Sun. Jun 20th, 2021

The state’s probe into allegations of racist remarks, bribery and threats of violence in Kemp schools remains stuck in court after a hearing Thursday prolonged the matter.

State District Judge Dustin Howell in Travis County told attorneys for Kemp ISD and the Texas Education Agency that he would grant an injunction against the investigation progressing to a review of the state’s findings.

The injunction also will prohibit the TEA from imposing any sanctions — including a state takeover that would remove the Kaufman County district’s elected board of trustees from office. The next court date is set for December, but TEA attorneys are expected to appeal Howell’s decision, which could punt the issue to an appellate court.

The legal challenge could have far-reaching implications for other districts fighting state investigations that want to replicate Kemp’s arguments. And the case is far from over, Kemp ISD attorney Stephen Dubner said after the hearing.

“The Agency will pursue all available options to protect the students and taxpayers of Kemp ISD,” according to a TEA statement.

TEA officials began investigating the 1,600-student school district 45 miles southeast of Dallas in 2019 after a director of business complained about trustee interference and board members’ physical threats against the superintendent at the time.

The state conducted an investigation and issued a preliminary report that detailed a toxic climate and dysfunctional board that “misused its position to assert control and power, creating chaos and conflict” that hindered the district. Preliminary reports are not released to the public, but the report outlining findings from Kemp’s investigation was obtained by The Dallas Morning News.

Investigators concluded that state Education Commissioner Mike Morath should lower the district’s accreditation status and replace the elected trustees with an appointed board of managers.

Dubner rebutted many of the state’s findings in a January response that also raised concerns about bias of investigators. The district sued in March to halt the investigation and won a temporary restraining order.

Howell’s decision doesn’t completely jibe with the decision of state District Judge Jan Soifer, who granted the temporary restraining order in March. Howell’s decision is more tightly focused on Kemp’s challenges to administrative rules that dictate how the agency should conduct reviews of its investigations.

A Texas Education Agency investigation into Kemp schools is stalled in court after a judge granted the school district a temporary restraining order.

Portions of Texas education and administrative code conflict with one another over who should oversee such reviews, Dubner has argued. The review process for the Kemp ISD case shouldn’t proceed until those discrepancies are remedied, he said.

Howell’s decision does not address Kemp ISD allegations that the TEA was biased in its investigation or that the agency did not share all of its investigative records with the school district.

Throughout Thursday’s hearing, state attorneys argued that the TEA’s investigation was far from over, so any “irrevocable harm” that would come from the TEA’s moving forward with its investigation was just speculative.

“In this case, there is no completed [special accreditation investigation], there is no basis for the commissioner to impose any sanctions,” attorney Cynthia Akatugba said.

Kemp ISD isn’t the only district with a legal challenge of the state’s power to investigate school districts and impose sanctions. Houston ISD, Texas’ largest school district, is fighting the TEA in court over a proposed takeover there.

An appellate court sided with Houston’s attorneys in December, keeping in place a temporary injunction that has barred the state from installing a board of managers to govern that district. In February, TEA attorneys asked the state Supreme Court to overturn the injunction, according to the Houston Chronicle.

A bill by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, sought to fix some of the legal issues in the Houston case, making it easier for the state to implement sanctions. Dutton’s bill has stalled in a House committee, but the Senate companion legislation was approved by that chamber and could still move forward.

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The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.