5 years later, ousted trustee back

Wylie ISD: Voted out af­ter sell­ing land for schools, he now fills va­cant seat

The Dallas Morning News - - WYLIE - By STACI HUPP Staff Writer shupp@dal­las­news.com

Baron Cook’s re­turn to the school board in Wylie could be as stormy as his de­par­ture.

On Mon­day, he comes back as a trustee, five years af­ter vot­ers ousted him in the wake of a con­tro­ver­sial school land deal.

Mr. Cook, a ti­tle in­sur­ance ex­ec­u­tive, sold his own land to the Wylie school dis­trict for about $800,000 while he was on the school board in 2002. Sev­eral peo­ple ac­cused Mr. Cook of prof­it­ing from his un­paid po­si­tion.

Of­fi­cials never ac­cused Mr. Cook of any­thing il­le­gal, but he lost his bid for re-elec­tion a few months later to Ronni Fet­zer, who was crit­i­cal of the land deal.

Mr. Cook’s name sur­faced again this month when school board mem­ber Eric Lind­sey re­signed his seat. The board ap­pointed Mr. Cook to fill the un­ex­pired term. School board mem­bers said the stripes he earned at the trustees’ ta­ble years ago made him a nat­u­ral fit for the va­cancy.

“It’s not so much that I want it. It’s just that I’m com­mit­ted to this com­mu­nity and to this dis­trict,” said Mr. Cook, a for­mer real es­tate de­vel­oper. “I think I can of­fer some as­sets to the board.”

But Mr. Cook’s re­turn has ripped the scab off an old wound for some res­i­dents who thought they’d had the last word on his place in school pol­i­cy­mak­ing.

“We were very pleased that he was at least taken off the school board,” said Matthew Butschek, a fi­nan­cial con­sul­tant from Wylie. “We think it’s very wrong for them now to put him back on. It’s a posi- tion of trust.”

Ralph James, the school board’s vice pres­i­dent, said Mr. Cook’s ex­per­tise in land de­vel­op­ment will be im­por­tant as Wylie con­tin­ues to grow and the school dis­trict en­ters a crit­i­cal stage for plan­ning.

The Collin County city’s pop­u­la­tion has more than dou­bled since 2000, to 32,696.

This fall, school board mem­bers are ex­pected to map out plans for a third high school.

Mr. James said he was pre­pared for a back­lash over Mr. Cook’s ap­point­ment but in­sists the pool of crit­ics is small.

“I fig­ured it would stir up some,” said Mr. James, who served on the school board with Mr. Cook. “It’s like any com­mu­nity. There are peo­ple that dis­like us. We can’t dodge that.”

Texas school boards have two op­tions when a trustee quits be­fore the end of a term. Board mem­bers can sched­ule a spe­cial elec­tion, which costs thou­sands of dol­lars, or they can ap­point some­one to fill in un­til the next elec­tion.

Wylie school trustees opted for the lat­ter when Mr. Lind­sey re­signed to take a job out of state.

Su­per­in­ten­dent John Fuller said the short list of re­place­ments in­cluded for­mer trustees Henry Gar­land, Mike Whit­comb and John Sim­mons, who did not run for re-elec­tion this spring.

Dr. Fuller said those can­di­dates ei­ther were un­avail­able or not in­ter­ested.

Mr. Cook’s ap­point­ment lasts through May. He said he hasn’t de­cided whether he’ll run for elec­tion.

“We needed some­body with ex­pe­ri­ence to start in right away,” Mr. James said. “We felt he was our best choice.”

Trustees picked Mr. Cook with­out pub­lic dis­cus­sion or the pres­ence of the full school board. Three of seven trustees were ab­sent, in­clud­ing Ms. Fet­zer, who de­feated Mr. Cook in 2002.

Ms. Fet­zer did not re­spond to in­ter­view re­quests this week. In 2002, she said the land deal eroded the school board’s rep­u­ta­tion.

Mr. Butschek still feels that way.

“They had plenty of choices at the time, but they al­ways steered to his piece of land,” he said.

State law doesn’t for­bid school board mem­bers from sell­ing land to their school dis­tricts. But ethics laws re­quire pub­lic of­fi­cials to file a pub­lic dec­la­ra­tion stat­ing the na­ture of their con­flict of in­ter­est and then ab­stain from vot­ing on any­thing re­lated to it.

Records show Mr. Cook did both of those things.

“Be­cause there was no wrong­do­ing five or six years ago, I don’t have any prob­lem con­fronting or talk­ing to those crit­ics,” Mr. Cook said Fri­day.

At the time, Wylie school lead­ers said they chose Mr. Cook’s of­fer be­cause of its low price and prime lo­ca­tion. Mr. Cook sold his 48-acre tract for $16,800 an acre.

“It didn’t re­ally mat­ter to me whether it was a board mem­ber or not a board mem­ber. My duty as su­per­in­ten­dent was to rec­om­mend the best buy for the dis­trict,” Dr. Fuller said. “If you had an op­por­tu­nity to buy land for $30,000 an acre or for $16,800 an acre and they were next door to each other, which one would you buy with tax­payer dol­lars?”

To­day, McMil­lan Ju­nior High and Davis In­ter­me­di­ate schools sit on the land sur­rounded by fields and new hous­ing sub­di­vi­sions on the north­west side of town.

Five years has brought new schools, new homes and a new crop of par­ents, in­clud­ing De­mond Dawkins, whose twin daugh­ters start kinder­garten this fall.

Mr. Dawkins, a mar­ket man­ager for a lo­cal bank, pre­dicts Wylie’s growth will cause some tough school board de­ci­sions down the road.

From what he’s seen so far, Mr. Dawkins says he trusts the de­ci­sion-mak­ers to do the right thing.

“Wylie must be do­ing some­thing right,” he said. “If they gave him the nod of ap­proval, I would sup­port their stance and trust their de­ci­sion.”

Baron Cook

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