South Waco Elementary meeting (copy)

Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson speaks at South Waco Elementary School in January last year about a plan to save five struggling schools from state closure. Four of the schools scored well enough on the next round of state tests to avoid closure, and the fifth was protected by the formation of Transformation Waco, which Nelson oversaw.

More than 5,000 people signed an online petition in support of embattled Waco Independent School District Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson, who was arrested March 6 on a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge.

The petition on Change.org has garnered widespread attention from people Nelson taught and worked with, as well as strangers. Karol Gray, a retired teacher who started the petition Friday, only knows Nelson by reputation.

As of 10:40 p.m., 5,149 people had signed the petition.

A state trooper arrested Nelson after stopping him for driving in the passing lane of U.S. Highway 190 outside Hearne, about 55 miles southwest of Waco. The trooper smelled marijuana, which gave him cause to search Nelson’s vehicle, and found less than 2 ounces of marijuana in the passenger seat, according to an arrest affidavit.

Nelson was booked into the Robertson County Jail in Franklin and released the next day on his own recognizance. No court date has been set, according to the Robertson County Clerk’s Office.

Gray said she first heard of Nelson in 2004 while she was teaching in the Pflugerville school district. She did not know him personally, but Nelson served as the principal at her son’s school, John B. Connally High School.

“I was so impressed by him,” Gray said Wednesday just before her petition reached its initial 5,000- signature goal. “I retired to Waco and was elated when I heard he was coming to Waco. In the almost two years since then, he has done outstanding work. It would be a mistake to let him go over a misdemeanor. The good he has done and continues to do definitely makes it in our best interest to keep him.”

Meeting Tuesday

Gray said she plans to attend a school board meeting Tuesday, when the board is scheduled to hear from Nelson in closed session and could take action on his employment.

She said she established the 5,000-signature goal to show the Waco ISD Board of Trustees the “overwhelming support” for Nelson. The goal was increased to 7,500 signatures after the petition hit 5,000.

Gray said even 5,000 is far more people than typically vote in school board elections.

Last year, only 197 people voted in the Waco ISD school board election for the District 1, Place 1 seat, according to the McLennan County election records. In 2015, 377 voters cast ballots in the Waco ISD school board election.

Although Gray believes Nelson should not lose his job because of his arrest, she said his actions should have consequences. Nelson has not been convicted of any crime.

‘Hurts Waco’

“We are just saying that firing him hurts Waco,” she said. “It is in the best interest of our community for him to stay. Everyone seems to be in agreement about the fine job he has done in an extremely challenging position for about the past year and a half. We talk about ‘teachable moments’ all the time in education. It seems like this should be a teachable moment about many things.”

Several of the thousands of people who signed the petition left comments on the website, expressing their support and sharing stories of their experiences with Nelson.

“I went to John B. Connally High School from 2001-2005,” Daniele Crosby wrote. “Dr. Nelson was our principal. I have the fondest memories of my education during that time. He gave us pride in our school, ourselves and each other. I went on to become an educator myself, teaching for 7 years in an elementary school in Columbia, SC. While my passion for teaching has always been a part of me, I know that when I was at my most malleable, impressionable phase of my life, I had an amazing role model in Dr. Nelson and for that I will always be grateful.”

Dana Stanke wrote, “Dr. Nelson has led our district and community with heart and soul. I have been in the district 29 years and can attest to the positive changes Dr. Nelson has brought to (our) district. In my opinion, this is such a minor offense. In 29 other states this would not be an issue. Keep Dr. Nelson as our superintendent, please!”

Others commended Nelson’s work in Laredo ISD or said that marijuana should be decriminalized or legalized.

“I’m signing because he left his mark in Laredo ISD doing remarkable work with the best interest of the children and made so many attention worthy changes to the entire district that had not been seen in years!” Juan Garcia wrote. “(It) was a simple misdemeanor and should be treated as such, not to ruin a man’s livelihood.”

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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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