By Joshua Benton and Robert Tharp
Wilmer-Hutchins schools faced double scrutiny Tuesday: from the state, which announced a rare investigative audit into its finances, and from their own police chief, who alleged corruption among district leaders.
“I can promise you that TEA will act decisively and will do the right thing,” state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said after a high-level meeting of Texas Education Agency officials to discuss the district’s difficulties.
But she said she has a preference for solving problems at the local level.
“I know that as a former superintendent, I want to give districts every chance in the world to get things settled locally,” she said. “The state can’t run every district in the state.”
Cedric Davis, Wilmer-Hutchins school district police chief, testified before a Dallas County grand jury investigating allegations of wrongdoing in the district. Later, he told reporters of his allegations of corruption and graft against a number of Wilmer-Hutchins officials.
“Somebody has to be held accountable,” Chief Davis said as he left the Crowley Criminal Courts Building in Dallas. “If they’re indicted, I will definitely feel satisfied.”
Chief Davis declined to discuss his grand jury testimony in detail, but he said he’s hoping that the panel returns indictments against those responsible for the district’s financial mess.
“Right now, our kids are losing,” said Chief Davis, who has sued the district for firing him in June. He has since been reinstated by a judge.
Chief Davis outlined a number of accusations against district officials, including contracts not awarded through the legal bidding process, misuse of federal education funds and improper travel by trustees.
TEA officials said it is rare for Texas school districts to be in such poor financial shape that an investigative audit is necessary. Ed Flathouse, the associate commissioner for finance and compliance, said the state performs two or three a year in traditional school districts, with an additional half-dozen or so performed in charter schools.
Dr. Neeley, who took office in January, said she received a thorough briefing on the long history of problems in Wilmer-Hutchins schools Tuesday morning. “I just walked on the job, and I know there are two sides to every story,” she said.
Taking a close look
Dr. Flathouse said the Wilmer-Hutchins audit will begin Monday and will probably last a week. The district’s chief financial officer said the district would cooperate with the investigation.
“We don’t have anything to hide,” Phillip Roberson said. “Everything is open.”
Dr. Neeley said she had arranged for a team from the Texas Department of Health to inspect the district’s buildings for health concerns – primarily mold and mildew caused by recent maintenance problems.
The district’s most recent round of problems began Aug. 11, when Superintendent Charles Matthews announced that 2-month-old storm damage at Wilmer-Hutchins High School would delay the start of classes. Students are now in classes on other campuses around the district; officials say it could be another month or more before the high school is ready for students.
The high school’s underclassmen missed a week of classes in the shuffling between campuses. Dr. Flathouse said that the TEA had decided not to penalize the district financially for the missed week of classes and that students will not be required to make up the missed days for the district to get its regular state funding.
The district has also said it is $100,000 or more in the red and will probably have to take out a short-term loan to pay its bills during the next month.
Wilmer-Hutchins has been criticized for a weak academic record – perhaps the state’s worst. Dr. Neeley said that the new set of state ratings will be released at the end of September and that TEA may choose then to intervene on the academic side.
Chief Davis said the money problems are the fault of corrupt administrators and board members.
Texas school districts are required to seek competitive bids for expenditures of more than $25,000, but Chief Davis said district administrators knowingly circumvented the law in at least one case by awarding $61,000 in work to a roofing contractor who used two different business names to secure different work contracts.
“This guy ended up getting $61,000, and we still have leaking roofs,” Chief Davis said of the arrangement, which came before this summer’s maintenance problems at the high school.
Superintendent Matthews also appeared before the grand jury Tuesday but left the courthouse without commenting about his testimony or the district’s problems.
The grand jury isn’t the only legal venue in which Chief Davis and the district are at odds. In June, the school board voted to dissolve the district’s police department. The chief and three department employees then sued the district, contending that they had been wrongfully terminated.
Chief Davis also said in the lawsuit that he should be protected under Texas whistle-blower laws, which protect public employees who report corrupt activity in their organization. He said the department was dissolved in retaliation for investigative work he was doing within the district – including the fraud allegations he turned over to the Dallas County district attorney’s office.
On July 21, state District Court Judge Charles Stokes ruled that Chief Davis and the other plaintiffs “will probably prevail” when the case goes to trial, scheduled for October. As a result, he issued a temporary injunction requiring the district to rehire the employees and reconstitute the police department.