Marlin ISD (copy)

Marlin ISD is pushing for another abatement agreement with the state so it can remain open.

A threat of closure hangs over Marlin Independent School District for the fourth consecutive school year, despite two years of state intervention in the form of a revolving door of a board of managers unable to keep the same five members.

State Education Commissioner Mike Morath revoked Marlin ISD’s accreditation status for the 2018-19 school year, after the district failed state academic accountability standards based on standardized exam scores for the seventh consecutive year.

This could result in the closure of the district as early as July 1, according to a Feb. 27 letter Morath sent Superintendent Michael Seabolt and to Kevin Benjamin, then president of the board of managers.

The district has faced the same possibility the past three school years and has continued operating under abatement agreements with the Texas Education Agency. Seabolt said he expects the district of 835 students will receive yet another abatement agreement through an informal review process, a remedy available to school districts in this situation. Marlin has been awaiting word on this year’s informal review process since March, he said.

As part of the state’s intervention in the district, Morath also appointed Jean Bahney as the conservator to the district to “prevent substantial or imminent harm to the welfare of the district’s students or to the public interest,” the February letter states. Bahney’s hourly fee is $85, plus any necessary travel expenses, which must be paid by the district.

On Wednesday, Bahney directed the Marlin board of managers to place Seabolt on paid administrative leave, which likely will happen at the next board meeting on June 5, Seabolt said.

Seabolt started in Marlin in summer 2015 with a mandate to turn the district around. He guided the Marlin ISD through its first abatement agreement with the TEA.

TEA installed a board of managers at Marlin ISD in February 2017, after the district failed state accountability standards for six consecutive years. The board of managers replaced the district’s elected board of trustees.

Although Seabolt said he expects another abatement agreement will keep Marlin ISD open, the state has closed a handful of districts in recent years.

“If closure must be ordered, it will result in the annexation of Marlin ISD,” the letter states.

The TEA’s intent this year is unclear, but resolution has been slow in coming compared to 2017 and 2018, when the agency had given the district an abatement agreement by March.

In 2013, the state closed the North Forest Independent School District, and the Houston school district assumed control, the Houston Chronicle reported. North Forest had 6,900 students who were absorbed into Houston ISD, after it failed state accountability ratings for three consecutive years and incurred $8 million in debt, nearing bankruptcy. The state applies both academic and financial accountability standards to school districts.

In January, Morath extended the appointment of the Marlin ISD board of managers for another two years.

The commissioner wrote in a letter to Seabolt and Benjamin that “based on the district’s lack of improvement, additional time is needed to address and correct the unresolved issues.” He cited issues including the district receiving the lowest accountability rating of F in 2018.

Benjamin resigned from the board to be replaced by Billy Johnson, now board president.

Morath relieved two members of the Marlin board of managers, Rose Cameron and Marilyn Martin, of their responsibilities last week, according to a letter from the commissioner. In their place, Morath appointed Danny Vickers and Eddie Ellis.

Vickers and Ellis now serve alongside Johnson, board secretary Byrleen Terry and Sam Sinno. The board selected Vickers as vice president Wednesday.

In December, the TEA released an investigative report into allegations of noncompliance with graduation requirements and reported that Marlin ISD graduated 23 students — 15 in 2017 and eight in 2018 — who did not complete the required course credits to graduate.

The report also found Marlin ISD still used software that allowed students to obtain course credit without completing required courses.

TEA had found during a 2016-2017 investigation that students enrolled in the Marlin Success Academy, a credit recovery school, had used Odyssey Ware software, a program to help prevent students from dropping out of school.

“One of the substantiated findings of the report was that special education students at the Success Academy could work the Odyssey Ware system to gain full course credit without completing the work,” the report states.

Investigators also found the Success Academy principal, Susan Willert, did not have the proper certification to teach secondary students and that she admitted to removing questions from online lessons and tests, leading students to pass because of an automatic grade change. Other administrators confirmed Willert admitted to removing questions.

Additionally, a former Success Academy student confirmed Willert removed questions so she could pass a class, and a teacher stated she added questions back to an online class because Willert had removed too many, according to the report.

“The findings establish a systemic breakdown of Marlin ISD administration’s ability to oversee the management of Marlin ISD’s online credit award system,” the report summary states. “Lastly, Marlin ISD administrators did not direct MISD employees to follow the state-mandated requirements for awarding high school course credits for graduation of students who received instruction in the online platform.”

Brooke Crum joined the Tribune-Herald as the education reporter in January 2019. She has worked for the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri, Abilene Reporter-News, Beaumont Enterprise and the Port Arthur News. Crum graduated from TCU in Fort Worth.

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