For the second time in as many years, the Texas Education Agency is under fire over how it manages special education in the state.
Last week, the agency fired its new special education director, Laurie Kash, after employees at a prior job filed a civil lawsuit against her alleging she had covered up the sexual abuse of a 6-year-old. Kash attributes her firing to a different legal incident: She reported the TEA to the federal government the day before her termination.
Kash filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against the agency on Nov. 21, claiming it illegally awarded a $4.4 million no-bid contract to a company to analyze private records of students receiving special education services.
That federal complaint and its timing was first reported in the Austin-American Statesman. Kash's lawyer says she's still deciding whether to fight her termination.
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Both allegations are devastating for special education advocates and parents who had hoped for a turnaround after a Houston Chronicle investigation last year found that TEA officials were denying special education services to thousands of Texas students.
"A lot of parents are feeling just very distraught and once again very betrayed by TEA," said Cheryl Fries, co-founder of the advocacy group Texans for Special Education Reform, which was first to raise concerns about the contract this fall.
Fired after just three months on the job, Kash came to Texas from the Rainier School District in Oregon, where she was special education director. Two instructional assistants brought a civil lawsuit against her on Nov. 14, claiming she encouraged them to hide allegations of sexual abuse of a 6-year-old and threatened them when they refused.
When the TEA terminated Kash, officials said she did not disclose that information during the hiring process.
"The existence of allegations of this nature, given her roles and responsibilities, prevent her from carrying out her duties effectively in Texas, and the agency has terminated Dr. Kash’s employment. Dr. Kash has no business being in charge of special education policy and programming in Texas," TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said in a statement.
Kash denies the lawsuit's allegations. She said TEA fired her because she had been vocally critical of a contract TEA awarded in May to the Georgia-based company SPEDx to analyze private data about how students are receiving special education services in Texas public schools. In the Nov. 21 federal complaint, Kash argued SPEDx did not qualify for a no-bid contract since other private and public entities could have provided the service. She said the TEA did not publicize its justification for awarding a no-bid contract to the company in the spring, as state law requires.
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Kash alleges the TEA awarded the contract because the company's founder has a personal relationship with a TEA staffer.
"We're going to start firing public employees because somebody makes an allegation against them without a hearing, without even a conversation to ask about the allegations, with no due process at all?" Kash's lawyer, Bill Aleshire, said of the Oregon lawsuit. "I still maintain they fired her because she questioned the SPEDx contract."
Aleshire provided The Texas Tribune with a letter of reprimand the TEA issued against Kash on Nov. 3 for publicly criticizing the SPEDx contract at meetings outside of the agency instead of registering her complaints formally with her superiors. "When you are acting pursuant to your official duties, your communications must be in alignment with and support agency policies, programs and initiatives," her boss Justin Porter, TEA's executive director of special populations, wrote in the letter. "Failure to meet the expectations set forth in this letter may result in further disciplinary action up to and including termination."
TEA argues it followed state and federal contract regulations with SPEDx. According to an April internal memo the TEA provided to the Tribune, SPEDx was the only company with the "specialized software" to aggregate and analyze data — including students' medical conditions and educational progress — that revealed trends in how school districts were serving students with disabilities.
The agency did not broaden the bid process, which it countered is allowed by law, because it knew no one else in the market was providing this type of analysis. Registered in 2016, SPEDx had previously entered into a similar contract with one other state.
The TEA also provided the Tribune with a memorandum of understanding Texas districts are entering into with SPEDx, holding the company accountable for protecting student data and submitting to regular security audits.
Read related Tribune coverage:
Texas' special education director is facing allegations from her old job in a small Oregon school district that she tried to cover up sexual abuse of a special education student. [Full story]
Rio Grande Valley parents and educators told federal and state officials that school districts lacked knowledge and resources to get students special education services that comply with federal law. [Full story]
With a major bill for students with disabilities flying to the governor's desk, special education advocates are looking ahead to smaller bills that might not survive the upcoming deadlines for legislation to pass. [Full story]