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State Agency Commandeers Failing Central Texas School District

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) finally decided the fate of a small, rural school district struggling academically for five years.

The TEA will take over the Marlin Independent School District. However, the district’s superintendent blames the State for its woes.

This decision came days after Marlin ISD joined a parent-led lawsuit against the 2015-16 State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) and voted to appeal last year’s test scores.

The TEA could have shut down Marlin ISD and bused nearly 1,000 students to one of four other schools located 10 to 25 miles away. Instead, they opted to change leadership after the district failed to meet accountability standards for five consecutive years. The State measures student progress, closing performance gaps, post-secondary readiness, and student achievement. Districts must pass three out of the four to meet State standards. Although Marlin ISD saw incremental progress in its middle and high schools last year, the elementary school did not meet any of the four criteria, KWTX reported.

Unsatisfactory ratings landed Marlin ISD on the TEA’s Public Education Grant (PEG) list from 2011 through 2016-17. Its three campuses were labeled low performers because of poor test scores or other unacceptable metrics. In 2015, the district lost its TEA accreditation. To remain open, Marlin ISD officials signed an agreement allowing the State to replace the elected board of trustees with an appointed board of managers if the district did not meet academic accountability ratings this year.

Breitbart Texas obtained a September 23 letter Education Commissioner Mike Morath sent to Marlin Superintendent Michael Seabolt. In it, Morath said he will announce the board of managers and superintendent positions in a future correspondence. The Waco Tribune reported Seabolt believes this may happen in December.

Seabolt is the fourth superintendent in five years, brought in last year to try to turn the district around. His contract expires in November and he does not know if the TEA will keep or replace him. In the letter, Morath named the district’s existing TEA monitor, Dr. Rose Cameron, a retired Copperas Cove ISD superintendent, as conservator.

Texas has roughly 1,200 school districts and charters. A TEA takeover is a rare and drastic way to try to remedy a district’s problems, which vary. This year, the agency intervened in Edgewood ISD over accreditation issues. In 2014, they assumed control in Beaumont ISD following a lengthy mismanagement saga. In 2012, the TEA stepped in at El Paso ISD after a test cheating scandal. Appointed boards remain in place for up to two years before school board elections may resume.

While this takeover was no surprise, Seabolt blamed failures by the TEA for Marlin ISD’s issues. He cautioned other school districts to be wary of agency monitors and officials.

“The Marlin ISD board of trustees was given some very bad advice and false reports from the former TEA monitor,” Seabolt alleged in an email to the Waco Tribune, referring to a monitor before Cameron.

“The district worked on almost nothing meaningful, at least as far as classroom instruction goes, for years. When I got here last year, I read the reports, observed instruction myself and told the board the monitor’s reports were not consistent with classroom performance or testing data,” he wrote.

“Had the board not been deceived by someone the board considered an expert, the kids would not have lost years worth of quality instruction. Warning to other schools: Some TEA monitors are excellent, some have no clue how to improve a school. It’s a roll of the dice with TEA. Be warned.”

TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson told Breitbart Texas, “The commissioner is taking the action because the district did not meet the requirements of the abatement agreement.”

Assistant Superintendent and High School Principal Remy Godfrey told KWTX she would like to see current leadership remain. “With the monitor who we have now becoming conservator, and working well with us, we should keep leadership in place because we have made some good strides this last year.”

Seabolt told the Waco newspaper the district had “great improvements last year with the instructional systems” they put in place. This year, he said Marlin ISD attracted and retained “some quality teachers” because of salary increases.

Parent LaTonya Heath has two children enrolled in Marlin ISD. She is thankful the schools will remain open. “I don’t think the TEA changes will affect our kids,” she told KWTX. “I’m elated they didn’t close down the school district.”

Follow Merrill Hope, a member of the original Breitbart Texas team, on Twitter.

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