This article appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

Have you ever heard of your district-level decision-making committee? Every district must have one – this requirement has been in the law since 1995, but until now they’ve kept a fairly low profile. Not anymore. In 2015, Texas legislators passed a law that put the district-level decision-making committee front and center in making key decisions about things like whether to continue offering teachers employment contracts, duty-free lunches, minimum salary schedule, planning and preparation periods, etc., as well as whether to comply with elementary class-size caps.

Referred to as “innovation districts,” this new concept, created by legislation passed last session, allows entire school districts with at least an acceptable accountability rating to decide, via their district-level site-based decision-making committees and the school board, to be exempt from major provisions of the Education Code, including teacher rights and benefits, student discipline laws, parent rights and more.

Classroom teachers must be represented on your district-level committee, and you should be voting on those teacher representatives. Under current law, each school district must establish a district-level planning and decision-making committee that includes representative professional staff who are nominated and elected by the professional staff in the district. At least two-thirds of the elected professional staff representatives must be classroom teachers. The remaining staff representatives must include both campus- and district-level professional staff members. The committees must hold regular meetings.

District committee role in the innovation process

HB 1842 made district-level decision-making committees a main conduit through which innovation districts can be established. Specifically, it provides that consideration of designation as a district of innovation may be initiated by a resolution adopted by the board of trustees of the district or by a petition signed by a majority of the members of the district-level decision-making committee.

Once the resolution has passed or the petition has been received, the board is required to hold a public hearing to consider whether the district should develop a local innovation plan. After the hearing, the board can choose whether to pursue the innovation district option; if so, the board would appoint a committee to develop an innovation plan.

The innovation plan must provide for a comprehensive education program for the district and identify any provisions under the Education Code from which the district should be exempted. This plan is at the heart of the innovation concept, and the district-level committee is one of very few barriers to the possibility for serious damage. Click here to see what laws the district can exempt itself from.

The second major point at which the district-level decision-making committee plays a crucial role is that once the plan has been developed the committee must hold a public meeting to consider the final version of the proposed plan and approve it by majority vote of the committee members. After that, the board can adopt the plan by a two-thirds majority.

The term of an innovation district cannot exceed five years, but the term can be renewed by a vote of the district-level decision-making committee (if it still exists as part of the local innovation plan) or a similar committee.

Is this a real threat?

The innovation district concept was promoted heavily to school boards and administrators at the January Texas Association of School Administrators mid-winter conference by Raise Your Hand Texas, an administrator-led education group with a fair amount of influence in Austin. One large school district (Spring Branch ISD in the Houston area) has already begun the process through a school board resolution last fall, and will submit its plan in March. Many other districts are considering it, including Denton, El Paso, Austin, Mineola and Victoria, and some of them have actually begun the process.

Given the extraordinary impact a local innovation plan could have on students and educators, and the crucial role that the district-level committee plays in whether to approve such a plan, it is paramount that TCTA members make it their business to serve on district committees. Since the law requires that such committees be comprised of representative professional staff who are nominated and elected by the professional staff in the district, find out from your district about the next opportunity for nominations to be submitted and elections to take place to serve on the committee.

Closer look at innovation districts

As of mid-March, the following districts had begun the process of forming innovation districts through district-level decision-making committees:

  • Austin ISD: Passed a resolution to create an innovation district.
  • Big Spring ISD: Expects to vote on a resolution to create an innovation district in early May.
  • Brownsville ISD: Passed a resolution to create an innovation district.
  • Denton ISD: Passed a resolution to create an innovation district.
  • El Paso ISD: Passed a resolution to create an innovation district and created a Local Innovation Committee to draft a plan.
  • Leander ISD: Exploring options to become an innovation district.
  • Lewisville ISD: Passed a resolution to create an innovation district.
  • Los Fresnos CISD: Passed a resolution to create an innovation district, wrote a plan and held a public hearing to review it.
  • Mineola ISD: Passed a resolution to create an innovation district.
  • Roscoe ISD: Exploring options to become an innovation district.
  • San Antonio ISD: Superintendent aims to steer district toward becoming an innovation district within next five years.
  • Spring Branch ISD: Passed a resolution to create an innovation district and developed a strategic plan. The District Improvement Team planned an April 16 vote on the strategic plan, with a school board vote planned for April 25.
  • Victoria ISD: Passed a resolution and created the Strategic Planning Committee to draft an innovation plan.
  • Waco ISD: Passed a resolution to create an innovation district. Note: This list may not be comprehensive, so pay attention to your local school board’s actions.

What can an innovation district do?

We can’t overemphasize the vast number and importance of the provisions in the Education Code from which innovation districts could be exempt. The only Education Code provisions that an innovation district cannot be exempt from are those applicable to open-enrollment charter schools, those related to school district organization and governance, school board powers and duties (including posting of job vacancy notices, school district grievance policies and paperwork reduction provisions), state curriculum and graduation requirements, and academic and financial accountability and sanctions. 

An innovation district can choose to exempt itself from:

  • Educator rights and benefits, including teacher contract rights and state personal leave;
  • Student discipline provisions, including a teacher’s right to remove disruptive students;
  • Curriculum standards, including prohibitions against awarding grades a student hasn’t earned;
  • Parent and student rights, including transfer rights, and the right to parent notice of unsatisfactory grades; and
  • Minimum classroom standards, including restrictions on class interruptions, minimum attendance for class credit, and state certification requirements for teachers and other educators.

Ironically, the law also provides that innovation districts can be exempt from the requirement to establish district and campus-level decision-making committees, thus invoking the bizarre situation in which a district-level-decision-making committee might consider a local innovation plan to eliminate the district-level decision-making committee.

Innovation districts can also be exempt from the law requiring the school board (as opposed to the superintendent) to make decisions related to the employment of any educator under a Chapter 21 contract, including terminating or nonrenewing an employment contract.

Aside from ensuring teacher representation on the district-level decision-making committee, this new option for school districts makes it absolutely crucial that local leaders pay close attention to what school boards are doing. If they’re proposing harmful exemptions from important state laws, you’re going to want your district-level committee to be composed of a majority of people who will say no. And by all means let TCTA know if your district (or any other you’re aware of) is beginning the innovation district process.