. In fact, the board failed to have enough members show up to a meeting twice in a row last month, missing the opportunity to give the law firm guidance.

“We were simply trying to preserve the status quo until we had a meeting with our clients,” O'Hanlon said earlier this week. “If they want to stand down, that’s fine. That’s their right as the client. They haven’t told us that” in an official school board vote.

Bailes and the TEA argue that the lawyers were operating against their client’s stated wishes. “We voted as a board not to pursue any other legal remedies or to take any other legal action. The vote was a 5-0 vote,” Bailes said. “There was no question that that was our intent.”

The fallout of the controversy is that some community members have lost even more faith in their elected school board.

Jody Harvey, a parent of a high school student in Shepherd, was the sole person to offer public comment Friday ahead of the board's vote: "This is the most un-transparent governing body that I've seen in my years," he said. "You spend more time in executive session than in open meetings."

Harvey told the Tribune afterward that he was looking forward to the takeover, because he wants to see the district out of limbo.

Once the TEA finally takes over Shepherd, as expected, the district would be one of four being run by a state-appointed school board. The other three — Edgewood, Southside and Marlin ISDs — were penalized in large part due to their dysfunctional school boards.

In contrast, Shepherd’s takeover is due to a 2015 state law intended to hold school districts more accountable for improving their schools, instead of allowing them to languish in a state of low academic performance for years. If one school fails for five or more years, Texas is required to either shut down the school or take over the entire school district.

The same year the law was passed, Shepherd ISD’s primary and intermediate schools, which serve about half the district’s students, received their first failing grades.

Those schools would fail for four consecutive years: a cohort of students attending elementary schools where less than a quarter of them can read on grade level.

When Ronnie Seagroves took over as principal of Shepherd Intermediate School last year, it had already been considered a failing school for years, not just for its poor academics but also lack of student discipline. Principals came and went, without providing vision or direction for the school and its students, he said.

Seagroves is working hard to turn that around by encouraging collaboration among teachers, providing more individualized instruction for students, and greeting students each day at the school's entrance. But that same cohort of students who spent each year in a low-performing elementary school is now attending the middle school, which has received failing grades for the last two years.

Seagroves sat in the middle of the room Friday as the school board moved toward a resolution of the latest disruption of the governance of the district. "With a consistent approach, kids know what to expect," he said.