Last in the Class

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

As the new superintendent hired principals and directors of curriculum and personnel, the board refused to let the old people go.

There was J.C. Ryan, for instance, a 20-year employee and former football coach, whom Matthews had put in charge of Kennedy-Curry two years earlier in response to the miserable test scores. In Ryan's two years, however, the school remained overrun with gangs, and test scores didn't improve enough to shake the "low performing" tag. "Every morning you'd see 20 or 30 kids get off the bus and skip out," recalls Mollye Banks, a neighbor who volunteered at the school. "Nobody did a thing to stop them."

Says Ryan, who was found chain-smoking outside the administration building during a recent board meeting, "You can't do nothing overnight. These things take time."

With his gravelly voice and demeanor--not to mention his old white T-shirt and slouchy pants--he seemed more like a guy who ran a union hall than a school. Asked to recall some things about the district's past, Ryan recounted a time in the '70s when the superintendent sent around a "bagman" on payday to take his cut from the employees.

Roberts-Quintyn says the hard time she had replacing incompetent, entrenched cronies was only one way the board's opposing camp fought progress. Ultimately, she says, that faction went after her throat.

In a detailed memo dated February 12, the newly hired junior-high principal, Dianna Masters, described to Roberts-Quintyn a conversation she'd had in November with Luther Edwards, who had lost his board seat the previous May. "He said he needed to get back on the board as soon as possible to help get rid of you and bring back the former superintendent," Masters wrote. "He said no one was going to prevent the board members from running the district the way they saw fit, and that the current board members did not back you as superintendent."

Later that month, trustee Brenda Duff resigned, and the Lunita White board faction recruited Edwards to take her place. The votes against Roberts-Quintyn were all lined up, and people began placing bets that she wouldn't last until the end of the year.

The wager was a loser, though. It took six more weeks.
In early January, the board under White's functional control asked its longtime auditor, Dodd & Associates, to check into a number of irregularities in finances, including reports that at least three employees in the business office had paid themselves excessive overtime.

To Mills and members of his camp, the audit was designed as the missile to sink Roberts-Quintyn's regime rather than get to the bottom of potential criminal activity. To White and her allies, the audit pointed out Roberts-Quintyn's clear weakness as a manager of the district's business side.

There's evidence of truth in both views.
The audit, which uncovered $141,000 in questionable expenditures, detailed cases of business office employees paying themselves large amounts of overtime, unapproved purchases of such things as TVs and VCRs, and instances of district equipment--including $75,000 in football equipment--being stolen without anyone so much as filing a report.

The audit also pointed out how the piling up of staff had increased the district's payroll costs by more than $1.3 million, or more than 10 percent, in one year.

The district was running nearly $2 million in the red. It didn't help that the state had discovered Wilmer-Hutchins had been overestimating its attendance numbers, and wanted $1.5 million in state aid paid back.

Within weeks of the board's vote to put Roberts-Quintyn on involuntary leave, she filed a breach-of-contract suit that, at times, sounds like something out of an espionage novel. She claims that the board majority wanted her out so it could gain control of district files and purge them "of documents reflecting past wrongful, improper transactions." In depositions for that suit, several witnesses complain of late-night document-shredding in the days after the superintendent's removal. And board members Glenn Mills and Betty Williams say in sworn statements that they are certain the administration building is bugged.

T.E.A. officials turned up their scrutiny of the district last fall, ordering an accreditation review when Kennedy-Curry Junior High registered its third straight year as a "low-performing campus."

According to T.E.A. reports, the district bought itself some time by installing Dianna Masters as principal at the start of the school year.

Masters, who came from Duncanville, set out to bring order to the campus and installed a system of student ID badges to weed out strangers. She outlawed bandannas and gang clothes and invited two on-campus police officers to issue citations, which required parents to go to court and potentially pay a $250 fine if their children were caught fighting in school.

"When kids know what to expect, and there are punishments and rewards, they respond," says Gina Darez, an eighth-grade math teacher. She says Masters' approach brought an orderly atmosphere in which kids began to learn.

The trouble was, it wasn't an environment conducive to certain board members helping their friends.

Masters found that out after she got rid of one of two Dallas police officers assigned to patrol her campus. The man had no respect for her authority, she says. The problem was that the cop was a buddy of then-trustee Brenda Duff's husband. And in the Hooterville that Wilmer-Hutchins often resembles, it was as if someone had canned Uncle Joe. Several board members turned against Masters, the woman the state was counting on to turn around the district's worst school.

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