Two weeks ago, I wrote a column in the Valley Town Crier about McAllen ISD’s push to become a District of Innovation, also known as DOI. I wrote about how most employees didn’t even know what DOI was, despite its very real implications.

Just after I wrote the column, I was contacted by a couple of Edinburg CISD teachers. Our neighbors, I learned, are going through the same thing. They asked if I would meet with a small group of ECISD teachers. I met with them Sunday afternoon. Before I tell you about the meeting, allow me to give you a brief background on DOI.

DOI was tacked on to HB 1842 during the 2015 legislative session, after midnight on the day of the Senate vote. Basically, a DOI designation allows a Texas public school district “flexibility,” through exemptions of several parts of the Texas Education Code. Among the allowable exemptions are:

1. 22:1 student-to-teacher ratio for grades K-4: As a DOI, districts can exempt this law without notifying parents that their child’s K-4-grade class is over 22.

2. School calendar: Current Texas law prohibits school districts from starting school before the fourth Monday of August. For the 2017-2018 school year, that means August 28.

3. Teacher benefits: Through a DOI, districts can take away a teacher’s right to a 30-minute duty-free lunch and their right to 450 minutes in a two-week period for planning. Districts can also ‘locally certify’ (Does anyone know what this truly means?) teachers rather than requiring them to obtain a Texas teaching certificate.

These are just a few of the possible exemptions for a DOI.

In order to become a DOI, the state requires a district to either pass a board resolution or to get the majority of the district’s site-based decision-making team to sign a petition in favor of moving forward with becoming a DOI. The SBDM team has a representative from every school in the district.

January 5, that SBDM meeting was held in ECISD. At that meeting, I am told, 33 of the 54 members were present. Those in attendance were handed a 56-page packet about DOI that they were expected to read, digest, and vote on at this meeting. The vote was 17-16 in favor of continuing the DOI process. Members asked if they could have time to thoroughly read the packet and to talk to teachers on their campuses and then reconvene, so a follow-up meeting was scheduled for January 17.

Following the January 5 meeting, members of Edinburg AFT sent out mass emails and fliers, working diligently to inform teachers in the district about DOI, the exemptions available, and how the process was being handled because most were totally unaware. Shortly thereafter, an email was sent to employees from Supt. Dr. René Gutierrez. The January 17 SBDM meeting was canceled. Instead, the board bypassed the committee and unanimously passed a resolution at their January 24 meeting to continue, seemingly unconcerned about the reservations teachers had, as evidenced by the 17-16 vote. (I would like to know if ECISD board members requested copies of all of the emails Dr. Gutierrez received in response to this email?)

After bypassing SBDM and passing the board resolution, the district had to establish a DOI Advisory Committee (ECISD’s is a Planning Committee) to create the DOI plan. McAllen ISD board members placed 14 people on this committee. (Without board approval, 10 more were mysteriously added for a total of 24 members.) In sharp contrast, 102 people were invited to be on ECISD’s Planning Committee. (I must admit that sounded like a nightmare to me.) At that meeting, members were given a “rough draft” of the plan. How strange, when the plan is supposed to be created by this committee! There was also assigned seating, and the ECISD teachers I met with said some teachers would not speak up for fear of retaliation from their administrators.

Members were told the only exemption ECISD wished to take involves flexibility with the calendar. (Can anyone tell me why the state calls starting school a day early innovative? This brings me to my point that our legislators should have called this a District of Flexibility designation rather than a District of Innovation.)

It seems to me that “calendar flexibility” is a legislative issue. If districts go to this much trouble to start school a week earlier, shouldn’t the state allow them to do so without being a DOI, with the potential to exempt several other parts of the Texas Education Code?

In the end, Edinburg CISD’s plan was finalized, with an assurance clause written by members of Edinburg AFT that the district will not pursue any other exemptions; however, keep in mind that the plan lasts up to five years. Also keep in mind that school board elections occur every two years. And keep in mind that administrators come and administrators go. So how binding is that assurance clause?

The plan is now posted on the Edinburg CISD website, as required, for 30 days. The plan includes a timeline that starts January 24, although that timeline should start on January 5 when the SBDM team voted 17-16. (Did they even have a quorum, which is required for a vote?)

I wonder why the district didn’t put the plan up as one of the 11 scrolling announcements on its home page? Instead, you have to look much closer for much smaller print with these words: District of Innovation Plan Posted for Review.

It will be posted until March 11. Then it goes back to the SBDM team, where it must get a majority vote. Then it goes back to the board for a vote and, if passed, the Texas Commissioner of Education must be notified that Edinburg CISD is a DOI.

Questions remain: If this is truly best for the district, why has the process been so questionable? Is moving the school start date up one week worth the possible implications of a DOI distinction?)

Edinburg: Are you paying attention? Get informed and be heard. Let your district’s SBDM team and your school board members know where you stand.

Note:  Here are just a couple of the websites that explain DOI:

Texas Association of School Boards:  tasb.org   Type “District of Innovation” in the search bar.

Texas Education Agency:  http://tea.texas.gov/Texas_Schools/General_Information/Innovation/Districts_of_Innovation

Chris Ardis retired in May of 2013 following a 29-year teaching career. She now helps companies with business communications and social media and works as a sales coordinator for Tony Roma's and Macaroni Grill. Chris can be reached at cardis1022@aol.com.