Posted on September 15, 2004

Wilmer-Hutchins Board Meeting Turns Rowdy

Joshua Benton, The Dallas Morning News, Sep. 14

The leaders of two African-American groups—the New Black Panther Party and the Southern Christian Leadership Council—told Wilmer-Hutchins school board members Monday that they should consider resigning as a group.

“It would be in the best interest of the children that you immediately step down,” said Joyce Foreman, president of the Dallas chapter of the SCLC, the group the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once led.

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“Get it right or get gone,” said Derick Brown, head of the local branch of the New Black Panthers, which views itself as the descendent of the black power group active in the 1960s and 1970s. “I think you all need to do your job for the best interest of the kids, not for the best interests of yourselves.”

Both spoke at a sometimes-rambunctious board meeting that included a near-brawl, the attempted censure of a school board member and plenty of tension.

“I tell people, instead of spending money and going to the zoo, just get yourself a bag of popcorn and a drink and come to a board meeting,” trustee Joan Bonner said. “It’s just as entertaining.”

Ms. Bonner herself was listed as an item of discussion on the meeting agenda. The board was asked to consider, in closed session, censuring her on allegations of official misconduct.

Ms. Bonner has been the only board member to consistently oppose decisions of the troubled district’s administration and its board leadership.

Ms. Bonner objected to not being told about the allegations of misconduct against her before the meeting, and she said it might be illegal to discuss it in closed session. She asked that the discussion be aired publicly.

Board President Luther Edwards then presented the case against her: a complaint from a school principal that Ms. Bonner had visited a school building unannounced Aug. 11.

“I do not like her going in and questioning my staff,” wrote Stacey Maxwell, principal of A.L. Morney Learning Center.

Ms. Bonner said the misconduct allegations were the latest in a series of attempts by district leaders to ostracize her.

“I’m going to continue to visit any school I want to,” she said. “I’ll be there tomorrow.”

The board then voted 7-0 to remove the Bonner item from the agenda.

A physical conflict nearly broke out between the district’s police chief, Cedric Davis, and a man in the audience who supports Superintendent Charles Matthews. Chief Davis has investigated allegations of corruption in Dr. Matthews’ administration.

Wilmer-Hutchins schools are under investigation by the FBI, the Texas Rangers, the Texas Education Agency and state and federal grand juries.

The district ran out of money last month and could not pay teachers. Because of poor maintenance and a summer storm, classes still have not begun at the district’s main high school building, almost a month into the school year.

The New Black Panther Party has made appearances at Dallas school board meetings in recent years and has sometimes been disruptive. Panthers were not involved in any disturbances Monday night.

At Dallas board meetings, the Panthers have typically spoken as members of the public, during the same public comment time all residents are allowed. At Monday’s meeting, Mr. Brown spoke at the invitation of Dr. Matthews and was not limited to three minutes, as other residents were.

Most board members said they would not resign and wanted to focus on the bond election.

Voters in the district will be asked to approve a $68 million bond issue Saturday, and much of the discussion was aimed at promoting or opposing the bond issue.

“You people have proved you are not concerned about the welfare of the children in this district,” said Clara McDade, a bond opponent.

One of the bond’s supporters was Ron Price, a trustee of Dallas Independent School District.

“I extend the assistance of DISD to help you however we can,” he said. “We’re here to help you. I ask you to dig down deep in your hearts and keep the focus on the children.”