W-H school opens; But lack of fire alarm, inspection nearly shut its doors hours later

By Joshua Benton and Herb Booth
Staff Writers

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Classes at Wilmer-Hutchins High School nearly came to a sudden halt Tuesday – only a few hours after they began.

District officials failed to repair the school’s faulty fire alarm system or seek a fire inspection before opening the school to students. Dallas fire officials threatened to shut the school down unless the district fixed the problem immediately or paid $50 an hour for a fire inspector to be stationed on campus.

“It’s truly a recipe for tragedy,” said Capt. Jesse Garcia, a Dallas Fire-Rescue spokesman.

Meanwhile, the district has suspended its chief financial officer, but officials were mum on the reason.

And auditors from the Texas Education Agency have decided to extend their stay in the district indefinitely, saying they have not been able to gather the financial information they need.

Tuesday was supposed to be a day of celebration at Wilmer-Hutchins High. It was the first day since spring that the entire student body was assembled under one roof.

A summer storm and years of maintenance neglect left the high school in unusable shape when classes were scheduled to begin Aug. 16. Roof leaks, roaches and mold made the school a health hazard.

Seniors began school on time at another district campus. Underclassmen started school a week late and have been bused between several campuses since.

OK from health officials

The district completed repairs and cleanup last week and got the OK from health officials to move students back in Tuesday. But no one notified Dallas Fire-Rescue.

“Wilmer-Hutchins did not tell us they were planning to bring the kids back into the school, like they were supposed to,” Capt. Garcia said. “One of our inspectors was watching the news and heard that they were reopening the school. He took it upon himself to see if the repairs were done to the alarm system at the school. They were not.”

An electrical panel that works with the alarm system had been damaged in the summer storm’s aftermath.

With no functioning alarm, fire officials instituted a “fire watch,” in which a fire inspector stays on campus as long as it is occupied and watches for signs of fire. The department charges $50 an hour for a fire watch.

There was some question Tuesday afternoon whether the district could afford the watch. It owes about $900,000 to vendors and missed payroll last month. Until a new infusion of state money arrives next week, Wilmer-Hutchins is short on cash.

But Nate Carman, the school’s principal, said the district would pay. He said he hoped the fire alarm company could complete repairs by early today.

Until this week, financial questions – such as whether the district could afford a fire watch – were answered by Phillip Roberson, the district’s chief financial officer. But Dr. Roberson was suspended Monday, several people in the district said.

Charles Matthews, the district’s superintendent, said through another district official Tuesday that he did not have time to talk to reporters. But he had discussed the possibility of removing Dr. Roberson from his post in recent weeks.

Finances in disarray

The district’s finances are in chaos. Dr. Roberson has several times recently said that he did not know the size of the school district’s deficit. Dr. Roberson and his attorney could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Earlier this month, school trustees hired consultant James Damm to fix the district’s finances. But he is on a multiweek vacation scheduled before Wilmer-Hutchins sought his services. So his temporary replacement is consultant Bill Goodman, a former school financial officer in Irving and a TEA official.

“I’m trying to fill in for Mr. Roberson,” Mr. Goodman said. “I’m trying to get a handle on where things are and take a look at what we can do.” He said he would be examining the district’s payroll, transportation and custodial costs, among other things.

He said it would probably take at least three years for the district’s fund balance to return to healthy levels.

Figuring out the scope of the district’s financial problems is the task of the TEA audit team, which arrived in the district Aug. 30. Originally, auditors said they would stay about a week. But Tuesday, a TEA representative said they would be staying indefinitely. One reason: to provide assistance to the multiple law-enforcement agencies investigating the district.

“As long as law enforcement is involved, the auditors will be there,” spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said.

She said auditors had been having more trouble than expected tracking down the financial information they needed to perform a thorough audit. Several district employees are being investigated on allegations that they destroyed financial records before auditors could find them.

Staff writer Jason Trahan contributed to this report.

Early W-H vote sparse; Apathy over Saturday’s bond proposal puzzles county election chief

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Despite all the hubbub in Wilmer-Hutchins schools over the last month – an FBI raid, a flooded high school, a bank account unexpectedly empty, teachers working unpaid – voters aren’t rushing to the polls.

Only 161 people voted early for Saturday’s $68 million bond election, which both supporters and opponents are calling a referendum on the troubled district’s leadership. That puts Wilmer-Hutchins on pace for a total voter turnout of around 5 percent – half of what’s normal for a school board election in the district.

“I don’t understand it,” said Bruce Sherbet, the Dallas County elections administrator. “Normally you need a hot-button issue to get people interested, but I can’t imagine a button hotter than this.”

Habitually low turnout is one of the many problems the district has had over the years. In Wilmer-Hutchins, a candidate’s defeat at the polls isn’t the end of a campaign. It’s often just the start of lawsuits, ethics complaints and accusations from all sides.

“Every election we hold down there is problematic,” said Mr. Sherbet, who has run Wilmer-Hutchins’ races since the early 1990s. “It’s the most challenging place of all the jurisdictions we hold elections for. You just build time into your planning process for all the accusations and challenges and complaints.”

The latest dispute involves Vornadette Brewer and Debra Harwell, who were elected to their first term on the board in May. But a pair of lawsuits filed in June by their defeated opponents contend that neither lived in the district at the time.

Who lives where?

The suit against Ms. Brewer was filed by Brenda Duff and Johnnie Goins. G. Virginia Hill filed the suit against Ms. Harwell. Plaintiffs in both cases say they have evidence proving that the board members reside inside Dallas Independent School District boundaries.

