Last in the Class

Eleventh-grade English at Wilmer-Hutchins High wasn't what Tiffany Pullum had hoped it would be. Instead of reading novels or writing compositions, her class dozed in front of Bad Boys, Forrest Gump, and just about any other Hollywood video the kids thought to bring in and unspool.

"The teacher told us we were gonna write about the movies, give a plot and theme and all that, but we didn't write about anything," says Pullum, an effusive 16-year-old who skipped a grade and wants to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy next fall.

Then as the first week of Pullum's senior year unfolded in August, a counselor mistakenly scheduled her into three hours a day of appropriately named "work release" rather than the classes she needs to graduate. Drinking in the disappointment of yet another Wilmer-Hutchins screwup, Pullum found herself wishing she could do what she did last year--sneak into the high school in nearby Lancaster.

She and her older sister had slipped over the city line and went to classes there until an attendance officer got wise to the bogus home address her mother had used to get them in. Then, unhappily, it was back to "the Hutch," the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District, a notoriously mismanaged district of 3,200 students in southern Dallas County, a small corner of American public education gone horribly wrong.

Actually more a creature of Dallas than its namesake towns, the district is located partly in southeast Dallas and partly in the semirural suburbs of Wilmer and Hutchins, where commuters share space at the filling stations along Interstate 45 with men in bib overalls gassing up tractors.

By the district's own estimates, about 600 students wake up in homes in the Wilmer-Hutchins attendance area and steal into schools in other districts, particularly the Dallas Independent School District, which is just north across Simpson-Stuart Road. Because most of their parents don't make private-school wages, these students escape into other public school districts using the addresses of relatives or friends.

Things have been so bad for so long in Wilmer-Hutchins that Pullum is a second-generation refugee under this black-market method of school choice.

Seated on a sofa in the small living room of her well-kept Highland Hills home, Tiffany's mother, Cynthia Pullum, remembers how her mother had used her grandmother's address to send her to DISD's South Oak Cliff High School some 20 years ago. "It was better than riding their broken-down old buses to that high school in the country," Cynthia says.

Around her on the walls are at least a dozen family photographs, including one of her oldest daughter, Kimesha, in cap and gown. Kimesha is a freshman at Prairie View A&M this fall, and Cynthia Pullum worries whether the time Kimesha spent at Wilmer-Hutchins set her back too far. "That makes you worry the most," she says.

On the way out, passing a large Jesus portrait hung next to the Pullums' front door, the thought occurs: Even Jesus would have a hard time getting an education around here.

Stretching from the cedar-sided cottages and brick-trimmed homes of the Pullums' neighborhood to hay fields and farms on the southern Dallas County line, the Wilmer-Hutchins school district area is home to about 17,800 people. According to U.S. Census figures, they are 70 percent African-American and solidly blue collar.

One in 15 adults holds a college degree. One in five people lives in poverty. The majority own their homes.

Despite its urban demographics and location just a few minutes from downtown Dallas, much of the school district has an incongruous rural feel. Within Dallas city limits, pig farms sit cheek by jowl with burglar-barred houses in sprawling subdivisions built 25 or 30 years ago. The shops along Hutchins' Main Street--the W&W Grocery "Home of the King Burger," Linde's Hair Salon, and Evelyn's Flowers--give it a faded, smalltown feel. Nearby, Wilmer-Hutchins High sits on a two-lane macadam road.

For years, this corner of Dallas County has been ground zero for things nobody wants in their part of town. There's the Hutchins State Jail and the McCommas Bluff landfill, a mountainous city dump fed by a stream of garbage trucks that grinds down Old South Central Expressway like so many worker ants.

It's hard to find a new house, store, or building anywhere in the district. People tend to blame that economic torpor on the abysmal state of the Wilmer-Hutchins schools.

As a group, the high school, middle school, junior high, and five elementaries usually end up last or close to it among Dallas County's 15 districts on state-administered standardized tests. In 1993, a particularly bad year, only one out of seven eighth graders passed all three test sections of the TAAS test, which covers reading, writing, and math.

Although district officials may tell you otherwise, Wilmer-Hutchins' problems don't exist because of a lack of funds. Millions of dollars in state aid have been flowing in for years to erase the gap between Wilmer-Hutchins and the area's wealthier districts.

What its leaders do with it is another matter. This is a district where every piece of high-school football equipment disappeared last year, and nobody bothered to call the cops; a place where TVs, VCRs, and office furniture are ordered, but never show up in the schools.

