Despite evidence, Marlin ISD superintendent says uncertain future of district ‘made up’ news

By Shelly Conlon
Waco Tribune-Herald
Originally published Aug. 24, 2017

Marlin ISD Superintendent Michael Seabolt has publicly accused the Tribune-Herald of fabricating facts about the district’s future, but emails from a Texas Education Agency official state otherwise.

In a video interview with the online news outlet Marlin Pride, Seabolt, referring to an article published in the Aug. 17 Tribune-Herald, alleged the newspaper made up the fact that the district’s future remains unclear after the district failed state accountability ratings for the sixth year in a row despite making its most improvements since 2013.

But TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson, who was cited in the Aug. 17 article, stated again Wednesday the district’s future was unclear.

The ratings, released by the Texas Education Agency last week, made Marlin ISD the lone district on the state’s improvement required list for six consecutive years. The district has fought closure, with guidance from the TEA, since 2015 when it hit four consecutive years on the list.

By law, the state can close the district after four consecutive years on the list. Seabolt made the allegation five days before the district’s new school year.

“(TEA Commissioner Mike Morath) did an interview with the Waco Tribune about a month ago, where he said closing Marlin is highly unlikely,” Seabolt told Marlin Pride about five minutes into his interview on Tuesday. “I was a little disappointed to see the article last week where (it said) Marlin’s future (was) uncertain.

“In fact, I was talking to a very senior TEA official again Friday afternoon, and they said, ‘Nobody told them that. They just made that up.’ That was a sound bite just drug out of pure air just so you could put it on there and somebody will read it and maybe sell a paper. I didn’t tell them that. I can tell you Commissioner Mike Morath didn’t tell them that. I can tell you no other senior official with the TEA told them that. That’s just made up. What Mike Morath, the commissioner, said a month ago remains true.”

Seabolt referred to a June 17 Tribune-Herald article, when Morath said he didn’t see the district’s closure as a likely possibility.

But asked in an email to the TEA’s communications division Aug. 15 what the newly released ratings meant, Culbertson referred to an abatement agreement between the district and the state.

She stated at the time no decision would be made about the district’s future until the spring, following the expected release of accreditation statuses, financial and academic accountability ratings.

The agreement is the second one signed by the district to keep it open. The first allowed the TEA to appoint a board of managers to replace the elected school board in February after again failing to meet state standards last year.

Only Morath has authority over the district’s fate, but he can’t decide that until those other ratings and statuses come in, Culbertson said.

The Society of Professional Journalists has experienced more journalists than ever before being verbally attacked or trolled online after publishing articles, often involving someone calling something biased or fake news, SPJ National President Lynn Walsh said Thursday.

And it’s not just happening to journalists reporting on politics, she said. It’s important for journalists to hold public officials accountable and point out when officials resort to fake news rhetoric when they’re not happy with the facts, she said.

“We encourage (journalists to hold officials accountable) and think it’s a good idea to show what they’re seeing to the public,” Walsh said. “The public is interested in seeing these original source documents, and how a public official responded to a journalist’s questions.”

She also said the public should be cautious of public officials who deny facts, and encouraged readers to ask their own questions, especially if an official isn’t specific about the claim or doesn’t have evidence.

The reality is there are media outlets that purposefully push false information, said attorney Alicia Calzada, whose firm represents the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. But doing so also has real-world consequences, she said, referencing an an extreme case at a pizzaria in Washington, D.C., last winter when a man fired a rifle in the restaurant after reading a fake story online stating the place was home to a child-abuse ring allegedly led by Hillary Clinton.

Journalists have to jealously guard their integrity and the reliability of their sources, Calzada said.

“The trust that develops between an audience and a reader and a news organization is something that develops over time,” she said. “People need to invest in their news sources, subscribe to their newspaper or their public radio … They need to support their news source, but you don’t wake up and say, ‘This is a reliable source I can believe.’ There’s obviously a million places to get information now, and if you’re going to turn to nontraditional places to get information, they have to work to build your trust.

“That news organization has to honor that trust and be worthy of it and maintain that trust. It’s nothing new for a politician to say that something stated in the news media isn’t true even when they’re confronted with evidence.”

Asked via email Wednesday afternoon to identify the “senior TEA official” who Seabolt claimed told him the Tribune-Herald “just made that up,” Seabolt chose not to answer the question.

He was also asked, based on the abatement agreement, whether it was true the future of the district couldn’t be decided by Morath until those ratings came in and, if true, what prompted him to allege the Tribune-Herald made up the TEA statement. Seabolt did not answer the questions.

Seabolt also would not answer what role he plays in assisting the public’s understanding of the struggling district by declaring facts as fabricated.

Instead, he responded later Wednesday afternoon in an email, “For the record, I refuse to answer your questions so that you can defend your obviously biased article. No one in the State of Texas told you the future of Marlin ISD was uncertain. That is your opinion, not news. You made it up. There were tremendous gains made in Marlin ISD this year, and the Tribune chose to mention those briefly after reporting some factual information and drawing conclusions for the reader.”

The district’s gains were mentioned throughout the original article.

Two days after the original article, Seabolt sent an email at 1:11 a.m. to the Tribune-Herald. The email was copied to the district’s assistant superintendent and high school principal, the middle school and elementary school principals, the district’s chief financial officer and the teaching and learning director.

“I am terribly disappointed with the article concerning Marlin ISD and the incredible gains we made,” he wrote. “You made a negative story out of something that was largely positive. We are done. You can, of course, attend any meeting you wish and report any fake or slanted news you wish. Do not contact me or any person in Marlin ISD for any comment on any issue. Goodbye.”

Seabolt never replied after the Tribune-Herald responded by stating its correction policy, an industry standard that if factual errors existed within the original story, the issue would be corrected or clarified immediately.

Seabolt was hired more than two years ago specifically to help turn the district around. The district had more than 800 students during the last school year, according to TEA enrollment reports. Almost 100 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged.

Questions asked Wednesday afternoon were to provide Seabolt a fair chance to address the accusation before an article was published. In his initial response, he only wrote “publish away.”