The defeated opponents are represented by Phillip Layer, a Dallas attorney who represents several plaintiffs suing Wilmer-Hutchins schools, including the district’s police chief, Cedric Davis.

“They were not qualified to vote in the election, let alone to run in the election,” Mr. Layer said.

Ms. Harwell is represented by James Belt, who is also the school district’s chief attorney. He would not say whether he was representing Ms. Harwell in his capacity as the district’s lawyer or if she was a private client.

The agenda for Monday’s board meeting listed the two lawsuits as subjects for discussion with Mr. Belt during closed session.

Ms. Brewer’s attorney, Linda Sorrells, said it was her policy not to comment on ongoing litigation and that she advised her clients to do the same. Ms. Brewer and Ms. Harwell could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Belt said blame for the district’s election troubles should be put at the feet of those who oppose the district’s administration. Ms. Duff, for example, has lodged criminal complaints, lawsuits and other legal instruments against district leaders over the last decade.

“If you want to know why there are bunch of lawsuits, ask the people who keep filing them,” Mr. Belt said.

But Ms. Duff – who is Chief Davis’ mother – said she was exercising her rights. “They file just as many lawsuits as I do,” she said.

Perhaps the most involved dispute in recent Wilmer-Hutchins history came in 2000, when Ms. Duff opposed Mr. Edwards for a board seat. In the May election, Ms. Duff won by 643 to 639. But Mr. Edwards sued, A judge found that six votes had been cast illegally and ordered a new election.

The two faced off again in November and, again, Ms. Duff appeared to win – this time by 80 votes. But the next day, county officials recounted the ballots and found an error in the totals reported from one precinct. Fixing the error credited Mr. Edwards with 121 more votes, turning him into a 41-vote winner.

Once the error was discovered, Mr. Sherbet called a meeting of the candidates and their attorneys.

“It was the most volatile, heated, scary meeting I ever sat in,” he said. “People were screaming at each other.”

Nothing new

Questions with elections aren’t new in Wilmer-Hutchins. In 1981, a state district court judge threw out the results of a board election after determining 500 of the 872 votes cast were improperly cast. Elections were contested particularly fiercely as white and black trustees battled for control of the district during desegregation.

Candidates have also been the regular subject of several complaints to the Texas Ethics Commission. In the last year, three former board candidates – including trustee Joan Bonner, an ally of Ms. Duff’s – have been cited for violating campaign finance disclosure laws.

The enmity between Ms. Duff and Mr. Edwards has not dimmed much since then. On Monday, Ms. Duff addressed trustees during the meeting’s public comment period. She began to angrily criticize Ms. Brewer for allegedly not living in the school district.

Ms. Brewer is Mr. Edwards’ sister-in-law.

“You’re attacking her!” Mr. Edwards said. Board policy allows public comment at meetings unless those remarks “attack the character of employees or board members.” Mr. Edwards then ordered Dallas County deputies to remove Ms. Duff.

“I’ll see you in court, Mr. Edwards,” Ms. Duff said as she was escorted out. “You can be assured of that.”

W-H board is urged to step down; Two African-American groups attend tense, rowdy meeting

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The leaders of two African-American groups – the New Black Panther Party and the Southern Christian Leadership Council – told Wilmer-Hutchins school board members Monday that they should consider resigning as a group.

“It would be in the best interest of the children that you immediately step down,” said Joyce Foreman, president of the Dallas chapter of the SCLC, the group the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once led.

“Get it right or get gone,” said Derick Brown, head of the local branch of the New Black Panthers, which views itself as the descendent of the black power group active in the 1960s and 1970s. “I think you all need to do your job for the best interest of the kids, not for the best interests of yourselves.”

Both spoke at a sometimes-rambunctious board meeting that included a near-brawl, the attempted censure of a school board member and plenty of tension.

“I tell people, instead of spending money and going to the zoo, just get yourself a bag of popcorn and a drink and come to a board meeting,” trustee Joan Bonner said. “It’s just as entertaining.”

Ms. Bonner herself was listed as an item of discussion on the meeting agenda. The board was asked to consider, in closed session, censuring her on allegations of official misconduct.

Ms. Bonner has been the only board member to consistently oppose decisions of the troubled district’s administration and its board leadership.

Ms. Bonner objected to not being told about the allegations of misconduct against her before the meeting, and she said it might be illegal to discuss it in closed session. She asked that the discussion be aired publicly.

Board President Luther Edwards then presented the case against her: a complaint from a school principal that Ms. Bonner had visited a school building unannounced Aug. 11.

“I do not like her going in and questioning my staff,” wrote Stacey Maxwell, principal of A.L. Morney Learning Center.

Ms. Bonner said the misconduct allegations were the latest in a series of attempts by district leaders to ostracize her.

“I’m going to continue to visit any school I want to,” she said. “I’ll be there tomorrow.”

The board then voted 7-0 to remove the Bonner item from the agenda.

A physical conflict nearly broke out between the district’s police chief, Cedric Davis, and a man in the audience who supports Superintendent Charles Matthews. Chief Davis has investigated allegations of corruption in Dr. Matthews’ administration.

Wilmer-Hutchins schools are under investigation by the FBI, the Texas Rangers, the Texas Education Agency and state and federal grand juries.

The district ran out of money last month and could not pay teachers. Because of poor maintenance and a summer storm, classes still have not begun at the district’s main high school building, almost a month into the school year.

The New Black Panther Party has made appearances at Dallas school board meetings in recent years and has sometimes been disruptive. Panthers were not involved in any disturbances Monday night.

At Dallas board meetings, the Panthers have typically spoken as members of the public, during the same public comment time all residents are allowed. At Monday’s meeting, Mr. Brown spoke at the invitation of Dr. Matthews and was not limited to three minutes, as other residents were.

