State getting ready to run W-H schools; Takeover would need federal OK; education officials arrive for audit

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The Texas Education Agency is laying the groundwork for a possible state takeover of Wilmer-Hutchins schools.

Ed Flathouse, the state’s associate commissioner for finance and compliance, said he expects the agency to begin talks with federal officials to clear the way. The U.S. Justice Department must approve a TEA intervention that would give a state official power to reverse any decision by the district’s board or superintendent.

“We’ll probably make some inquiries in anticipation of it,” Dr. Flathouse said, referring to the imposition of a state conservator or management team for the district.

The decision to take over the district, if it comes, will have to follow the report of the TEA’s audit team, which arrived Monday to examine the district’s finances. But Dr. Flathouse said “we won’t wait” until the report is in to start talking to the Justice Department.

Charles Matthews, the district’s superintendent, said he doesn’t believe the TEA will have to intervene at all because he expects to follow all recommendations the audit team comes up with during its investigation.

“I’m going to do what they tell me to do,” he said. “They’re here to help.”

The audit brings a fitting end to a whirlwind August in Wilmer-Hutchins schools, on Dallas County’s south side. In three weeks, the district’s high school was declared unusable, a grand jury heard allegations of corruption, and the district couldn’t meet payroll, leaving teachers and other employees wondering when they’ll next be paid.

“That is one of the failures we see here: Their business is not in order,” Dr. Flathouse said.

The TEA has a number of options when it chooses to intervene in a school district. On the low end, the state could demand the hiring of a consultant to improve the district’s handling of finances. It also could impose a monitor, who could sit in on board meetings and advise the administration. Wilmer-Hutchins most recently had a monitor for the 2001-02 school year because of low test scores.

The agency also has tougher interventions at hand. It could impose a conservator or management team, which could override any board vote, any administrative decision and any principal’s action. However, it would not be able to interfere in district elections, set tax rates or pass an annual budget.

(“Conservator” and “management team” are largely interchangeable terms and generally refer to the size of the state team taking over the district. Until a recent name change, the TEA called a conservator a “master.”)

The state’s most severe intervention, short of dissolving the district, is a board of managers. That involves replacing the board with state appointees and the appointment of a superintendent by the state education commissioner.

All of these interventions are rare. As of Aug. 16, only three school districts and six charter schools had a TEA monitor.

No Texas school districts are currently run by a conservator, management team or board of managers. Four charter schools are, including Dallas’ Inspired Vision and A-Plus Academy.

Anything from the conservator level or higher needs Justice Department approval. “It’s because it involves setting aside voter rights,” TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said. “The voters voted in that board of trustees to run the district, and by putting in a management team, we’re setting aside the power of that board.”

In June 1996 – when Wilmer-Hutchins was last taken over by the state – the Justice Department approved the move. That team ran the district until 1998.

On Monday, the TEA audit team and inspectors from the Texas Department of Health arrived at Wilmer-Hutchins’ headquarters on Illinois Avenue. The health inspectors are examining all district campuses. Their primary concern is mold and mildew caused by leaky roofs – most prominently at the high school, where a summer storm left parts of the building’s interior soaked.

Dr. Matthews said Monday he hopes the building can open to students shortly after Labor Day. In the meantime, students are on other campuses.

Also Monday, WFAA-TV (Channel 8) reported that the salary for an employee listed as the district’s maintenance director, Gerald Henderson, remained on the Wilmer-Hutchins budget at $30,000 per year even though he has not worked in the district since 2002 because of a disability.

The station also found a purchase order bearing Mr. Henderson’s signature dated last April. Mr. Henderson told WFAA he did not sign the order. Neither Dr. Matthews nor Mr. Roberson could explain the apparent discrepancies, but Dr. Matthews said Mr. Henderson “is not being paid one penny.”

Tom Canby, the TEA’s managing director of financial audits, said the audit team will spend the better part of the next month gathering information and analyzing the district’s financial state. A final report could be ready in a month.

Mr. Canby also said the district took out a $3.8 million tax anticipatory note loan in April, putting the district even further into debt. When asked why the district took out that loan, the district’s chief financial officer, Phillip Roberson, said it was to pay off a previous $2 million loan.

