The flagging and beleaguered North Forest Independent School District argued for one more reprieve before the Texas Education Agency on Friday morning, naming a nonprofit educational management organization led by KIPP founder Mike Feinberg as the new savior for the failing district.
As is typically the case in rounds with North Forest ISD, there is always one more 11th-hour solution to consider. This time the North Forest school board, which has been in a pitched battle with the Texas Education Agency for at least a decade, suggested it would rather hire an outside manager than be swallowed up by the Houston Independent School District.
During the hearing, Superintendent Edna Forte made a compelling argument that giving North Forest students the chance to opt into high-performing charter options such as KIPP, Yes Prep and Harmony would be a quicker route to success than busing kids to the less-than-stellar Houston ISD campuses in the area. And if it's closed this year, North Forest students would miss enrolling in HISD magnets.
"We would keep a traditional opt-in within the context of their neighborhoods," Forte said. "If the public educational setting is what they preferred, they could stay in a public school in their neighborhood. One parent might want to go to Forest Brook, while another might choose to go into Harmony's STEM program."
Charters already co-locate on public school campuses, as they do at North Forest High School or numerous campuses in HISD. This new EMO hybrid -- EMO standing for education management organization -- would kick that partnership up a notch and open new ground in school choice in Texas.
The Texas Education Agency argued NFISD has failed to make adequate progress on academic exams, as outlined by the commissioner last year. Attorney Chris Tritico, however, argued the clock was still ticking for North Forest to improve and that the district had made substantial gains with the opening of the YES Prep in-district charter, which has bumped up test scores.
North Forest supporters privately groused that Houston ISD had finally agreed to annex North Forest because the Texas Education Agency put money on the table. A $3 million rider does exist in the current proposed Senate budget -- earmarked for "school district consolidation" that most think points to the Houston-North Forest merger -- but longtime observers scoffed that $3 million would hardly be inducement for any district to take on North Forest's many unpaid bills.
And that does come down to the crux of the issue. For anyone who has followed North Forest, including former administrators who returned to the district to try to save it, all progress stops with the school board. Even this most recent innovative proposal to partner with charters, which allegedly includes an almost-signed memorandum of agreement, was approved at a recent board meeting where no such agreement was posted for discussion.
The charter school agreement keeps the school board alive in some vague fashion. Annexation into HISD, of course, does not.
Almost all signs of progress accomplished by state-appointed superintendent Adrain Johnson and a board of monitors, including sixth- and ninth-grade transition campuses that were highly favored by local teachers' groups, were abolished within a couple of months of the board's reinstatement and Johnson's abrupt firing.
Rumors of unpaid bills, bad debt and poor financial ratings that won't allow the district to issue bonds continue to dog North Forest, despite claims that the district's finances produced a clean audit report this year and $4.5 million in spare cash.
The Texas Education Agency has promised a ruling by the end of the month.
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