Most board members said they would not resign and wanted to focus on the bond election.

Voters in the district will be asked to approve a $68 million bond issue Saturday, and much of the discussion was aimed at promoting or opposing the bond issue.

“You people have proved you are not concerned about the welfare of the children in this district,” said Clara McDade, a bond opponent.

One of the bond’s supporters was Ron Price, a trustee of Dallas Independent School District.

“I extend the assistance of DISD to help you however we can,” he said. “We’re here to help you. I ask you to dig down deep in your hearts and keep the focus on the children.”

A lesson in dying; Once a refuge from AIDS, Zambia’s schools are now its latest victims

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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LUSAKA, ZAMBIA – His immune system buckled from tuberculosis. His weight slid to 84 pounds. But Ackim Sakala, a man whose life is built around sharing knowledge, knew he had to keep a secret.

“As soon as people know you have HIV, you are put on a death list,” said Mr. Sakala, a seventh-grade teacher here in the Zambian capital. “You are considered a dead person. People are not ready to know.”

He tried to convince people that his TB was just TB, not a sign that the virus that causes AIDS was racking his body. He never told his students the reason he missed eight months of school, lying in bed and coughing up blood.

The schools of southern Africa were once held up as a great hope against the disease, which now infects almost one in five adult Zambians. Schools were the place where children could learn about the disease and how to avoid it.

But now, Zambia’s education system has been one of the institutions hardest hit by AIDS. Mr. Sakala is one of thousands of Zambian teachers fighting AIDS. By some measures, teachers here are more likely to have the disease than those who are less educated. Their illnesses have left classrooms empty and children fending for themselves.

“Our education system has collapsed,” said Kenneth Kaunda, who was Zambia’s president for its first 27 years as an independent nation.

When Zambia gained independence from Britain in 1964, Mr. Kaunda’s government made major investments in education, using revenue raised in the nation’s copper mines. The number of university-educated black Zambians increased from 100 to 35,000.

“And then came AIDS,” he said. “It has hit hard on teachers. All these graduates, a good number of them are gone. I meet some of them when I go to South Africa, Lesotho, places they have moved to. But most of them are in the grave because of HIV/AIDS.”

At Silverest Basic School, a 1,000-student campus on the Great East Road outside Lusaka, headmaster Harrison Mwaanga counts his blessings: “This year we have been fortunate – no teachers have died.”

In the past few years at Silverest, at least six young teachers – four female, two male – have died of AIDS or what colleagues suspected was AIDS. (The disease brings stigma to those who have it in Zambia, so few people are open about their status.) Three female students have died of tuberculosis, a disease that often attacks the weakened immune systems of AIDS sufferers in southern Africa.

The last teacher to die at Silverest was Charity Mwansa, who taught history and home economics.

“She was a very good teacher – loose, funny,” said 18-year-old Beatrice Muzyemba, who was one of Ms. Mwansa’s students. “She wasn’t all that strict. I remember everything from her class.”

Beatrice said even though there was never any formal announcement of the cause of Ms. Mwansa’s death, “We all knew. She had been suffering for a long time. She seemed devastated by it. I would have killed myself.” Ms. Mwansa left behind a 3-year-old child.

It’s notoriously difficult to get accurate statistics on infection rates in Africa. Depending on whose research you believe, between 16 and 22 percent of Zambian adults are HIV positive, a range that has remained largely unchanged for a decade.

Estimates of the infection rate among teachers have been at or above the national average. One study found the death rate among young Zambian teachers was 70 percent higher than the national average.

“I definitely believe the infection rate is higher among teachers,” said Elijah Mwaba, a 20-year teacher and founder of the Teachers Against HIV/AIDS Network. “We are a very vulnerable group.”

Mr. Mwaba said he had recently been in Livingstone, a tourist city of about 80,000 people. In the previous year, 27 teachers had died of AIDS there. Mr. Mwaba said he had lost five “very close friends” – fellow teachers all – over the same span.

“It is a disaster,” Mr. Kaunda said. “Zambia’s education system in three, four, five years – unless we do something to repair the damage – we are in real trouble. I don’t think we have a future in education.”

While research into the subject is limited, educators offer a few possibilities why teachers appear to be at higher risk. Teachers, while paid only about $1,000 a year, are considered prominent local citizens, particularly in rural areas. That can make them more appealing to members of the opposite sex.

“The country looks up to them, and they have an income,” said Barbara Chilangwa, Zambia’s minister of education. “As a result, they may be more likely to have more than one sexual partner.”

They’re also more mobile than most Zambians, who often spend their entire lives living in a single village. A typical teacher might grow up in one village, attend teacher training college in a distant city, and then be assigned by the Ministry of Education to a teaching job in another village far from home. After a couple of years, the ministry often moves them again. All that movement increases the likelihood that teachers will have multiple sexual partners, some say.

A teacher’s early death isn’t the only way that the disease can affect education. Before they die, teachers typically have several months-long spans of illness, usually from opportunistic infections such as tuberculosis or malaria.

Schools react in a variety of ways. Sometimes they merge classes together, putting 100 or more students in a single room.

“That’s not teaching,” said Musukuma Denson, the senior teacher at Silverest. “That’s doing what you can.”

Other times, class is simply canceled until the teacher is well enough to return. Peter Chanda, a ninth-grade teacher who is HIV-positive, missed most of the last school year when he had a particularly bad case of tuberculosis and sores covered parts of his body. “I was down for six months,” he said. His students didn’t have a substitute and were expected to teach themselves and each other. Few even bothered to take the national exams at year’s end.

