Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan is asking the district’s school board Thursday to authorize $17 million in additional spending for special education, a request that comes a week after her administration dismissed a state investigation sharply critical of HISD’s support of students with disabilities.
HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, pictured in September, is asking district trustees Thursday to approve an additional $17 million in spending on special education. The request comes one week after state investigators sharply criticized HISD’s support of students with disabilities, though Lathan’s administration labeled the findings “factually and legally incorrect.”
HISD administrators said they plan to use the money to hire more speech language pathologists, mental health specialists, occupational and physical therapists, and assistive technology specialists, among others.
District officials have offered scant details on the request, other than listing the job titles in a press release. HISD administrators did not respond to questions Wednesday about the proposal, including how many employees would be hired and why they are needed.
HISD administrators listed the $17 million request as a line item in a budget document posted last week, but they offered no explanation of the request. Board members did not ask about the request during a public meeting last week, when trustees have the opportunity to question administrators about spending requests, though inquiries could arise during Thursday’s meeting.
“There are always questions when we’re spending large amounts of money, especially in a year when we’re now dipping into our savings to spend this money,” Trustee Judith Cruz said. “We want to make sure there’s transparency and efficacy in how these dollars are spent.”
HISD administrators typically do not ask for money to hire large numbers of new staff in the fall. Those requests often are made ahead of the board’s vote to approve an annual budget, which occurs in June.
It is not immediately clear whether the COVID-19 pandemic has any influence on the desire for more employees dedicated to special education. HISD’s press release stated the request “has been under consideration since August of 2020.”
Lathan’s appeal follows an 11-month Texas Education Agency investigation into HISD’s long-maligned special education department, which has drawn criticism from parents, board members and outside organizations for several years.
State investigators concluded HISD has failed to fix “significant, systemic and widespread” issues with the delivery of special education services, warranting the appointment of a conservator who would oversee changes in the department. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has not yet decided whether to follow the recommendation to appoint a conservator.
The investigators found HISD violated numerous federal laws and state regulations that help ensure students with disabilities receive needed support. The shortcomings included failing to identify all students entitled to special education services, implement individualized education programs or hold staff members accountable for their work.
In their 44-page report outlining their findings, state investigators referenced the need for “appropriate campus staffing,” though they more often cited HISD for poor leadership, organization and accountability.
TEA officials reached their conclusions after interviewing staff members, reviewing dozens of student files and analyzing thousands of pages of documents.
Lathan’s administration blasted the findings as “factually and legally incorrect,” arguing state investigators relied on outdated information. HISD administrators also noted that the state artificially capped the percentage of students eligible to receive special education services at 8.5 percent, a practice the TEA abandoned in 2017.
Cruz and Sung said the administration’s $17 million request could be warranted, but they planned to seek more information before approving the spending increase.
“I think the additional speech language pathologists are needed, and I’m supportive of making sure that students who need these services can receive them,” said Sung, who chaired a board ad hoc committee that examined HISD’s special education practices in 2018.
HISD would dip into its “rainy day” fund to cover the $17 million in additional special education spending. Current projections show HISD with about $400 million in its rainy day fund at the end of fiscal 2020-21, though district officials have warned that budget estimates are changing often amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
HISD spent about $169 million on students with disabilities in 2018-19, the most recent year with available data, according to state financial reports.
HISD administrators also are asking trustees to approve a budget amendment that includes $24 million in added spending on technology, personal protective equipment, and cleaning services and supplies.