Nowhere is the chaos more evident than in the district's administration building, an airless, windowless former elementary school that at times resembles an education ministry in some Third World country. Millions of dollars vanish through sloppy bookkeeping, then reappear. Top managers are hired, fired for incompetence, then rehired. At one point last spring, four current and former superintendents were collecting paychecks at the same time.

Residents, who have a hard time being optimistic about the district, joke that a good place to start looking for the district's missing stuff is in the homes of some of its board members.

An indecorous group, the trustees are known to cuss and throw things at each other during their monthly board meetings. They save the really nasty stuff for their elections, which regularly result in complaints by candidates of irregularities and outright fraud.

School board president Lunita White and others on the panel are fond of telling people that they "only want what's best for the children." But with so little that is positive going on in the schools, that assurance has become meaningless.

"The board uses children as a coverup," says trustee Glenn Mills Jr. "A lot of this is not about children, but about crap that's being covered up."

The past eight months have not been good for the Wilmer-Hutchins district, even by its own meager standards.

On April 17, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Internal Revenue Service agents swooped down on the administration building on East Illinois Avenue in a raid unprecedented in the history of Texas public schools.

Acting on a search warrant that listed money-laundering, conspiracy, and theft as possible criminal violations, the agents carted off computers, boxes of documents--even wall calendars--and photographed all of the employees.

Two months later, the civil-rights division of the U.S. Justice Department gave the Texas Education Agency clearance to stage a sort of bloodless coup at the Hutch. The state took over management of the district, hoping to stem the flow of red ink and do something to combat the exceptionally low academic achievement of students in the upper grades. It also sought to restore some order to the district's feuding administration and board.

In the three months since, education bureaucrats in Austin and on-site managers have balanced the district's budget with cuts to a bloated staff. They also brokered the selection of a new superintendent, Dr. Johnny Brown, despite extraordinary behind-the-scenes efforts by some board members on behalf of another candidate, the man who ran the district for 10 years until he was maneuvered out in 1994.

With those moves complete, the state is already becoming "a lot less involved" in Wilmer-Hutchins, says Joe Neely, the Texas Education Agency deputy commissioner managing the takeover. Right now, the agency has no intention of taking the next step prescribed under Texas' education code--which is to disband Wilmer-Hutchins' board of trustees.

The state is not likely to go any further, officials in the district and Austin say, because of concerns about whether the Justice Department would allow the dismantling of an elected all-black school board. There also is a philosophical bias in the Republican-run agency for local control.

But that approach--as anyone who knows board politics will tell you--is akin to landing in Beirut and pretending that the local armed factions have everything under control.

In Wilmer-Hutchins schools, the board is the problem.
Add to that the shenanigans of a former board member and a few of her friends who have threatened district employees, called in members of the shotgun-toting New Black Panther Party, and generally bullied people in support of their pals on the board and in the schools.

With all of its board members' intrigues and machinations, politics in the Hutch rival that of a Chicago ward. There are jobs for some trustees' friends, not-infrequent use of district equipment and staff for trustees' political campaigns, and plenty of board meddling in personnel decisions that ends up crowding the payroll with, in the former superintendent's words, "weak and incompetent personnel."

"You have people on that board without a lot of background or resources who can't stand to watch millions of dollars run by them without seizing a little of that power," says Fahim Minkah, a 17-year resident of the district and director of the United Front of Dallas, a nonprofit community group. "Getting control of the hiring and firing, helping out their friends and relatives--that's what it's all about."

Minkah, who under the name Fred Bell helped organize black voters to take control of the district in the early 1980s, says the neighborhoods that make up Wilmer-Hutchins are better than many in southern Dallas. There's decent housing and a tolerable level of crime. But he has taken his six young children out of the schools.

"I know darn well we can run a school district," he says of the all-black school board. "But we haven't run that one."

There are more pointed accusations to be made against the trustees, as well--including allegations of criminal misconduct.

Trustee Betty Williams, who recently disconnected her home phone and appears to have left the district without telling her colleagues goodbye, stated in a sworn deposition in August that she listened on an extension phone as fellow board member Luther Edwards shook down a former employee for $1,000 as his payment for voting in a $2,500 raise for the employee last December.

Edwards, who was Williams' opponent in the last election, denies the accusation, calling it slander. But the ex-employee, payroll clerk Sharon Rosales, remembers the conversation with Edwards and says she was sure he was serious.