“Last year, my math teacher died,” said Ivor Telebwe, a 19-year-old 12th-grader at Kabulonga Boys School in a Lusaka suburb. “He died of AIDS. We knew it.” He wasn’t replaced for three weeks, canceling class. Most of the students failed the national math exams because of it, he said.

Even before the teacher died, he’d missed several months while bedridden. “Even when he was in class, he was too depressed and slow to teach,” Ivor said. “You felt bad if you asked him questions.”

But some teachers do more harm when they come to school than when they stay home. Sexual relationships between teachers and students are, while not exactly the norm, not rare in Zambia. Many educators worry that teachers may be spreading the virus to a new generation.

Students at several schools said relationships between male teachers and female students are an accepted part of school. Ivor said the math teacher who died “went out with a lot of the girls at school. We knew those girls are probably infected, so we know to stay away from them.”

High school girls said they have to remain on watch for teachers. Monica Phiri, an 18-year-old student at Kabulonga Girls School, said her art teacher recently approached her.

“He started looking at me strangely, telling me to stay behind class. I told my friends about it. He told me he wanted a relationship. ‘This could turn into marriage,’ he said. Imagine hearing that! He just wanted to use me up!”

Nkole Chanda, another student at the school, said a teacher approached her before the national exams, a year-end rite of passage in Zambian schools. “He said, ‘I know you are scared about the exams,'” she said. “‘Don’t you want to see a copy of the test early? But there’s a condition: You have to go out with me.'”

Nkole said quite a few of her friends have dated and had sex with their teachers. “I tell them: ‘You don’t know how many girls he’s slept with,'” she said.

The girls who attend their school said the campus had developed a reputation. “People say if you want to get AIDS, go to Kabulonga Girls,” Monica said.

“The teacher-pupil relationships are a big problem,” said Remmy Mukonka, a music teacher who founded the Anti-AIDS Teachers Association of Zambia. “It’s a vicious chain of HIV/AIDS.”

Ms. Chilangwa, the education minister, said teacher-student relationships aren’t common. “I don’t want to put a picture that this happens a lot – we condemn it strongly,” she said. “But the teacher in a rural area may be the only person with an income. So the young girls might want to have relations with them.”

Official policy is that a teacher caught with a student is fired. But Ms. Chilangwa said that’s rare.

One of the most popular songs in Zambia is “Aticha,” performed by 32-year-old rapper MC Wabwino. It attacks teachers who have relationships with their students. He said he wrote the song after hearing about a Lusaka girl giving birth to a child fathered by her teacher.

“A lot of people have been secretive about it,” he said. “Now people are more aware. Girls are very vulnerable. Especially in a rural area, where a teacher is considered something of a god.”

After he recorded the song, he got mostly support from teachers and parents. “I heard from one teacher who called and condemned me for the song. But the majority of teachers support me. They know what their colleagues do. It’s not something that a lot of teachers do. But some do.”

Some Zambians say the arrival of AIDS has led men to seek younger sex partners. A young girl is less likely to be HIV-positive, reducing a man’s risk of contracting the virus. In addition, a myth persists in some circles that a man with AIDS can be “cleansed” by having sex with a virgin – in some cases an infant.

“Some people think that to rape a child is a sure way to cure AIDS,” Mr. Kaunda said. “They cannot think of anything else. It’s a very terrible thing. Someone has gone mad.”

At Silverest, Beatrice Muzyemba and her friend Samuel Tembo, 20, didn’t like the way some male teachers were acting toward girls. Since they’re both active in the school’s drama club, they decided they would try to get their message across through a play.

Beatrice played a schoolgirl who had done something wrong. Tembo played a teacher.

“I was supposed to be punished for what I had done,” Beatrice said. “He told me to come to his office. He told me instead of a punishment, I could have another option and have sex with him.”

In the play, Beatrice gives in to the teacher’s demands and contracts HIV.

They put on the play in front of the entire school, including all the teachers. Beatrice said she couldn’t tell if it had made a difference in any teacher’s actions, but that a few teachers seemed “uncomfortable.”

Zambians are tackling the problem of AIDS in schools in a number of ways. Mr. Mukonka’s group is launching a project to put boxes of condoms in the faculty bathrooms of Zambian schools. But he said they run into opposition from some headmasters: “They say, ‘If there are condoms in the schools, the teachers will just use them on my students!’

“We tell teachers: The students need you. They need you in the classroom, healthy and teaching. Use a condom.”

Mr. Mwaba’s group leads AIDS education programs for teachers and others around the country. But he’s found teachers sometimes aren’t willing to view themselves as at risk of infection. “Most of them believe HIV is for the rich, the gays or people in town,” he said. “People who are not educated respond more positively to AIDS information than those who are not educated.”

Government officials encourage all Zambians to be tested for HIV – indeed, some leaders are now calling for mandatory testing nationwide. But some teachers are still fearful of what a test might tell them.

“I’ve never been tested,” said Clementine Chama, a teacher at Kaunda Square Basic School in Lusaka, where she heads the student Anti-AIDS Club. “Once you are told you have HIV, very few will accept you.”

She told a story about a teacher at the school. “A girlfriend of his had died of the disease, and he was thinking maybe he had the same disease,” she said. “He wanted to be tested. I advised him to think twice about the consequences. He decided not to get tested.”

Finally, the government announced last year that it would, for the first time, make available to some teachers the antiretroviral drugs that have prolonged the lives of thousands of HIV-positive people in Western nations. But Ms. Chilangwa said there were funds available to supply drugs to only about 150 teachers nationwide. By some estimates, there are more than 10,000 teachers with HIV in Zambia.

