State acts to regain oversight of W-H; Abbott asks court to negate order barring TEA team from action

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The Texas attorney general’s office is asking a Dallas appeals court to immediately return to the state oversight of the troubled Wilmer-Hutchins school district.

“It is an emergency request,” said Tom Kelley, a spokesman for Attorney General Greg Abbott. “We want to put back what was undone.”

On Friday, state District Court Judge Merrill Hartman issued a temporary restraining order preventing the two state managers – Albert Black and Michelle Willhelm – from interfering with the district’s school board. The managers were imposed on the district in November after months of financial and leadership chaos, including the indictment of Superintendent Charles Matthews.

Under state law, the managers have legal authority to overrule nearly any action by the board. Their presence over the last few months prevented board members from taking steps that state officials believed would be harmful to the district’s well-being.

With the managers temporarily muzzled at Monday night’s school board meeting, trustees made a number of major changes that the managers would have overruled if they could have – including firing interim Superintendent James Damm.

Officials with the attorney general’s office sent the appeal via overnight mail from Austin to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Dallas on Tuesday. The appeal asserts that Judge Hartman did not have the jurisdiction to set aside the state managers, and it seeks a writ of mandamus to return them to office.

The Texas Education Agency is given the right to impose a management team on underperforming school districts by the state’s Education Code. It has imposed more than a dozen management teams on districts in recent years, including a previous state intervention in Wilmer-Hutchins from 1996 to 1998.

The attorney general’s appeal also criticizes Judge Hartman for issuing the restraining order without notifying opposing counsel – a pattern the judge also followed on a separate order he issued in November.

That order, like Friday’s, was sought by Brenda Duff, a former board member who once was one of the current board’s leading critics. The November order prevented the school board from taking action without state oversight. The current order does precisely the opposite, preventing the state from interfering with any action the board takes.

The appeal also says the court had no jurisdiction to issue the restraining order because it was granted as part of a broader suit that had been essentially dropped last month. In the motion seeking the restraining order, Ms. Duff’s attorneys wrote that it should be revived because she is “of the opinion that the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District Board of Trustees has continued to conduct themselves incompetently under the directions of the Texas Education Agency Management team.”

Last week, state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said she was seeking a higher level of intervention in Wilmer-Hutchins: the complete dissolution of its school board and its replacement with a group of state appointees. Such a move requires Justice Department approval, which the agency is seeking.

Ms. Duff has said she sought the restraining order because she is a candidate for a school board seat in May and believes that, if she wins, she should not be removed from the seat by the commissioner’s actions. But her attorney’s motion makes no mention of that concern and has no impact on the state’s ability to seek the board’s dissolution.

While TEA lawyers typically act on the agency’s behalf, the attorney general’s office represents TEA when it is a party in a lawsuit. Mr. Kelley said he could not estimate how quickly the appeals court would act on the motion. “It’s not every day we need to file an emergency request like this,” he said.