As for Williams, a retired nurse first elected to the board in May 1995, she invoked her right against self-incrimination when asked during the deposition if she had used district equipment during her campaign.

Cynthia McGee, who was secretary to former superintendent Charles Matthews for nearly three years, says at least one employee was allowed to work on board president Lunita White's campaign on school time, and literature for some trustees and for at least one woman running for a Democratic precinct chair was prepared in the administration building using school supplies. During a 1995 in-house audit, some of White's campaign literature was found in the business manager's office.

McGee, who was terminated in June and fired for allegedly falsifying overtime, is now contemplating a whistle-blower lawsuit against the district. She says she told federal investigators about how carpet and paneling bought with school money was used to refurbish one board member's house.

McGee says she and other employees also alerted the FBI and IRS to questionable contracts, suspicions that cash from the district's tax office had been diverted, and an accusation that at least one large-screen television purchased for the district had ended up in a board member's home.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lynn Hastings, who is the lead lawyer on a criminal investigation of the district, would not discuss those claims or any other specifics. She would acknowledge only that the inquiry is ongoing and unlikely to conclude soon.

The affidavit the FBI agents used to obtain their search warrant from U.S. Magistrate John Tolle is sealed, but the documents the warrant aimed to recover give a hint about what type of activities the investigation is targeting. They include records of safe-deposit boxes opened in the district's name, various records of property offered for sale, client and vendor lists, records of property-tax receipts, and payroll records.

In a confidential letter to Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Moses dated February 4, 1996, James Adams, acting special agent in charge of the FBI office in Dallas, said the bureau had received complaints "concerning the misappropriation of state and federal funds" at Wilmer-Hutchins.

Lunita White and other board members say they are certain the Feds are looking into $15,000 in misapplied federal funds, a problem identified this spring by the district's contracted auditor, Dodd & Associates.

Texas education officials insist they do not know who is being targeted in the criminal investigation, but they have plenty to say about the array of leadership shortcomings that moved them in February to lower the district's accreditation to "warned" and to send in a management team. Most of all, they point to the board's compulsion to micromanage, a role beyond its expertise and training and plainly forbidden by Texas' education code.

In a March 8 report, a five-member T.E.A. group concluded that "disharmony, distrust, and confusion concerning appropriate roles characterize the governance of the district both among administrators and among board members," and that teaching in the schools suffered directly. The report also devoted four pages to major battles and petty bickering among factions on the school board and their allies in the administration.

"The trustees cannot work together and they get into shouting and cursing matches at meetings and after meetings," the report found. "At times, people even throw things back and forth."

A "buddy system" protects personnel at all levels from being released regardless of job performance, the state found. Last November, for example, the superintendent removed the high-school principal for poor performance. The board, in turn, wouldn't allow the superintendent to take the principal off the payroll, so the principal was shunted off to Kennedy-Curry Junior High as an assistant principal.

But Dianna Masters, the junior high's principal, had wanted to select her own assistant. She was in the process of trying to pull her school out of a rare group of Texas schools--eight, to be precise--that for three years in a row had been rated "low performing," meaning less than 25 percent of the students met minimum academic levels on annual standardized tests.

The board's factions begin reforming around election time, when candidates face off for the at-large seats.

At the head of one camp is the tireless and pugnacious board president, Lunita White, a 57-year-old clerk for the Texas Lottery Commission who heads the board's current voting majority.

A short, wide woman given to flashy print dresses and streaks of gold-paint highlighting in her hair, White was re-elected to her sixth three-year term in May. Depending on who's talking, she runs the district like either a doting mother or a cunning ward boss.

With friends in the southern Dallas Democratic power structure, White is a precinct chair, a former aide to onetime state Senator Eddie Bernice Johnson, and an ally of state Senator Royce West, whose law firm has collected Wilmer-Hutchins' delinquent property taxes since 1984. White also is close to Justice of the Peace Charles Rose, a past Wilmer-Hutchins board member. She ran unsuccessfully against Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb for his District 8 seat in 1991, and lost a primary in a Texas House bid a year later that ended her higher political ambitions.

"Without that district there would be no Lunita White," says one of White's co-workers in the lottery office. "She runs it from here, although I doubt she knows anything about what goes on in a classroom."

