BEAUMONT — Just off I-10, where the bayous between Houston and this once boomtown begin to transform into the landscape of suburbia, stands the imposing Carrol A. “Butch” Thomas Educational Support Center.
The Beaumont Independent School District completed the center — which sits on 85 acres and includes a 10,600-seat football stadium and a competition-sized natatorium — last August. Financed through a $388.6 million bond package voters approved in 2007, it is named after the superintendent who has led the district for 15 years.
For some here, the estimated $47 million complex is a monument to the excess of a prodigal administration. For others, it is a proper tribute to a man who has brought new opportunities to the district’s predominantly black, economically disadvantaged students.
Thomas, who makes $347,834 annually, is the highest-paid superintendent in Texas, even though his district of about 20,000 students is considerably smaller than those in other Texas cities. Thomas, who was widely praised when first hired, has recently become the focus of criticism for his leadership — criticism his supporters say is racially motivated. Thomas did not respond to several requests for comment made through his spokeswoman, Jessie Haynes.
In May, residents will vote on a ballot initiative to make two of the school board’s seven seats at-large positions. At present, each member represents a geographical region. Thomas’ supporters view the proposed change as an effort to remake the board, which now has four black members and three white.
His critics see it as an opportunity to reclaim control of an institution still central to the life of a struggling city with an 11 percent unemployment rate and a median household income well below the national average.
When Thomas arrived here in 1996, he became the district’s first black superintendent. He took over a district that was in “deep distress,” said Mike Moses, who was the commissioner of the Texas Education Agency at the time. Racial tensions — over another bond issue and between members of the board — had reached a point that the agency intervened in the district’s search for a new superintendent.
To say that Thomas “calmed the waters and settled it down would be putting it mildly,” Moses said, adding, “To those who think there needs to be a change now, generally for him to have lasted 15 years there, given that environment, I’d say he’s done more right than he has done wrong.”
Among those calling loudest for a change is Michael Getz, a lawyer running for a City Council seat. He started the effort to create the two at-large seats, Getz said, after becoming frustrated with what he termed mismanagement of the bond money.
Getz filed a lawsuit against the district in 2009 after he learned of its plans to demolish a 1920s school building using money from the bond, a use that he said was never in the proposal to voters. In January 2010, a state court agreed with him. The district proceeded with non-bond money, however, and began demolition on Good Friday.
The demolition carried symbolic weight for Getz and other longtime Beaumont residents because the building once housed South Park High School, which until 1983 when South Park merged with the Beaumont ISD was the city’s predominantly white district.
The district’s spokeswoman, Haynes, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Getz is not the only one who has objected to the district’s management. In February, state Rep. Allan Ritter and Sen. Tommy Williams, Republicans who represent parts of Beaumont, filed bills to prevent school districts from building hotels — aiming directly at Thomas’ proposal that the district construct an 8,000-seat event center and 200- to 300-room hotel adjacent to the new athletic center. The district has since tabled plans for the hotel, but intends to go forward with the event center, according to comments by Thomas at a recent board meeting, according to the Beaumont Enterprise.
The state education agency is also auditing the district’s use of bond money, according to a January letter addressed to Thomas, which questions whether the district has complied with state law governing Texas’ bond guarantee program. A spokeswoman for the agency said she expected the audit’s findings to be completed next week.
There has also been negative publicity about alleged misconduct by district employees, including its electrician, Calvin Walker, who is under federal investigation, according to the local U.S. Attorney’s Office, for possibly overcharging for his services. (Walker did not respond to a phone message left at his office.)
Karen Douresseau and Constance Kemp, whose children attend Beaumont schools, said the media scrutiny, especially of Thomas’ salary, was unfair. Douresseau called it a “high-tech lynching.”
Michael Bramble, who sat watching his son’s high school soccer practice at the stadium, said he thought Thomas deserved his salary. “There’s nothing wrong with rewarding a good job,” he said. “People who do not live in our neighborhood, they don’t understand what he’s doing for our neighborhood.”
Thomas’ high pay is “not surprising at all” given his tenure and his performance, according to Neal Adams, who said that as general counsel for the Texas Association of School Administrators he had negotiated most superintendent contracts in the state since 1987.
Adams said the annual 3.9 percent raise Thomas gets upon board approval each year is not an unusual provision either. The standard length for most superintendent contracts in Texas is three years, he said, but five-year ones like Thomas’ are common in many larger districts.
Student achievement in Beaumont has climbed steadily for the past 15 years, even as the state has moved to the more rigorous Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests and required more students to be included in the testing. Nine new elementary schools and one new middle school are also being built with part of the bond money.
But with the Legislature debating cuts of $4 billion to $10 billion in education financing, the Beaumont ISD — and Thomas — has become a symbol of what districts are doing wrong, said David Bradley, who represents Beaumont on the State Board of Education and has lived there since 1991. He said the district had lost the confidence of taxpayers.
“This a case of pride and arrogance,” he said. “Beaumont ISD is rapidly becoming the poster child for why there is not more support for an increase in public education funding in the Legislature.”