By Travis Gumphrey
THE STATE’S education agency has set Thursday as the day it will hear an appeal against its decision to appoint a new superintendent and board of trustees to La Marque’s independent school district for failing a financial integrity rating test.
District superintendent Terri Watkins lodged the appeal on September 30, calling the decision “arbitrary and capricious”, claiming it was based on a post-test rules change and calling for a formal review.
TEA spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson told The Post on Friday that the formal review of education commissioner Michael Williams’ September 23 decision has been set for Thursday, October 15.
Watkins and her colleagues could arrive at the hearing having just paid a $1.4m check to the state to settle another grievance – on October 2, TEA said the district owes it that amount for overestimating its student population last year and must pay up by February 1.
The district has said it can pay the money and still hold more than $4m in its reserve fund – some 10 times the amount it held in May 2013, when Watkins was appointed – evidence, it believes, of the fast and significant progress the district has made in its financial practices since then.
Williams’ September 23 directive came after his decision to close the district was appealed in April amid reports of academic and financial shortcomings.
In her appeal letter to TEA, Watkins wrote: “The extraordinary remedies of appointing a board of managers and replacing the district’s superintendent are both unwarranted and unnecessary in light of the district’s demonstrated progress and commitment to meeting the needs of its students and expectations of the agency.”
Academically, improvements have been seen in the district, but not right across the board.
Overall, the district received a “met standard” rating in this year’s accountability ratings assessed by TEA but the only two schools within the district to achieve that rating were the high school and Renaissance Academy.
The district’s junior high, intermediate and elementary schools and its early childhood learning center all received an “improvement required” rating.
In the financial spectrum, the state gave the district a preliminary “substandard achievement” rating, which La Marque claims is a result of TEA changing its financial integrity rating system of Texas, or FIRST, indicator standards months after the district submitted the data for the rating test.
The district, which asserts that TEA provided no notice of the rule change, said that, had the standards not been changed, it would have achieved a passing rating and would be in full compliance with the terms of its abatement agreement with TEA.
In her letter to TEA, Watkins nominated the current board members and herself as candidates for appointment should the agency choose to continue with their replacement.
Meanwhile, on October 5, LMISD responded to TEA’s demand for $1.9m for misstating last year’s student population by saying it has reserved the funds from its cash flow and that the payment will still leave it with $4.3m in operating reserves.
It said that, two years ago, the district had only six days of operating expenses, about $400,000, in its unassigned fund balance and that its post-payment holding will be the equivalent of 94 days’ operating expenditure.
State funding has been withheld from the district in previous months and, according to TEA, the district will not receive any more aid this school year.