February 2017, Vol. 1

Districts of Innovation and HR

By Amy Campbell

Almost 80 districts across the state have proposed or approved exemptions to Texas Education Code that allow many flexibilities to open enrollment charter schools in the state, and dozens more districts have plans in various stages of development.

This concept, known as District of Innovation, was passed into law as a result of House Bill 1842 in the 84th Legislative Session, which created Texas Education Code (TEC) chapter 12A.

To become a District of Innovation, a school district must be rated at least acceptable in its most recent academic performance rating and complete a specific process as outlined in the TASB Legal Services guide. Legal Services also provides guidance about writing plans to address specific exemptions. While the Texas Education Agency (TEA) does not have approval authority for District of Innovation plans, districts that have proposed innovation plans are required to notify TEA, which must report to the Legislature about school districts’ statutory exemptions.

Of the innovation plans already approved or in the final stages of approval, some exemption trends have emerged, and many relate directly to HR. Following is a brief description of each of the most common HR-related exemptions found in current innovation plans, as well as how the exemptions may impact HR.

School start date/calendar changes

Nearly all of the innovation plans include some exemption from current instructional calendar requirements in TEC, and most relate specifically to school start date. Denison ISD’s innovation plan included only one exemption—to the uniform start date (TEC §25.0811). The superintendent of DISD, Dr. Henry Scott, said his district chose to be exempt from this law with two goals in mind:

1) The flexibility to start the school year earlier will allow them to end their first semester prior to the winter break.

2) They want to be able to end their school year before Memorial Day.

Most districts echo Dr. Scott’s assessment and say they can better balance the days of instruction in the first and second semesters and provide additional instructional days before STAAR testing by allowing school to start earlier than the fourth Monday in August. Many also cite meeting the needs of their local communities and improving district attendance rates through this added calendar flexibility.

HR impact: Because changes in student calendars clearly will impact teacher work schedules, HR will need to ensure all necessary updates to teacher calendars are made and provided to teachers in advance. However, since most districts approve calendars in January or February of each year, such changes may already be in the works for the next school year.

One potential issue HR staff may encounter is employee morale issues if the district has made a significant shift in start date for the next school year (e.g., one or two weeks earlier than previous). This will result in a shortened summer break in the first year of implementation, which could lead to some teachers feeling like their vacation was cut short.

Teacher certification

The second most common HR-related exemption is to TEC §21.003, which requires all school district teachers be certified in accordance with State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) rules. Nearly 80 percent of district innovation plans include this exemption. Many of these districts specifically mention wanting to avoid the bureaucratic processes currently bothering them, such as submitting a request to TEA for individuals teaching a subject outside of their certification or creating a local teaching certificate.

Many districts want to hire career and technology (CTE) teachers with vocational experience while avoiding the prescribed processes and instead seek only superintendent approval. Some districts also have specifically exempted themselves from the requirement to notify parents in writing when their child’s teacher is teaching a class outside their certification area, opting instead to allow the board’s approval of the teacher’s hire in open session to serve as formal notification. However, TASB Legal Services cautions that districts receiving Title I funds are still required under federal law to notify parents of uncertified teachers.

Kaufman ISD’s innovation plan includes a detailed explanation for their exemption, including a process in which campus principals can exercise the flexibility granted by the exemption.

“Our first choice will always be a highly trained, certified teacher with a heart for kids, and Kaufman ISD is full of them,” Dr. Lori Blaylock, superintendent of KISD, said. “However, we have encountered situations where desirable certified teachers are not available in the short term. The Kaufman ISD Innovation Plan was developed to provide legal options and local control to address those types of situations. In my experience, it is sometimes better to fill a vacancy with a quality educated individual who loves kids but is still working on certification rather than a certified applicant that cannot respect and engage the students of today.”

If a district has exempted itself from TEC §21.003 with the intent of only exempting certification requirements for certain teaching assignments, the district’s local policy should fill in the gap by clearly stating all other instructional staff are required to hold valid SBEC certificates and will receive Chapter 21 contracts in accordance with law and policy, according to TASB Legal Services.

HR impact: In most districts, HR currently is responsible for verifying, recording, and tracking teacher certification, and that won’t change with this exemption. However, HR may need to adjust its processes and recording mechanisms to accommodate the new flexibility granted by the exemption, including documenting what experience and credentials are acceptable for a non-certified person to become a teacher in the district.

HR staff also will need to be well-versed in which teaching assignments the district has exempted from certification requirements and which assignments will still require SBEC certificates, as required by federal law or dictated in local policy, and this information will need to be incorporated into job descriptions and job postings. Additionally, if the district opts to discontinue notifying parents or adopts a local, alternative standard for parental notification, this may change or reduce HR’s role in the process.

Educator appraisal

Nearly 30 percent of the proposed or approved innovation plans include an exemption from the current educator appraisal requirements, which require districts to adopt T-TESS or a comparable local alternative system.

Districts that have included an exemption from this portion of the TEC are seeking additional flexibility above that already provided in code and most plans explore creating a committee of educators to develop tools and procedures for evaluation that reflect local strengths, areas of concern, and goals. TASB Legal Services has cautioned districts who exempt themselves from appraisal statutes to consider adopting local policy to replace the statutory procedures.

HR impact: Developing a local appraisal system is a time-consuming process involving a broad spectrum of district staff. HR must be involved in the committee and may likely play a leadership role in development of a new system, including participating in instrument development, helping coordinate appraisal frequency and timing, and weighing in on issues such as appraisal technology and staffing and budget implications.

Probationary contracts

A quarter of district innovation plans include an exemption from TEC §21.102 requiring teachers who have taught the past five of eight years to only serve one year on a probationary contract. Hurst-Euless-Bedford (HEB) ISD included this exemption in its innovation plan, granting the district the option to extend a second year probationary contract if recommended by Human Resources and the campus administrator and approved by the Board of Trustees.

“An extension to a second-year probationary contract is to recognize that, at times, even experienced teachers new to the district need more than one year to learn the HEB Teaching and Learning system and the district’s Continuous Improvement model,” according to the district’s plan. “A one-year probationary period may not allow the teacher or the administrator time to evaluate the teacher’s capacity or ability to adopt the HEB ISD requirements.”

HR impact: HR staff will need to ensure local policy is updated to reflect the exemptions granted in a district’s local innovation plan. In districts like HEB that include an active HR role in these contract determination processes, HR staff may find themselves spending additional time on these decisions during contract renewal season.

Teacher contract days

Chapter 21 of the TEC currently requires all educator contracts to be for a minimum of 187 days of service. For many districts, the change to minutes of instruction for students resulted in compressed calendars, with students leaving school by Memorial Day. This created a disconnect between teacher work schedules and student schedules, with no legally acceptable way to compress teacher schedules to better match their students.

“With the teacher contract day exemption, we make our salaries more competitive by reducing the days worked (from 187 to 182), with no reduction in pay, therefore increasing a teacher’s daily rate,” Denise Anderson, superintendent of Bovina ISD, said. “We hope this plan will help in our teacher recruitment efforts.”

HR impact: HR staff in districts that are reducing teacher contract days will need to communicate clearly with their staff about the impact of the change. Will their salaries change? What will their work schedule be next year? HR staff also should incorporate the reduced work schedule into district recruiting materials.

Becoming a district of innovation allows ISDs many flexibilities from the ever-increasing number of state mandates. Given that many of the exemptions will have a direct impact on HR operations, HR staff need to be actively involved in coordinating and planning for implementation of changes.