Last in the Class

Why nobody will erase the board at Wilmer-Hutchins, the worst-run school district in Texas

Nowhere is the chaos more evident than in the district's administration building, an airless, windowless former elementary school that at times resembles an education ministry in some Third World country. Millions of dollars vanish through sloppy bookkeeping, then reappear. Top managers are hired, fired for incompetence, then rehired. At one point last spring, four current and former superintendents were collecting paychecks at the same time.

Residents, who have a hard time being optimistic about the district, joke that a good place to start looking for the district's missing stuff is in the homes of some of its board members.

An indecorous group, the trustees are known to cuss and throw things at each other during their monthly board meetings. They save the really nasty stuff for their elections, which regularly result in complaints by candidates of irregularities and outright fraud.

School board president Lunita White and others on the panel are fond of telling people that they "only want what's best for the children." But with so little that is positive going on in the schools, that assurance has become meaningless.

"The board uses children as a coverup," says trustee Glenn Mills Jr. "A lot of this is not about children, but about crap that's being covered up."

The past eight months have not been good for the Wilmer-Hutchins district, even by its own meager standards.

On April 17, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Internal Revenue Service agents swooped down on the administration building on East Illinois Avenue in a raid unprecedented in the history of Texas public schools.

Acting on a search warrant that listed money-laundering, conspiracy, and theft as possible criminal violations, the agents carted off computers, boxes of documents--even wall calendars--and photographed all of the employees.

Two months later, the civil-rights division of the U.S. Justice Department gave the Texas Education Agency clearance to stage a sort of bloodless coup at the Hutch. The state took over management of the district, hoping to stem the flow of red ink and do something to combat the exceptionally low academic achievement of students in the upper grades. It also sought to restore some order to the district's feuding administration and board.

In the three months since, education bureaucrats in Austin and on-site managers have balanced the district's budget with cuts to a bloated staff. They also brokered the selection of a new superintendent, Dr. Johnny Brown, despite extraordinary behind-the-scenes efforts by some board members on behalf of another candidate, the man who ran the district for 10 years until he was maneuvered out in 1994.

With those moves complete, the state is already becoming "a lot less involved" in Wilmer-Hutchins, says Joe Neely, the Texas Education Agency deputy commissioner managing the takeover. Right now, the agency has no intention of taking the next step prescribed under Texas' education code--which is to disband Wilmer-Hutchins' board of trustees.

The state is not likely to go any further, officials in the district and Austin say, because of concerns about whether the Justice Department would allow the dismantling of an elected all-black school board. There also is a philosophical bias in the Republican-run agency for local control.

But that approach--as anyone who knows board politics will tell you--is akin to landing in Beirut and pretending that the local armed factions have everything under control.

In Wilmer-Hutchins schools, the board is the problem.
Add to that the shenanigans of a former board member and a few of her friends who have threatened district employees, called in members of the shotgun-toting New Black Panther Party, and generally bullied people in support of their pals on the board and in the schools.

With all of its board members' intrigues and machinations, politics in the Hutch rival that of a Chicago ward. There are jobs for some trustees' friends, not-infrequent use of district equipment and staff for trustees' political campaigns, and plenty of board meddling in personnel decisions that ends up crowding the payroll with, in the former superintendent's words, "weak and incompetent personnel."

"You have people on that board without a lot of background or resources who can't stand to watch millions of dollars run by them without seizing a little of that power," says Fahim Minkah, a 17-year resident of the district and director of the United Front of Dallas, a nonprofit community group. "Getting control of the hiring and firing, helping out their friends and relatives--that's what it's all about."

Minkah, who under the name Fred Bell helped organize black voters to take control of the district in the early 1980s, says the neighborhoods that make up Wilmer-Hutchins are better than many in southern Dallas. There's decent housing and a tolerable level of crime. But he has taken his six young children out of the schools.

"I know darn well we can run a school district," he says of the all-black school board. "But we haven't run that one."

There are more pointed accusations to be made against the trustees, as well--including allegations of criminal misconduct.

Trustee Betty Williams, who recently disconnected her home phone and appears to have left the district without telling her colleagues goodbye, stated in a sworn deposition in August that she listened on an extension phone as fellow board member Luther Edwards shook down a former employee for $1,000 as his payment for voting in a $2,500 raise for the employee last December.

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