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WISD suit hearing held

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WoodvilleISD graphicBy Chris Edwards
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AUSTIN – Last Thursday, a hearing took place in the ongoing trial involving a suit brought against Woodville ISD.

The plaintiffs in the suit are Woodville resident Charles Rawls and the office of Ken Paxton, and the trial is taking place in the 250th District Court of Travis County before Judge Karin Crump.

In Thursday’s hearing, which was conducted remotely via Zoom and livestreamed over the district court’s YouTube channel, various witnesses were called for both sides of the argument.

At the heart of the matter is Rawls’ claim that voters within the WISD balloting area were given incorrect ballots for the May 7 special election. The outcome of the election was that the $47.8 million bond passed by a slim 51.2% majority. When canvassed at the regular May meeting of the WISD Board of Trustees, the tally was 621 voting “for” and 592 “against.”

The suit was dismissed in July in Tyler County’s district court before visiting judge Robert Trapp before it was appealed to the 250th District Court.

The bond covers a district-wide series of improvements, including the construction of a new elementary school campus.

One of the witnesses called during the hearing was Von Gallagher, who works as chairman for Gallagher Construction Services, which is the approved firm to handle the construction of the new elementary school facility.

Gallagher said that the estimated cost to WISD per month amounted to $600K once the construction begins. He also answered a question about a design not being available for the building yet; that “it wouldn’t be prudent to it [the bond] possibly not passing.” 

Rawls, whose concerns that sparked the suit, is represented by Beaumont attorney Bruce Partain, who covered a variety of those concerns in Thursday’s hearing in examining witnesses.

Rawls, himself, spoke publicly in May at the regular meeting of the WISD Board of Trustees, following the election outcome. He spoke about the balloting concerns, but also of possible safety issues with the new elementary campus being located so close to the high school.

WISD Superintendent Lisa Meysembourg has said that the new elementary campus would be located near the high school.

During that same meeting, Rawls and Woodville business owner Phil McClure also addressed allegations of voter intimidation, that certain businesses were encouraged to be boycotted by board members due to their owners not supporting the bond issue.

Sara Leon, who is representing WISD, said that she has asked Rawls to come to some agreement; that certain subpoenas were “issued for the purpose of harassment,” and is seeking an award of $1,500 for attorney fees.

Leon explained that her fee is $290 per hour, and although with the work of an associate attorney on the case, the fees have exceeded what is being asked, $1,500 was agreed upon as fees are lower in Tyler County.

Rawls is seeking, in his suit, to invalidate the election’s outcome. He obtained a list of those who voted, and maps from the county’s Appraisal District, which define the boundaries of the WISD political subdivision. In the brief, Rawls stated that he “has identified at least [30] votes in question,” not including 60-80 votes on private roads not shown on the maps.

One witness for the plaintiff, who was called in a previous hearing held on August 29, was David Gardner, a surveyor, who provided maps, which Leon alleged were “hard to read.”

Another issue spoken about at length during Thursday’s hearing dealt with the publication of the election notice. Partain asked why it was not published in the Polk County Enterprise, as there are 25 registered WISD voters in Polk County. A witness for the AG’s office, Lynn Saarinen, also said that the election order was not posted in the newspaper, thus not complying with statute.

Leon said WISD complied with all provisions except the publication of the election order in the Polk County Enterprise, but said it was published in the Beaumont Enterprise, “due to time constraints.”

“The AG is looking at the totality of the circumstance,” Saarinen said. “The totality of all these mistakes made would’ve resulted in a different outcome.”

Before adjourning, Crump said “I’ll try to get you a decision as quickly as possible.”

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