By Joshua Benton
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.”
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.”