Waco Independent School District Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson could face termination by the district’s board of trustees and an investigation by state education officials after his arrest Wednesday night in which a state trooper reported finding marijuana in Nelson’s vehicle.
Nelson was arrested after a traffic stop for driving in the passing lane on U.S. Highway 190, south of Hearne, about 55 miles southeast of Waco, a Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman said. It is unclear why Nelson was traveling, but he was not in a district vehicle.
The superintendent took a personal day Friday and will not return to school before the school board holds a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. March 19 to discuss Nelson’s options, district spokesman Kyle DeBeer said.
Waco ISD’s spring break is next week, and March 18 is a student holiday. Staff will return to work that day, except Nelson.
Nelson did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
The Texas Education Agency knows about Nelson’s arrest, but the agency could not comment further on the matter, spokeswoman Lauren Callahan said.
“We’re aware of the situation in Waco,” she said Friday afternoon.
A DPS trooper stopped Nelson on Wednesday night for driving in the passing lane of U.S. 190, a four-lane highway, department spokesman Sgt. Jimmy Morgan said.
The trooper smelled marijuana while approaching the 2017 GMC Yukon at about 10 p.m., Morgan said.
“The trooper conducted a search of the vehicle and located a small amount of marijuana, possession under 2 ounces, basically,” he said. “The marijuana was in the passenger seat.”
Nelson, 46, was booked into the Robertson County Jail in Franklin shortly before 11 p.m. Wednesday on a Class B misdemeanor charge of possession of marijuana. Class B misdemeanors are punishable by up to 180 days in jail, a fine of up to $2,000, or both.
Morgan said there is no indication in the preliminary report that Nelson was smoking the marijuana at the time of the traffic stop. The trooper arrested Nelson and transported him to the jail, where he was released Thursday morning on a personal recognizance bond.
A court date will be set later, officials said. School board President Pat Atkins said he learned of the arrest Thursday because the district monitors the DPS Fingerprint-based Applicant Clearinghouse of Texas, which provides notifications on recent arrest activity of any school district employees.
Atkins said he spoke with Nelson on Thursday, and they discussed the upcoming board meeting. The superintendent told Atkins he was securing legal counsel and would work through the legal process.
The board will meet in closed session at the March 19 meeting and speak directly with Nelson about what happened in Robertson County, Atkins said. An action item will be on the agenda in case the board decides how to respond to Nelson’s arrest.
“I don’t expect the board to make a rush to judgment,” he said. “What I would expect is the board will gather all the information we can. We will give that information very thoughtful and deliberate consideration, and then we’ll make some decision based on what’s best for the district and the students.”
The school board last year extended Nelson’s contract through June 2023. Nelson’s base annual salary is $272,000, plus benefits.
Atkins said when the news broke Thursday he received several phone calls, text messages and emails, all of which were supportive of the board and the district. Some people asked how they could help or simply conveyed their faith in the board.
“There have been two interests that have been expressed,” he said. “On the one hand people recognize that he’s done some great work in this community and in the district and is a dynamic leader. On the other hand, people recognize that he’s in a unique position and is a role model for young people throughout the community, and we need to be cognizant of the message we send those young people. Most of the response I’ve gotten has fallen into one of those two camps.
“There was not a lot of reactionary, knee-jerk anger in any communications I had last night.”
Peaches Henry, president of the Waco chapter of the NAACP, said she is waiting to get all the facts before coming to any conclusions about Nelson.
Likewise, McLennan Community College President Johnette McKown said the matter should be left for the school board to decide. She added that she has had a positive working relationship with Nelson.
Atkins said someone asked him if there were any prior indications that anything like this might happen. The school district conducted an extensive background check on Nelson before hiring him and found he has always been a “stellar employee in every position” he has held around the state.
“There was no indication of anything like this,” Atkins said. “Dr. Nelson is one of the leading educators in the state.”
In 2014, the Texas Association of School Boards named Nelson as Superintendent of the Year when he led Laredo ISD.
Nelson’s educator certificates are still listed as valid on the TEA’s website and have not been flagged. Nelson is accused of possessing less than 2 ounces of marijuana, a misdemeanor.
Misdemeanor allegations generally could be considered "Priority 2," according to the Texas Administrative code. Any alleged felony conduct or conduct that endangers students would be "Priority 1" under the code.
The State Board of Educator Certification could decide to investigate Nelson but has made no indication it intends to. Callahan said when the certification board does investigate, sometimes it is able to reach an agreement with the educator on possible sanctions. She said the process can take a long time.
Nelson is a San Antonio native who speaks Spanish. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Abilene Christian University in 1994, according to his district biography. He earned two master’s degrees from Texas A&M University in Commerce, as well as his doctorate in educational administration.