State back in charge of W-H school district; Court order overturned; more changes ahead as fired chief plans return

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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State officials are back in charge of running Wilmer-Hutchins schools, and changes are on the way.

The 5th District Court of Appeals threw out a week-old temporary restraining order Friday. That order, issued by state District Court Judge Merrill Hartman, had removed the state-imposed management team that has overseen the troubled district’s operations since November.

The ruling was not a surprise to state officials, who have said for days that they believed the restraining order was not on solid legal ground.

“Now we hope to reverse most, if not all, of the actions the school board took without the management team present,” said Suzanne Marchman, a Texas Education Agency spokeswoman.

“We knew everything we had done was in accordance with the law,” said fired interim Superintendent James Damm, who said he has agreed to return as interim superintendent Monday.

The two state managers, Albert Black and Michelle Willhelm, had the legal authority to overrule nearly any decision the school board made – an authority they used with regularity in recent months, as the board has resisted cost-cutting measures the state deems important.

With the managers temporarily rendered powerless Monday by the restraining order, the board made numerous moves that state officials didn’t approve of – including firing Mr. Damm, dismissing several of the district’s attorneys and tentatively re-creating the district’s controversial Police Department.

State managers scrambled Friday to schedule a school board meeting Monday night, when TEA officials are expected to express their displeasure at the board’s actions and reverse many of them.

The appeals court ruling, written by Justice Douglas Lang, finds that Judge Hartman had no jurisdiction to issue the restraining order. That’s because it was issued as part of a lawsuit against the district that Judge Hartman effectively agreed to dismiss on Feb. 1.

Under state law, the appeals court ruled, a judge retains jurisdiction over a case for only 30 days after a “nonsuiting.” That means Judge Hartman lost jurisdiction more than three weeks before he agreed, at the request of attorneys for plaintiff Brenda Duff, to revive the lawsuit and grant the restraining order.

Now the TEA has to consider how best to interact with a school board that is intermittently in open rebellion against state authority.

Ms. Marchman said the agency’s attorneys were investigating ways to be more aggressive against what it views as the board’s intransigence.

“There’s some discussion on what we can do instead of having the board vote and be overruled, back and forth, if they continue to go against the advice of the management team,” she said.

But Mr. Black struck a more conciliatory tone. “We will give this board the respect it deserves,” he said. “I am attempting to hold out a hand of cooperation. Hopefully, they’ll accept the gesture as an authentic one.”

The management team’s interactions with the district may only last a few more months. The state’s education commissioner, Shirley Neeley, has decided to eliminate the district’s school board entirely and appoint state replacements. That move will require Justice Department approval, which is pending.

Whoever is in charge, the district’s leaders will be seeking financial stability in the form of two major loans. One, for about $3.5 million, will allow the district to pay off an outstanding loan to Wells Fargo bank. The other, for about $2 million, will allow the district to meet its payroll obligations through the summer months before a new infusion of state funding is due.

The first loan may be running into difficulty. The Wells Fargo loan was due last month, but district officials negotiated an extension to May. On Thursday, representatives of a Houston law firm, writing on behalf of Wells Fargo, said they were cutting off further discussions with the district because they were concerned about the precarious state of the district’s leadership.

“They said they cannot agree to move forward and continue those negotiations until we address the management structure of the district,” Mr. Black said.

He said Wells Fargo was not calling the loan, a move that could push the district into bankruptcy. But Mr. Black said he was confident that, with the management team back in place, the matter could be resolved.