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Home News-Telegram News At least 5 local school districts pursuing district of innovation designation

At least 5 local school districts pursuing district of innovation designation

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Flexibility is the Key

At least five local school districts have begun the process to become a “district of innovation,” and, if a show of hands at a recent Region VIII meeting was anything to go by, quite a few others in the region expect to do so in the near future.

The “district of innovation” concept was created by the 84th Legislature in House Bill 1842 to give traditional public schools more of the flexibilities available to open enrollment charter schools, with flexibility being the key word. “Flexibility” in creating the school calendar and scheduling are prime reasons several districts are seeking a DOI status. The bottom line is that it gives local districts more control.

So far, Sulphur Springs, Como-Pickton, Cumby, Sulphur Bluff and North Hopkins school districts have posted notices indicating the district’s intent to start the DOI process.

SSISD Superintendent Michael Lamb said, initially, SSISD wasn’t interested in pursuing a DOI plan, but after closer scrutiny, saw opportunities for more flexible scheduling of both the student and staff calendars and school days.

CPCISD Superintendent Kay Handlin said exemptions districts of innovation can receive are also attractive, with flexibility of scheduling among the reasons to pursue a DOI designation.

While exemptions can include the 90 percent attendance rule, student discipline provisions, teacher appraisal system, teacher benefits (including state minimum salary schedule, duty-free lunch and planning periods) and site-based decision making processes, some of the most attractive exemptions to local districts include those offering flexibility regarding school start and ending dates, teacher certifications, teacher contracts, class size ratios (22:1 student-teacher ratios for elementary classes), length of school day, and certain purchasing and contract requirements.

“It’s all about really just looking at the types of kids in each district. Our district committee goes item by item, looking at what will benefit our students. If there’s no need, then why add the flexibility?” said CPCISD Director of Federal and Special Programs Jana Andrews, who presented DOI information to the school board. “What prompted us to look at this more heavily last semester was the potential for school calendar flexibility.”

Lamb explained districts currently aren’t allowed to schedule classes until the fourth Monday in August each year. Some years, that poses an issue when trying to make sure students are in class the required days, or as is now the case, a specific number of minutes each year. Counting minutes already provides some flexibility for a school’s daily start and end times, but still leaves districts to figure out how to get in the required number of staff days while finishing the first semester before Christmas and the last semester without having to go to school into June. Staff contract days also factor into the calendar. School personnel are required to be at school a certain number of days to meet the time frame outlined in their contracts.

As a DOI, schools can start classes earlier, allowing a school calendar to be developed similar to this year’s. Lamb said it would allow for more flexibility of staff days, allowing not just a staff development day at the beginning or end of the year, each semester or scattered throughout the school calendar, but to budget one day before each six weeks for teachers to plan together.

While schools completing the DOI process can pursue exemptions, districts will still be held accountable to certain state and federal legal standards.

To be eligible to become a DOI, the school must have “met standard” on district academic accountability ratings.

“Those are the ratings we got this summer. We met standard everywhere,” Lamb said, noting those are the official school academic accountability ratings, not the A-F system ratings. 

All other districts trying to be DOIs had to “meet standard” as well. 

And, school funding will “remain substantially the same for Districts of Innovation.” While it wasn’t created to provide additional grant funding for participating districts, some districts may have more flexibility in the use of compensatory education funds depending on their innovation plans. It is possible, however, that flexibilities impacting school calendar and attendance  could also impact funding calculations.

To become a district of innovation, each school district has to follow a series of steps, including adopting an innovation plan, in order to obtain those perks in flexibility. 

To start the process, either the district’s board of trustees must pass a resolution or a majority of the district-level advisory committee (DAC) must sign a petition to become a DOI. The board then has to conduct a public hearing to consider developing an innovation plan.

A board-appointed Innovation Planning Committee will then write an innovation plan that identifies requirements to be exempted from in order to meet goals of the plan and includes a comprehensive educational program for the district that may include innovative curriculum, instructional methods, and provisions regarding community participation, campus governance and parental involvement; modifications to the school day or year; provisions regarding the district budget and sustainable program funding; accountability and assessment measures that exceed the requirements of state and federal law; or any other innovations prescribed by the board of trustees.

