Last in the Class

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

"With her in there, if you walk the halls crooked, you get a ticket, if you know what I'm saying," Lunita White says. "She came from hell."

The board's unwillingness to support Masters led to the state's decision to dispatch an evaluation team to Wilmer-Hutchins in late November. It was followed by a monitoring team, which was converted to a management team in June after the U.S. Justice Department cleared the move.

The monitors arrived on April 15, 1996, with the two board factions responding in kind: the White supporters vigorously opposed, the Mills faction generally pleased that the state had stepped in.

The T.E.A.'s team consisted of Lois Harrison-Jones, a former deputy superintendent of Dallas schools who went on to head systems in Boston and Richmond, and Cyrus Holley, a white-haired, hardnosed business type who runs a corporate consulting firm in Grapevine. In their first report to Austin after a week on the job, Holley and Harrison-Jones reported that the district was in "critical" shape. Besides the $2-million deficit, they found the board was handling all personnel matters, which wouldn't make it easy to institute the necessary staff cuts.

By June, the Justice Department cleared the team to act as managers with the power to override board votes, and the pair reported to Austin that an uneasy truce had been reached. "They are no longer verbalizing their displeasure about the existence of the managers, but a loyal opposition (a group of six vocal women) displays its hostility whenever and wherever there is the opportunity," the managers wrote. "The wider community, though generally apathetic, appears to want change but often expresses disbelief that such is possible."

The calm wouldn't last long.

The trustees and managers first clashed about programs and jobs, as Holley and Harrison-Jones overrode a 4-3 board vote on July 8 rejecting their plan to lay off 62 employees.

Though faced with a major crisis, some of the board members were instead interested in looking out for their friends. "They were trying to protect specific people when here there was a real question of whether the district could pay its bills and survive," Harrison-Jones says.

But the most far-reaching decision that had to be made was who would be superintendent. The state wanted a person who would not only restore some professionalism to the district, but would keep the board at bay and prevent it from micromanaging the schools.

White and some of her political cronies had their own idea: Bring back Charles Matthews.

In early June, White and a majority of the board invited him to apply for his old job. That invitation concerned T.E.A. higher-ups, but Harrison-Jones and Holley were confident that a search process headed by Nolan Estes, a former Dallas superintendent, would allow the best applicants to emerge.

At the same time, several of White's allies decided to add a little push on Matthews' behalf.

That job was taken on by WATCH, a community group headed by Ernestine McMillian, a large, imposing woman who served on the school board in the early 1980s. Although nobody mentions it these days, the 62-year-old McMillian was one of those board members that the T.E.A. had accused of nepotism back in 1981. But that isn't what forced her to resign from the board the following year.

In December 1982, McMillian pleaded guilty to a felony charge of tampering with government records for having lied on a food-stamp application. It was her second felony strike, having been convicted for welfare fraud in 1975, county records show. McMillian went to the state pen and completed a two-year sentence in September 1984.

McMillian's name comes up from time to time in the district when people talk about intimidation.

Though Dianna Masters had managed to lead her junior high out of the "low performing" wilderness in the space of one year when test scores rose dramatically last spring, McMillian evidently was not impressed. Masters claims McMillian threatened her, saying she'd better not return to her job this fall--or else. The principal did return, but resigned on the second day of school when she determined the district wasn't going to give her the support she needed to do her job.

Trustee Betty Williams says McMillian asked her in February to vote "the same way that Lunita White votes." When Williams refused, McMillian got angry and called her a "little-bitty jiggy bitch."

McMillian's WATCH didn't impress Holley; he referred to the group as "six vocal women" in his letter to Austin in June. Among the group's most visible members are former trustee Brenda Duff and Virginia Hill, a Democratic precinct chair whom Dallas County commissioners recently barred from serving as an election judge because of a record of complaints against her.

Perhaps feeling a need to put a little growl in its bark, WATCH invited the New Black Panther Party to accompany the community group to a board meeting in early July. The Panthers had attracted a lot of attention and anxiety a few weeks earlier after tussling with police at a Dallas school board meeting and threatening to return with their guns.

But the Panther leaders' harangues in the hallways about how white racism had descended on the district seemed out of sync with WATCH's demands, which the group presented to the board in writing. As usual, the top concerns were who got what jobs: "1) Bring back Dr. Charles Matthews. 2) Keep seniority system in tack [sic]."

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