By Joshua Benton
In August, Wilmer-Hutchins board President Luther Edwards described the troubled district’s leaders as a “team of nine” – the seven-member school board, Superintendent Charles Matthews and district lawyer James Belt.
On Monday, the team’s roster shrank to seven.
Under intense pressure from state officials, the school board fired Dr. Matthews, who was indicted last month on felony evidence-tampering charges and had been on paid leave since Nov. 1.
It also broke ties with Mr. Belt. But it took two votes and a direct order from the state-imposed management team to get it done.
“This district cannot achieve excellence unless it pursues excellence every step of the way,” state manager and local businessman Albert Black said.
After meeting for an hour in closed session, the board voted quickly and unanimously to put Dr. Matthews on unpaid leave.
On Nov. 1, board member Joan Bonner attempted such a move, but no other board member seconded her. Dr. Matthews was put on paid leave instead – a controversial move, considering Dr. Matthews’ $175,000 salary and the district’s struggles to pay its teachers and vendors each month.
But this time around, state officials had let it be known they wanted Dr. Matthews out.
“This was a position we wanted to take,” said Ron Rowell, senior director of school governance for the Texas Education Agency.
After voting to put Dr. Matthews on unpaid leave, the board voted 6-1 to fire him altogether. Under state law, Dr. Matthews will be able to appeal the decision to the TEA and will remain on the payroll until his appeals are exhausted.
“The bottom line is to put the Matthews era behind us,” interim Superintendent James Damm said.
The more contentious move involved Mr. Belt, the district’s $120,000-a-year attorney.
In September, The Dallas Morning News reported that Mr. Belt’s law license had been suspended twice since 2001. Mr. Belt continued to perform legal services during his first suspension, which led to the State Bar of Texas handing down the second suspension. He has had a number of other grievances filed against him with the bar association, two of which led to formal reprimands.
The board has been asked to remove Mr. Belt before. In 2002, a report by the state comptroller’s office said Wilmer-Hutchins was spending a disproportionate amount of its budget on legal fees, including unusual payments to Mr. Belt to pay for his office equipment and law library. It also said Mr. Belt provided poor legal advice.
The report said the district should fire Mr. Belt and hire an in-house counsel, which the comptroller’s office said would cost $79,000. Mr. Belt’s contract guarantees him $120,000 per year.
Failed termination vote
But the board took no action against Mr. Belt then, and it initially did the same Monday. When termination of Mr. Belt’s contract was put to a vote, it failed. Doris Strickland, Sha Brewer and Joan Bonner voted to terminate; Lamar Walton, Debra Harwell, Dortha Thomas and Mr. Edwards voted no.
Mr. Edwards quickly adjourned the meeting. But the state management team – Mr. Black and new member Michelle Willhelm – let it be known that it did not approve of the board’s decision.
Under state law, a management team can reverse nearly any decision of the board. But rather than use that tactic, Mr. Black simply ordered the board to sit back down, reconvene and vote again.
On the second try, Mr. Edwards switched his vote to yes. Ms. Harwell – whom Mr. Belt represents in a lawsuit questioning the validity of her election to the board – abstained.
The managers later said they were prepared to throw out the board’s second vote if it had not gone against Mr. Belt.
“We assumed they saw the obvious,” Ms. Willhelm said. “Some of the things that have happened in this district would not have occurred if the district had received better legal advice.”
Mr. Belt had no comment. Neither did Mr. Belt’s personal attorney, who was also in attendance.
The strongest dissenting voice Monday night belonged to Mr. Walton, who was the sole board member to vote against firing Dr. Matthews. He also voted against firing Mr. Belt both times, the second time saying “opposed” quite forcefully into his microphone.
“I want to be fair,” he said. “He knows the cases we have. Mr. Belt has done a good job.”
Mr. Belt is also Mr. Walton’s personal attorney on a lawsuit he has filed against Dallas County, but Mr. Walton said that did not factor into his decision.
Like earlier state action
State and district officials had been expressing hope privately in recent days that the school board would be more cooperative with state overseers than it was during the last state takeover, from 1996 to 1998. Back then, the board was repeatedly accused of undermining state officials.
Despite Monday night’s dust-up, the state managers expressed optimism this time will be different. “I think the cooperation will grow,” Mr. Black said.
The school board was originally scheduled to also consider the termination of indicted maintenance director Wallace Faggett. He is the man Dr. Matthews is accused of ordering to destroy a stack of purchase orders before TEA investigators could examine them. But Mr. Damm said he had discovered firing Mr. Faggett did not require board action and said he would move to do it himself today.
The “team of nine” could shrink again. Law enforcement officials have testified under oath that several board members are targets of the ongoing criminal corruption investigation into the district. That investigation includes the FBI, the IRS, the Texas Rangers and two grand juries. The Dallas County district attorney’s office has said more indictments are likely to be handed down soon.
At evening’s end, Dr. Matthews’ nameplate had already been removed from the superintendent’s seat in the board’s meeting room. But an 8-by-10 photo of Dr. Matthews remained on display in a locked cabinet in the next room over.
“We don’t have the key to the lock,” Mr. Damm said.