How will the drugs be distributed? “First-come, first-served,” she said. “I can’t think of any other way.”

Staff Writer Joshua Benton spent six weeks in Zambia last fall on a Pew Fellowship in International Journalism. More stories and photos from his trip are posted on his blog at www.zambiastories.com.

FBI, Rangers seize W-H documents; Agents interview officials, serve subpoenas; federal grand jury opens inquiry

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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FBI agents and Texas Rangers seized documents and served subpoenas at Wilmer-Hutchins school administration buildings Thursday, and a federal grand jury investigation is under way.

Investigators from both agencies interviewed top district officials at Wilmer-Hutchins headquarters. It’s the latest expansion of a broad corruption inquiry that also includes the Texas Education Agency, the U.S. attorney’s office, the county district attorney’s office and the district’s own police department.

Among the subjects under scrutiny: an unexplained hole in the district’s $20 million budget, a possibly illegal $500,000 loan, and allegations of double payments and document shredding.

“I open my arms to them,” Superintendent Charles Matthews said shortly after he was interviewed by two agents. “I’m glad they’re here.”

The FBI and Rangers would not detail what subpoenas were issued, what documents were seized or the targets of their investigation. FBI spokeswoman Lori Bailey said agents were at both the district’s main administration building on Illinois Avenue in Dallas and its maintenance building on Millers-Ferry Road.

The presence of the FBI brought back memories for some Wilmer-Hutchins veterans. In 1996, a joint team of FBI and IRS agents raided district headquarters and seized documents. A few months later, the Texas Education Agency took over the district and ran it for the next two years.

But that FBI investigation returned no indictments. One board member said that she hoped this time would be different.

“Someone should be held accountable this time,” said trustee Joan Bonner, who was also a board member in 1996. “I’m just hoping and praying that it will be different this time. To be totally honest, they’re going to have to make an example out of someone.”

Dr. Matthews said agents did not tell him what, specifically, they were investigating. But he said he believed among the subjects is the alleged theft of a check signature plate from the district’s payroll office in July. A signature plate is a device that automatically prints officials’ signatures, and it could be used to print fake checks.

Dr. Matthews said two agents interviewed him for about 30 minutes, then spoke to Phillip Roberson, the district’s chief financial officer. Through a subordinate, Dr. Roberson said he had no comment.

The district’s payment processes have come under scrutiny in recent months. In May, Wilmer-Hutchins Police Chief Cedric Davis turned over information to the Dallas County district attorney’s office alleging a variety of crimes. Among them was the issuance of multiple checks to cover the same expenditures.

In just over a year, the district has gone from a $1.6 million fund balance to a deficit of undetermined size. Texas Education Agency auditors arrived last week to determine the size of the hole and how best to reverse the outward flow of money. TEA could decide to take over the district in the next few weeks.

Dr. Matthews issued a memorandum to all district staff informing them of the investigation and ordering them not to “move, destroy, or tamper with any records. … It is a federal offense for you to disobey this directive.”

Last week, a district employee filed a police report saying she had witnessed Wilmer-Hutchins’ maintenance director destroying documents under direct orders from Dr. Matthews. The Dallas County district attorney’s office has added the alleged document tampering to the other issues it is investigating.

In his note, Dr. Matthews also said a federal grand jury is investigating the district.

The check signature plate went missing July 26, according to a Dallas police report filed by district officials, but it wasn’t reported until Aug. 2.

“It just disappeared,” Dr. Roberson said Monday. He said he knows of no evidence that the signature plates had been used to write any fake checks. Since the theft, the district has required handwritten signatures, he said.

Dallas police said they have not assigned a detective to the case. Sr. Cpl. Chris Gilliam said there is no physical evidence and there were no witnesses. No suspects have been identified, he said.

“If we get additional information on the case, it will be assigned to a detective,” he said.

Dr. Matthews said again Thursday he welcomes investigators to the district, whether they are from the TEA or law enforcement agencies. “Once they clear us of wrongdoing, we can move ahead,” he said. “If somebody’s guilty, they’ll pay the price.”

But the superintendent struck a different tone in an interview with African-American News & Issues, a weekly newspaper stacked on the front counter of the administration building.

In the current issue, Dr. Matthews is quoted as saying inquiries into district problems are the result of racist attitudes. The district’s population is about 60 percent black. All of the district’s top administrators and board members are black.

“This is the latest in blatant attacks on black-owned and black-run school districts,” the newspaper quotes him as saying.

Dr. Matthews also is quoted criticizing TEA intervention and media coverage.

“There is a plantation mindset here to return things to the way it used to be,” he is quoted as saying. “They want to make blacks look bad and intend to do this by embarrassing us, and destroying the reputations of the positive black role models.”

Dr. Matthews’ comments angered Ms. Bonner, one of Dr. Matthews’ critics.

“I am sick and tired of these incompetent people using the race card,” Ms. Bonner said. “The only people I see out here destroying this district are black like me. This is not black and white. This is about taking care of business.”

Staff writer Jason Trahan contributed to this report.

District seeking image repair; Consultants hired for finances, construction before bond election

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Looking for ways to improve its image with voters before next week’s bond election, Wilmer-Hutchins ISD hired consultants to manage its finances and construction Tuesday night.

District officials pledged the outsiders would ensure there would be no financial shenanigans in the district’s future.

“We want to earn the taxpayer’s trust,” board President Luther Edwards said. “We want voters to know that the projects they vote for are the projects that will be built.”

The school board voted 7-0 to hire Jim Damm, a former top business official with Plano, Highland Park and Dallas schools. Mr. Damm will be tasked with bringing order to the district’s financial operations.

