Last in the Class

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

The search for a superintendent showed just how tenaciously board members like White would fight to frustrate the state's idea of reform.

A 12-member board-appointed citizens panel got to work in early July on the search. Soon afterward, Joe Neely, the T.E.A. commissioner who was monitoring the procedure from Austin, says he called Charles Matthews and let him know the state wasn't likely to allow Matthews to return. "The district needed a new direction instead of getting caught in another cycle of where they had been before," Neely says.

After the call, Neely assumed Matthews would withdraw, and Nolan Estes even told Harrison-Jones and Holley that he had.

But Matthews had decided to stay in the hunt.
Thinking that the managers--or somebody from the state--had rigged the game, Lunita White asked state Senator Royce West, the district's delinquent-tax collector, to get to work on Matthews' behalf with a call to the T.E.A. At the same time, White orchestrated an unscheduled "public comment period" at the board's next meeting.

"It was an ambush," Holley recalls.
Justice of the Peace Thomas G. Jones, whose jurisdiction has nothing to do with Wilmer-Hutchins, as well as the WATCH ladies and others, vented their anger in the recorded session, then turned things up a notch during a break. Jones "got right up in Holley's face," one spectator recalls. Holley remembers being called a "white supremacist," Harrison-Jones a "handkerchief head."

Holley developing her own name for White: "Menace."
The T.E.A. had come to see signs amid all the pro-Matthews noise that the superintendent selection process was heading exactly where the agency didn't want it to go. T.E.A. Commissioner Mike Moses decided the board needed some persuading, and at the last minute ordered White to cancel the board's August 1 meeting. Before any voting took place, he wanted to sit down with the board and talk.

But Holley and Harrison-Jones had picked up much different signals. They had come to believe that several members of the White camp were breaking ranks. Trustee Lamar Walton, for instance, was undecided and leaning in favor of Johnny Brown, deputy superintendent of the 207,000-student Houston school district. The energetic, easy-to-like Brown told trustees he was ready to run his own district and that he considered it his calling to do something for inner-city kids.

Trustee Joan Bonner, too, was following her own mind and looking at other candidates.

When Moses interjected himself and canceled the meeting, Holley and Harrison-Jones felt they had been undercut and second-guessed.

"They were playing games," Harrison-Jones says of Moses and Neely, who were talking about letting the district pick its own superintendent, but behind the scenes were doing plenty to influence the outcome.

The managers resigned the day after the canceled meeting, and two less experienced agency employees were installed the next week in their place.

Moses decided that it was time to begin talking tough to White and company. In a letter to Royce West, he wrote that Matthews' return would not be "in the best interest of the school system at this time." He expressed frustration with the trustees' "tendency to try to undermine the managers' work." And he threatened to drop the next shoe: "Failure by the board to work with this agency in a more positive fashion will lead me to make a recommendation that the board be set aside and replaced by a board of managers."

Moses told the trustees in a letter delivered that same week that the district needed "a fresh start," meaning forget about Matthews, who had become one of two finalists for the job.

The next week, six board members opened the board room after a 90-minute executive session.

Around the paneled room, construction-paper posters about self-respect, sexually transmitted diseases, nutrition, and other student topics were there to remind everybody that all of this mess was related somehow to kids and schools.

White took a seat at her microphone in the middle of the rostrum and looked over the audience. Her supporters took seats on one side of the aisle, with Mills' on the other, as if they were seated at a wedding.

She searched around to find McMillian in the second row before gaveling the session to order. She caught McMillian's eye and shook her head.

"It didn't work," McMillian could be overheard saying to her crony Virginia Hill.

The trustees voted unanimously to hire Johnny Brown, with White casting a "yes," but only after a long pause.

"That was deliberate," she said later of her hesitation. "But I don't want anyone saying I don't support Dr. Brown."

The agency evidently won the round, but not the fight. "I'm not afraid of the T.E.A.," White said.

As the 48-year-old Brown begins taking control, there is scattered optimism that he might be able to bring reform. A former college basketball player whose doctoral dissertation at the University of Texas examines how leaders affect schools, Brown likes using terms like "excellence" and "achievement."

Then again, there are those who know enough already about the new face in the neighborhood.

"It's in God's hands," says Virginia Hill of the brand-new superintendent. "God will make us suffer for a while with this man."

Says her friend, McMillian, the matronly ex-con: "He's gonna mess it up like the last one. We've already checked him out.

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