Without serious cost cutting, Mr. Canby said, the district will have trouble paying its bills for the rest of 2004 – even with millions in state aid on its way.

Dr. Flathouse pointed out that the state has intervened in Wilmer-Hutchins many times – from small, targeted investigations to the 1996 takeover. “I’ve been in this room many times before,” he said during a news conference in the district’s board chambers. “It goes in cycles.”

He said the district’s recent problems are typical.

“You have to ask yourself: Could this have happened in any other district in the state?” he said. “That’s the question that hangs.”

Red ink not new to chief; W-H isn’t first district to go broke under superintendent’s watch

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

The financial mess at Wilmer-Hutchins ISD isn’t the first such crisis presided over by Superintendent Charles Matthews.

In tiny Karnack ISD, amid the cypress trees of Caddo Lake on the furthest edge of East Texas, a healthy fund balance quickly went away when Dr. Matthews became superintendent in 1998.

In Karnack, as in Wilmer-Hutchins, Dr. Matthews insisted the district’s finances were strong while they spiraled downward.

Those who dealt with Dr. Matthews then say they weren’t shocked to hear of Wilmer-Hutchins’ financial collapse, which peaked Friday with word that teachers would go more than two weeks without paychecks because the district is out of money.

“I happened to be in Dallas this week, and I woke up one morning and saw the news,” said Judy VanDeventer, a former Karnack board president. “I said, ‘I’m not surprised. I knew it would come out sooner or later.'”

Dr. Matthews has not returned more than a dozen phone calls seeking comment for this and other stories in the last week.

Karnack’s financial state never reached the point that the district couldn’t meet payroll. But it had a very comfortable fund balance in 1997-98, the year before Dr. Matthews arrived: $560,000, more than twice the level the state considers healthy.

Over the next three years, the number took a tumble: to $275,000, to $4,000 and finally a $91,000 shortfall in his final year in the district.

“Right after we got him in there, I started hearing different rumors about financial problems,” said Elaine Davis, the Karnack board president who hired Dr. Matthews in 1998. “After getting involved with him, I wish we hadn’t hired him at all.”

When Dr. Matthews arrived in Wilmer-Hutchins in 2002, state auditors said the district had a fund balance of $1.6 million. Within a year, that balance was gone, and the district was $139,000 in the hole.

The district’s estimates for the current shortfall range from $100,000 to $600,000.

“He’s a very pleasant man, a likable person,” said Jim Gibson, another former Karnack board president. “But that’s about it. I don’t know how you could rely upon his abilities to be the superintendent.”

Promising beginning

Charles Matthews was born in 1938 in Lecompte, La. He attended Paul Quinn College when it was in Waco, and his first teaching job was in the southeast Texas town of New Waverly in 1968.

The next year, he took a job teaching at North Forest schools, on the northeast side of Houston. Over the next 15 years, he worked his way up – to principal and, in 1980, to deputy superintendent.

In 1984, he was hired to lead Wilmer-Hutchins ISD, the small majority-black school district on Dallas’ south side, even then known for being one of Texas’ most-troubled.

At the time, Dr. Matthews told The Dallas Morning News that “the ultimate goal in everything we do from now on is to improve student achievement.”

“We’re embarking on a new and exciting time for Wilmer-Hutchins. It will take some work, but we’ve got a lot to work with,” he said.

Dr. Matthews remained for 10 years. He instituted Saturday sessions and after-school tutoring for students who needed extra help, and the district established an early-childhood program and worked to improve its management.

There were signs his methods were working. In 1985, the Texas Education Agency removed a set of monitors who had overseen the administration. In 1987, TEA granted Wilmer-Hutchins full state accreditation for the first time since 1980.

But all was not well. State officials demanded an investigation into testing irregularities at one Wilmer-Hutchins school. A TEA analysis found that the district was not “using prudent business practices” and was spending too much on legal fees. The state launched investigations into the district’s bilingual program and payments to contractors.

And in 1987, the Dallas County district attorney’s office started an investigation into claims, raised by residents, of mismanaged funds and other criminal activity. No indictments were ever returned. Dr. Matthews at the time said the investigation was motivated by racism.

Within Wilmer-Hutchins, Dr. Matthews was praised for bringing a measure of stability. In 1991, he was named State Superintendent of the Year by the Texas Association of School Boards.

