Waco School Board again considers fate of superintendent after drug arrest
The Waco School Board meets again Thursday evening to consider the fate of Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson, who was arrested earlier this month and charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession.
Board members met behind closed doors until almost midnight Tuesday to discuss the situation, but took no action.
Nelson was arrested on March 6 after a traffic stop in Robertson County and spent the night in jail.
He was released the next day on his own recognizance after spending a night in jail.
Publicly admitting his guilt, on Friday Nelson agreed to a plea deal with Robertson County prosecutors under the terms of which the drug possession charge will be dismissed if he completes a 90-day diversion program.
He will also pay a $500 fine.
Patricia Wilson, a Baylor University law professor who specializes in employment law says nothing in Nelson’s contract requires school board members to terminate him over a misdemeanor marijuana arrest.
"I doubt that this contract in the few minutes that I spent skimming it says you must terminate him as opposed to they could terminate him," said Wilson.
The decision won’t be an easy one, Wilson said.
"From the standpoint of dealing with students, from the message they send about the district and about how the district deals with this, I think it's really a very complex issue in terms of certainly wanting to be fair to Dr. Nelson while also having to think big picture about the district."
Nelson, under the terms of his contract, which was extended to June 1, 2024 in December, is paid $272,000 annually and receives insurance and retirement benefits as well as travel expenses and a $500-a-month automobile allowance.
The contract specifies that the school board may suspend or terminate Nelson for “good cause,” including “illegal use of drugs, hallucinogens or other substances regulated by the Texas Controlled Substances Act” or more generally for “Immorality, which is conduct not in conformity with the accepted moral standards of the community encompassed by the district.”
"This is a difficult topic, and I know there's decisions made tonight that will have consequences for years in the future," WISD School Board President Pat Atkins told the audience during the public comment period of Tuesday’s meeting, which more than 240 people mainly supporters, attended.
"Everyone in Waco wants to make the decision, but no one wants to adsorb the fallout," said John Durham with Highland Baptist Church.
About 5,500 people have signed a petition in support of Nelson.
"This man is making a difference in people’s lives and I don't want to see his voice quieted,” said petition organizer Karol Gray.
“I want to see him continue the good work that he started in Waco. I believe Dr. Marcus Nelson is the best interest in the kids to remain as superintendent. "
"There's consequences, but you also don't have to throw everything away for one mistake," said Elizabeth Ligawa, a mother of a WISD fourth grader.
The vast majority of the night's speakers agreed, telling the board Nelson should get a second chance.
"You have a grand opportunity to display you are not guilty of showing mercy to some and not to all," said Larry Weaver with Brookview Community Church.
"What is best for the students of Waco ISD, is also what's best for Marcus Nelson."
A former Texas Superintendent of the Year, in the less than two years he's been with Waco ISD, Nelson is credited with saving four of the district's habitually under-performing schools from being closed by the state.
"There's a difference between trying to 'be right' and trying to 'get it right,' said community leader Jocelyn Pierce.
"This is a temporary setback, and we request that Dr. Nelson be given the opportunities to continue his vision for the students of the Waco ISD."
Despite his track record, there were a handful of people who came to the meeting in opposition of Nelson, saying the law is the law, and he broke it.
"It's not a race issue or any other kind of issue, basically it's a legal issue, what they (the school board) must do legally," said Waco resident Eddy Gibson.
"Without doing it legally, it puts another stain on Waco."
A Waco attorney agreed, saying keeping Nelson would put the district, and the city, in a bad light.
"People outside this state are watching - are we going to have a situation where we have a pot-smoking superintendent in Waco, Texas?" said Bill Vannatta.
Of the 15 speakers, a brave student gave the board her thoughts on the situation.
"So, the question that I have wrestled with, is what message are sending to the students if we aren't holding our superintendent to the same standards we hold our students to?" said Brigitte Eichenberg, a junior at Waco High School.
Following a public comment period, the board went into closed session for about four hours, returning right before midnight to report that no decisions had been made.
Nelson spoke publicly Sunday for the first time about the arrest and the potential repercussions, telling KWTX that he’s remorseful and accepts full responsibility for his actions.
So first Dr. Nelson just want to say thank you for sitting down with us today and for doing the interview we appreciate it.
I just want to go through that night, where were you coming from and where were you going and tell us about the situation.
I want to start off with a sincere apology to this community, our students, our staff, and all of the members of this community.
Particularly our board of trustees who entrusted me in this unique role and I’m so disappointed in myself for this error in judgement. I just hope I have the opportunity to make this right, because there is no excuse for this poor judgement. Illegal drugs have no place in our organization, I just want to communicate how sincerely contrite I am about this situation and I am hoping for the opportunity of redemption.
Going through this situation, what was the most painful part of this situation for you?
Well without question having to contact the board of trustees and explain to them the situation and I had placed them in and the embarrassment that I had brought to our beloved city. This is my home and I know the negative attention it has brought and I am so proud to be a part of this team and the toughest part was having to call each of our trustees and explain my wrong doings and I understand I have to be held accountable for that and I am accepting full responsibility and hoping that we can move forward.
