Editor's note: This is an updated version of the story initially reported by The Daily News on March 5.
LA MARQUE — The Texas Education Agency confirmed Wednesday it has ordered a conservator to oversee operations of the La Marque school district.
In a letter to Superintendent Terri Watkins, the agency’s associate commissioner for accreditation and school improvement, Sally Partridge, said Carlos 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 has to meet with Price’s approval. The same for any decisions by the school board, an 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 will oversee the district’s operations at least through August, Partridge said.
His 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.
While not necessarily believing a conservator is needed, Watkins said she was ready for what will come.
“I don’t think someone coming in will hinder (changes already underway),” she said. “We have made a lot of changes, even in the short amount of time I have been here.”
Watkins was named superintendent in September.
Those changes include a financial plan that Watkins insists is working.
“The district is solvent,” she said. “We are paying our bills. We have money in the bank; we are providing services for our students (and) we are paying our vendors.
“We wouldn’t be in existence if we couldn’t pay our bills.”
Watkins admits that despite the positives she touts, it does feel like the district is “taking two steps forward and then a step back,” as of late with the actions announced by the state.
“La Marque ISD deserves the opportunity to succeed,” she said. “I am ready for the TEA to trust and believe in us and believe we know what to do to get it done.”
School board president Nakisha Paul said: "When I heard conservator, my thoughts were why now? I agree with (Daily News Editor) Heber Taylor as he stated best, 'The Texas Education Agency would be making a mistake if it appoints a monitor or conservator for the La Marque Independent School District. The move wouldn’t help the district now.'
Watkins and Paul plan to reiterate the positives while outlining what the state’s announcement means during a districtwide staff meeting today, she said. The district will also send a letter home to parents Friday explaining the state’s move, as well as a “fact sheet” about the school’s financial and educational status, Watkins said.
The state obviously believes any improvement is not sustainable enough that the district can do it without some help. That’s why Price will be the conservator, Culbertson said.
Paul insisted the state hasn't given the district or its new superintendent time to fix the problems.
"The superintendent has been in the district approximately 83 days and have made major strides," she said. "However, not enough time to resolve all issues."
Price has some familiarity with the district. He was an assistant superintendent for business and operations with the La Marque school district for four years before joining the University of Houston-Clear Lake’s School of Education in 2006.
He still lives in the area and is even a contributor to the La Marque ISD Education Foundation.
Before coming to Texas, he was the superintendent for three Arkansas school districts during a 19-year period.
Price was also once appointed the conservator of a Houston-area charter school, according to his university biography.
Price won’t be at the district daily and is only expected to be there two days a month, “unless extraordinary circumstances require additional time,” the state said in its letter to the district.
There isn’t a specific start date for Price’s appointment, Culbertson said. He is scheduled to be introduced at an upcoming school board meeting.
The financially struggling district will also be responsible for footing the bill for Price’s work at the rate of $85 an hour, according to the state.
That's money that the school isn't sure it has.
"The district is sticking to its financial plan submitted to TEA," Paul said. "The appointment of a conservator at this point is an untimely expense that has not been factored into an already tight budget."
If at the end of his six-month term things have improved, the state can either return the district to monitored status or possibly extend Price’s term as a conservator.
“If things go the opposite direction then the next step could be taken,” Culbertson said.
That next step would be the state removing La Marque’s school board and appointing a board of managers to run the district.
The state’s move followed a series of setbacks for the district last week, in which the state rejected La Marque’s latest solvency plan after finding it riddled with errors. That was followed by the announcement that the district’s accreditation was placed in probationary status because of poor financial and academic performance.
Watkins said she plans to “keep my head down and keep moving forward,” so that, “we come out on the other side of this much stronger.”