The district’s test scores had improved, as did the scores of nearly all Texas districts, but Wilmer-Hutchins remained near the state’s bottom. In 1994, students’ poor academic performance was cited by board members in their request that Dr. Matthews resign.

Under his severance agreement, he stayed on the payroll until 1996.

Fresh start

After Wilmer-Hutchins, Dr. Matthews told people he was finished leading school districts.

“He said he wanted to do something different,” said Helen Curtis, then the principal of Dunbar Middle School in Fort Worth. “It was my understanding that he was really done being a superintendent. He was burned out, and he wanted to get into counseling.”

In 1995, Dr. Matthews became a middle-school guidance counselor. Ms. Curtis says he did a fine job in his year at Dunbar, helping students schedule courses, talking with them about their problems and assisting with tests.

According to his resume, he then worked in Dallas ISD as “Wellness Programs Director” from 1996 to 1998. He also returned briefly to Fort Worth as a counselor at Atwood McDonald Elementary, according to district records. Then Karnack ISD came calling.

Karnack, like Wilmer-Hutchins, is a mostly black school district with declining enrollment. When Dr. Matthews took over in the fall of 1998, there were 385 students. Districts that small don’t have finance departments.

“We just had the superintendent and a bookkeeper,” said Ms. VanDeventer, who ran for the board and became president out of concern for Dr. Matthews’ financial management. “It was hard to know how big the problem was because he’d tell you things were good when they weren’t.”

Two former Karnack board members said Dr. Matthews refused to adjust the district’s budget to reflect declining enrollment.

In 1997-98, the year before he arrived, Karnack had 433 students. The district’s operating budget spent $6,245 per pupil – about $1,100 above the state average but not unusually high for such a small district.

In 1999-00, the first year Dr. Matthews controlled the whole budgeting process, enrollment had dropped to 361 students. Even though fewer students meant fewer dollars from the state, Karnack’s budget went up. Operating spending per pupil jumped to $8,052 per pupil – more than $2,000 above the state average. The payroll grew, too, with more teachers and staff.

“He hired a bunch of people we just couldn’t pay for,” Mr. Gibson said.

Like Wilmer-Hutchins, Karnack had dilapidated buildings, and Dr. Matthews pushed a bond issue to build a high school, Ms. VanDeventer said.

“They were in no financial condition to do anything,” she said. “But he tried to make it appear that they were. He kept saying, ‘We can afford it, we can afford it.'”

The bond issue was defeated after Mr. Gibson, Ms. VanDeventer and others campaigned against it.

Over time, some former supporters turned against him.

“I don’t dislike anybody, but I didn’t like some of the things he did,” said Ms. Davis, the board president who had voted to hire Dr. Matthews. “He’d tell me one thing and tell somebody else something else. He caused problems.”

Dr. Matthews still had some support in the community. He used some of the newly hired staff to start popular programs such as Saturday tutorials.

“He was probably the best thing that had happened to Karnack since I was on school board,” said former trustee Jake Haywood, who said some of Dr. Matthews’ critics are motivated by racism. “He was one outstanding individual.”

As spending went up and Karnack’s cash reserves dwindled, several residents decided to run for the school board and put the district on stronger financial ground.

Over two elections, they gained a four-seat majority on the seven-seat board.

“The night before I was elected, he told me, ‘I’ll resign because I know you’re going to get elected,'” Ms. VanDeventer said. “He knew I was determined to get to the bottom of the district’s finances.”

At the first board meeting after the election, Dr. Matthews announced his resignation. He said he wanted to spend more time in Dallas, where his wife and family had lived while he commuted to Karnack.

Ms. VanDeventer said sorting out the books after Dr. Matthews’ departure was a challenge.

“We found bills that hadn’t been paid,” she said. “We found bills that had been paid twice.”

She said it took three years to get the district back to a positive fund balance.

Dwindling fast

After Karnack, Dr. Matthews went back to counseling. He spent the 2001-02 school year at Como Elementary in Fort Worth, the district said.

But some board members in Wilmer-Hutchins had long wanted to bring back Dr. Matthews. As far back as 1996 – when TEA took over the district for a host of financial and academic problems – there had been attempts to rehire him.

