W-H chief is put on leave with pay; Interim superintendent expects state agency to take over district soon

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

Charles Matthews is out as superintendent of Wilmer-Hutchins schools, and his replacement says the Texas Education Agency probably will take over the district by the end of the month.

Dr. Matthews, who was indicted last week on felony charges of tampering with evidence, was put on paid administrative leave by the district’s board Monday night.

His replacement is James Damm, a veteran school administrator who has worked in top financial positions in several area districts.

“I will do everything I can to bring this community together to work for the betterment of the district,” Mr. Damm said after getting the job.

He later said that based on his conversations with TEA officials, he thinks he will soon be working with a management team from the agency. He expects the TEA to take control of some district operations in the coming weeks.

That move could happen as soon as next week. Agency auditors delivered a preliminary report of their findings to the school board last month, and Wilmer-Hutchins has until Thursday to respond formally. Once the response is received, TEA will issue a final report and probably will take action on the district’s governance.

The TEA sent a management team the last time Wilmer-Hutchins was in serious trouble, from 1996 to 1998.

It is not the most severe step that the agency could take. It could choose to install a board of managers, which would mean removing the superintendent and all board members and replacing them with state appointees.

The TEA could also choose to dissolve the district and send its students to a neighboring district, such as Dallas ISD.

“I don’t think it will be as fast progress as some would like, and it will be faster than some others would like,” Mr. Damm said. “We have to debug the system and see what will fall out.”

TEA officials have said they will not comment on any intervention until it is announced.

Dr. Matthews was indicted Thursday after he allegedly ordered maintenance director Wallace Faggett to destroy purchase orders and other documents sought by TEA auditors and law enforcement. Wilmer-Hutchins is under investigation by several agencies, including the FBI, the Texas Rangers, the IRS and state and federal grand juries.

Mr. Damm said Dr. Matthews requested to be put on administrative leave. Neither he nor Mr. Faggett – who was also put on paid leave by the board – attended Monday’s meeting.

2 salaries to be paid

The board’s decision means the district is paying two men to be superintendent at the same time. Mr. Damm’s contract with the district is for only six months, but it prorates to an annual salary of $169,000. That’s only $2,600 more than what he had been paid to be a financial consultant to the district.

Dr. Matthews is paid $178,600. That’s the second-highest salary in the state among superintendents in districts with 5,000 or fewer students. Last month, a TEA preliminary audit report said that Dr. Matthews must repay $16,000 of his salary because it was paid to him illegally.

This isn’t the first time that Wilmer-Hutchins has had to pay multiple superintendents. At one point in the mid-1990s, the district was paying four current and past superintendents – including Dr. Matthews, who was fired in his first stint in 1994.

The double salaries were a point of controversy for some residents. At Monday’s meeting, the board also voted to officially terminate the eight contract employees it had preliminarily chosen to lay off at its previous meeting. Among them was Annie Lee, the district’s former interim superintendent. Another eight employees will be laid off later this week, Mr. Damm said, and 10 other positions have been eliminated.

“I don’t think we should be paying two superintendents while they’re laying off teachers,” resident Faye Gafford said. “We’re trying to educate children here.”

Ms. Lee has retained an attorney to fight the layoff. Anticipating that other employees will do the same, trustees hired Austin education lawyer Kevin O’Hanlon to represent it in such cases.

Dr. Matthews and Mr. Faggett join the district’s chief financial officer, Phillip Roberson, on paid administrative leave. Dr. Matthews put Dr. Roberson on leave after he agreed to testify before the federal grand jury about the district’s finances.

Mr. Damm said he expects Dr. Roberson’s status with the district to be “resolved soon,” though he did not say how.

Trustee Joan Bonner, a regular Matthews critic, sought to put the superintendent on unpaid leave. But no other board members were willing to second her motion. The board then voted, 6-1, to put him and Mr. Faggett on paid leave, with Ms. Bonner the one dissenter.

Board president Luther Edwards said it would not be appropriate to terminate Dr. Matthews just because he had been indicted.

“Let the courts make their decisions,” he said.

Financial woes linger

Mr. Damm said the layoffs will save about $1 million annually, although the current savings will be substantially lower since the district is already several months into the fiscal year.

He said an additional $1.2 million will have to be cut within the next two to three weeks to help the district climb out of financial crisis. Before the layoffs, the district projected a deficit of $5.4 million this year, out of a budget of about $20 million.

“We still have a ways to go,” Mr. Damm said.

Law enforcement officials are continuing their investigations, and Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill has said more indictments could be coming.

As a reminder of investigators’ presence in the district, the board also voted last night to cancel a planned auction of district property at the request of the district attorney’s office. In a letter to Mr. Edwards, officials had expressed concern that allegedly stolen district property, including laptop computers, would be among the goods sold.