DALLAS — The board of trustees for the Lancaster Independent School District voted 4-3 last week to suspend superintendent Larry Lewis.
All parties declined comment and referred questions to lawyers, who didn’t immediately return calls. But the contentiousness some board members have for Lewis and each other is palpable.
In July, following a nine-month audit that found numerous financial-management deficiencies, the Texas Education Agency appointed James Damm as conservator to oversee the district’s finances.
The TEA audit came after the district was late with its annual audit for fiscal 2006 and then needed a $6 million bridge loan to cover costs. In July 2007, Lewis, who began his term as superintendent ahead of the 2003-04 school year, proposed shortening the school week to four days in an attempt to save money, but the plan was poorly received and was scrapped.
At the beginning of last Tuesday’s regular board meeting, Lewis, who will be placed on paid leave, outlined his plans to trim a projected budget shortfall of $1.5 million through reductions in salaries across all district departments and schools.
He said the shortfall was due, in part, to not as many students as expected taking a seat in classrooms. Lewis said the district originally budgeted for 6,255 students for this year, but then refined that figure to 5,900 and still fell about 200 kids short, further reducing the level of state funding the district receives.
Ahead of a May 2007 bond election, officials were projecting total enrollment to continue to climb and reach 8,000 students by 2012. But with the current overall economic downturn and instability in the housing market, that number seem inflated and unattainable.
The shortfall in the $40.5 million budget is just the latest in a series of financial scandals that have plagued the district, which is about 20 miles south of downtown Dallas, over the past few years.
Voters rejected three separate bond referendums between May 2006 and May 2007, as some area residents complained about the misuse of funds.
School board president Carolyn Morris consistently has clashed with superintendent Lewis over the district’s financial reporting and transparency.
During last week’s meeting, trustee Ed Kirkland, who voted against suspending Lewis, questioned Morris about a trip she took to see a local attorney, as well as her decision to start scrutinizing contracts the district has with developers and suppliers.
Kirkland asked Damm if it was normal for school board members to do as much, and Damm said the board’s role is to oversee the administration.
Morris all but ignored Kirkland’s questions and reiterated her earlier request to pull the consent agenda, which included the administration’s request for approval of numerous supply contracts.
Morris said she “was very concerned about [the district’s] finances and budget” and wanted more time to look over the contracts. Eventually a vote on the consent agenda was postponed, despite Kirkland’s insistence that it was “standard operating procedure” for the board to approve the agenda and allow the administration to acquire the supplies necessary to teach the students.
Hours later following an executive session of the board, the vote to suspend Lewis was announced.
In addition to Kirkland, trustees Marie Elliott and Marjorie King also voted against suspending the superintendent.
Damm said Lewis’ suspension shouldn’t affect the day-to-day operations of the district.
“At this point, there will be no major impact on the district,” he said. “The education of the children will continue and the business of the district will go on, as usual.”
Assistant superintendent Eugene Young will head the administration until an interim superintendent is found.
Lancaster ISD carries underlying ratings of Baa2 from Moody’s Investors Service and BBB with a negative outlook from Standard & Poor’s.
The district has about $109 million of debt outstanding.