TEA moves to to ensure that application process keeps criminals off appointed education boards

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Questions about their criminal history will now be part of the application process for people seeking to help oversee troubled Texas school districts – a new policy in the wake of a convicted federal criminal’s appointment to a post in the Texas Education Agency’s takeover of the Marlin district earlier this year.

The new policy will be in effect as the TEA considers appointments to a “board of managers” that the agency wants to put in place to run the Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest district by area and enrollment. 

The agency appoints such panels to replace elected school boards when the state takes over operation of districts that repeatedly have failed to meet state standards.

“Processes have been put in place to prevent a repeat occurrence of what occurred in Marlin,” a spokesman for the TEA said in a Friday email.  Previously, the office had not asked applicants about any criminal convictions.

While the agency says it did not know of the conviction of pastor Eddie Ellis Jr. before it appointed him to the Marlin board of managers, the agency had records of that conviction in his file.

The TEA says that the criminal records were added to his file after the Waco Tribune-Herald revealed that Ellis had been convicted of fraudulently obtaining $486,000 in benefits from the U.S. Veterans Administration.

The TEA announced last week that it will take over administration of the Houston district after an agency investigation found numerous problems, including a consistently failing high school and a board that allegedly violated the state’s Open Meetings Act as it sought to replace the district’s superintendent. (See the TEA report here.)

The board insists it did not violate the act.

The district has until Nov. 20 to appeal the takeover, which would be decided by the TEA, the same agency seeking to oust the sitting leadership.

In addition to asking applicants about their criminal history, the TEA promises to do a fingerprint and background check, a routine check that failed in Ellis’ case. 

“We typically rely on the background check,” Jeff Cottrill, deputy commissioner of standards at the TEA, told Texas Monitor last month. The agency, with a staff of investigators, conducts its own background checks.

Like school districts, the TEA presumably has access to the National Crime Information Center, a national database of criminal convictions used by law enforcement agencies. 

Had that been done for Ellis, both the national fingerprint database and the crime information center would have flagged his conviction, especially considering it was a federal crime.

The appointees to the nine-member board of managers in Houston will likely be local, according to a statement the TEA has posted on a portal dedicated to the HISD takeover. The selection process — and the appointees — should be “organically embedded in the community,” the agency said.

Efforts by the public to see the applications will likely be met with resistance from the TEA.

The Texas Monitor in October requested from the TEA “all applications, letters, disclosures, CVs, references and other documents provided to the TEA” by Ellis.

The agency is seeking authorization from the Texas attorney general’s Open Records Division to withhold Ellis’ application for the Marlin board of managers position, claiming that the document is part of TEA’s ongoing audit of the district.

The final say on the appointments will go to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath, who will also appoint a superintendent. 

The elected school board will continue to exist, although mostly in name only; it will no longer make decisions. The board of managers will be in charge of operations and spending.

In August the Houston trustees sued the TEA, alleging among other things that the state lacked the authority to replace the board members. A filing last month details the allegation, claiming the state “had no legal basis for demanding that the Board of Trustees abruptly stop its search for a superintendent or for removing Houston ISD’s democratically-elected board members.”

The school district press office released a statement Monday noting that HISD “has received a letter from Commissioner of Education Mike Morath regarding the appointment of a board of managers.  We want to assure our students, parents, staff, and community members that our primary focus will continue to be the education and success of our students.” The release said the district would have no other comment for now.

Applications for positions on the Houston board of managers will be taken through the website through Jan. 2. The TEA will begin reviewing them on December 6. The school district has posted four events this month at which that TEA representatives will meet with locals to discuss the process.

Applicants will be required to attend a two-day training that the TEA pushes on troubled districts, called “Lone Star Governance.”

The program, which claims to direct district leaders to focus on student outcomes and guide them on legal responsibilities and financial management, was developed by TEA Deputy Commissioner A.J. Crabill, who has traveled to districts in several other states to teach the training. 

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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