By Joshua Benton
Two check signature plates mysteriously reappeared in Wilmer-Hutchins administration offices Monday, answering one question but leaving open many others.
The plates, which according to a Dallas police report disappeared in late July, were used to automatically print board members’ signatures on district checks. They disappeared just as it was becoming apparent the district was rapidly running out of money.
On Monday afternoon, a district employee found them in a compartment of her desk.
“Someone put them there over the weekend,” said Jean Cox, the district’s payroll clerk. “I reached over into my cubbyhole, and I felt something. I said, ‘What is this?'”
Ms. Cox said she checks that spot in her desk regularly. “They were definitely not there on Friday.”
Charles Matthews, the district’s superintendent, did not return a phone call seeking comment Monday evening.
The missing plates have been one of the subjects of the Texas Rangers’ investigation into corruption allegations in Wilmer-Hutchins. Representatives of the district’s police force took possession of the plates Monday afternoon and turned them over to the Rangers, who will interview district employees about them today.
The signature plates had been missing since July 26, according to a Dallas police report filed by district officials, but it wasn’t reported until Aug. 2.
“It just disappeared,” Phillip Roberson, the district’s chief financial officer, said last month. Dr. Roberson has since been suspended with pay from his post.
He said at the time that the district has required handwritten signatures on all checks since the plates went missing. At that time, the plates had not been used to write checks, he said.
In the last year, Wilmer-Hutchins schools have gone from a $1.6 million fund balance to a net deficit. In August, the district ran out of money and couldn’t pay its teachers for several weeks.
Those financial problems and a host of other allegations have attracted scrutiny from a number of investigative bodies, including the FBI, the Rangers, the U.S. Department of Education, and state and federal grand juries.
At the time of the plates’ disappearance, Ms. Cox was on suspension. On July 8, Dr. Matthews suspended her with pay because of unspecified “possibly illegal payroll practices.” The suspension came one day after Ms. Cox had turned over subpoenaed documents to a Dallas County grand jury investigating payroll fraud in the district.
Ms. Cox said that Dr. Matthews had demanded that she sign a letter admitting illegal activities. “I hadn’t done anything,” she said. “They were trying to intimidate me.”
On Sept. 10, Ms. Cox received a letter from the district asking her to return to work. She said no one has told her the reason her suspension was lifted. “They couldn’t pin something on me,” she said.
But she said she doubted that the signature plates were really missing. “They know that wasn’t true,” she said. “That’s why they didn’t find them.”