By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Think, for one wild moment, of the DISD board of trustees as the candy store in a twisted Halloween movie. Then place Don Venable, a 43-year-old paralegal, as the new kid who has just walked wide-eyed and hungry through its doors.
The school board, of course, isn't serving up any confections, and Venable, who spent years in court battling with school trustees before he was elected to the board last Saturday, could hardly be cast as a child. But that jaw-dropping image is exactly the one that applies: Venable loves a good fight as much as a sticky-fingered kid adores sweets, and the school board presents the new trustee with as many opportunities for squabbling as gumdrops on a candy-store shelf.
"The slasher is in town," says Venable about his arrival on the board. There are about "80 issues" that he intends to focus on as the board's newest member--from getting his hands on the infamous Peavy Tapes to orchestrating the ouster of Kathleen Leos as board president. But he plans on tackling them without the assistance of able sidekick and brother litigant Rick Finlan. Like the theatrical "Odd Couple," the two had become inextricably linked in the public eye, transforming themselves into notorious personalities by litigating--without the assistance of bon afide attorneys, amazingly enough--against the city, DART, and the school district. Assumed gadflies at the start, the pair racked up enough court victories that their efforts were taken seriously.
But now, surprisingly enough, Venable seems to want to put some distance between himself and his fellow government watchdog.
On Sunday, the day after his election victory, Venable took Finlan out for a steak dinner. "We went a little upscale to celebrate," Venable says. That means he treated Finlan to a meal at Owens Family Restaurant instead of their usual cuisine at Denny's.
"I encouraged him to continue in what he is doing," says Venable, who told Finlan that as a trustee he has altered his objectives slightly.
Finlan, for instance, had said that Venable may try to encourage the board to file a lawsuit against former trustee Dan Peavy, who was indicted and later acquitted on charges of accepting kickbacks from insurance companies contracting with DISD. But Venable says he plans no such strategy. "This is not one of my priorities right now," Venable says, tagging the plot as more "Finlan's fantasy."
"We are not joined at the hip," says Finlan. "As long as everyone understands that I am the tall, good-looking one and he is the short, ugly one, then we won't have any problems in this town."
Venable does plan to pursue another Finlan-supported scheme: He wants the lawyers representing the school board in the case Peavy has filed against it to show him the evidence accumulating in that litigation--including excerpts from the notorious Peavy Tapes. The former school board member's neighbor had illegally intercepted Peavy's cordless telephone conversations, producing hours of talk about which there has been much speculation. The next time Hughes & Luce, the outside counsel hired to represent the district, come before the board seeking payment of their fees, Venable says, he plans to demand that he view what they are working on.
Even though he won't be sworn in until Wednesday, Venable has not been wasting any time getting started. Last week, he attended a meeting between the trustees and the Texas Education Agency about their review of the district. On Wednesday, Venable will attend his first executive session. Legal issues are scheduled as the main topic, and Venable may find it necessary to remove himself if any of his many pending cases are brought up for review.
By next Monday, "the slasher" should be in full swing. The new trustee says he expects, at that time, to have board president Kathleen Leos booted from her post. "We are going to be restructuring the board," is the way Venable puts it. "It appears that it is gonna be resisted, but I don't think it's going to be that nasty."
He may be dead wrong about the nasty part.
Venable and Leos have already parted ways and begun seeking supporters merely on the technical issue of how and when board officer elections are scheduled. Venable contends state law requires that a new vote on officers be held after the arrival of a new board member. Leos points out that DISD has no precedent for officer elections just because a new trustee has joined the board.
"I am a very good board president," Leos wrote in a letter to the Texas Secretary of State, seeking support for her interpretation of the law. "The rest is politics."
Not surprisingly, Venable disagrees: "She has lost control of the board, and she is too terribly distracted by her own legal troubles." Leos has been sued in state and federal courts by DISD chief financial officer Matthew Harden, who alleges that the board president conspired with ex-superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez to invade his privacy, among other claims.
Even if Venable is wrong, he is already pursuing another avenue to dump Leos as president. District policy allows the board to kick out officers before their one-year terms expire as long as six members agree.
Venable says he has spent "a long time" with other members soliciting their support for his dump-Leos plan. He believes he has lined up five solid votes--his own and those of board members John Dodd, Ron Price, Hollis Brashear, and Yvonne Ewell. He has spent a lot of time talking with trustee Lois Parrott, who represents, he says, a very likely sixth vote.
Nervy as it might be to lead the charge to dethrone the board president the week he starts, the scenario perfectly plays out what both Venable's supporters and detractors expected of the pink-faced white guy who has made a career out of suing DISD board members and has assailed its lawyers, staff, and trustees, for what he calls their "mentality of criminality."
Venable, who had once aspired to the ministry and has worked at the grassroots level to bring evangelicals into the Republican Party, believes he can forge a holy alliance with several of the same board members he has sued. He says trustees Dodd, Price, and Brashear have already agreed to treat each other like the "Christian brothers that we are."
Exactly what this means remains an open question, since the pugnacious Venable has a history of not turning the other cheek.