W-H board hit with restraining order; Move to halt school actions leads to confusion over superintendent

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

The Wilmer-Hutchins school board is supposed to meet Monday night.

That is, if it’s allowed to.

A Dallas County district court judge issued a temporary restraining order Friday preventing the school board from doing anything for at least the next 10 days.

The highly unusual move left confusion about basic matters – such as whether the district has a superintendent, and if so, who that person is.

By one interpretation, the order returns the recently indicted Charles Matthews to office – ironic, because the order was sought by some of Dr. Matthews’ fiercest opponents.

“I’m just shocked and surprised,” said the district’s attorney, James Belt, who added that no representatives of the district had been informed of the order before it was granted.

Wilmer-Hutchins has been a whirlwind of controversy since August. The district is being investigated by the FBI, Texas Rangers, IRS and state and federal grand juries. New allegations of corruption surface weekly. The district has run out of money and recently projected a shortfall of $5.4 million for the fiscal year.

The Texas Education Agency is auditing the district’s books and is considering whether to take over some of the district’s operations. But Phillip Layer, the attorney who sought the temporary restraining order, said he expects the order will make the TEA move more quickly – as in first thing Monday morning.

“This is just a stopgap type of move until TEA can get here,” he said.

TEA officials have said they were not planning to move so quickly. For one thing, agency officials have said they would not take over the district until a final report is prepared by the TEA’s audit team. That can’t be done until the district files a response to the agency’s preliminary report. That won’t happen until sometime Monday, according to interim Superintendent James Damm.

“The commissioner Shirley Neeley is certainly considering all of her options at this time and should decide shortly whether to take any kind of action against the district,” said TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, who called Judge Merrill Hartman’s order “highly unusual.”

It’s unclear whether Judge Hartman’s order invalidated the major decisions made at Monday’s board meeting. That night, the board put Dr. Matthews on paid administrative leave because he was indicted last week on felony charges of tampering with evidence in an investigation. It hired Mr. Damm, a financial consultant for the district, to serve as his interim replacement.

The district also formally laid off eight employees Monday as part of a staff cut approved at an earlier meeting.

One of the plaintiffs, former school board member Brenda Duff, said all those moves by the board were reversed by the order.

“I’m very pleased that Judge Merrill is listening to the people,” she said.

The order’s language made it appear that such a reversal may have been intended. It catalogues the board’s Monday decisions and says the board is “hereby restrained from acting” in all the ways it did at the meeting.

But the order seems to apply only to future action, not retroactively. That would mean Monday’s actions are not reversed.

The question is not academic: It will probably determine who is the school district’s superintendent Monday morning. If the board’s actions are reversed, Dr. Matthews would return to office. If not, Mr. Damm would remain in charge.

At a news conference Friday afternoon, Mr. Layer at times argued both sides. He said he did not think Dr. Matthews’ paid suspension was still in effect, but he referred to Mr. Damm as the current superintendent. But the order and Ms. Duff called Dr. Matthews the current superintendent.

Mr. Layer said the intent was “to set aside the enforcement of any of these resolutions” from Monday’s meeting. But Mr. Belt said it was too late for that.

“What they’re talking about has already taken place,” he said. “We’ve already hired an interim superintendent. We’ve already laid people off.”

Board President Luther Edwards declined to comment. But trustee Joan Bonner, a frequent dissenter on the board, welcomed the move.

“I wish this could’ve happened last week,” she said. “Board members didn’t know how to use their powers.”

Mr. Damm and Mr. Belt both said the district will appeal the order Monday morning. But, as Mr. Damm pointed out, it’s unclear who has the authority to file the appeal. Normally, he said, the school board would approve an appeal – but the order seems to prevent it from meeting to do so.

Judge Hartman’s order is in effect until Nov. 16, when his court will hold a hearing on extending the order into a temporary injunction.

The restraining order was sought as part of a larger lawsuit Mr. Layer filed last month on behalf of several Wilmer-Hutchins residents. It attempts to remove the district’s board permanently, saying that it has made a number of unwise decisions, including hiring Dr. Matthews. The suit is still pending.

TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said it was unclear whether the law Mr. Layer cites in the lawsuit applies to school boards. The law is intended for use with county officials, she said, and was written at a time when Texas still used county school districts. She said TEA attorneys were examining the judge’s order and the underlying law.

Staff writer Herb Booth contributed to this report.