Watson’s legacy of service is by the numbers
By SHELLY WILKISON
For 27 years, his signature has been on every check issued by the Liberty Hill school district.
But, the signature hasn’t just been a formality to make the transaction official, Frank Watson has reviewed and approved every financial transaction made by the Liberty Hill ISD since 1989.
“Numbers are my thing,” Watson said. It’s just working the money, and I love it.”
Watson, 68, announced in January that he is retiring in August.
Superintendent Rob Hart said Watson’s contribution to the school district is immeasurable, but he credited the Chief Financial Officer for taking good care of the school district’s business.
“He is such an open, pleasant, and honest person. I never worried about audits or things under his care,” Hart said. “He controls the money, but he’s not a tyrant. He tries to help people get what they need.”
Although most school district employees may not recall a time before Watson, he remembers the bad audits and the problems that were occurring when he “talked his way into the job” in 1989.
Although he admits he had never used a computer before, he knew about managing finances and believed openness and accountability were key to improving the public’s perception of the school district’s administration.
“It was just persistence and determination to learn the job, and learn school finance. After all these years, I think I figured it out,” he laughed.
In the highly-charged political world of Texas school finance, Watson has been a calm and reassuring voice at the local level for Hart and other administrators, as well as previous superintendents.
When the Legislature convenes in odd-numbered years, school district administrators across Texas hold their breath and wait for what has mostly been bad news with regards to state funding for public schools.
In 2011, when state lawmakers cut $4 billion from public education, most districts were scrambling to make ends meet. Teacher layoffs were common across Texas, including schools districts next door to Liberty Hill. In the midst of the panic, Watson combed the district’s finances and brought Hart a plan that would allow Liberty Hill to keep employees in place.
“It wasn’t ideal, but we managed to keep our people and pay them,” Watson said.
“On the financial side, Frank’s done a great job of keeping us sovereign,” Hart said, recalling the state funding shortfall in 2011.
“We were determined to keep faculty and minimize the reduction in staff,” added Hart. “There were no raises, but there were also no layoffs. We had enough on hand in the fund balance to get us through it.
“Frank was able to help us identify that. He knows how to work the numbers” inside the very difficult and ever-changing maze of school finance, Hart said.
“Sometimes you just have to say no, and sometimes people get upset with you,” Watson said. “But probably they don’t understand the laws and policies. I try my best to be an advocate for teachers, and do the best I can with salaries. I believe from the bottom of my heart that employees of the district are definitely the biggest asset we have.”
Watson said as the district hunkered down five years ago and held on to its staff there was no choice but to delay pay increases for a couple years.
“In doing that, we got a little behind, but we’ve managed to continually try to do better for them and stay competitive with neighboring districts,” he said, adding that employees will see another pay increase in the coming school year.
Watson has effectively changed the climate of the school district’s business office to be a place where customer service comes first.
“Service has been my forte, and I see the business office for the school district as a service organization. We’re here to service administrators, teachers, students and the community,” he said. “It’s the community’s money, and we’re here to help.”
Watson said he often hears himself described as “the one who keeps us from spending money”, but he sees his role differently.
“I’m here to help people get what they need to do the job successfully without exceeding their budget, and not spending money unwisely or even illegally,” he said. “Every purchase order, any check to be written, I have to approve it. So with that in mind, I know the different programs, where money comes from, what it’s intended for and therefore, can control and manage the spending. If they truly need it and it’s good for kids, I go through and find them the money.”
The school district’s budget process begins in January with input from campus administrators and department heads. Watson’s business office receives preliminary property values in April to determine projected local revenue. Values are not certified by the Williamson County Appraisal District until July, so numbers are then locked in and a spending plan is presented to school trustees in August with final budget adoption and tax rate set in September.
Hart, in his eighth year as Superintendent, said Watson’s institutional knowledge will be missed.
“His knowledge of the community has been a huge help, especially on the political side,” he said.
Hart added that Watson’s careful eye has kept the district in good financial condition at a time of unprecedented growth.
“Frank has been disciplined, not frivolous,” Hart said.
As growth has dictated the need for changes, including increases in personnel, supplies and equipment, Hart said Watson has been careful to make sure needs were balanced with resources so the district is not overstaffed.