In October 2002, the Wilmer-Hutchins school board voted unexpectedly to fire Superintendent Harvey Rayson. (Mr. Rayson had been Karnack’s superintendent from 1988 to 1990.) Four days later, they hired Dr. Matthews to take his place.

As in Karnack, the enrollment in Wilmer-Hutchins has declined steadily, from 4,017 when Dr. Matthews left in 1994 to 2,902 last year.

Since Dr. Matthews’ return, Wilmer-Hutchins’ cash reserves have evaporated from $1.6 million to a deficit.

Meanwhile, his salary has jumped. Mr. Rayson was paid $95,100 a year. Dr. Matthews was hired at $125,000; a few months later, trustees gave him a raise to $178,600.

Dr. Matthews has the second-highest salary of 892 Texas superintendents who work in districts with fewer than 5,000 students, according to state data.

Last week, even before the Wilmer-Hutchins missed payroll, TEA officials announced an investigative audit of the district’s finances. Auditors arrive today.

Some of those who worked with Dr. Matthews in Karnack say Wilmer-Hutchins might have seen it coming.

“I was never so surprised in my life as when I saw on the TV that he had been reinstated as superintendent in Wilmer-Hutchins,” Mr. Gibson said. “It just seems like trouble follows him around.”

In W-H, still no paychecks; Superintendent blames TEA, which says districts knew of change

By Joshua Benton and Herb Booth
Staff Writers

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Friday came and went, and still there were no paychecks for nearly three-quarters of Wilmer-Hutchins school district employees.

Teachers and other workers were led to believe they could expect payment Friday – two days late. Instead, they were told there would be no pay until Sept. 10, another two weeks.

“I am fully aware of the burden this situation has caused you,” Superintendent Charles Matthews said in a letter to employees. “I know that you will continue to work with our children. They need you at this time.”

Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a Texas Education Agency spokeswoman, said officials wrote a letter on Wilmer-Hutchins’ behalf, guaranteeing any lenders that a $1 million state payment would arrive in district coffers Sept. 9.

“But apparently their bankers, for whatever reason, didn’t feel they could give the district that loan,” she said.

Anthony Miller, assistant principal at Wilmer-Hutchins High School, is one of about 280 employees who haven’t been paid.

“I’m lucky, though. My wife is an educator in Lancaster, and we have enough to make it,” Mr. Miller said. “Our bills don’t come until the middle of the month.”

Dr. Matthews said the district, with about $20 million in annual revenue, needed about $1 million to cover its obligations.

He blamed the TEA for the shortfall. The agency last year moved its August payment to districts to Sept. 9 – an accounting trick to balance the state budget.

Ms. Ratcliffe said she knew of no other Texas district that failed to account for the new payment date.

“This is absolutely not TEA’s fault,” she said. “The delay was widely reported by the media and through this agency. The other 1,036 school districts and 200 charter schools in the state managed to prepare financially for this two-week delay.”

Financial leaders in other districts said they had known about the delayed payment for over a year and had simply planned for it.

“We don’t foresee it causing any problems for us,” said Kurt Brandt, chief financial officer for DeSoto schools. “Over the past several years, we’ve built up our fund balance, and one of the benefits of that is we’re able to handle this delay.”

DeSoto had a record fund balance of $8.7 million at the end of the last fiscal year.

“We’re not in … Wilmer-Hutchins’ situation at all,” said Bill Althoff, Irving’s assistant superintendent for support services. “We maintain a reserve fund for situations like that. We feel it’s prudent.”

Mr. Althoff said it’s possible to debate whether the Legislature’s decision to delay the payment was appropriate. “But it’s reality, whether it’s fair or not,” he said. “We planned accordingly.”

Phillip Roberson, Wilmer-Hutchins’ chief financial officer, said bank officials cited negative publicity for hurting the district’s chance for a bridge loan.

Districts’ being denied a short-term loan is very rare, but not completely unheard of, Ms. Ratcliffe said. She said it has happened to some charter schools in recent years.

She said the payroll problems don’t materially change the goals of TEA auditors, who will arrive in the district Monday to check its books.

“The district had a fund balance not too long ago,” she said. “Now they’ve announced publicly they’re broke. We’re hoping to find out what happened.”

Dr. Matthews said Wilmer-Hutchins has no reserves on which to rely.

