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Houston Independent School District v. The Texas Education Agency

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, Austin Division

December 18, 2019

HOUSTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE TEXAS EDUCATION AGENCY; MIKE MORATH, COMMISSIONER OF EDUCATION, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY; AND DORIS DELANEY, IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY, DEFENDANTS. HOUSTON FEDERATION OF TEACHERS, JACKIE ANDERSON, MAXIE HOLLINGSWORTH, AND DANIEL SANTOS, PLAINTIFF-INTERVENORS,

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER ON APPLICATION FOR PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION AND MOTION TO DISMISS

          LEE YEAKEL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the court is the above-styled action that was removed from the 459th Judicial District Court of Travis County, Texas, on July 3, 2019 (Dkt. No. 1). Plaintiff Houston Independent School District ("Houston ISD") alleges that Defendants the Texas Education Agency, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, and Conservator Doris Delaney[1] violated federal and state law during the Agency's Special Accreditation Investigation #INV2019-10-034 of Houston ISD (the "Investigation") and will further violate such laws by replacing Houston ISD's elected Board of Trustees (the "Board") with a board of managers appointed by the Texas Education Agency.

         By its Second Amended Complaint (Dkt. No. 29), Houston ISD asserts eight federal claims: (1) First Amendment retaliation, (2) unlawful restriction of speech, (3) alleged overbreadth of the Texas Open Meetings Act as applied, (4) unconstitutional vagueness of the Texas Open Meetings Act, (5) Procedural Due Process violations, (6) violation of the Voting Rights Act, (7) violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and (8) violation of the Equal Protection Clause. In addition, Houston ISD seeks two state-law-based declaratory judgments regarding the Texas Open Meetings Act and ultra vires acts by the Commissioner.

         Houston ISD seeks preliminary injunctive relief to prevent the Commissioner from interfering in the selection of a new or interim superintendent, replacing the Board with a board of managers appointed by the Texas Education Agency, and sanctioning Houston ISD as a result of the Investigation.

         The following facts are compiled from facts in the record, undisputed in material part, and the parties' stipulated facts (Dkt. No. 45).

         Background

         The Texas Education Agency (the "Agency") oversees primary and secondary public education in Texas. The Agency is responsible for supervising public school districts to ensure they responsibly steward public funds, comply with state and federal laws, and successfully educate Texas children.[2] To this end, the Texas Legislature grants the Commissioner of Education authority to investigate school districts' suspected legal violations through Special Accreditation Investigations, issue and modify accountability ratings, and-in certain circumstances-temporarily suspend a district's board of trustees.[3]

         The Texas Legislature also grants the Commissioner of Education authority to appoint a conservator who may oversee the operations of a school district.[4] On September 2, 2016, Commissioner Morath notified Houston ISD that he was appointing Dr. Doris Delaney as a conservator to "ensure and oversee district-level support for Kashmere High School [ ] and implementation of the targeted improvement plan" and defined her role as conservator as follows: "In providing district-level support and implementing the targeted improvement plan, Dr. Delaney's role as conservator will include, but is not limited to, the following: 1) Ensuring that a comprehensive needs assessment of the campus is performed; 2) Ensuring that an evaluation of the efficacy of the district's resource allocation to the campus for school years 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 is performed; and 3) Overseeing instructional delivery at the campus for school year 2016-2017."

         On January 22, 2019, the Agency initiated the Investigation in response to multiple complaints and requests to its investigative unit to investigate the Board's alleged violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act and provisions of the Texas Education Code that govern independent school districts and the specific powers and duties of a district's board.[5]

         In correspondence dated March 25, 2019, Commissioner Morath stated that he was "clarifying the specifically enumerated powers and duties of the conservator" to "also include, but [not be] limited to, the following: 1) Ensuring and overseeing district-level support to low-performing campuses within the district; 2) Ensuring and overseeing implementation of the district's turnaround efforts to support its low-performing campuses (Achieve 180); 3) Attending board meetings and overseeing the governance of the district; and 4) Submitting monthly reports, including and special reports requested by the Texas Education Agency." On the same day, Delaney issued a directive to the Board to immediately suspend the search for a superintendent until the Agency completed the Investigation and the Board received written authorization from Delaney to resume search activities.

         On April 24, 2019, the Agency notified Houston ISD that the Investigation would include an additional allegation that the Board "may have violated the contract procurement process, competitive bidding, awarding, and management of contracts."[6]

         On June 27, 2019, Houston ISD filed this action in 459th Judicial District Court of Travis County, Texas. The Commissioner removed the action to this court on July 3, 2019.

         On August 5, 2019, the Agency issued a preliminary report, recommending that the accreditation status of Houston ISD be lowered, a conservator be appointed, and a board of managers be installed. On August 26, 2019, Houston ISD filed a response to the findings and recommendations of the preliminary report and requested an informal administrative review by the Agency.

         Houston ISD filed an Application for Preliminary Injunction (the "Application") in this court on October 29, 2019 (Dkt. No. 19), seeking prospective relief from the recommendations outlined in the preliminary report. The Commissioner responded to the Application on December 2, 2019 (Dkt. No. 41). Houston ISD replied on December 4, 2019 (Dkt. No. 44).

         In the interim, following informal administrative review, the Agency issued a Final Special Accreditation Investigation Report (the "Report") on October 30, 2019. The Report concludes that the Agency substantiated that Houston ISD trustees (1) violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, (2) acted individually on behalf of the Board thereby exceeding the scope of the trustees' authority, and (3) violated contract-procurement rules while the district was selecting a vendor and attempted to tamper with an awarded contract.[7] The Report replaces the preliminary report. The court, without objection of the parties, considers Houston ISD's allegations as attacks on the Report.

         On November 6, 2019, Commissioner Morath notified Houston ISD that, based on the Report, he would lower Houston ISD's 2018-19 accreditation status to "Accredited-Warned," temporarily suspend the Board, install a board of managers to exercise the powers and duties of the Board, [8] and appoint a superintendent. In early November the Commissioner informed the court that a final decision on the recommendations in the Report would occur on or after December 20, 2019. Considering the short time line, the court set a hearing on the Application for December 5, 2019.

         On November 19, 2019, the Commissioner moved to dismiss Houston ISD's action in its entirety (Dkt. No. 35), to which Houston ISD responded on December 2, 2019.

         Also on November 19, the Houston Federation of Teachers and Jackie Anderson, Maxie Hollingsworth, and Daniel Santos (three Houston ISD voters) (collectively, the "Federation") moved to intervene in the case to assert claims under the Equal Protection Clause, [9] the Fifteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, [10] Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, [11]and the Texas Equal Rights Amendment[12] (Dkt. No. 33). The Federation does not seek injunctive relief. The court, over the objection of the Commissioner, granted the motion in order to have the benefit of the Federation's perspective and argument.

         All parties appeared in person, by authorized representative, or through counsel at the December 5 hearing.

         The motion to dismiss was not fully briefed at the time of the hearing, and the court proceeded to hear evidence and argument on the Application. The motion to dismiss became ripe for decision when the Commissioner filed a reply in support of the motion on December 9, 2019 (Dkt. No. 50). The court determines that the motion to dismiss implicates issues raised in the Commissioner's response to the Application. Because the issues were well argued at the hearing on the Application, the court will consider the motion to dismiss without additional argument.

         The court has considered the Application and motion to dismiss as well as the responses and replies to each, the stipulated facts, testimony at the hearing, admitted evidence, argument ...


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