White suffered public embarrassment earlier this year when The Dallas Morning News reported that she and her husband filed for personal bankruptcy in 1989. The Whites, living on a modest $27,400-a-year income in 1990, bought two new vehicles and made $20,000 in home improvements in the five years before they filed. White says an unexpected bill for more than $10,000 in federal income taxes sank the family's finances.

"People come at you all the time," she says. She insists, though, that her long history in the district gives her a right to lead. "I have a track record. I paid my dues as a PTA president. I did whatever was needed," she says in her raspy voice. "All these Johnny-come-latelys have been getting on the bandwagon."

As White spoke of these things at a recent meeting, resident Faye Gafford, who lost to White in the May election, interrupted to exchange a few pleasantries. As Gafford stepped away, White leaned forward to share a thought. "I beat her butt," she said, the kindliness evaporating from her voice. "If she runs the next time, I'll do it again."

White's nemesis on the board, who she says "just got tired of being tied to my apron strings," is Glenn Mills, the unofficial head of the opposing faction. The board's immediate past president, he held that post for two years until the election this past May.

Asked his opinion about White, Mills says dryly, "A lot of people are close to her. I can't figure why."

A senior officer for the state comptroller, Mills talks in well-thought-out bursts, vigorously working his lower lip in the intervening silences. He is 48, but the hats and knit sport shirts he often wears give him the look of a man a generation older.

Mills has been on the board for 16 years, but his clout has ebbed recently. In early August, he was hospitalized for pancreatic cancer. He has since gone home while undergoing chemotherapy, and promises to return to the board. But his health, the exodus of like-minded administrators during the past six months, and his ability to count on only a single supporting vote all have diminished his presence.

Given a chance, though, Mills is happy to flex his muscle on matters large and small, some of his colleagues say.

In addition to engineering a former superintendent's departure only months after Mills took control of the board in 1994, he has meddled in such things as the discipline of students, which is supposed to be left to administrators, several board members say.

Last fall, Mills ordered the principal of Kennedy-Curry Junior High to readmit a student who had been sent to an alternative campus after allegedly cutting another student with a razor, a state report says. Mills denies that account, saying he only asked the district's lawyer to look into the matter.

The board's micromanagement of personnel decisions has been expensive and disruptive in the schools.

The Wilmer-Hutchins High School class of '96 watched six different principals come and go during their four years. Of 60 new teachers hired in August 1995, only 20 were still in the district when classes began this year. Even the school's basketball coach, who brought the district a sliver of achievement by leading the Eagles into the state playoffs the past three seasons, packed up in August and left.

Delores Roberts-Quintyn, who was superintendent for a little more than a year until her ouster in February, says board meddling in hiring was so widespread that people would just show up on the payroll. "You didn't know where some of the people came from," she says.

That kind of patronage is a two-way street. Lois Harrison-Jones, a former superintendent of schools in Boston who was on the first team of managers sent in by the state, says, "People who work on their [board members'] campaigns have a lot of expectations."

She also recalls learning a Southern black expression that often comes up in Wilmer-Hutchins. "We came in and I kept asking about various people, and I'd be told, 'Oh, we sent him home.' I thought somebody was maybe sick or something, until I found out it meant someone had been fired," she says.

Lawyers' fees and settlements lost on such rash, emotional personnel moves by the board have been costly, with plaintiffs' lawyers feasting on the district officials' tendency to throw procedures to the wind when they "send people home."

The district's 1996-1997 legal budget is a stunning $366,583--about $114 per student. By comparison, Plano, with an enrollment of 38,000, is spending $161,598--about $4 per pupil. Dallas, which is juggling numerous lawsuits, has budgeted about $900,000 for legal matters this year--roughly $6 for each of its 149,000 students.

In last year's budget, Wilmer-Hutchins spent $220,000 on superintendents' salaries, at one point simultaneously paying the interim person on the job as well as three former superintendents. Roberts-Quintyn, who is awaiting a hearing on the termination of her contract last spring, is still on the payroll with her $65,000-a-year salary. Under an agreement with the board that prevented a lawsuit, former superintendent Charles Matthews continued to collect his $79,000-a-year salary for 21 months after he left the district in September 1994, with the last check going out this past June.

In the early '90s, as Texas debated ways of leveling the differences between rich and poor school districts, the Hutch became a handy stop for reporters looking for an example of "property-poor" schools. In Wilmer-Hutchins--the storyline often would go--students in typing class were begging for working typewriters, while in property-rich Highland Park, they were booting up the latest PCs.

