I Protest

The charge might have been best described as "doesn't play nice with others," or so it seems from the tape of an unusual meeting of the seven people who govern Wilmer-Hutchins ISD.

The 3,000-student district in southeast Dallas County generates more than its share of news (state interventions, federal probes and the like), but no reporters were on hand recently when members of the Wilmer-Hutchins board singled out one of their own for allegedly breaking the board's congeniality rules, which are officially dubbed an "ethics code."

Over the past six months, trustee Joan Bonner has been the only board member to object to the district's umpteenth superintendent change (the district has had five in eight years) or to question why the new hire deserved a whopping $50,000-a-year raise after six months on the job. "I honestly can't tell you why we fired the past superintendent or hired the new one," says Bonner, 52, a nurse at the Dallas County juvenile detention center who has been on the school board since 1994. "I make every meeting, and these things weren't discussed. They just happen." The superintendent's 40 percent raise came only four months after he signed his new five-year contract--far too soon in Bonner's opinion to gauge whether he has any effect.

To deal with a history of contentious relations on the Wilmer-Hutchins board--where reports in years past mentioned people throwing things at each other--the district in 2000 installed a multicount code setting out rules of decorum for board members. They include pearls such as, "I will accord others the respect I wish for myself," "I will be continuously guided by what is best for all students of the district" and "I will be fair, just and impartial in all my decisions and actions."

Nice in theory, but it is hardly a code for which violations can be cited. If the city of Dallas had such a code, Mayor Laura Miller would have been locked out of City Hall years ago.

Yet Wilmer-Hutchins board members, led by board President Luther Edwards III, called a two-hour meeting to detail Bonner's alleged violations of the play-nice rules. Although the discussion was all over the map, a tape of the meeting found two members leveling two specific allegations against Bonner: She did not join other members in applauding the selection of the new superintendent at a public meeting in December, and she asked whether another trustee's grandkids might be working for the district in violation of the district's nepotism rules.

A tape recording of the meeting caught members lamenting Bonner's independence, and a few took the opportunity to say they wanted Bonner off the board. "Have you heard that your community does not want you back as a board member?" asked trustee Ann Walker, who sponsored the motion to rebuke Bonner.

Last weekend, local voters proved Walker wrong and re-elected Bonner to another term. Walker could not be reached for comment.

"We have to stand in unity," Edwards said during the meeting on Bonner. He went on at length how he has opposed state intervention in the district, and how disunity among board members could only encourage the Texas Education Agency to seek to take over management of the district.

In the end, the Wilmer-Hutchins board decided not to rebuke or censure Bonner because "the state doesn't want us censuring anyone," Edwards said. He said the meeting was simply a way for board members to air their views about Bonner.

After he spoke with the Dallas Observer, though, Edwards took a few more steps that in Bonner's opinion amounted to a deliberate smear of her reputation before the May 3 election.

In early April, Edwards sent a letter to the rest of the board and took Bonner to task for speaking with the press. "Unfortunately, Ms. Bonner's personal problems have caused the district a great deal of difficulty and embarrassment. There is a possibility that litigation could be forthcoming," he wrote. No one except Edwards ever said anything about litigation, and the letter did not make it clear who might be suing whom.

But within a week it became clear that Edwards would continue his pressure tactics on his board's lone dissenter. At Edwards' urging, the board placed on the agenda of its April 14 meeting an item that suggested Bonner had filed a lawsuit against Wilmer-Hutchins ISD.

Edwards says he concluded on his own that Bonner might be contemplating suing the board. The board's agenda said it would meet in executive session to consider "Possible pending litigation: Trustee Joan Bonner v. Wilmer-Hutchins ISD." The document was distributed to at least 1,000 households, Bonner says.

The beauty of the move was that the law prohibits board members from disclosing what went on during the closed session.

Although the phrase "possible pending" is murky and nonsensical, Bonner says the whole effort was a clumsy political dirty trick designed to hurt her in last weekend's election. It was followed by an anonymous flier titled "Wilmer-Hutchins Community News Vol. 1" distributed last week outside polling places in Wilmer. "Why is Joan Bonner Sueing [sic] Wilmer-Hutchins?" the flier read. It went on to ask, "Why is she running to the different newspapers drumming up negative press on the school district and our community?"

"It's an embarrassment for them to sink so low, but they aren't strong enough to scare me away," says Bonner, who described the attacks as "small time."

To her, the lowly level of debate only underscores the need for state intervention in the district. In the mid-1990s, state monitors temporarily took over governance of the district, and Bonner says she would welcome their return.

"The problem at Wilmer-Hutchins has always been the board," says Bonner, who insists she will continue to speak her mind and vote her conscience. "This isn't a communist country. I have a right to sit where I sit and think what I think."