Going through there having it accused that you had the marijuana, was the marijuana yours?
Well the situation has been cleared with court and I am happy to report the case has been dismissed. I do accept responsibility for what happened. On the way back from Houston I stopped and visited a friend, and I was explaining to him I have chronic lower back pain and he asked me if I had ever considered cannabis as a remedy. He provided me 3 small samples, we shared one and I had two with me, hours later I stopped by the police and I have been taught to always tell the truth to the law enforcement and so he asked me if I had anything illegal in the vehicle. I explained I had to small sample the size of cigarettes of cannabis and he placed me under arrest and took me to jail. It’s been a nightmare for me to experience this because it is really my own fault because cannabis is illegal in Texas. Even though studies are clear of how it can be a remedy for medicinal purposes that is irrelevant right now. The job I have to do is send a message to our students and our staff that there has to be accountability and I have to accept responsibility for my poor judgement.
With that comes an opportunity for me to teach children about the dangers of illegal drugs and hopefully show this community that I have learned my lesson and have an opportunity to redeem myself. The fact that Robertson County is willing to dismiss the charges is really a testament to my cooperation with law enforcement which is another message I hope to send to our students. To always be truthful and cooperative and at this point I feel like the fact that I don’t have a criminal record, each case has its own merits and there is no excuse for my behavior and I’m not trying to offer any. I was visiting with a friend and that’s how the circumstances that led to the arrest and I just want to move forward.
If the board were to allow you to stay are you planning on staying?
Not only am I hoping the board will give me an opportunity to redeem myself I am hoping that the consequences are severe enough to send a message to our community that this is not tolerated. I am also hoping to have an opportunity to rectify the situation and remain the superintendent of the schools. I want to finish my career in Waco, Texas and in Waco ISD as the superintendent and so I want to be here for a long time.
I like to think I have learned a valuable lesson and yes I want to be in Waco, Texas and serve this community.
And you mentioned it a little but pretty much entire time you have been talking about the city of Waco and your students but specifically right now what would you like to say to the community and the students of Waco ISD?
Well I just want our students to understand that I accept full responsibility for my actions and that I am disappointed in myself for such poor judgement. It’s not indicative of a leader. I hope my students understand that one mistake doesn’t define a person. That I have an opportunity to show over time that this mistake, there is a lesson to be learned. In that kids should be resilient and we are trying to teach them that. This is an opportunity to bounce back and show that I can overcome this mistake and the fact that all these legal pieces have been cleared with the county and cooperating with law enforcement. I think there is a host of valuable lessons we can teach children particularly about forgiveness, accountability, and rectifying a situation.
You talk about opportunity and having another opportunity, why do you feel that they should give you another opportunity to lead the school district?
I believe that each case, each circumstance has to be considered in context. In my case if you consider the total body of work, the relationships that have been developed with our students and our parents, and the time and the effort that has been spent building a team with our board of trustees, I don’t believe we should just end this relationship. There has to be accountability and it has to be severe and it has to be swift, but I also think there is a route to find a way to continue working together. I firmly believe if you consider all the circumstances and all the good that has been done. All the accomplishments that have happened I think one chance is warranted.
You talk about legally everything is taken care of, we reported of a plea deal can you explain what happened?
Yes there absolutely was no plea, I did not have to meet with a judge. Because I have no criminal record and because of how I cooperated with law enforcement the district attorney’s office in Robertson County has agreed to defer prosecuting. They have decided to not prosecute the case as long as I can go without being arrested for 90 days the case is dismissed. Being able to have the charges dropped, I believe that is a sign that I can move forward. The district attorney’s office told me while I was there one of the reasons they differed prosecution is they hope I am able to continue my work in Waco. So I’m not sure what the board of trustees what decision they will make but I’m hoping that because the legal piece is taken care if and the charges being dismissed that I have an opportunity to go forward as the superintendent.
You talk about having no criminal record just to get this straight, you don’t usually smoke marijuana this was a one-time thing?
To the people saying you were maybe considering to leave the district, were you considering leaving the district?
Well I’ll be honest, I get contacted by executive search firms from time to time. They either ask me to formally apply or if I am interested in having a conversation. For the record I did not apply to the Houston Independent School District.
I was invited to have a conversation with them privately to determine if I would be an applicant. I have documentation from the search firm to confirm that. I was not an applicant I just went and had a conversation with their board. Just to explore the conversation, after visiting with Houston I am more committed than ever to being at Waco, Texas. I really found that after talking to another board I really found the situation I have here in Waco ISD with our board is one that is unique and special. This board has been especially good to me. I am hoping for an opportunity to be a part of this team and this board for the rest of my career for many, many years to come. I did take a look at it, but I did not apply and I was not leaving. I was not offered a job but I was taking a look at it out of respect for the search firm and out of the respect for Houston ISD.
Is that where you were coming back from with the trip to Houston? Was that the reason? Or was there another reason?
No that was the reason.