True, Wilmer-Hutchins' per-student tax base has been the lowest in Dallas County for decades. But even before school finance reform came into play, state funds were making up much of the gap.

In 1987, for instance, Wilmer-Hutchins' total revenue per pupil was higher than five of the 15 districts in Dallas County: Mesquite, Irving, Lancaster, Garland, and Grand Prairie. That year, Dallas had per-pupil revenues of $3,811, compared to $3,456 at Wilmer-Hutchins.

In 1995, with taxpayers in the wealthy Highland Park school district sending Wilmer-Hutchins $1.2 million under the state-mandated school financing scheme, Wilmer-Hutchins' per-pupil revenues came in at $4,867--higher than seven of the county's 15 districts, including DISD.

"It's not the money; it's the way they waste it," says Rick Mills, a Dallas attorney who is representing Roberts-Quintyn in a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the district. "If people in Highland Park saw how their money is spent, I think they'd be a little shocked."

Stepping back a bit, it is easy to see Wilmer-Hutchins' present troubles as a product of the district's history. The district is a misbegotten child, born of racial strife, segregation, and economic isolation.

One telling news item comes from September 1954, when about 100 black parents and children filed in to the district's then-all-white Linfield Elementary School and demanded they be allowed to register. According to the article in the Dallas Times Herald, the children's parents had gotten fed up with white cotton growers' practice of recessing the all-black Melissa Pierce School for September and October so the kids could pick the cotton harvest.

Wilmer-Hutchins turned the kids away, citing Texas' decision to continue operating segregated schools despite the U.S. Supreme Court's decision outlawing the practice earlier that year.

For the next 30 years, divisions over race would be the district's biggest torment.

In 1958, Wilmer-Hutchins schools had 577 black students and 1,746 whites. The numbers changed rapidly in the next decade as federal housing policies concentrated hundreds of black families into neighborhoods in the district's northern half.

The Dallas Housing Authority's low-cost single-family homes drew black families from less desirable public housing throughout Dallas. "You could buy a house here for $17,200," says district resident Gary Hill, who bought his in 1970. Terms typically were $500 down and something like $56 a month.

At first, the schools remained largely segregated along with the neighborhoods: whites to the south in Wilmer and Hutchins, blacks to the north in Dallas.

In February 1970, though, the white-dominated school board succumbed to federal pressure and approved a plan to bus children between the two districts. The next day, the board began trying to dissolve the Wilmer-Hutchins district. U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice halted that drive and a variety of other such attempts during the next 14 years.

In the summer of 1974, for instance, the towns of Wilmer and Hutchins voted to form their own school system. In a display that would have warmed George Wallace's heart, Hutchins Mayor Don Lucky and a small band of followers crossed their arms and took over Hutchins Elementary for their renegade district.

And eight years after busing began, white trustee Billy Kyser aligned himself with several black board members, saying whites "will have to realize blacks are going to be here with us." His Hutchins neighbors responded by hammering up a big wooden petition in front of his house that read: "Will You Resign, Bill Kyser?" The blank lines beneath it quickly filled up.

There never was any resolution of Wilmer-Hutchins' racial strife. White flight, which saw two out of three whites leaving the district in the early 1970s, simply rendered it moot.

"The only whites left around here are poor farmers, and they don't want to mess with those schools," says Sammy Tanner, who lost his seat on the Wilmer-Hutchins board in 1984 and was one of the last whites to hold a seat. In his view, theft and petty corruption have been longtime problems at Wilmer-Hutchins under both whites and blacks. "In the summer, the air conditioners disappear, and they go out and buy new ones. One year we bought 149 footballs."

The district has had policies governing procurement of supplies and hiring, says Tanner, who runs a sand and gravel pit midway between Wilmer and Hutchins. "But they don't get anybody in that administration to get people to follow them," he says.

In the early '80s, state education officials became alarmed with the district's educational programs and leadership squabbles, and an investigation turned up instances of nepotism and family members accompanying trustees on expensive trips. At the same time, students were going without supplies.

The Dallas County District Attorney's Office presented a grand jury "a lot of evidence involving travel and business practices," says former assistant prosecutor Ted Steinke. But no indictments were returned.

Wilmer-Hutchins' demographic shift led to a black majority on the board in the early 1980s that has remained solid. That majority engineered the selection of a black superintendent who, for a while, found ways to solve some of the district's problems.

Charles Matthews, a deputy superintendent from a small school district near Houston, took over as superintendent in 1984 and delivered it three years later to full accreditation.

