The state’s new director of special education was fired Wednesday, one day after she filed a federal complaint claiming the Texas Education Agency wrongly entered into a $4.4 million, no-bid contract with a Georgia company to analyze private records for children with disabilities.
Laurie Kash asked the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General on Tuesday to investigate the TEA’s contract with SPEDx, a company hired to find trends and patterns in student records. Kash’s lawyer says that’s why she was fired.
But TEA officials say “that is patently untrue.” They say they fired Kash after learning that she is being sued in Oregon for allegedly trying to cover up sexual abuse of a 6-year-old student. Kash was the director of special education at the Rainier School District at that time. The suit is filed by two former employees who say Kash and her husband, the district’s superintendent, did not believe the allegations and ordered them not to report the outcry.
“These allegations were not disclosed during the hiring process, and if these serious allegations had been disclosed, she would not have been hired,” according to a TEA statement. The agency added that “Dr. Kash has no business being in charge of special education policy and programming in Texas.”
Her firing is the culmination of what had become a toxic relationship in recent weeks between Kash and her supervisors. She was hired in August to improve Texas’ special education system — a big step from the small school district where she worked in Oregon — but was called out this fall for criticizing both the analytics vendor and the agency where she worked. Her salary was $125,000 a year.
As Kash and her bosses were clashing, the abuse lawsuit was filed earlier this month in Oregon.
According to the lawsuit, Kash — who purportedly knew the caretaker of the alleged abuser — called the student a “liar,” “nuts” and a “flirt who likes to flirt with men” and “bat her eyelashes at them.” Kash claimed that the student’s mother was a prostitute and verbally reprimanded former employees for violating her direct order not to report the suspected abuse, the lawsuit states.
Kash denies any wrongdoing. Her attorney, Bill Aleshire, says she mentioned the allegations in her job interview, and that they have been investigated “by three different Oregon state agencies and found to be without merit.”
In her complaint to the U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday, Kash said that she is worried that parents do not realize their children’s private information is going to a for-profit company, that the TEA should have gotten bids from other companies and that she doesn’t believe SPEDx can do the work with which it is charged.
“In what I’ve seen so far, I am extremely doubtful that this company is capable of providing anything particularly useful, and I worry that the end-result may actually be harmful to special education in Texas,” she wrote.
TEA officials say that they chose SPEDx after “a thorough review of the landscape of vendors in the US” because the company is the only one with the analytics capacity necessary for the work.
The 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 three years of student individualized education plans with SPEDx. In return, the TEA paid districts a “data sponsorship reimbursement” between $10,000 and $100,000, depending on the size of the district and number of plans provided, according to a letter to districts across the state.
Individualized education plans detail how students with disabilities are being 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, said Cheryl Fries, co-founder of Texans for Special Education Reform. But when they posed questions to TEA leaders about the project, neither the TEA nor SPEDx could explain how the effort would result in practical special education improvements at the classroom level, she said.
SPEDx founder Richard Nyankori said his company is comprised of experienced, committed people whose work helps children with disabilities.
Nyankori said SPEDx’s work aggregating information helps identify trends that show schools what is working and what is not working so more effective individualized education plans can be developed.
“SPEDx provides valuable and previously missing pieces of information that can inform that process,” he said.
Fries said her group is concerned that parents weren’t informed about the project, which is being funded with federal money.
“It is appalling and unacceptable that Texas parents were not notified that individual education plans containing deeply personal information about their children’s disabilities, medical histories, assessments, and even their social and family situations are being brokered for sale by TEA from districts to a private, for-profit startup based on a no-bid contract,” Fries said.
In her letter to the U.S. Department of Education, Kash says she raised concerns about the contract with her bosses at the state agency. The TEA said its internal auditor investigated her complaints and found them to be meritless.
“TEA officials have reacted with extreme hostility and formally reprimanded me for my comments about the contract,” Kash wrote.
In a Nov. 3 document obtained by the American-Statesman, Justin Porter — the TEA’s executive director of special populations — chastised Kash for criticizing the SPEDx project and the TEA to people outside of the agency. She was also, among other things, reprimanded for raising questions about the friendship between a high-ranking TEA official and a SPEDx contractor.
Andrea Ball is a member of the Statesman’s investigative team focusing on government accountability. Her coverage of state agencies this year includes tracking $269 million in spending to address problems at the Texas state supported living centers and the impacts of a critical shortage of housing for Texas foster children.