Once the innovation plan is drafted, it must be posted on the district website for at least 30 days and the board must notify the Commissioner of Education of the district’s intent to adopt the plan. A “Chapter 11 district committee” then must hold a public meeting to consider and approve the final version with a majority vote. The school board then has to adopt the plan with a 2/3 majority vote.

This plan could also require changes to local and legal policies. Texas Association of School Board Policy Service can help each DOI evaluate necessary changes needed for the district policy annal.

Once final approval is given by the school board, the commissioner of education must be notified of the district’s approval of the plan and DOI status. While the commissioner doesn’t necessarily approve district’s innovation plans, the commissioner does have rule-making authority regarding DOIs. The commissioner also reports to the Legislature “about the use of the statutory option and what laws districts have selected for exemption,” according to TASB Legal Services.

Como-Pickton Consolidated Independent School District trustees in December discussed whether to consider developing a local innovation plan for CP to become a district of innovation. The district held a public hearing Jan. 9 in conjunction with the regular trustees meeting, then, approved a District of Innovation Advisory Committee to oversee the process.

The CPCISD DOI Advisory Committee is an eclectic group that includes at least two school officials, two community representatives, two business representatives, two parents and teachers who will work together to look for areas of flexibility that will best benefit CPCISD students and staff, according to  Andrews.

“We are excited about this. Our Advisory Committee is very vocal. I love their ideas. They talk and brainstorm. The meetings are energizing. We will continue to update the website as we get drafts [of the DOI plan],” said Andrews, noting that  the group will be contacting people in the community, seeking input and ideas from stakeholders to better guide them.

Sulphur Springs Independent School District trustees took the first step toward the designation Jan. 30. Trustees approved a resolution to consider designating SSISD as a district of innovation.

A public hearing “on considering the designation” of SSISD as a DOI will be held during the 6 p.m. school board meeting Feb. 13 in the board room of SSISD Administration Building, 630 Connally St. School trustees will also be asked Monday night to give approval to a SSISD DOI committee.

“As we get deeper into going this, by starting early, we can be a tiny bit innovative because of minutes as we build in our calendar the ability for teachers to plan together. Time is a valuable commodity. You can’t give enough,” said Lamb. “We could conceivably finish May 15. But, then we’d have to try to find things for teachers to do for 20 day.”

“Being able to put two more days in [each semester] for teachers is, in my opinion, a little bit innovative in that it gives time needed every single six weeks, instead of every three six-weeks,” Lamb noted.

Sulphur Bluff ISD held a public hearing at the Jan. 19 school board meeting for the District of Innovation Plan.

Cumby ISD trustees passed a resolution to consider several areas and approved a District of Innovation Team on Jan. 26. The team was slated to meet twice this week to begin the process of drafting a DOI plan.

“In our DOI meeting [this] week, we will be discussing and deciding the exact exemptions we are seeking,” said CISD Superintendent Shelly Slaughter.

North Hopkins ISD began the process of becoming a DOI at the Jan. 26 school board meeting, with a resolution authorizing the district to move forward with the designation. The district appointed a district and community committee to develop a DOI plan. If the school board approves the committee’s recommendation, that plan will then be posted online for 30 days, during which public comment will be accepted. Afterward, the board will notify the Commissioner of Education of their intent to approve the plan. If passed by majority vote of the advisory committee, the plan will have to receive a 3/4-vote from the school board. 

Plans can remain in effect for up to five years. During those five years, a school’s DOI plan can be amended, rescinded or renewed with a majority vote of the district-level advisory committee and the board of trustees in the same manner required for initial adoption. Districts may want to review the plan more frequently, perhaps on the biennium to consider new legislation. If the DOI receives an unacceptable academic and/or financial performance rating for two consecutive years, the education commissioner can terminate the innovation plan or require the district to amend its plan. If a DOI receives unacceptable academic or financial ratings for three consecutive years, the commissioner by law will be required to terminate the innovation plan.

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