Last in the Class

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

Edwards, who was Williams' opponent in the last election, denies the accusation, calling it slander. But the ex-employee, payroll clerk Sharon Rosales, remembers the conversation with Edwards and says she was sure he was serious.

As for Williams, a retired nurse first elected to the board in May 1995, she invoked her right against self-incrimination when asked during the deposition if she had used district equipment during her campaign.

Cynthia McGee, who was secretary to former superintendent Charles Matthews for nearly three years, says at least one employee was allowed to work on board president Lunita White's campaign on school time, and literature for some trustees and for at least one woman running for a Democratic precinct chair was prepared in the administration building using school supplies. During a 1995 in-house audit, some of White's campaign literature was found in the business manager's office.

McGee, who was terminated in June and fired for allegedly falsifying overtime, is now contemplating a whistle-blower lawsuit against the district. She says she told federal investigators about how carpet and paneling bought with school money was used to refurbish one board member's house.

McGee says she and other employees also alerted the FBI and IRS to questionable contracts, suspicions that cash from the district's tax office had been diverted, and an accusation that at least one large-screen television purchased for the district had ended up in a board member's home.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lynn Hastings, who is the lead lawyer on a criminal investigation of the district, would not discuss those claims or any other specifics. She would acknowledge only that the inquiry is ongoing and unlikely to conclude soon.

The affidavit the FBI agents used to obtain their search warrant from U.S. Magistrate John Tolle is sealed, but the documents the warrant aimed to recover give a hint about what type of activities the investigation is targeting. They include records of safe-deposit boxes opened in the district's name, various records of property offered for sale, client and vendor lists, records of property-tax receipts, and payroll records.

In a confidential letter to Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Moses dated February 4, 1996, James Adams, acting special agent in charge of the FBI office in Dallas, said the bureau had received complaints "concerning the misappropriation of state and federal funds" at Wilmer-Hutchins.

Lunita White and other board members say they are certain the Feds are looking into $15,000 in misapplied federal funds, a problem identified this spring by the district's contracted auditor, Dodd & Associates.

Texas education officials insist they do not know who is being targeted in the criminal investigation, but they have plenty to say about the array of leadership shortcomings that moved them in February to lower the district's accreditation to "warned" and to send in a management team. Most of all, they point to the board's compulsion to micromanage, a role beyond its expertise and training and plainly forbidden by Texas' education code.

In a March 8 report, a five-member T.E.A. group concluded that "disharmony, distrust, and confusion concerning appropriate roles characterize the governance of the district both among administrators and among board members," and that teaching in the schools suffered directly. The report also devoted four pages to major battles and petty bickering among factions on the school board and their allies in the administration.

"The trustees cannot work together and they get into shouting and cursing matches at meetings and after meetings," the report found. "At times, people even throw things back and forth."

A "buddy system" protects personnel at all levels from being released regardless of job performance, the state found. Last November, for example, the superintendent removed the high-school principal for poor performance. The board, in turn, wouldn't allow the superintendent to take the principal off the payroll, so the principal was shunted off to Kennedy-Curry Junior High as an assistant principal.

But Dianna Masters, the junior high's principal, had wanted to select her own assistant. She was in the process of trying to pull her school out of a rare group of Texas schools--eight, to be precise--that for three years in a row had been rated "low performing," meaning less than 25 percent of the students met minimum academic levels on annual standardized tests.

The board's factions begin reforming around election time, when candidates face off for the at-large seats.

At the head of one camp is the tireless and pugnacious board president, Lunita White, a 57-year-old clerk for the Texas Lottery Commission who heads the board's current voting majority.

A short, wide woman given to flashy print dresses and streaks of gold-paint highlighting in her hair, White was re-elected to her sixth three-year term in May. Depending on who's talking, she runs the district like either a doting mother or a cunning ward boss.

With friends in the southern Dallas Democratic power structure, White is a precinct chair, a former aide to onetime state Senator Eddie Bernice Johnson, and an ally of state Senator Royce West, whose law firm has collected Wilmer-Hutchins' delinquent property taxes since 1984. White also is close to Justice of the Peace Charles Rose, a past Wilmer-Hutchins board member. She ran unsuccessfully against Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb for his District 8 seat in 1991, and lost a primary in a Texas House bid a year later that ended her higher political ambitions.

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