LA MARQUE — About 100 school district employees were told that the school board has “got your back,” as the superintendent and a pair of trustees addressed the Texas Education Agency’s decision to appoint a conservator to oversee the troubled school district’s operations.
“(Critics) say we can’t do it,” school board president Nakisha Paul told the gathering of staff members on Thursday. “They act like they don’t want us here... I know we can do it. But push and push.”
Paul was responding to the state’s recent actions that put the school district’s accreditation status on probation and the appointment of conservator Carlos Price, who for the next six months will have oversight into the district’s programs to improve academic performance and financial footing.
Paul called on the staff members who assembled to “get into fighting mode” to improve the district.
“Don’t tell me La Marque is not on the road to recovery,” Paul said.
State sending conservator
In a letter to Superintendent Terri Watkins, the agency’s associate commissioner for accreditation and school improvement, Sally Partridge, said Price would soon be in to oversee aspects of the district’s operations and management.
Price is a former La Marque assistant superintendent.
While Watkins still will be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the district, any move or decision related to the district’s accreditation probation — which includes financial as well as academic shortcomings — has to meet with Price’s approval. The same for any decisions by the school board, a Texas Education Agency spokeswoman said.
“He is in on every decision,” spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said. “If the board or superintendent makes a decision he doesn’t feel is in the best interest of the school district, he can override it.”
Price can even direct school board members on how they must vote, Culbertson said.
Price’s role will include, but won’t be limited to, assisting La Marque in identifying issues that led to its lowered accreditation status and drafting a plan to correct those issues. He will also direct La Marque, when needed, to bring in outside technical assistance to implement parts of any improvement plan.
Paul: Conservator not needed
While Paul was critical of the state’s decision to send in a conservator, she acknowledged that the district — while showing financial improvement — still has struggles ahead.
Watkins said the district was appealing the state’s decision to put the district’s accreditation status on probation. On Wednesday, Watkins said she considered the appointment of a conservator as “a collaborative effort” to assist the school district.
But upon reading in The Daily News that Price would have the power to overrule decisions or direct the school board on how to vote on some issues, Watkins on Thursday morning said the state’s decision “cut us off at the knees.”
Still, she called on her staff to not be deterred.
“We need to stay focused,” she said. “Yes it is serious, but it is not hopeless.”
Path to probation
Watkins said that the probationary status came after three years of low grades from the state.
In 2011, the district received an unacceptable rating because of a poor completion rate. That is the rate at which students graduate high school.
In 2012, the district’s financial standing was found substandard by the state. As a result, the state ordered the district to come up with a solvency plan that has repeatedly been rejected. A new plan is under review.
Then, in the latest state review, the district failed to meet academic marks in two indexes.
Because of three straight years of low marks, the district’s accreditation was put on probation. Another failing grade in either academic or financial standards could result in the district having its accreditation revoked, Culbertson said.
Paul and Watkins said that last year’s academic low ratings came only because the district failed to meet two indexes by one point. That is why the district is appealing to the state to review that performance record, Paul said.
Because Watkins has only been on the job for about 80 days, Paul complained that the state’s actions were not warranted. She insisted the district needed to be given time to have new programs take hold.
Change for the better
Special Education Teacher Louise Fields said she’s seen plenty of changes for the better since Watkins took over.
“We saw changes within the first two days,” said Fields, who has worked for the district for six years. “It is really encouraging.”
She said that for too long people within the district and community ignored the problems within the district.
“Everyone was pretending there wasn’t a problem,” she said. “We shouldn’t be afraid to discuss our problems and do what we need to do to fix them.
“I don’t care who is in charge, just as long as we do what is right.”
Price, who for four years was the assistant superintendent for business and operations for the La Marque school district, said he doesn’t expect to get his marching orders from the state until after next week’s spring break.