Matthews is widely credited with having wiped some of the grime off the district's image, at least during the beginning of his 10-year term. He installed programs popular with working parents--including early-childhood development programs for 3-year-olds and Saturday tutoring--and had scattered success raising the district's scores on statewide tests. In 1991, he was named the Texas Association of School Boards' superintendent of the year.

"I will take the blame for what is good and bad in this district," Matthews told a meeting of Wilmer-Hutchins residents in July.

The handsome, square-framed 56-year-old pushed his hands into the pockets of his dark-blue double-breasted suit and added, "When I was here this district was in the best financial position of any low-wealth district in the state of Texas...The newspapers weren't out there killing us." Matthews declined to be interviewed for this story.

Not that all publicity during Matthews' regime was positive. The Dallas County District Attorney's Office investigated Wilmer-Hutchins several more times in the late '80s, looking into residents' allegations of fiscal mismanagement and theft. Again, no charges were brought.

By several accounts, Matthews wasn't beyond meddling in electoral politics himself to keep friendly faces on the board.

Dorthea Thomas, an affable woman whose political opinions hold some sway in her neighborhood, recalls how Matthews and trustee Eddie Washington came to her school in 1987 and pulled her out of the class in which she worked as a teacher's aide. "We went out to the Coke machine and Dr. Matthews bought me a Coke. He said, 'I'd love to see Mr. Warren back on the board. Do what you can do.'"

Thomas remembers that she preferred James Warren's opponent, so she agreed with Matthews but didn't follow through. In another election, she says, the principal of her school handed her a pile of leaflets making "dirty, filthy" attacks on a slate of candidates Matthews opposed, and asked her to hand them out.

Ironically, just a year after the school board association bestowed its award on Matthews, state education officials became concerned with student achievement in the district once again. Grades five, seven, nine, and 11 all were deemed to be low-performing on achievement tests, and state inspectors found that the district's plans to turn things around "lacked clear focus."

In the spring of 1993, the dropout rate in grades seven through 12 hit 19 percent. Only one out of seven eighth graders at Kennedy-Curry Junior High made the minimum passing score on all three sections of the TAAS test. A year later, the board sent Matthews packing, and then-board president Glenn Mills told reporters that miserable test scores were the reason for his departure.

But some say Mills had other, more serious reasons for maneuvering Matthews out--reasons that allegedly were discussed at an illegal meeting he had organized at trustee Joan Bonner's house. Bonner, a nurse, and former trustee Brenda Duff, a probation officer on disability, say they were both newly elected, and nobody had bothered to explain to them that a majority of the board could only discuss business at publicly posted meeting times. Mills obviously knew, they say. He hid his car when he came to Bonner's house.

During the meeting, Duff recalls, Mills painted Matthews as a womanizer. An employee had filed a sexual harassment grievance against Matthews that summer, and the board members discussed it that day.

In a written complaint to Matthews, payroll clerk Sharon Rosales said: "I have had you ask if you could run your fingers through my hair; I have had you ask me to go to lunch with you...I have had you ask if my husband beat me and if so, if I enjoyed it, because you felt that a lot of women get turned on by this."

Rosales also accused Matthews of making ethnic slurs. "I have dealt with you asking what 'Poncho' had for breakfast...I have had you ask how big 'Poncho' was, because all Mexican men were either short and fat or tall and skinny."

In a July 11 letter to Matthews, Mills wrote that the board had determined that "some of her [Rosales'] allegations are credible." The letter urged Matthews to change his ways, and informed him that the complaint would become part of his permanent record, pending his appeal.

A letter from the district's lawyer to Rosales six months later states that Matthews had wanted to rebut her allegations, but had since left the district. The board considered the matter closed.

The board's current squabbles stem from Matthews' ouster, which Lunita White and others refused to accept. The split vote to hire his successor early last year foreshadowed the hellish infighting to come.

The new superintendent was Delores Roberts-Quintyn, who was promoted from her position as the district's research director. Although an insider herself, Roberts-Quintyn pushed during her first several months to replace Matthews' top managers, and provoked an open bureaucratic war.

"There was resentment, yes," says Mills, who was Roberts-Quintyn's chief supporter on the board. Anyone replacing the old Matthews people was dubbed an outsider, he adds. "I heard the statement, 'Dallas rejects.' All she is bringing in are 'Dallas rejects.'"

As the new superintendent hired principals and directors of curriculum and personnel, the board refused to let the old people go.

