By Joshua Benton
When the state employee in charge of the TAKS test resigned last month, the official word was that she would be missed.
Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley called Lisa Chandler “a tremendous asset to the field” and said her exit was “a great loss for the agency.” A Texas Education Agency representative said that Ms. Chandler’s departure was of her own volition and that the agency was happy with her performance.
But documents obtained by The Dallas Morning News tell a different tale. They show that her departure was engineered by Dr. Neeley herself. At least as far back as November, top agency officials were planning to remove Ms. Chandler because of complaints from school districts, other TEA officials and her own staff.
The documents include typed and handwritten notes by Tom Shindell, an agency human resources official, from meetings both before and after Ms. Chandler was pushed out. They provide a unique window into TEA’s efforts to remove her from her post.
“Was I a scapegoat?” Ms. Chandler asks at one point, after she’s been told to leave. Then later: “Where was the due process?”
Ms. Chandler has since found new work – with Pearson, the company that produces the TAKS test and whose $279 million contract with TEA Ms. Chandler managed. Pearson officials have said her work with the company will not involve the Texas contract.
She did not return messages left at her home in Austin.
Ms. Chandler, a 20-year employee of TEA, oversaw a number of successes at the agency, including the transition from the old TAAS test to the new TAKS. But she has also overseen the agency’s response to the cheating scandals of the past two years.
“She was a valued employee,” TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said. “The program was operating and she was running it effectively. But her people skills were not all somebody would wish for.”
An internal memo dated Nov. 29 states that “the Commissioner has decided to terminate Lisa” and gives the reasons as complaints “that Lisa is difficult to work with, rude, etc.”
Officials decided to create a six-month job for Ms. Chandler in another department as a way to ease her out. A description of the job notes that she wouldn’t even have to come into the office often, as it would be “a telecommuting position.”
According to Ms. Ratcliffe, Ms. Chandler chose instead to resign.
One set of notes says that the agency would “let her announce that she resigned to pursue other interests.” It also promises that Dr. Neeley “will provide you with a good reference letter.”
But despite the agency’s efforts to sever ties, Ms. Chandler kept asking questions. She requested two meetings with Dr. Neeley, on Jan. 19 and 24 and, according to handwritten notes, asked why she was being removed.
The commissioner cited “complaints from field” – meaning school district personnel – “and your staff and A.C.s,” which likely means associate commissioners.
In response, Ms. Chandler said: “My staff loves me.”
Mr. Shindell’s handwriting is not always clear, but it appears in the notes that the commissioner’s response was: “No, they are scared of you.”
Ms. Chandler then told the commissioner she was “lied to” and asked for another meeting. At the second meeting, five days later, Ms. Chandler argued that “due process” had not been followed and that she needed “closure.” “Was I a scapegoat?” she asked.
No, Dr. Neeley answered. Since then, in a separate reorganization, responsibility for the state’s testing program has also been shifted to a different part of the agency. State officials said the change was not related to performance concerns.