The Texas Education Agency says it was not aware, nor did it require disclosure, of the federal criminal record of a man the agency chose to replace an elected school board member in central Texas, at the time it appointed him.
The appointee, Eddie Ellis Jr., pleaded guilty in 2017 to defrauding the government of nearly half a million dollars in VA benefits. He was appointed in May to help run the troubled Marlin school district near Waco.
The TEA’s apparent lack of knowledge is perhaps not surprising, since Deputy Commissioner Jeff Cottrill said that the form filled out by applicants does not ask any questions about criminal convictions.
“We typically rely on the background checks, and there obviously was a failure,” he said.
However, documents provided in response to a public records request by The Texas Monitor for Ellis’ application file included portions of his criminal case file.
Cottrill said the criminal records were obtained in early October, after the agency was made aware of the conviction and then retrieved the case records and placed them in the application file.
“Unequivocally we did not have the federal file at the time he was appointed,” Cottrill said.
A state law passed in 2015 gives the agency the power to replace elected trustees with appointed boards in school districts that repeatedly fail to meet state standards.
When Ellis’ criminal record was revealed earlier this month in a report in the Waco Herald-Tribune, a TEA spokesperson said the agency had missed his conviction due to an “anomaly” in its backgrounding process.
“We are now working to improve our process to address this unusual set of circumstances,” TEA spokeswoman Ciara Wieland told the Waco newspaper.
As a convicted criminal on probation, Ellis would likely have been required to divulge his legal status at the time he applied to the board or risk violating the terms of his probation.
Ellis, a pastor at St. Paul A.M.E Church in Marlin, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of theft of government property in 2017. According to court records, he obtained $486,000 in disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs while operating several businesses. The VA is charged with providing medical care, home loans, life insurance and disability benefits to military veterans.
Ellis did not respond to a phone message from The Texas Monitor seeking comment.
The Texas Monitor’s records request asked for “all applications, letters, disclosures, CVs, references and other documents provided to the TEA” by Ellis. Cottrill said the inclusion of the criminal records in the documents provided to The Texas Monitor was likely the result of someone who was “not aware of the fact that it came in after the application.”
The case files were the only documents released by the TEA to The Texas Monitor. 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, contending that the document is part of TEA’s ongoing audit of the district.
Montgomery Meitler, the “senior counsel/confidentiality officer” at the TEA, said the document falls under a one-page ruling the AG’s office issued in favor of the TEA in September.
In that case, a requestor sought records connected to a school district audit being conducted by the TEA.
The September ruling is what is called a memorandum ruling. Those cover situations that the AG’s office has handled often enough to establish a sort of ground rule about what is exempted from disclosure. In this case, the AG’s office has consistently excluded audits “relating to the criminal history background check of a public school employee.”
Material on the AG’s website on this topic implies that information obtained in background checks can be withheld insofar as they pertain to audits.
However, Ellis is not a public school employee, and The Texas Monitor is contesting the withholding of his application on those grounds.
The AG’s office has ruled that applications for governing boards and panels are public records, as long as personal information, including email addresses, is properly redacted.
TEA’s current practice of replacing elected school trustees with appointed panels has been criticized by public school advocates, who say the action borders on voting rights violations.
In the case of Ellis, “if he were an elected official, he would be laughed out of the ballot box,” said Patty Quinzi, a lobbyist for the Texas American Federation of Teachers. “But there is no input from the electorate, and no recourse. They can do nothing about it. An elected board would [face] political pressure to make a statement or do something about it.”
Legislation passed in 2015 allows the state to take over a consistently failing school district, including by replacing elected trustees with appointees.
Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath in 2017 appointed a five-member board to run the Marlin district after test scores failed to meet the state standard for five straight years.
The district threatened in February to sue the state for repeatedly failing the district, insisting that its test scores were higher than the state said they were.
Besides appointing a board of managers to replace trustees, the TEA has hired a conservator at a cost of $85 an hour. The TEA is also involving itself in some personnel issues, at one point ordering the rehiring of a teacher who was let go.
Former Superintendent Mike Seabolt, who was suspended in June in a vote by the board — led by Ellis — said Ellis was appointed, despite his criminal record, because he would do what the TEA told him to do.
“Ellis is well spoken, vocal, a strong leader and he is known in the community,” Seabolt said. “And he’s a guy who would push the state’s agenda.”
Seabolt resigned in August. He said his superintendent certificate was flagged two weeks ago, days after the Ellis episode was disclosed and after Seabolt suggested to The Texas Monitor that the state knew of the criminal conviction and appointed Ellis anyway.
“This,” Seabolt said, “is an abuse of office.”
Cottrill, the TEA deputy commissioner, said Seabolt’s license review stems from an investigation done by the Marlin district earlier this year.
“I would posit that the material coming forth from that investigation is resulting in the investigation of his certification,” Cottrill said.
The TEA has intervened in several school districts around the state that it has deemed chronically poor performing.
To date, it has made board appointments in four school districts: Marlin, Beaumont, and Edgewood and Southside in the San Antonio area.
The state is currently working on reforms with the Houston Independent School District. While it has not yet installed any trustee replacements, the district has filed a lawsuit against Morath and the TEA alleging the action would violate the federal Voting Rights Act. The state has not yet filed a response.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].