There was J.C. Ryan, for instance, a 20-year employee and former football coach, whom Matthews had put in charge of Kennedy-Curry two years earlier in response to the miserable test scores. In Ryan's two years, however, the school remained overrun with gangs, and test scores didn't improve enough to shake the "low performing" tag. "Every morning you'd see 20 or 30 kids get off the bus and skip out," recalls Mollye Banks, a neighbor who volunteered at the school. "Nobody did a thing to stop them."

Says Ryan, who was found chain-smoking outside the administration building during a recent board meeting, "You can't do nothing overnight. These things take time."

With his gravelly voice and demeanor--not to mention his old white T-shirt and slouchy pants--he seemed more like a guy who ran a union hall than a school. Asked to recall some things about the district's past, Ryan recounted a time in the '70s when the superintendent sent around a "bagman" on payday to take his cut from the employees.

Roberts-Quintyn says the hard time she had replacing incompetent, entrenched cronies was only one way the board's opposing camp fought progress. Ultimately, she says, that faction went after her throat.

In a detailed memo dated February 12, the newly hired junior-high principal, Dianna Masters, described to Roberts-Quintyn a conversation she'd had in November with Luther Edwards, who had lost his board seat the previous May. "He said he needed to get back on the board as soon as possible to help get rid of you and bring back the former superintendent," Masters wrote. "He said no one was going to prevent the board members from running the district the way they saw fit, and that the current board members did not back you as superintendent."

Later that month, trustee Brenda Duff resigned, and the Lunita White board faction recruited Edwards to take her place. The votes against Roberts-Quintyn were all lined up, and people began placing bets that she wouldn't last until the end of the year.

The wager was a loser, though. It took six more weeks.
In early January, the board under White's functional control asked its longtime auditor, Dodd & Associates, to check into a number of irregularities in finances, including reports that at least three employees in the business office had paid themselves excessive overtime.

To Mills and members of his camp, the audit was designed as the missile to sink Roberts-Quintyn's regime rather than get to the bottom of potential criminal activity. To White and her allies, the audit pointed out Roberts-Quintyn's clear weakness as a manager of the district's business side.

There's evidence of truth in both views.
The audit, which uncovered $141,000 in questionable expenditures, detailed cases of business office employees paying themselves large amounts of overtime, unapproved purchases of such things as TVs and VCRs, and instances of district equipment--including $75,000 in football equipment--being stolen without anyone so much as filing a report.

The audit also pointed out how the piling up of staff had increased the district's payroll costs by more than $1.3 million, or more than 10 percent, in one year.

The district was running nearly $2 million in the red. It didn't help that the state had discovered Wilmer-Hutchins had been overestimating its attendance numbers, and wanted $1.5 million in state aid paid back.

Within weeks of the board's vote to put Roberts-Quintyn on involuntary leave, she filed a breach-of-contract suit that, at times, sounds like something out of an espionage novel. She claims that the board majority wanted her out so it could gain control of district files and purge them "of documents reflecting past wrongful, improper transactions." In depositions for that suit, several witnesses complain of late-night document-shredding in the days after the superintendent's removal. And board members Glenn Mills and Betty Williams say in sworn statements that they are certain the administration building is bugged.

T.E.A. officials turned up their scrutiny of the district last fall, ordering an accreditation review when Kennedy-Curry Junior High registered its third straight year as a "low-performing campus."

According to T.E.A. reports, the district bought itself some time by installing Dianna Masters as principal at the start of the school year.

Masters, who came from Duncanville, set out to bring order to the campus and installed a system of student ID badges to weed out strangers. She outlawed bandannas and gang clothes and invited two on-campus police officers to issue citations, which required parents to go to court and potentially pay a $250 fine if their children were caught fighting in school.

"When kids know what to expect, and there are punishments and rewards, they respond," says Gina Darez, an eighth-grade math teacher. She says Masters' approach brought an orderly atmosphere in which kids began to learn.

The trouble was, it wasn't an environment conducive to certain board members helping their friends.

Masters found that out after she got rid of one of two Dallas police officers assigned to patrol her campus. The man had no respect for her authority, she says. The problem was that the cop was a buddy of then-trustee Brenda Duff's husband. And in the Hooterville that Wilmer-Hutchins often resembles, it was as if someone had canned Uncle Joe. Several board members turned against Masters, the woman the state was counting on to turn around the district's worst school.

"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]."

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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