By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
How perfect. Just as they begin trying to hire a new superintendent of schools to replace the one who left to go to the Big House, the members of the Dallas school board have erupted into a particularly nasty behind-the-scenes battle over fraud, lawsuits, and their own personal liability.
The Dallas Morning News editorialized last week that candidates for the job--being interviewed in secret videoconferences last week and this--should be made to "answer tough questions."
Oh, sure. Exactly what kind of tough questions is this board in a position to ask anybody?
"Are you in a crew?"
"Got any tattoos?"
"We're very interested in results in Dallas. You ever do any really big (wink-wink) scores?"
The first public indication that there was fresh mischief afoot at school headquarters last week was the surprise puff-of-smoke reappearance of Don Venable, who had resigned from the school board only last October for unclear reasons. The reasons for his sudden Lazarus-like return to the board were equally unclear, at least at first.
Before winning election to the board, Venable was half of a duo who brought serious shame and embarrassment to the Dallas school board by suing it repeatedly, mainly over financial practices. But in 1992, when the school board apparently plotted to use a bogus lawsuit of its own to silence the pair, Venable and his former partner in gadflyism, Richard Finlan, struck back with a civil rights lawsuit seeking big damages.
So far, the two non-lawyers representing themselves in court have beaten the pants off a series of big Dallas law firms. Just before the holidays, the Texas Supreme Court gave the district yet another raspberry by denying its main claim of official immunity and sending the suit back to Dallas for trial.
Right after the holidays, John Martin, the district's lawyer on the case and himself a former board member, began trying to set up a mediated settlement conference. A sudden enthusiasm for mediation is sometimes a sign that a lawyer has unpleasant news for his clients and would be happy to pay a mediator to tell them about it.
For his part, Martin confirmed last week that settlement talks are in the air and that he has been the one doing the talking. He claimed his loss at the Supreme Court "has not changed anything, because my clients still don't believe there's any liability." He said no settlement conference is scheduled at the moment "because I couldn't get anybody to show up."
Just to make things a bit more complex, Finlan and Venable have split up, largely over tactics. Venable tends to want to make nice with the board but wants a settlement. Finlan is determined to take money personally from the board members themselves, even if it means forgoing a juicier settlement from the district. He is fond of saying, "I don't care if I only get a hundred dollars from [board president Hollis] Brashear, as long as it's his last hundred."
One thing about which Venable was emphatic last week: His surprise reappearance had nothing at all to do with the persistent rumors that the board might be weeks or maybe only days away from offering him, Finlan, and three other plaintiffs in the case a $1.5 million settlement.
"It has nothing to do with that at all," Venable says. "I came back strictly for the good of the district."
Pausing a beat, Venable adds, "But that number sounds good to me." (In any event, Venable didn't stick around long. He quit the board in a huff again Monday night. This time, he says, for good.)
So, anyway, just how does someone who has publicly resigned from a school board suddenly come back a few weeks before the election of his successor and announce he's going to be sitting in on a few more sessions and casting a few key votes?
With a legal opinion.
Rob Hoffman, of Vial, Hamilton, Koch & Knox (one of the school district's two zillion outside law firms), says it's right there in the state constitution:
"The Texas Constitution provides for a holdover doctrine," he says. "Even after a board member or trustee has resigned and that resignation has been accepted by the board, the trustee must continue to perform the duties of his or her office..."
And it goes on from there. It sounds very good. Right there in the Texas Constitution. Venable is absolutely legal. He can change his mind. Until his successor is sworn in, he can keep showing up like Elvis as long as he likes. Resign. Unresign. Thank you very much.
So, why did he resign the first time?
"I was very tired," he says. "I was literally physically sick. I could not get my blood sugar under control. I was having a difficult time with depression."
Well, but wait a minute. If coming back had nothing to do with the settlement, then why did he want to unresign?
"I didn't, at first. I didn't think I could. I had this e-mail debate with Rob Hoffman. He said I could, and then he finally convinced me. I didn't want to do it if there was going to be any problem."