Leander ISD is now a district of innovation.
Following a three-month process, the district’s board of trustees voted in favor of the designation Feb. 15. The district of innovation, or DOI, system allows school districts to use exemptions from certain aspects of Texas Education Code.
Proponents of becoming a DOI say it offers LISD local control over the academic calendar, providing the ability to adjust when the school year can begin and end to better benefit students’ and families’ schedules.
Those in opposition say that approving the DOI for calendar flexibility could open the door to other exemptions allowed by the program, including exemptions from mandates regarding class-size rations and teacher appraisal requirements.
According to the Texas Education Agency, further DOI exemptions may be added in the future at a public meeting by a majority vote of a district-level committee and two-thirds vote of the board of trustees.
“The DOI, once it is established, gives the freedom and flexibility [to] make an amendment,” said Tina Ritzema, River Place Elementary School teacher.
To mitigate some of the concerns, Leander ISD’s board of trustees adopted the plan with the condition that if the district ever wanted to make changes to it, it would need to begin the entire process to create a DOI plan again.
The DOI plan is set to last for five years, at which time it could be renewed.
About Districts of innovation
The 84th Texas Legislature voted to adopt House Bill 1842, which created the DOI system, in May 2015, according to legislative documents. Since the law went into effect in June 2015, 691 districts have notified the TEA of their adoption of a local innovation plan as of Feb. 27, according to TEA spokesperson Ronnie Burchett. There were just over 1,000 school districts in Texas in 2016, according to TEA documents.
David Anderson serves as general counsel and policy analyst for Raise Your Hand Texas, an Austin-based nonprofit organization that supports initiatives like DOIs to increase autonomy and innovation in public schools. He said the DOI status gives local school districts the same freedoms as charter schools and that the types of exemptions districts choose are telling.
“While important state requirements for curriculum, assessment and accountability remain intact for all public schools, legislators gain valuable feedback when a significant number of districts choose to pursue relief from particular state requirements,” Anderson said.
Numerous districts near LISD have adopted innovation plans since the option became available, including Liberty Hill ISD, Round Rock ISD, Lake Travis ISD, Austin ISD, Georgetown ISD and Eanes ISD. Among those, all have implemented exemptions to the first day of instruction, but LISD is the only one not to apply additional exemptions, according to the local innovation plans.
Statewide the most popular exemption is the first day of instruction, with 689 out of 691 districts using the exemption, according to data from the TEA. The statistics show that 617 districts use an exemption to teacher certification requirements in the education code, while exemptions to probationary contract requirements—which limit probationary teacher contracts to one academic year—class size caps and required class size notifications to parents fall next in line with 343, 312 and 259 districts, respectively.
LISD’s innovation plan
When the idea of becoming a DOI first came before the LISD board of trustees in November, Superintendent Dan Troxell emphasized that the only reason the district was interested in the designation was because it would allow the board to consider pushing back the school start date. That way, students would be let out earlier for the summer.
There was a “tremendous amount of academic concerns as well as family concerns that were expressed to this administration by this community asking for relief on the calendar,” Troxell said at a meeting in November.
LISD’s Districtwide Educational Improvement Council, a committee of parents, community members and district staff who advise the school board, voted in favor of the plan, and then the trustees voted to adopt it at a meeting in February after six teachers, parents and students spoke in opposition to the plan. They raised concerns about the possibility of the district enacting other exemptions in the future and the opinion that the DOI did not adequately solve calendar issues or was not necessary to address those issues.
“Putting a statement in our DOI plan that you will not consider anything other than the calendar is meaningless when the plan can be amended,” LISD parent Randy Houchins said.
The board approved the plan with the specific stipulation that any changes to the plan, such as an amendment to add another exemption, must follow the same approval process required to initially become a DOI, including a board resolution and 30-day period for public comment. According to the Texas Education Agency, this guideline would be self-imposed by the district and could not be enforced by the agency.
“If [a board in the future] wants to get uncertified teachers, then they’ll just go through the process and do that; it’s not like they could do something in the middle of the night with no one looking,” LISD board Vice President Will Streit said.
Calendars and concerns
After the innovation plan was adopted, the trustees voted to approve a calendar option for the 2018-19 school year that utilized the new DOI designation.
The calendar begins the 2018-19 school year on Aug. 16, before the state-mandated fourth Monday in August. With the earlier start date, school ends May 31. For comparison, the 2017-18 academic year began Aug. 28 and is planned to end June 8.
“With the fourth Monday of August falling on the 27th and the district’s practice of protecting the number of instructional days, district of innovation allowed us to adopt a better calendar,” LISD board President Pam Waggoner said.
Substitute teacher Dana Curr said the DOI calendar did not solve the issues of the previous calendars.
“Please consider creating a calendar with minutes adding to the day and let those minutes go towards the core classes," Curr said.
Waggoner said that the board asked district administration to begin the discussion for the 2019-20 calendar this spring so the trustees can “take time to assess the community’s values for building calendars in future years.”
“We have been a district and a board committed to honoring the voices within our community and seeking input through various formats,” she said. “Through our five-year period as a district of innovation, our community can expect that we will continue to listen and to make decisions in the best interest of students.”
Reporting contributed by Evan Marczynski.