A memo to Wilmer-Hutchins High School staff said Wells Fargo denied the district a short-term loan. The district’s chief financial officer, Phillip Roberson, said the district applied elsewhere but received no response yet.

At a Monday court hearing, Dr. Roberson said the district was “pretty much broke” and facing a $100,000 deficit.

Nate Carman, the high school principal, said he wasn’t affected, but his wife, a teacher, was.

“We had two teachers and an office worker come in and ask for the afternoon off to try and arrange for short-term loans,” said Mr. Carman. “There were a couple of people who said they’d help financially. I helped someone pay for an electric bill.”

He said no one walked out on the job when told the paychecks would be delayed until Sept. 10.

Three high school teachers who were affected would not comment.

Dr. Matthews insisted the district did the “very best job we could do” to pay workers. He compared his plight with that of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who had to deal recently with Hurricane Charley.

Dr. Matthews said no improprieties led to the financial shortfall.

“There’s no corruption here,” he said. “Look at the grand jury. They cleared us. Jesus was persecuted for 36 months. Wilmer-Hutchins has been persecuted for many, many more.”

On Thursday, a Dallas County grand jury took “no action” on criminal allegations related to the district’s financial problems. The move is neither an indictment nor a decision not to indict.

Rachel Horton, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, said the grand jury’s decision means the case remains open. The panel has the ability to revisit the matter if new evidence or testimony is presented, she said.

Payroll not met in W-H; Agency says district wrong on timing of state aid, is using revenue illegally

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

It became clear Wednesday what a Wilmer-Hutchins official meant this week when he said the school district was “pretty much broke.”

The district failed to meet payroll, leaving teachers, other employees and parents wondering if the district has a future.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” said Sharon Coleman, parent of a Wilmer-Hutchins High School sophomore. “It’s not a surprise, though. They’ve been doing this sort of thing for years.”

Suzanne Marchman, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said district employees who receive their paychecks through direct deposit were paid Wednesday. Those who normally get paper checks received none.

The district’s chief financial officer, Phillip Roberson, said Monday in a court hearing that the district was “pretty much broke” and facing a $100,000 deficit. But he gave no indication, as recently as Tuesday, that paychecks were at risk. The district has more than 400 employees.

District officials did not want to discuss Wednesday what might happen next.

When a Dallas Morning News reporter reached school board President Luther Edwards on his cellphone and identified himself, Mr. Edwards hung up.

When reporters arrived at district headquarters Wednesday afternoon, Superintendent Charles Matthews left by a rear entrance, got in his Cadillac and drove off, ignoring reporters seeking to ask him about the apparent financial collapse. Dr. Matthews had previously said financial matters are his administration’s strong suit.

Dr. Roberson said Tuesday that the district planned to take out a short-term bank loan to cover the district’s expenses until the first installment of state aid arrives in the bank accounts of all Texas school districts this fall.

But the date of that state payment, Sept. 9, appears to have created some confusion in Wilmer-Hutchins’ administration building.

Ms. Marchman said a Wilmer-Hutchins official called the TEA Wednesday and asked where the district’s August state payment was. Last year, the Legislature chose to push back August payments to September – into the next fiscal year – to balance the state budget.

“They said they were waiting for the August allotment,” Ms. Marchman said of Wilmer-Hutchins officials. “They seemed to say they were unaware what was going on.”

The postponed state payments have been public knowledge for more than a year, and Ms. Marchman said the TEA had sent several reminders to districts over that time.

She said no other district in the state appears to have made the mistake Wilmer-Hutchins has.

Ms. Marchman said “there’s nothing the agency can do” to help the district. “They might try to find a short-term loan to pay their employees.”

The cash shortage isn’t the only bind Wilmer-Hutchins officials are facing.

State officials also say the district is illegally using property tax revenues intended to pay off construction bonds to instead pay off a short-term loan from a Utah bank.

District leaders insist that everything about the $500,000 loan, taken out in May to meet maintenance bills, is legitimate. But the TEA has given the district until Tuesday to stop spending the bond money and to replace the money it has spent. And the loan is now part of a criminal investigation, the TEA said.

“There are very clear rules about it, and the district cannot do this,” said Ed Flathouse, the TEA’s associate commissioner for finance and compliance.

