Judge to hear Azleway charter revocation case

Published on Monday, 28 April 2014 23:10 - Written by Emily Guevara, eguevara@tylerpaper.com


An administrative law judge is expected to hear the case today regarding the revocation of Azleway Charter School’s charter.

The school has been fighting to remain open after Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams announced in December his plans to revoke the school’s charter, effective June 30.

Williams’ decision comes as a result of a law passed during the 2013 legislative session.

It requires the commissioner to revoke the charter of an open-enrollment charter school if the charter holder received three straight years of unacceptable academic and/or financial performance ratings.

The years used for the performance ratings were 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2012-13. The years used for the financial ratings were 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2012-13.

Azleway received an academically unacceptable rating under the alternative rating system in 2010-11 and a substandard achievement rating for financial accountability in 2011-12 and 2012-13.

Because of this the charter is subject to mandatory revocation, according to the state.

But the Azleway Board President Tom DeWitt disagrees. He said this decision is unfair and unconstitutional because it uses prior years’ performance when applying a new law.

He likened this to a person who received a traffic ticket last year for improper parking, but this year, law enforcement decided improper parking deserves jail time.

“And so we’re (going to) pass a law that says anybody who had a parking ticket in the last three years has to go to jail,” he said. “Well, the reality is that’s unconstitutional. You can’t be prosecuted for prior acts … that weren’t covered in the law.”

For their part, local legislators have come to the school’s defense.

State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said his office has submitted letters of support for the school to the commissioner and made calls, but once it enters the appeal phase, or the legal phase, it is hard for him to do anything about it.

“I wish the commissioner could find a way to work with them because they provide a great service,” he said.

State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, said he has been in contact with representatives from Azleway, Texas Education Agency staff, the education commissioner and Chapel Hill ISD Superintendent Dr. Donni Cook.

He said generally speaking, he supports Azleway and its mission. He also said he supports the accountability standards in Senate Bill 2.

That being said, there also was legislation passed during the 2013 session that said residential treatment centers would be exempted from normal accountability requirements, he said.

Schaefer said the students who attend Azleway are at-risk and don’t fall into the normal education mold.

“The focus of my effort right now is to make sure the right thing happens for the students at Azleway and for Chapel Hill school district,” he said. “I think it would be the wrong outcome to revoke the charter and then thrust these students under the authority of Chapel Hill school district on such short notice.”

Schaefer said he has talked to the attorney general’s office and the Texas commissioner of education and they are “exploring what flexibility the education code provides for there to be an orderly wind down.”

DeWitt is uncertain of what, if any, opportunity he will have to speak before the administrative law judge. However, he said he will be there and has several current and former staff members who will be there as witnesses.

DeWitt said in the other charter revocations hearings before the administrative law judge, the judge has listened and announced a 30-day decision process.

The schools in question then had a 10-day window to respond in writing to arguments presented by TEA and statements made by witnesses, he said.

Whatever happens today, the legal process continues with a separate lawsuit-related hearing on Thursday.

In March, Azleway joined the lawsuit filed against the Texas Education Agency by Austin-based American YouthWorks, one of the six Texas charter schools set to have its charter revoked.

“The lawsuit says that American YouthWorks’ charter revocation is based on an ‘unconstitutionally retroactive law, and absent judicial intervention, is a foregone conclusion,’” according to a previous Austin American-Statesman article.

Azleway joined the suit as an intervener, which means the court can make a single ruling covering both schools, reject both or rule differently for both schools, DeWitt previously said.

“My mandate is to do everything I can to protect our ability to serve these kids,” he said.

The hearing before the administrative law judge is scheduled for 9 a.m. today in Austin.