During his tenure, LHISD has earned an excellent rating annually on the Schools FIRST (Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas), an affirmation from the state that Liberty Hill’s financial reporting exceeds expectations. Annual audits have never produced a major finding. And in 2011, LHISD was one of only 11 school districts in Texas that earned a 5-Star rating from then-Comptroller Susan Combs for its financial integrity.
Commitment to Community
Watson, who grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, admits he has come a long way in his professional life since attending college at Louisiana Tech University and later McNeese State University. He moved his family to Houston in 1972 where he worked as operations manager for a concrete accessories company, responsible for accounts payable and receivable, purchasing and shipping. He also worked as a mortgage lender and loan officer while in Houston.
Looking to leave the big city and raise horses, the Watsons moved to Liberty Hill in 1982. Even then, the promise of good schools and open spaces were common selling points for the area. Watson was president of the Liberty Hill athletic booster club in 1983-84, and his wife served one term on the school board. They were very active in the community. In fact, Watson was the founding president of the Liberty Hill Lions Club in 1990, and served on the board of the first Liberty Hill Chamber of Commerce.
He said a downturn in the real estate market forced the mortgage company he was working for to close in 1988. So he opened an insurance business in Liberty Hill that he closed a year later.
Concerned about the financial health of the school district, he turned himself over to former Superintendent Louine Noble in 1989, and talked his way into the position of finance officer.
“I had no experience (in school finance), but I had the confidence to say I could learn it,” he said.
In the early days, Watson said he worked seven days a week, putting in 12-14 hours a day. He ran reports, worked with the regional education service center, consulted with the business manager in Georgetown ISD, and learned from the auditors. He said when he first joined the LHISD staff, auditors were in the process of conducting an annual audit, which was not a good one.
“They showed me a lot about how things should be,” he said. “I never looked for another job, and I didn’t want any other position in the school district. This is where I wanted to retire from,” Watson said.
“I like the job I have because I’m part of and I see what gets done for the kids, but I’m not working directly with kids or parents. I know I’m an integral part of something that’s really good,” Watson said.
He added that he didn’t think he would have been the right fit as a Liberty Hill classroom.
“I think I’m too old timey and old fashioned. I was taught discipline when I was growing up, and taught that as a parent. I believe there needs to be more discipline in school, but that’s my personal opinion.”
Watson admits things are too complicated 27 years later, and it would be highly irregular for someone to enter such a position the way he did. He and Hart took great care and were looking toward the future when they hired Jennifer Hanna in the business office a few years ago.
Now serving in the role as Business Manager, Hanna will become the district’s Chief Financial Officer upon Watson’s retirement. Watson and Hart say they have complete confidence in Hanna, who is also a certified public accountant. Hanna will present the fiscal 2016 budget to school trustees in August.
“I’m going to spend time with my wife, and piddle around the ranch, just take it easy, and go fishing,” Watson said of his plans for retirement. “I will miss the people most when I leave. I have a wonderful staff and have worked with some fantastic people over the years, including several superintendents,” he said.
Watson and Hart agree they have made a good team. Hart still recalls his first experience with Watson. Hart arrived just before the board meeting started where he was to be named the finalist for the superintendent’s position.
“There was only one seat on the front row. I sat down next to this big guy with a white beard. He (Watson) leaned over and said, ‘Are you Dr. Hart?’ I said ‘yes’, and he said, ‘they say you went to Northeast Louisiana University’.”
Hart said his alma mater was 30 minutes away from Watson’s beloved Louisiana Tech. The two schools were fierce rivals. Hart said Watson appeared very serious about this potential conflict, then introduced himself as the business manager.
“We’ve had a good time with that (school rivalry) for the last eight years,” Hart laughed. “He even accused me one time of throwing away his LA Tech koozie, which later turned up in his own trash can where he had tossed it by mistake.”
Watson’s upbringing in Lake Charles wasn’t all that different from Hart, who grew up in Beaumont just across the state line. Their fathers both worked in the oil industry.
Hart said through the years, Watson has been the only person who has immediately recognized the strange piece of wood in the corner of his office as a Cypress knee. That connection to place has been something valued by both of them.
“We have an excellent superintendent (Hart) right now, and I don’t have to say that. I think he’s been the best communicator. He listens to what you say, and if he doesn’t agree, he tells you. He always has a reason for what he’s doing and doesn’t make snap decisions,” Watson said.
“He has been a good friend and a great staff member,” Hart said. “He has had a major impact on this district, and he will be missed.”