Kirbyville ISD trustees saw a stellar superintendent candidate when Tommy Wallis came calling in early 2017 with a glowing recommendation from his former employer at the school district in Bryan, where he served as superintendent for seven years.
“During Dr. Wallis’ tenure, the district earned the highest possible… financial integrity rating for seven consecutive years,” the letter of reference read. It went on to speak of the accolades, top rankings and financial gains in the district since Wallis came to town in 2011.
“As you can see, Dr. Wallis is an accomplished leader, dedicated to children and learning,” the coda to the letter read. It was signed by school board president Douglas Wunneburger.
What it didn’t say is that Wallis was effectively fired for what district officials contend was a mountain of egregious behavior that included violations of the state’s open records law and using district personnel, credit cards and office materials to apply for jobs in a dozen other school districts.
According to an internal investigation by the district, “In the spring of 2015, an open records request came in seeking email exchanges between certain district personnel…one such document was an email exchange where a district employee made an offhand, snide remark about someone.”
When Wallis was made aware of it, “the superintendent informed the executive director that he or the school attorney should just take that document out of the stack…he said ‘what’s one email out of dozens? They’ll never miss it and if we don’t provide it, they’ll never know it existed.’“
Wallis also conferred with a vendor who was vying for a lucrative contract in the district. When that vendor, Austin-based TCG Group Holdings, was lagging in consideration, Wallis allegedly told an underling that “if it’s close, it needs to be TCG…I’m the superintendent and I can choose TCG.”
As state lawmakers wring their hands about full background disclosures for teachers, fearing lawsuits that come when an educator is accused of sexual improprieties with students, administrators move between school districts with opaque protections.
Last session, a measure penalizing districts that endorse a teacher accused of violations, was passed by the Legislature. But upper level administrators can move through the system from district to district, unhindered by ethical breaches.
“Per the terms of a voluntary separation agreement between the District and Dr. Tommy Wallis, we are prohibited from discussing issues related to Dr. Wallis’ employment with the District,” Mark McCall, president of the school board at Bryan emailed Texas Monitor in response to an interview request.
In Kirbyville, the trouble signal should have been Wallis’ recent employment history.
He was given a three-year contract extension and a raise in March 2016, then resigned in September.
“Anyone in a hiring position [who] saw someone leave within months of being awarded a new contract would have to wonder what was going on,” said Lars Bjork, professor of Educational Leadership Studies at the University of Kentucky. “It’s standard practice to call the previous employers and talk with the head of the board and ask, ‘were there any issues?’”
Board members in Kirbyville did not respond to emails seeking an interview.
At Fort Bend ISD, where Wallis landed a job as interim principal three months after leaving Bryan, the code of silence is again deployed: “As this involves personnel, I am unable to share details beyond employment confirmation.”
Mr. Wallis served as a substitute administrator at Hightower High School from December 8, 2016 until March 10, 2017,” district spokeswoman Amanda Bubela, said in an email.
Superintendents are thrown into situations that are political cauldrons by nature, a combustible mix of kids, parents and education. Funding, personnel issues and other discipline problems ensures the district’s leader earns his or her money.
The average tenure of a superintendent is around six years, and the job can be lucrative even at lower levels, with a median salary of $165,000 in a mid-sized district. There’s another element to that pay; according to a 2010 report, 21 percent of superintendents in 2010 reported “double dipping,” or taking a salary at one district while receiving a pension at another.
Superintendents are licensed by the state as any other educator, and are subject to state discipline. Complaints come frequently into the Texas Education Agency about all kinds of educators. Due to the maze of regulation — some fall to local prosecutors, some to other agencies, some are not violations at all — there are gaps in policing.
“There are personnel issues, those are local,” said agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson. “But if it affects the quality of education, like governance issues between board members and a superintendent, then we can step in.”
A violation of open records or open meetings?
“The attorney general’s office,” she said.
Contracts or spending?
“A local issue.”
As for so called ‘passing the trash,’ or giving a rogue administrator a solid reference despite proven ethical lapses or malfeasance, Culbertson said “we aren’t able to know of these arrangements as they are held by the school board.”
Paul Vranish was escorted out of a board meeting in Tornillo in 2012, a rare move regarding a district’s superintendent. Vranish, a veteran superintendent in Texas, was placed on leave amid fraud allegations later found to be unsustainable. He later retired.
Vranish came to Tornillo, 40 miles west of El Paso, in June 2002 after serving as superintendent in Buffalo, Texas as the district was placed into state oversight at the board’s request. Vranish came to Tornillo with a glowing recommendation that included no mention of the state oversight in Buffalo.
“Paul Vranish makes decisions that are legally correct and good for the student of the district,” read a letter of recommendation from Buffalo ISD High School Principal Hugh Piatt II. “He is a strong leader who holds true to his convictions.”
Piatt did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Dallas ISD hired Yvonne Gonzalez in 1996 from the school district in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She came lauded from her former employer, despite the fact she had wrung up an $800,000 budget deficit in her last year, much of it through lucrative raises for teachers.
Within two years, Gonzalez was sentenced to 15 months in prison for using district money to buy personal furniture with public money.
The murky background checks and hiring practices speak to a powerful political presence for educators.
“I don’t know that education is more disposed to secrecy but there is always an educational drift to non disclosure,” said Joe Larsen, a First Amendment lawyer in Houston. “The teacher’s union has been successful in quelling evaluations of teachers and superintendents. [Education] is not any worse than other government bodies, they just have strong tools at their disposal to prevent release of records.”
In Bryan, the board, bent on keeping the status of Wallis quiet, potentially breached the states Open Meetings Act.
A review of Bryan ISD board of education agendas shows that trustees met in closed session for over four hours a week before Wallis took his leave but failed to disclose the nature of the specially called meeting.
“Which they absolutely cannot do,” Larsen said. “There is solid case law that requires a body to, at the very least, provide the public with who they are talking about with regard to personnel matters.”
In the script for the canning of Wallis, a recorded conversation reveals how insider deals are done. In the recording, Wallis was advised to quit or be fired, advised by school board President Douglas Wunneburger to step down “to preserve your reputation.”
“We will pay you your full salary through June 30, and you will resign to pursue other interests,” was the script Wunneburger insisted on.
On his Twitter page, Wallis describes himself as “Christian, Husband, Father, Superintendent Motivational Speaker and Trainer. Jeremiah 29:11-13.”
He did not respond to an email seeking an interview.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected]