By Joshua Benton
Former Wilmer-Hutchins Superintendent Charles Matthews was indicted Tuesday in a case involving allegations that he ordered employees to falsify attendance data.
The indictment by a Dallas County grand jury is the second in the last five months for Dr. Matthews, a former state superintendent of the year. His leadership of the troubled Wilmer-Hutchins district is the target of numerous federal and state criminal investigations and has led the Texas Education Agency to take over district operations.
Reached at his home Tuesday, Dr. Matthews declined to comment and directed questions to his attorney, Ted Steinke. Mr. Steinke said his client “adamantly denies tampering with any attendance records” and would enter a plea of not guilty.
In Texas, school districts receive state funding based on weighted average daily attendance. How much state money a school receives is determined by how many students it has in attendance on an average day. More students means more money.
According to the indictment, in August 2003 Dr. Matthews directed Wilmer-Hutchins attendance clerks to report “a false number of pupils in attendance.” The indictment says Dr. Matthews reported the cooked attendance data to state officials “with knowledge of its falsity and with intent that it be taken as a genuine governmental record.”
A faked attendance rate could also have benefited Dr. Matthews personally. According to his employment contract, he would receive a bonus of nearly $9,000 if every school in the district reported an attendance rate of 95 percent or better.
According to TEA records, he didn’t quite achieve that goal. In 2002-03, five of the district’s nine campuses had attendance rates over 95 percent. In 2003-04 – after Dr. Matthews is accused of directing the false reporting – seven of the district’s 10 campuses met that level.
But even the numbers from before tampering allegedly occurred may have been inflated. In Dr. Matthews’ first year on the job, Wilmer-Hutchins had the biggest increase in its attendance rate of any independent school district in Texas.
The specific charge he faces is tampering with a governmental record, a second-degree felony. If Dr. Matthews is found guilty, the maximum penalty would be 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Dr. Matthews’ first indictment – one count of felony evidence tampering – came in October. He is accused of ordering the district’s maintenance director, Wallace Faggett, to destroy a stack of purchase orders and other documents that were being sought by criminal investigators. The documents were later found, torn up, in a district trash bin. The Wilmer-Hutchins school board voted to initiate his termination soon after.
The school board itself is in the process of leaving office. State Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley informed district leaders Monday that she is removing all seven of the board members from office and appointing unelected replacements.
One of the factors cited by state officials was the board’s unwillingness to finalize Dr. Matthews’ firing at a board meeting March 7. The board voted three times not to fire Dr. Matthews officially, forcing state overseers to overrule their decision.