Teachers in Atherton Elementary Testing Scandal Appeal to the TEA Commissioner

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The Atherton Elementary teaching scandal entered its next phase Monday when the attorney for the three teachers who Houston ISD trustees voted to terminate last week, filed a petition for review with the state commissioner of education and slung some serious allegations the superintendent's way.

In the document filed by Larry Watts to the Texas Education Agency on behalf of Jennifer Sterling, Reuel Sosa and Veronica Davis, the teachers' lawyer charges that HISD board members never even read the investigative report into the allegations that the teachers helped students cheat on the Grade 5 state-mandated reading and math tests, before voting to fire them.

Responding to a request for comment about the petition, the HISD press office emailed this statement: "The district is aware of a petition filed with the Commissioner of Education. We will respond to the petition in the time frame allotted by law."

Investigators had said the teachers were at fault and pointed to: an above-average rate of wrong to right answer changes, a high number of erasure marks, a decline in the students' passage rate on the HISD Formative Assessments given soon after the STAAR tests.

"It is reasonable to conclude the 2013 Grade 5 STAAR Math and Reading tests and re-tests at Atherton Elementary were compromised," the report said.

Watts Monday asked that the trustees be required to read the investigative report before making their final judgment.

The lawyer also alleged a pattern of misbehavior by HISD Superintendent Dr. Terry Grier starting with his hiring in 2009, comparing Grier going after Atherton's principal Dr. Albert Lemons, in the same way the superintendent targeted Mable Caleb in 2009.

Caleb, the former principal of Kashmere High School and Key Middle School, was accused of overseeing student cheating and of stealing school equipment at Key. The longtime principal resigned her position, but the district ultimately decided to fire her along with several other district employees. Four years later, an administrative law judge found Caleb not guilty of any of the allegations made against her.

According to Watts' petition, chief elementary School Support Officer Sam Sarabia with his assistant Steven Guttierrez went to Atherton "in late May 2013 in order to administer yet another test to the already tested students. The retest was without notice to Principal Dr. Lemons and without the permission of or notice to the parents or guardians of the affected students."

Grier hired the firm Martin Disiere Jefferson and Wisdom to interview students, Watts petition says.

Asked for what recourse the teachers have now, the HISD press office relayed the following:

Proposed Non-Renewal: Board takes action on the proposed action to non-renew the term contract of the employee. (This happened on Thursday April 10 during the board meeting)

Notice to Employee of Board's Action: The employee is sent a "notice letter" containing the basis for the proposed action.

Request for Hearing: The employee can request a hearing before a TEA appointed hearing examiner to protest the non-renewal. If the employee does not request a hearing, the Board will vote to nonrenew the employee's contract.

Conduct of Hearing: If the employee requests a hearing, TEA assigns an Independent Hearing Examiner (IHE) who then conducts a hearing in the same manner as a trial without a jury pursuant to Texas Education Code section 21.257. The parties are entitled to conduct discovery in preparation for the hearing before the IHE and the rules of evidence also apply during the hearing.

Recommendation of Hearing Examiner: At the conclusion of the hearing the IHE's recommends Findings of Facts and Conclusions of Law to the Board regarding whether the proposed nonrenewal of the employee's contract is justified by the evidence.

Consideration of Recommendation by Board of Trustees: There is a Board Hearing to consider the IHE's Recommendation. At that Board hearing, the Board determines whether to accept or reject the IHE's Recommendation.

Appeal to Commissioner: Either party may appeal the Board's final decision to the Commissioner of Education.

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