After multiple town halls, board discussions and a lengthy application process, Longview ISD has received districtwide Senate Bill 1882 charter status, something Superintendent James Wilcox envisioned months ago.

The Texas Education Agency sent the district a letter Monday granting the approval, providing the district give some clarifications from the applications.

The nonprofit East Texas Advanced Academies has operated six Longview ISD campuses as SB 1882 charters since the TEA granted approval in May 2019.

The district now can partner with the Texas Council of International Studies and Longview Educates and Prospers to operate its remaining campuses.

Chief Innovation Officer Craig Coleman said in a written statement the students stand to gain from TEA’s latest decision.

“I am pleased that the Texas Education Agency recognizes the value in the plan that Longview ISD and its partners presented in their SB 1882 application,” he said. “The ultimate beneficiaries are the students of Longview ISD.”

However, some disagree.

Community Advocates for Visionary Education is a group of Longview ISD parents, taxpayers and community members formed after the district’s intentions to make all campuses charter schools was made public.

“We requested a waiting period on applying for more charters for our schools, but it was passed by the LISD school board,” according to a written statement from the group. “Now, TEA has approved this unproven experimentation with taxpayer funds during what will be a major recession for the Texas economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What was supposedly an effort to help failing schools who needed extra funds during the 2017 Texas Legislative Session has been proven otherwise.”

According CAVE and based on a report from TEA, of the 18 charter partners approved for the 2018-19 school year, 67% were for “turnaround” campuses and 33% for “innovation.” In the 2019-20 school year, 59 Texas campuses were approved and only 7% were for “turnaround” campuses, leaving 93% for “innovation.”

“For Longview ISD community members, there will be four different board meetings to try to follow: LISD, ETAA, TCIS, Longview LEAP, which puts further strain especially on parents to be able to see what their children’s schools are doing,” according to CAVE. “The web of administration is already difficult enough to understand, and getting real answers through those avenues usually proves fruitless. Part of the budget that was submitted for these charter applications included salaries for teachers, but the district is not explaining how the local budget that has always been used for teacher salaries will now be allocated.”

SB 1882 is legislation that allows schools to partner with nonprofit entities to become charter campuses for financial incentive.

The district is expected to get about $52 million from the state because of the new partnerships.

LEAP will take over the Longview Early Graduation School and East Texas Advanced Manufacturing Academy.

TCIS will operate Hudson PEP Elementary School, Ned E. Williams Elementary School, South Ward Elementary School, Judson STEAM Academy, Foster Middle School and Longview High School.

ETAA operates East Texas Montessori Prep Academy, Ware East Texas Montessori Academy, Johnston-McQueen Elementary School, J.L. Everhart Elementary School, Bramlette STEAM Academy and Forest Park Middle School.

The district will need to complete a required interview with TEA to clarify if TCIS meets the staffing requirement, which was not clear in the application, according to the agency.

Additionally, TEA’s letter said the district demonstrated partial evidence that Longview ISD considered special populations/at-risk students in the application, which also will be covered in the required interview.

TEA also is requiring the district to make modifications to the performance contract with TCIS. Those modifications include clarifying TCIS’s sole authority over assessment decisions and the budget for the first year of operation.

For the required interview with TEA about the LEAP partnership, the district needs to clarify two points from the application.

First, the district needs to detail if LEAP staff Gary Kruger was employed by LEAP or solely dedicated to new operations at the time LEAP applied to partner with the district.

The district’s application also only demonstrated partial evidence that the district considered school culture and discipline, assessment and evaluation, governing board, application team capacity, professional development and the financial plan, which will be part of the interview.

The interview will be completed by July 15, and the modifications to the contract must be submitted by July 30.

Board president Ginia Northcutt could not be reached for comment.

The path to districtwide charters

It was September 2019 when Wilcox first made public his desire to seek districtwide charter school approval.

Wilcox wrote in a column for the Longview Voice, the school district’s newspaper, that the district is “waiting for word from the TEA about districtwide charters, but if everything goes through, it could prove to be an amazing opportunity for all of our campuses to excel.”

The district then scheduled town halls to answer questions from the community about the move, with almost each meeting gaining more in attendance than the previous one.

When COVID-19 caused schools to shut down, the district moved the town hall online.

After the meeting, parents still had questions. At town halls, stakeholders have asked why the district wants to make the move so quickly and why it even wants to make the change at all.

The district has said time and time again that extra funds are available and would benefit the children of the district.

In January, the Texas State Teachers Association filed a lawsuit against Longview ISD for its districtwide charter intentions.

The association is seeking a declaratory judgment that Longview ISD’s granting of charter school applications that affect in excess of 15% of the previous year’s enrollment should be declared invalid and void.

The district was granted a waiver in 2019 from the Texas Education Agency to allow it to enroll more than 15% of the student population with charter schools.

In May, TSTA amended the lawsuit to name the school board trustees as the defendants.

Pretrial proceedings are set for April 22, 2021, and the jury trial is set for April 26, 2021, with Gregg County Court at Law No. 2 Judge Vincent Dulweber presiding.

On April 13, the school board voted to enter partner contracts with LEAP and TCIS. Place 6 trustee Ted Beard voted against both contracts, while Place 2 trustee Ava Welge voted against the contract with LEAP and abstained from the vote on the TCIS contract.

That same week, the News-Journal received all the applications from possible partners after the Attorney General’s Office denied the district’s request for exemption from an Open Records Request.