Firing leaves Texas without a special education director at a critical time
AUSTIN - With just over three months on the job, the state’s special education director was fired last week after she filed a federal compliant against the Texas Education Agency for awarding a multi-million dollar, no-bid contract to a company that is mining data on disabled students.
A TEA representative said Laurie Kash’s firing had nothing to do with her complaint. Rather, said TEA spokeswoman Lauren Callahan, Kash was fired because of allegations that she covered up the sexual abuse of a 6-year-old girl in her previous school district. Two former employees filed a civil lawsuit making the allegations in Oregon days before Kash was fired.
“The existence of allegations of this nature, given her roles and responsibilities, prevent her from carrying out her duties effectively in Texas,” said Lauren Callahan, a TEA spokeswoman. “Dr. Kash has no business being in charge of special education policy and programming in Texas.”
Kash’s dismissal leaves the state’s beleaguered special education department without a director at a time when the agency is trying to rebuild confidence in its ability to provide services to all special-needs students across the state.
Kash’s lawyer said TEA is using the Oregon lawsuit as a cover, and contends Kash was fired because she raised concerns about a contract awarded to SPEDx, a data company that received a no-bid contract before she was hired.
Kash was hired in August to lead the state’s special education department. Previously, she worked as the special education director at a school district serving about 800 students in Oregon.
A few months before she was hired, TEA signed a $2 million contract with SPEDx, a Georgia-based data company, to analyze students’ Individualized Education Program, or IEP. An IEP lays out a student’s disability, their education needs and how a school intends to meet those needs.
In a presentation to school districts, TEA said SPEDx will analyze IEPs to “detect hidden patterns and insights” that can help the department better serve students. In September, TEA amended SPEDx’s contract to $4.4 million dollars. TEA says it did not put the contract out for bid because data project requires specialized software that only SPEDx can provide.
Soon after she was hired, Kash began questioning the company’s work, according to her lawyer. Kash was concerned the company was not delivering the information laid out in the contract.
“When she looked at how the contract occurred, the more she found what the company was doing, she saw no basis at all for why they were awarded the contract,” Aleshire said.
Kash alleges a contractor for the company is a friend of a TEA employee. SPEDx representatives did not return a request for comment.
In early November, Kash received a written reprimand for accusing the Chief Deputy Commissioner of Academics, Penny Schwinn, of awarding the contract “to a presumed friend.” The reprimand letter also noted other instances when Kash objected to the SPEDx project.
″...It is your responsibility to represent the positions of the agency, not your personal preferences or opinions,” Justin Porter, Kash’s supervisor wrote. Porter then required he be present in all of Kash’s meetings, including when taking phone calls.
Porter noted that the reprimand was not intended to prohibit Kash from reporting conduct that she believed to be illegal or unethical.
Aleshire -- Kash’s lawyer -- said he was retained soon after Kash received the reprimand. On Nov. 21, Kash responded to the reprimand, and filed a complaint with the Department of Education outlining her concerns with the contract.
But just a few days prior to filing her complaint, two former employees in Oregon lodged their own complaints against Kash in civil court. They claim Kash and her husband, the superintendent of the Rainier School District, barred them from reporting an alleged sexual assault against a 6-year-old girl. The employees allege Kash had a personal relationship with the caretaker of the high-school student who was accused of abusing the child. The employees say they endured retaliation for reporting the abuse to local authorities.
Kash denies the allegations, according to her lawyer.
“She will aggressively defend herself there,” Aleshire said. “Obviously that last minute filing of those spurious allegations hit us like truck in an intersection and gave TEA a cover story.”
Aleshire said Kash told TEA staff about the allegations before she was hired, but TEA denies staff were informed.
“If these serious allegations had been disclosed, she would not have been hired,” Callahan said.
Fries, the parent advocate, said she and others found Kash to be responsive to their concerns and honest about the improvements needed in the state’s special education services.
“At the end of the day, all of this drama that doesn’t benefit our kids,” said Cheryl Fries, the co-founder of Texans for Special Education Reform.