Those hit a low two weeks ago when officials announced there was not enough money to meet payroll. A team of Texas Education Agency auditors is examining the district’s finances.

“The primary area we’ve discussed is making sure there is a good set of procedures and controls in place and that the system is maintained in a manner consistent with good business practices,” Mr. Damm said.

He said he would also work with a TEA conservator team if the state decides to take over the district later this month.

He said he was connected to the district through its financial adviser, First Southwest, and its bank, Bank of America. At the board meeting, Mr. Edwards said, “This is what our financial advisers are asking us to do.”

The district also voted to hire Gallagher Construction Management to run the building of three schools and renovation of others. Those improvements will be made only if voters approve the $68 million bond issue on the Sept. 18 ballot.

In other action, the board approved a lawsuit against TEA over a disputed $500,000 short-term loan Wilmer-Hutchins took out in June. TEA says the district paid back the loan illegally by dipping into its debt service fund – money that is only supposed to be used for paying off bond issues under state law.

Last month, the agency gave Wilmer-Hutchins until Aug. 31 to repay the loan from a legal source. The district did not have the money to do so. The lawsuit the board approved Tuesday will argue that the debt service fund was an appropriate source of money to repay the loan.

W-H accused of shredding files; Superintendent denies data related to ex-worker destroyed

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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An administrative assistant to Wilmer-Hutchins’ maintenance director said Tuesday that she watched her boss destroy a stack of purchase orders that he asked her to assemble.

She said the maintenance director, Wallace Faggett, said he was acting on direct orders from Superintendent Charles Matthews.

The district’s police chief confirmed that he found a stack of torn-up purchase orders in a trash bin behind the district’s maintenance building last Wednesday, matching the story of Walterine Hardin, the administrative assistant and a former internal auditor in the district.

Texas Education Agency auditors – already in the district investigating its finances – said that they have found evidence of document tampering and that a criminal investigation is under way.

After a board meeting Tuesday night, Dr. Matthews denied he had ordered any documents destroyed.

“No, never,” he said. “I’ve been very supportive of the TEA, and I’ve told my staff to do the same. We have nothing to hide.”

Mr. Faggett declined to answer questions about the destroyed documents.

The Dallas County district attorney’s office said it is leading a new multi-agency investigation into the allegations.

“We have received some additional information and are coordinating an ongoing investigation into various allegations of wrongdoing” in the district, spokeswoman Rachel Horton said.

She declined to say what other agencies were involved.

Ms. Hardin, a 10-year employee of the beleaguered school district, said she got a call last week from Mr. Faggett.

She said he told her “the superintendent wanted us to destroy some documents – anything with former maintenance director Gerald Henderson’s name on it.”

In a report Aug. 30, WFAA-TV (Channel 8) focused on why Mr. Henderson’s $30,000 annual salary remained in the district budget even though he has not worked since 2002 because of a disability.

The station also reported that Mr. Henderson’s signature was found on a Wilmer-Hutchins purchase order from April. Mr. Henderson said he did not sign the order.

Ms. Hardin said she did as she was told, gathered up a “medium stack” of purchase orders and handed them to Mr. Faggett. “He tore them up in front of us,” she said.

Ms. Hardin was the district’s internal auditor from 2002 until earlier this year, when she was reassigned as Mr. Faggett’s assistant.

She said that after talking with TEA representatives, they asked her to file a report with Wilmer-Hutchins ISD police.

Chief Cedric Davis confirmed the report was filed Wednesday. After receiving it, he and a TEA auditor went to the trash bin and found the torn documents. He said he found about 40 torn purchase orders with Mr. Henderson’s name on them, some recently signed. He said he turned the documents over to the district attorney’s office.

State law says it is a crime when a public employee “willfully destroys, mutilates, removes without permission … or alters public information.” Punishment can include a jail term of up to three months and a fine up to $4,000.

The TEA auditors arrived in Wilmer-Hutchins on Aug. 30 after a run of problems. First, storm damage and poor maintenance at the high school postponed the start of classes. Then, two weeks ago, the district ran out of money and couldn’t meet payroll.

On top of that are a host of other management problems and perhaps the worst academic track record of any district in the state.

Last week, Dr. Matthews pledged the district’s full and complete cooperation.

“They’ll get whatever information they want,” he said. “They are here to help us.”

The auditor’s job is taking longer than some in the agency had expected. TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said the auditors will remain in the district through this week and tentatively into next week.

Originally, TEA officials had said their on-site investigation could conclude in four or five days. But Tom Canby, TEA’s managing director of school financial audits, warned last week that it could take substantially longer than that.

This is not the first time document tampering has been alleged in the district. In 1996, federal agents from the FBI and IRS raided district headquarters and seized boxes of financial records. Agents interrogated employees about allegations of shredding, but no charges were filed.

A few months after that raid, TEA took over Wilmer-Hutchins, sending a state management team to run the district’s operations. TEA officials have said they will consider a similar takeover once the auditors have filed their final report.

W-H bond issue sparks fierce debate; Backers cite new-school needs; foes say district would squander funds

By Herb Booth and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

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A booming bass reverberated through the warm breeze: “Young man, vote for the Wilmer-Hutchins school district bond election.”

The voice emanated from a speaker attached to the top of a 1989 Ford Escort. Elijah McGrew, a parent in the beleaguered school district, is taking matters into his own hands and campaigning “the way we used to get the word out in the old days.”

Despite the latest fixes Wilmer-Hutchins officials have gotten themselves into – missed payroll, questionable loans, uninhabitable high school, law enforcement investigations – Mr. McGrew supports giving them permission to borrow $68 million for construction.

