TEA failed to find federal conviction of man appointed to help run Marlin schools

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The Texas Education Agency could have found Eddie Ellis Jr.’s past crimes with three minutes’ work on a federal public records site.

But nobody looked, apparently, and Ellis, who in 2017 pleaded guilty to defrauding the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs of $486,000, was appointed by the TEA recently to help reform the operations of a troubled small-town school district.

Ellis, a pastor at a local church in Marlin, about 30 miles southeast of Waco, was sentenced to five years of probation and 500 hours of community service for the theft, which occurred in 2013, records show. As is standard in federal cases of probation, Ellis is not permitted to travel without permission from his probation officer, use alcohol or be in contact with known felons.

The records in the case are sealed, limiting the information available on the case. But the primary documents, including the sentencing sheet and the charges, are available to the public and can be seen here and here. Ellis was convicted of receiving VA benefits under false pretenses.

He was appointed in May to the board of managers that the TEA has installed to try to improve the quality of education and the quality of governance in Marlin schools.  

Ellis stepped down late Friday when news of his prior conviction was made public in an article in the Waco Tribune-Herald. He did not return a call from The Texas Monitor seeking comment.

Former Marlin district Superintendent Michael Seabolt, who resigned in August, said that with all the tools available for backgrounding education officials, “the state had to know about that case when it brought him on.”

School districts are required by law to do full background checks on applicants from janitors on up, with full access to federal and state databases, as well as fingerprint checks.

“We get all of their violations, down to speeding tickets,” Seabolt said. 

TEA spokeswoman Ciara Wieland did not respond to an email seeking comment.

The district’s elected school board interviewed Ellis several years ago when it was looking for an appointee to fill an unexpired term on the board, said former board president Roger Nutt.

“He was one of a few people we interviewed, and I can’t say if we did a check, but how could the state not have done a background check on him?” Nutt said.

The Marlin district, with five schools and 1,000 students, has battled the state for four years over the threat of closure due to poor performance of students on statewide exams. In 2017 TEA replaced the elected school board with its own TEA-appointed board of managers. In February, the state revoked the district’s accreditation for the 2018-2019 school year and appointed a conservator. In May, the TEA removed two people and added three to the board of managers. Ellis was one of the new appointees.

“We wanted more Marlin residents on the board,” A.J. Crabill, special assistant to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath, told the Waco CBS affiliate at the time. “We think that’s a move in the right direction in terms of investing in the community and its schools.”

The board then hired an Austin law firm to investigate the operations of the district and Seabolt, which ended in Seabolt’s resignation in August. The probe cost a reported $68,000.

The state has the authority to take over a district due to repeated issues with performance or finances. In such cases, the TEA usually appoints a conservator to oversee the takeover and may also appoint its own board of managers.

The agency also can impose a particular reform process for the district and leans on a practice called Lone Star Governance, which is administered in part by Crabill. Still, the board has failed to improve the performance of Marlin schools.

Morath, as commissioner of education, calls the shots on district takeovers. Until 2015 the state could keep control of a district for up to two years.  A measure passed that year allows the state more time to try to effect reforms.

In Houston, the largest district by enrollment in the state, Morath is expected to determine soon whether to replace the elected school board with outside managers, after an investigation found several trustees violated state open meetings laws and improperly influenced the awarding of contracts. The district has about 215,000 students.

The new board would likely be handpicked by Morath and his staff, including Crabill, who supported Ellis’ appointment in Marlin.

Seabolt, who was targeted by Ellis for removal in May, said the state may want to reconsider its takeover policy.

“If they can’t get it right in Marlin, how can they get it right in Houston?” he said.

 Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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