Last in the Class

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

"Without that district there would be no Lunita White," says one of White's co-workers in the lottery office. "She runs it from here, although I doubt she knows anything about what goes on in a classroom."

White suffered public embarrassment earlier this year when The Dallas Morning News reported that she and her husband filed for personal bankruptcy in 1989. The Whites, living on a modest $27,400-a-year income in 1990, bought two new vehicles and made $20,000 in home improvements in the five years before they filed. White says an unexpected bill for more than $10,000 in federal income taxes sank the family's finances.

"People come at you all the time," she says. She insists, though, that her long history in the district gives her a right to lead. "I have a track record. I paid my dues as a PTA president. I did whatever was needed," she says in her raspy voice. "All these Johnny-come-latelys have been getting on the bandwagon."

As White spoke of these things at a recent meeting, resident Faye Gafford, who lost to White in the May election, interrupted to exchange a few pleasantries. As Gafford stepped away, White leaned forward to share a thought. "I beat her butt," she said, the kindliness evaporating from her voice. "If she runs the next time, I'll do it again."

White's nemesis on the board, who she says "just got tired of being tied to my apron strings," is Glenn Mills, the unofficial head of the opposing faction. The board's immediate past president, he held that post for two years until the election this past May.

Asked his opinion about White, Mills says dryly, "A lot of people are close to her. I can't figure why."

A senior officer for the state comptroller, Mills talks in well-thought-out bursts, vigorously working his lower lip in the intervening silences. He is 48, but the hats and knit sport shirts he often wears give him the look of a man a generation older.

Mills has been on the board for 16 years, but his clout has ebbed recently. In early August, he was hospitalized for pancreatic cancer. He has since gone home while undergoing chemotherapy, and promises to return to the board. But his health, the exodus of like-minded administrators during the past six months, and his ability to count on only a single supporting vote all have diminished his presence.

Given a chance, though, Mills is happy to flex his muscle on matters large and small, some of his colleagues say.

In addition to engineering a former superintendent's departure only months after Mills took control of the board in 1994, he has meddled in such things as the discipline of students, which is supposed to be left to administrators, several board members say.

Last fall, Mills ordered the principal of Kennedy-Curry Junior High to readmit a student who had been sent to an alternative campus after allegedly cutting another student with a razor, a state report says. Mills denies that account, saying he only asked the district's lawyer to look into the matter.

The board's micromanagement of personnel decisions has been expensive and disruptive in the schools.

The Wilmer-Hutchins High School class of '96 watched six different principals come and go during their four years. Of 60 new teachers hired in August 1995, only 20 were still in the district when classes began this year. Even the school's basketball coach, who brought the district a sliver of achievement by leading the Eagles into the state playoffs the past three seasons, packed up in August and left.

Delores Roberts-Quintyn, who was superintendent for a little more than a year until her ouster in February, says board meddling in hiring was so widespread that people would just show up on the payroll. "You didn't know where some of the people came from," she says.

That kind of patronage is a two-way street. Lois Harrison-Jones, a former superintendent of schools in Boston who was on the first team of managers sent in by the state, says, "People who work on their [board members'] campaigns have a lot of expectations."

She also recalls learning a Southern black expression that often comes up in Wilmer-Hutchins. "We came in and I kept asking about various people, and I'd be told, 'Oh, we sent him home.' I thought somebody was maybe sick or something, until I found out it meant someone had been fired," she says.

Lawyers' fees and settlements lost on such rash, emotional personnel moves by the board have been costly, with plaintiffs' lawyers feasting on the district officials' tendency to throw procedures to the wind when they "send people home."

The district's 1996-1997 legal budget is a stunning $366,583--about $114 per student. By comparison, Plano, with an enrollment of 38,000, is spending $161,598--about $4 per pupil. Dallas, which is juggling numerous lawsuits, has budgeted about $900,000 for legal matters this year--roughly $6 for each of its 149,000 students.

In last year's budget, Wilmer-Hutchins spent $220,000 on superintendents' salaries, at one point simultaneously paying the interim person on the job as well as three former superintendents. Roberts-Quintyn, who is awaiting a hearing on the termination of her contract last spring, is still on the payroll with her $65,000-a-year salary. Under an agreement with the board that prevented a lawsuit, former superintendent Charles Matthews continued to collect his $79,000-a-year salary for 21 months after he left the district in September 1994, with the last check going out this past June.

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