The district’s bond plan, set to go before voters Sept. 18, calls for an overhaul of nearly all the school buildings.

Two years ago, auditors said most of the school structures should be abandoned and razed.

“It’s very important to get the bond package passed,” Mr. McGrew said. “My interest is in the kids. Obviously, there are other issues. They’ll find out where the blame belongs and settle it. But we need these new schools for the kids.”

Lionel Churchill, leader and treasurer of a group called Wilmer-Hutchins ISD Concerned Citizens, says district leaders have proved unworthy of such trust.

“We’re not going to give this administration any more money to waste,” Mr. Churchill said. “If this group of people gets their hands on $68 million, you can kiss it goodbye.”

The bond proposal calls for construction of three new elementary schools, demolition of one campus, expansion of one campus and renovation of three others.

In 2002, Wilmer-Hutchins paid the Texas Association of School Administrators for a facilities study that offered plenty of evidence supporting the need. The report deemed many of the facilities unusable.

The high school building, which has not yet opened this school year because of maintenance problems stemming from a leaky roof, was judged the only structure worth saving.

School board President Luther Edwards said the bond proposal is an attempt to address concerns raised in the study.

“We applied for the state facilities allotment grant, but we were denied twice,” Mr. Edwards said. “We had no other recourse but to ask for the bond election.”

Except for the high school, built in 1982, Wilmer-Hutchins’ facilities are older than many district parents, even grandparents. Hutchins Elementary was built in 1902.

For the last several weeks, it has served as one of four campuses where high school students are attending.

‘False allegations’

Mr. Edwards said he hopes voters can see through all the recent bad headlines – he has repeatedly said they are fed by “false allegations” – to see students’ needs.

“God’s people know the truth,” Mr. Edwards said. “They know who’s stirring up the false allegations that have plagued this district and community. … They’ll see through the lies and negative things the media have put out there.”

Besides the leaky roof and delay of school for high school students, Wilmer-Hutchins is under scrutiny from the Texas Education Agency, the state Health Department, a grand jury and the Texas Rangers.

Two-thirds of employees were not paid recently because the district’s coffers were empty. The district’s top financial officer, Phillip Roberson, said in court that Wilmer-Hutchins is “pretty much broke.”

The district’s financial management is a rallying cry for the Concerned Citizens.

Mr. Churchill, one of Wilmer-Hutchins’ first black board members in the 1970s, got politically active after moving back to the district in 2001.

He said the current leaders – “a bunch of dishonest people,” he says – have shown they can’t handle the money.

“We have no personal animosity towards anyone – not even towards Superintendent Charles Matthews, as bad as he’s been,” Mr. Churchill said. “But you don’t want to keep getting bitten by the same problems. We need to come face to face with reality.”

At a meeting last week in a South Dallas community center, residents discussed strategies for defeating the bond proposal. The gathering had the feel of a nascent grass-roots political movement. About 15 people sat on metal folding chairs, divided stacks of brochures and discussed tactics for monitoring polling places on election day.

“If we can get a group of people who were educated in this district, who care about this district, to run for school board, we can change things,” said Donnie Foxx, who is considering a run next year. “We need to come together as a community.”

Increasing turnout

Group members said one goal is to increase voter turnout, typically paltry in Wilmer-Hutchins. Fewer than 400 people cast ballots in May’s school board elections.

“Tell your friends there’s no excuse not to vote,” Mr. Churchill said.

Beyond the bond election, Mr. Churchill’s group has another plan for repairing the district’s ills. He supports a petition campaign to dissolve the district entirely, merging it into Dallas ISD. But that effort takes a backseat to the bond election.

“I’m getting out of this district some kind of way,” said Bernice Marshall, a 42-year district resident, “even if I have to crawl.”

Lawyer’s ID called mistake

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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A lawyer who works with Wilmer-Hutchins attorney James Belt said she is to blame for a legal filing in which Mr. Belt’s name is attached to the state lawyer identification number of a dead man.

“It was a completely honest mistake,” said Thelma Clardy, a DeSoto City Council member who does legal work as a subcontractor to Mr. Belt. “There was no intention on Mr. Belt’s part or my part to commit any misdemeanor.”

A Dallas Morning News story Saturday detailed a series of disciplinary problems faced by Mr. Belt, chief attorney for the Wilmer-Hutchins school district. His law license has been suspended twice in the last three years.

A state comptroller’s report two years ago recommended that the district replace him because he charged the district too much money and he gave poor legal advice to the school board.

While Mr. Belt’s license was suspended last year, he was allowed to continue practicing law as long as he met certain conditions. In November, while he was under suspension, Mr. Belt’s name appeared on a court filing with the state bar number of O.E. Threlkeld, a Seguin lawyer who died in 1984.

Ms. Clardy said Saturday that she was responsible for the error. Ms. Clardy, who is co-counsel on the sexual harassment case in which the motion was filed, said she was rushed in writing the motion and tentatively filled in Mr. Threlkeld’s bar number, 20000000, instead of Mr. Belt’s.

“I was trying to get the pleadings filed, and I forgot to go back and put his actual bar card number,” she said. “It was a mistake.”

Ms. Clardy said that the mistaken bar number had been the subject of a grievance to the State Bar of Texas earlier this year and that the grievance had been dismissed. Representatives of the bar association were not available for comment Saturday.

W-H used suspended attorney; Exclusive: District’s counsel used identification number of dead lawyer at least once during suspension

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

The Wilmer-Hutchins school district’s chief attorney was suspended by the State Bar of Texas last year, and at least once during the suspension he used the state bar identification number of a lawyer who has been dead for 20 years.

