5 years later, ousted trustee back
Wylie ISD: Voted out after selling land for schools, he now fills vacant seat
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.”