Last in the Class

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

Charles Matthews, a deputy superintendent from a small school district near Houston, took over as superintendent in 1984 and delivered it three years later to full accreditation.

Matthews is widely credited with having wiped some of the grime off the district's image, at least during the beginning of his 10-year term. He installed programs popular with working parents--including early-childhood development programs for 3-year-olds and Saturday tutoring--and had scattered success raising the district's scores on statewide tests. In 1991, he was named the Texas Association of School Boards' superintendent of the year.

"I will take the blame for what is good and bad in this district," Matthews told a meeting of Wilmer-Hutchins residents in July.

The handsome, square-framed 56-year-old pushed his hands into the pockets of his dark-blue double-breasted suit and added, "When I was here this district was in the best financial position of any low-wealth district in the state of Texas...The newspapers weren't out there killing us." Matthews declined to be interviewed for this story.

Not that all publicity during Matthews' regime was positive. The Dallas County District Attorney's Office investigated Wilmer-Hutchins several more times in the late '80s, looking into residents' allegations of fiscal mismanagement and theft. Again, no charges were brought.

By several accounts, Matthews wasn't beyond meddling in electoral politics himself to keep friendly faces on the board.

Dorthea Thomas, an affable woman whose political opinions hold some sway in her neighborhood, recalls how Matthews and trustee Eddie Washington came to her school in 1987 and pulled her out of the class in which she worked as a teacher's aide. "We went out to the Coke machine and Dr. Matthews bought me a Coke. He said, 'I'd love to see Mr. Warren back on the board. Do what you can do.'"

Thomas remembers that she preferred James Warren's opponent, so she agreed with Matthews but didn't follow through. In another election, she says, the principal of her school handed her a pile of leaflets making "dirty, filthy" attacks on a slate of candidates Matthews opposed, and asked her to hand them out.

Ironically, just a year after the school board association bestowed its award on Matthews, state education officials became concerned with student achievement in the district once again. Grades five, seven, nine, and 11 all were deemed to be low-performing on achievement tests, and state inspectors found that the district's plans to turn things around "lacked clear focus."

In the spring of 1993, the dropout rate in grades seven through 12 hit 19 percent. Only one out of seven eighth graders at Kennedy-Curry Junior High made the minimum passing score on all three sections of the TAAS test. A year later, the board sent Matthews packing, and then-board president Glenn Mills told reporters that miserable test scores were the reason for his departure.

But some say Mills had other, more serious reasons for maneuvering Matthews out--reasons that allegedly were discussed at an illegal meeting he had organized at trustee Joan Bonner's house. Bonner, a nurse, and former trustee Brenda Duff, a probation officer on disability, say they were both newly elected, and nobody had bothered to explain to them that a majority of the board could only discuss business at publicly posted meeting times. Mills obviously knew, they say. He hid his car when he came to Bonner's house.

During the meeting, Duff recalls, Mills painted Matthews as a womanizer. An employee had filed a sexual harassment grievance against Matthews that summer, and the board members discussed it that day.

In a written complaint to Matthews, payroll clerk Sharon Rosales said: "I have had you ask if you could run your fingers through my hair; I have had you ask me to go to lunch with you...I have had you ask if my husband beat me and if so, if I enjoyed it, because you felt that a lot of women get turned on by this."

Rosales also accused Matthews of making ethnic slurs. "I have dealt with you asking what 'Poncho' had for breakfast...I have had you ask how big 'Poncho' was, because all Mexican men were either short and fat or tall and skinny."

In a July 11 letter to Matthews, Mills wrote that the board had determined that "some of her [Rosales'] allegations are credible." The letter urged Matthews to change his ways, and informed him that the complaint would become part of his permanent record, pending his appeal.

A letter from the district's lawyer to Rosales six months later states that Matthews had wanted to rebut her allegations, but had since left the district. The board considered the matter closed.

The board's current squabbles stem from Matthews' ouster, which Lunita White and others refused to accept. The split vote to hire his successor early last year foreshadowed the hellish infighting to come.

The new superintendent was Delores Roberts-Quintyn, who was promoted from her position as the district's research director. Although an insider herself, Roberts-Quintyn pushed during her first several months to replace Matthews' top managers, and provoked an open bureaucratic war.

"There was resentment, yes," says Mills, who was Roberts-Quintyn's chief supporter on the board. Anyone replacing the old Matthews people was dubbed an outsider, he adds. "I heard the statement, 'Dallas rejects.' All she is bringing in are 'Dallas rejects.'"

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