Okay, I know you have talked about it but do you feel like you’ve let the students down in anyway? And what do you have to say for students at Waco ISD?
I know for a fact that I have developed some very strong relationships with many of our students. Many of them look to me as a role model, and I have disappointed many of our students with my poor judgement but what I found with my career is you can tell from the host of support that I have received all across this state is that kids are forgiving for their educators that are authentic and real and I fully accept responsibility and consequences for my behavior.
I am asking to have an opportunity to be resilient and I believe that kids will afford me that opportunity. I need to come clean with them and really talk to them about the circumstances and it’s going to take an enormous amount of time and effort to reestablish trust and credibility but it is something I am more than willing to do to humble myself and really seek the opportunity to rectify this situation I have created. No one is responsible for this except for me. From this responsibility really comes an opportunity for me to teach kids about the dangers with illegal drugs and how one mistake doesn’t define you.
You speak about the support you have been getting. About 7,000 people have signed a petition online to keep you. I am not sure if you have seen that, what do you have to say to those people and that situation that many people are coming to your aid?
Well I’ll tell you I put a lot of time and effort serving as an educator. I like to tell people as a superintendent I been 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It has been heartwarming to see the results of that time and effort. I believe people recognize that effort. I am a different kind of superintendent. I really value the relationships that have been developed over time. I really appreciate the team that I work for. The students I serve are the most important part of my job and making sure they see me when they compete on our playing fields, on our stages, and our classrooms. Our teachers and our staff are without question some of the best that I have ever worked with. It’s really been encouraging to see all the support and hopefully our board will see this as a unique situation and come up with a set of consequences that clearly sends a message that this is not tolerated but allows me an opportunity to remain with our team.
You talk about with Waco ISD, the Waco Tribune put out an article a couple of days ago about an aide being told she either had to resign or she would be fired for an arrest in a similar situation you were in. You were superintendent at that time, what can you say about it?
I don’t know the specifics about that case it didn’t really rise to my level. But I can assure had it risen to my level I would have stopped looked and listened. I maybe would’ve gone a different way. Each case is different and in Human Resources, our team does a great job at looking at different cases on status and media coverage. That employee was able to stand behind a cloak of anonymity that I was not able to do. I respect that and there has to be a higher standard for superintendents than there are for any other position. I can tell you what I am seeking with staying with this position is a guideline and practice that I would be comfortable with for any of our employees who got there charges dismissed who had no criminal record, cooperated with law enforcement, has a track record and has contributed what I have contributed. There is a way we can confine to continue our relationship and still hold me accountable for my mistake.
you have been completely honest with this and everything you’ve gone through. Your son, he’s 14 how did you explain this situation to him and what did you tell him?
It was a tough situation because I... it’s a tough situation because I brought embarrassment to my family and my family name. My culture. And it’s tough conversation but illegal drugs will ruin your life if you are not careful. If you don’t guard your heart and your mind. And if you aren’t careful about the choices you make and the people that you hang around with. You will find yourself in a bad situation. I will also tell my 14 year old that one mistake doesn’t define who you are. All the good work you do and the character you try to develop it can be ripped from you with one small mistake. I am proud to report my son has forgiven me and my son understands the dangers of drugs and poor choices and it’s the same message I would have for all of our students.
You mentioned your culture. You are an African American idol in this community and I know a lot look up to you. What do you have to say to your culture and that community on how you will change and what you will do moving forward.
I am just like any other law abiding citizen I am very proud of who I am and my culture. I recently studied back to my particular family tree back to slavery and it embarrasses me.
The negative attention that I have brought to this community and the role that I play and for me this isn’t about race this about me being privileged enough to serve as superintendent and there is a certain standard that has to be held. I am just hoping there is a way we can find accountability and consequences for the minor infraction that has been dismissed in criminal court. I am hoping we can find a way forward and use this as a teachable moment not only for teachers and staff and everyone in the community about the dangers of illegal drugs.
Do you believe after all of this you believe you would be a more effective leader and be able to move past this?
I believe that it’s going to be a difficult road ahead. I believe that this is a very charged and polarizing topic. I want the opportunity to redeem myself. I want the opportunity to make this right. I think it will be one of the most difficult tasks ahead. It’s going to take an incredible amount of time and effort to regain the trust of our board of trustees and this community. I am committed to doing that work and doing whatever it takes. All day- everyday to rebuild the credibility of the organization and culture of student achievement pride and tradition. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be difficult facing students and dealing with consequences from my actions but I am committed to finding a way. I believe kids will forgive me they will learn about resiliency from this. It will be our finest hour when we overcome this together if the board allows.
Anything you would like to add?
I just want the community to know I am so remorseful for the negative attention I have brought our community.
The work we have done to overcome some of our challenges with student accountability the state wanted to take over our schools. It really is my hope that I am allowed the opportunity to serve as the superintendent of these schools in this beloved city. Words cannot describe how disappointed I am in myself for this. I will not rest until I make it right. I will do whatever I have to do to re-establish the trust and credibility that is necessary for me to serve as superintendent of these schools.