Waco Independent School District’s superintendent and any current school board trustees may not be allowed to serve on a second governing board if the state approves a proposal to build an in-district charter system with Prosper Waco later this year, according to rules recently published by the Texas Education Agency.
The rules, meant to ensure Prosper Waco’s independence from Waco ISD, outline a timeline and criteria for the district to be eligible for the partnership with the local nonprofit. They were published Feb. 26 after Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath gave final approval, but district officials needed a few days to evaluate the rules before commenting, Waco ISD spokesman Kyle Debeer said.
The decision about who would be excluded from the second governing board and other changes came as no big surprise to the district, he said. But it’s the words “may include” in the published rules that have officials turning to attorneys for advice and clarity. But the TEA “will require an assurance in alignment with the rule,” spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said Monday.
“We’re still looking at this rule to understand what exactly this means for the district,” DeBeer said. “However, we’re confident we can structure the partnership in a way that both meets TEA’s expectations and allows our students to benefit from Prosper Waco’s expertise.”
Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson and school board President Pat Atkins serve on Prosper Waco’s board of directors. Until the rules were published, it was unclear whether the overlap was a potential conflict of interest, school district and Prosper Waco officials said previously.
Nelson and Atkins said previously if the TEA decided they couldn’t serve on the second governing board, they would step down from Prosper Waco’s board. Atkins and Nelson stepping down would be the most straightforward approach to the rules, Prosper Waco Executive Director Matthew Polk said.
The rules are part of a larger transformation plan — which includes grade realignment — district officials are submitting to the state that would ensure five underperforming schools stay open next year under a law passed in the summer.
Alta Vista Elementary School, Brook Avenue Elementary School, J.H. Hines Elementary School, G.W. Carver Middle School and Indian Spring Middle School failed to meet state academic standards at least five years in a row, passing the threshold for the state to consider closing them if they don’t meet state testing standards in May.
The Prosper Waco partnership would let the district keep the schools open another two years, but it must be approved by the state first. Officials are currently working out the details of the partnership application and contract for the in-district system, expected to be sent to the TEA by April 30 for approval.
District officials may not find out until June whether the partnership is approved, a month after the five underperforming schools wrap up state testing. Official ratings for state academic standards aren’t expected to be released until August. If the schools pass, the transformation plan won’t be necessary, district officials said.
If the partnership goes forward, the published rules also state Prosper Waco’s governing body will have independent autonomy over the five campuses, including the budget, the school calendar, including how long school days last, staff and curriculum. But that formal authority won’t prevent the district from collaborating with Prosper Waco, and the schools will still be technically considered Waco ISD schools, DeBeer said previously.
Polk has also said the nonprofit will most likely contract back to the district any operational details and focus more on funneling more social work-related wraparound services into schools to give students more individualized support.
“The big-picture context is why the rules matter. While there have been some changes, these adopted rules are consistent with the draft rules,” DeBeer said. “We’ve also been talking with the TEA throughout the process, and we don’t see any substantive changes to our plans to transform these campuses as a result of the adopted rules.”
It’s unclear, though, how partnership officials will determine who will serve on the board if Atkins and Nelson step down, Polk said. He has forwarded the rules to Prosper Waco’s attorney, who is working closely with the district’s attorney to review the rules, he said.
“I can’t tell you right this second what that will look like. I don’t think Prosper Waco will go out and entirely replace its own board, and given the way the rules are written, it does not seem likely some type of subsidiary or separate school board under the Prosper Waco board would meet the requirement of the rules,” Polk said. “The way I read it is the rules would apply to the current board and any changes would be made the current Prosper Waco board.”
Polk said most likely a significant majority of the nonprofit’s current board members would remain in place. He added the board is already comprised of well-respected community leaders, like former Waco mayors Virginia DuPuy and Malcolm Duncan Jr., and Roland Goertz, the CEO of the Waco Family Health Center.
The leaders currently serving on Prosper Waco’s board are why the partnership makes sense, Polk said. But the board will comply with whatever the rules dictate, he said.
“Obviously, those eligibility rules are significant to us,” DeBeer said. “While we believe all of our campuses can meet state standard this year, a partnership that is eligible for those benefits is how we can make sure the campuses have some additional time should one or more of the campuses not meet state standards this year.”
Initially, the drafted governance rules precluded trustees and staff of Waco ISD from serving on the second board, DeBeer said. But the finalized version offers more flexibility by excluding trustees, the superintendent, staff overseeing the charter and first-degree relatives by blood or marriage, DeBeer said.
“It opens the door for some district staff members to play a role that wasn’t a possibility before and it opens the door for relatives to play a role that wasn’t there before,” DeBeer said.
Once the partnership is approved, parts of the overall transition plan will be phased in, DeBeer said.
“Some of the other things, like grade realignment, would happen the following school year and the operating partner (Prosper Waco) would make recommendations on some of those changes, potentially, and collaborate on how to implement them,” DeBeer said. “If you’re a second-grader at Alta vista today, you’ll be a third-grader at Alta Vista in the fall. As the result of this partnership, if you’re that third-grader or third-grader’s family, you’re going to start seeing some additional support and additional resources.”