Austin ISD Lays Off Special Education Staff To Reorganize A ‘Toxic’ Work Environment

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This article was published on KUT by Claire McInerny on April 30, 2021.

Some employees in Austin ISD’s special education department received letters this week saying their jobs were being eliminated as part of a reorganization.

Elizabeth Casas, AISD’s chief academic officer, said Friday she needed to take drastic measures because a “toxic work environment” had caused a backlog of special education evaluations. She said 900 students are still awaiting them.

“I heard loud and clearly from our community and our parents,” she said. “They are not happy with the services the SPED department has given over the years.”

The district would not give the exact number of employees affected.

There have been three executive directors in six years and a lot of turnover in the department, Casas said.

“So we’re just going to wipe a clean slate and start over,” she said.

All special education staff at the district’s central office and those who diagnose students with any disability are part of the reorganization. Staff who provide direct services to kids — like speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and other specialists — are not included and will continue in their jobs.

Casas said new jobs will be posted in a few weeks and that LSSPs and educational diagnosticians (two types of employees who evaluate children) will be given priority in the hiring process.

Casas said the district conducted a staff survey to gauge morale. Twenty-six percent of people who responded said they were satisfied working in the department. Eleven percent said they would recommend working in the department to a friend.

The low morale was one reason Casas said the reorganization was necessary. She said she wants employees who reapply for the new positions to be on board with the new direction of the department.

“We want a recommitment and people who want to be here,” she said. “We’re going to have to really shake up how we do evaluations in the district so we never get in this situation again.”

Casas said she wants to have all evaluations caught up by July 1.

The district has hired Theresa Arocha-Gill as its new executive director. She is the current executive SPED director in Judson ISD, outside San Antonio, and will start in mid-May.