- Andrea Ball American-Statesman Staff
Laurie Kash was fired in late November, one week after a lawsuit accused her of trying to cover up the sexual abuse of a 6-year-old girl while working at a small school district in Oregon. The TEA said that Kash told them nothing about those allegations and that, if she had, they never would have hired her.
But text messages released by Kash suggest that she did tell the agency at least something about the situation before she was hired.
In a Nov. 20 exchange between Kash and Justin Porter — the TEA’s executive director for special populations — Porter linked to a story published by the Texas Tribune detailing the newly filed lawsuit against Kash. Porter wrote that he would have to tell agency leadership about the article and direct questions about it to the agency’s public information team.
“Just wanted to give you the heads up,” Porter wrote.
“Great, thanks,” Kash responded. “I found out Saturday. It’s that crazy employee I told you about this summer. I was cleared of everything but she decided to sue the district.”
According to the texts provided by Kash, that’s where the conversation ended.
Kash’s lawyer insists the Oregon lawsuit has nothing to do with her firing. Instead, attorney Bill Aleshire says, she was ousted for filing a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s office of inspector general about a no-bid, $4.4 million contract with SPEDx, a Georgia company hired to mine data from records for students in special education.
In her federal complaint, Kash wrote that she was worried that parents do not realize their children’s private information is going to a for-profit company, that TEA should have gotten bids from other companies and that SPEDx can’t do the work for which it is being paid.
Kash filed the complaint Nov. 21. One day later, she was fired.
“TEA is lying about why they fired Laurie Kash,” Aleshire said. “They fired her for complaining about the illegal, no-bid, multimillion-dollar SPEDx contract.”
The lawsuit, he added, was “a convenient cover story” for firing Kash.
On Monday, the TEA sent the American-Statesman the identical statement provided the day Kash was fired. It does not address the text messages and reiterates the agency’s position that she did not tell them about the accusations against her. The lawsuit was filed Nov. 14 by two former employees of the Oregon school district where Kash once worked. She denies the allegations.
“Dr. Kash has no business being in charge of special education policy and programming in Texas,” the TEA statement reads.
Questions about contract linger
The SPEDx contract first came under scrutiny in September when Texans for Special Education Reform discovered that school districts were being asked by the TEA to share students’ individualized education plans with the Georgia company. In return, the TEA paid districts between $10,000 and $100,000, depending on the size of the district and number of plans provided.
The purpose of the project is to identify patterns and trends that could help the state provide better services for children with disabilities.
Individualized education plans detail how students with disabilities are served by school districts. They include confidential information such as medical conditions, educational progress, psychological assessments and family history.
Disability rights advocates immediately worried about how such sensitive information would be protected. State officials say the company is following strict guidelines to ensure the information is closely guarded.
Advocates also questioned how SPEDx was able to secure a no-bid, $4.4 million state contract less than a year after the company was formed. State officials say that, after a thorough search of companies around the country, they believe SPEDx is the only one that can perform the deep-dive analysis the state needs.
Kash’s termination came at a time when she and her bosses were sparring internally. In a Nov. 3 letter of reprimand, Porter chastised Kash for criticizing the SPEDx project and the TEA to people outside of the agency. She was also reprimanded for raising questions about the friendship between a high-ranking TEA official and a SPEDx subcontractor. In her response, Kash said she had done nothing wrong.
An investigation by a TEA auditor cleared the TEA of any wrongdoing.
The federal inspector general’s investigation of Kash’s complaint is ongoing.