Attorney James Belt has had his law license suspended twice since Wilmer-Hutchins hired him in 1998. On a court filing from November 2003, he used the bar number of O.E. Threlkeld, a Seguin lawyer whose legal career began in 1929.

“He’s not practicing from beyond the grave,” said W.C. Kirkendall, a lawyer and former colleague of the late O.E. Threlkeld.

Mr. Belt did not return calls seeking comment Friday.

He is a central figure in the troubled school district, where Texas Education Agency auditors have been investigating finances this week. Last month, school board President Luther Edwards said Wilmer-Hutchins is run by a “team of nine” – Superintendent Charles Matthews, the seven board members and Mr. Belt.

“Some districts talk about a ‘team of eight,'” Mr. Edwards said. “We call it a ‘team of nine’ because we include Mr. Belt.”

Two years ago, the Texas comptroller’s office recommended Wilmer-Hutchins hire a new in-house attorney to replace Mr. Belt – in part because he was charging Wilmer-Hutchins substantially more than lawyers in comparable districts do.

Mr. Belt has been publicly reprimanded by the state bar twice, according to bar records. In 1995, he broke a rule that required him to “take steps to … protect a client’s interests” after that client had stopped using Mr. Belt as her attorney.

In 1999, Mr. Belt violated rules requiring attorneys to keep their clients informed about the status of a case.

Those public reprimands did not affect his ability to practice law. But in 2001, he fell behind in paying his bar dues and a special state tax all attorneys must pay. As a result, he was suspended from September to December and banned from practicing law during that span.

But according to the bar association’s disciplinary records, he continued to do legal work for Wilmer-Hutchins. The district even renewed his contract for three additional years during his suspension.

Because he continued practicing law, an evidentiary panel of the state bar suspended Mr. Belt’s license to practice for six months in June 2003.

The panel also ruled that Mr. Belt’s suspension would be “fully probated.” That means he was allowed to continue practicing law during his suspension as long as he met a lengthy list of requirements. They included working under an attorney monitor, attending a course on better managing a law office and paying $1,500 in fees to the bar association.

Mark Pinckard, projects director for the bar’s Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel, said Mr. Belt apparently met those requirements without incident and had his full license returned in December 2003.

But on at least two legal filings Mr. Belt made during his 2003 suspension, he did not list his state bar number, the unique identifying mark of all Texas lawyers. Attorneys typically list the number on all motions and other court filings.

On one motion – an attempt to have a sexual harassment lawsuit against the district dismissed – Mr. Belt listed no bar number at all.

On another, again a sexual harassment case, Mr. Belt instead lists the bar number of Mr. Threlkeld, the Seguin lawyer, who would have turned 100 this year had he not died in 1984.

“He’d come down to the office an hour or two every day and visit around, then go home,” said Mr. Kirkendall, who joined Mr. Threlkeld’s firm in 1975, when the older lawyer had already retired.

“He was the quintessential avuncular Southern lawyer. Very slow and methodical. A prince of a fellow.”

It seems unlikely Mr. Belt chose Mr. Threlkeld’s bar number intentionally. He simply has an easy-to-remember number: 20000000. (Mr. Belt’s number is 02109300.)

While Mr. Belt’s name is listed with Mr. Threlkeld’s number, a third lawyer signed the motion. Thelma Sanders Clardy, a DeSoto City Council member and an associate on the case, signed for both herself and Mr. Belt. Ms. Clardy has done work for Wilmer-Hutchins since at least the late 1990s, according to the state comptroller’s office.

Mr. Pinckard said he did not know whether using another lawyer’s state bar number on a legal proceeding would, by itself, be a violation of the bar’s rules of professional conduct.

Mr. Belt’s disciplinary problems have not appeared to be a major problem for district leaders.

Mr. Edwards, the board president, said Friday that he was unaware of Mr. Belt’s difficulties with the state bar. “I don’t know anything about any suspensions,” he said. “That’s personal. You’d have to ask Mr. Belt about it. I don’t know about it.”

But Mr. Edwards was a board member in March 2002, when the state comptroller’s office released a comprehensive report on the district’s operations.

That review discussed Mr. Belt’s 2001 suspension and criticized the district for not checking the lawyer’s credentials before entering into a contract with him.

It also criticized the district for being too generous with Mr. Belt. It said a qualified in-house counsel should cost Wilmer-Hutchins about $79,000 a year, including benefits. At the time, Mr. Belt was making a base salary of $119,790 a year, under a contract that granted him an automatic 10-percent raise every September.

In addition, the contract says the district will pay all Mr. Belt’s work expenses, including secretarial services, phone bills and office equipment. The contract also requires the district to pay “reasonable costs, including tuition and travel” for Mr. Belt to attend seminars and workshops. The comptroller’s office said both of these requirements are “not standard practice among law firms.”

The comptroller’s report compared Wilmer-Hutchins to three districts it considered peers: DeSoto, Lancaster, and LaMarque. According to the data in the report, Wilmer-Hutchins spent more per-pupil on Mr. Belt in 1999-2000 than any of the peer districts did on their entire legal budgets.

One of the 98 recommendations made in the comptroller’s report was for Wilmer-Hutchins to sever its ties to Mr. Belt and hire a new in-house counsel to replace him – in part because Mr. Belt had apparently failed to inform board members that they were repeatedly breaking state laws regarding open records, illegal contracts and other matters.

The board’s reaction was to give Mr. Belt a three-year contract extension, to August 2007. In a follow-up report, the comptroller’s office said the district had not acted “in the spirit of the recommendation.”