Suit seeks to return W-H teachers, board; Ex-principal says state law gives district more time to fix problems

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Add one more item to the list of question marks about the future of Wilmer-Hutchins schools.

A lawsuit in state district court is seeking to throw out the state-appointed board of managers, rehire all the district’s laid-off teachers and bring back the old school board that state officials declared dysfunctional.

“The employees shouldn’t have to suffer because the district made some mistakes,” said Roosevelt Robinson, the former principal of Wilmer-Hutchins’ alternative school and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The core argument of the suit is that the Texas Education Agency lacked the authority to remove the elected school board, which it did in May after major financial and academic problems and allegations of mismanagement. It was only the second time the TEA had thrown out a school district’s elected board.

State law says the agency can take such a drastic step “if a district has been rated as academically unacceptable for a period of one year or more.”

It all depends on what “one year” means.

School ratings are typically announced each fall, and last October, Wilmer-Hutchins was labeled “acceptable.” But a TEA investigation, prompted by a series of Dallas Morning News articles, found that more than 20 Wilmer-Hutchins teachers were improperly helping students on state tests – including correcting wrong answers or even preparing answer keys for students to use.

Because of the cheating, Wilmer-Hutchins’ rating was formally lowered to “academically unacceptable” on March 21. Less than two months later, state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley announced she was throwing out the board.

So does the law mean that a district has to be saddled with the poor rating for 12 months before its board can be thrown out? Or is it enough that the bad rating reflects the previous year of performance?

“It’s like when a kid comes home at the end of the year with a bad report card,” TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said. “It represents the year that’s already over with.”

Mark Robinett, Mr. Robinson’s attorney, called that argument ridiculous.

“You take a look at it grammatically, syntactically, and it’s clear that you need a full year after the rating,” he said. “You get a year to clean up your act. It’s a power grab.”

The lawsuit is seeking an injunction that would bring the old school board back to office. It would also reverse all actions the board of managers has taken since May – which would mean the layoffs of more than 200 employees last month would be reversed.

Mr. Robinson says that’s his main motivation.

“There are people who have been working for the district for 30 years who now don’t have anywhere to go,” he said. “Those are the people this is for.”

He said he has no problem with the proposed merger of Wilmer-Hutchins into the Dallas school district, but he thinks Wilmer-Hutchins teachers should come with the deal.

A hearing on the injunction is expected next week. The suit is in the court of Judge Karen Gren Johnson.

Because of mismanagement, indictments and lawsuits, Wilmer-Hutchins has changed leadership at a dizzying pace over the last year.

Superintendent Charles Matthews was suspended and later fired last fall after being indicted on evidence-tampering charges. His interim replacement, James Damm, was unpopular with the school board and removed from office twice this spring – only to be reappointed by state overseers.

Mr. Robinson is also a subject of two other lawsuits against Wilmer-Hutchins, one each in state and federal court. Two former district employees allege that Mr. Robinson sexually harassed them and that the district did nothing to stop it.

The suits allege Mr. Robinson demanded sexual favors from the women, Sylvia Rhodes and Bridget Parson, and asked them to act in pornographic videos.

Lew Blackburn, Wilmer-Hutchins’ human resources director, said he has also received other complaints from district employees about Mr. Robinson’s behavior.

Mr. Robinson said that he did not harass anyone and that the lawsuits are motivated by greed and revenge.