Dr. Roberson, the district’s chief financial officer, said Tuesday that he would not discuss the loan or the district’s reaction to the TEA’s concerns. “I’d rather not even comment on that,” he said. “We’ll just pretty much wait and see what we can do.”

Questions about the loan are the latest in a series of financial problems in the district. TEA officials said Tuesday that they will send an investigative audit team to examine the district’s books next week.

Documents not released

On Tuesday, The News requested from the TEA a series of documents relating to the Utah loan. But agency officials said Wednesday that the documents could not be released publicly because they are part of a criminal investigation.

A Dallas County grand jury is considering allegations of financial improprieties.

School districts levy two kinds of property taxes on residents: maintenance and operations taxes, or M&O, and interest and sinking fund taxes, or I&S. M&O taxes fund regular district operations, like teacher salaries and gas for school buses. I&S taxes are used to pay off bonds, which typically finance school construction and renovations.

The disputed pool of money is Wilmer-Hutchins’ debt service fund, which is where all I&S tax dollars go. The money in that fund is supposed to be used to pay off bond notes – not for any other purpose, state officials said.

A 1940 attorney general’s opinion made it clear that the money in districts’ debt service funds cannot be spent on anything else until all the district’s bonds are retired.

“The voters voted on those bonds, and you’re taxing voters to pay off that bonded debt,” said Linda Fredlund, a TEA auditor. “You cannot remove those funds and use them on anything else until those bonds are paid off.”

Ms. Fredlund informed Wilmer-Hutchins of the state’s objections in an Aug. 3 letter. Ten days later, the district’s attorneys prepared a memo arguing that Wilmer-Hutchins should be able to use the I&S tax money for other purposes if it chooses to.

The key to its argument: The district has accumulated too much money in the debt service fund and needs to spend some of it.

But Dr. Flathouse said there is an easy solution to reducing a debt service fund: Lower the tax rate.

Lawyers defend district

It’s unclear how much money is in Wilmer-Hutchins’ debt service fund or how much debt the district is working to retire. TEA officials said such information is part of the investigation and couldn’t be released.

Two law firms advised Wilmer-Hutchins on the loan and wrote a memorandum defending the district’s approach. A spokesman for one, Winstead, Sechrest & Minick, said it would not comment on the case while the district was considering its options.

The other, West & Gooden, did not return calls seeking comment. West & Gooden is the law firm of state Sen. Royce West, whose firm has done a significant portion of the district’s legal work in recent years. Mr. West has not returned multiple calls seeking comment over the last week.

Whose school rules? The competition is fierce when these rivals square off on the field, in the classroom or across the chessboard

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1E

In 1878, high in the Appalachian hills, Randell McCoy looked upon the hog pen of his neighbor, Floyd Hatfield. One of those hogs looks familiar, he thought. Too familiar.

Randell angrily accused Floyd of stealing the hog. The men argued the case in court; when Floyd won, Randell swore eternal vengeance.

Now, no one’s saying that the Hatfields and McCoys are good models for anyone to follow. (Twelve people died in their infamous feud.) But there’s something to be said for a good rivalry. Rivals can push each other to new heights, channeling occasionally irrational emotions into performance and success.

Herewith, a highly subjective listing of North Texas’ 10 best school rivalries:

ONE-ACT PLAY:
Carrollton Creekview vs. Plano East

QUICK START: Creekview, which opened just six years ago, may not have decades of thespian history. Yet it’s had plenty of success. It’s won first or second place in the state’s largest division three out of the last four years.

NO GREEK TRAGEDY: But in 2004, Plano East had the edge. Its rendition of Big Love, Charles Mee’s update of an Aeschylus classic, took second place in the state, the best showing of any Dallas-area school.

CONTROVERSY: One possible reason for Creekview’s off-year: A controversy over its initial choice of plays, Six Degrees of Separation. A lead character in that play is gay, and complaints from some parents led to school administrators forcing a change of scripts.

CHESS:
Dallas Lipscomb Elementary vs. Dallas Dealey Montessori

YOUNG DOMINANCE: When Lipscomb’s young Kasparovs take their seats at a chess match, checkmate usually isn’t far away. They’re the dominant program in the youngest division of Dallas Area Chess In Schools, finishing first or second in the city the last three years. “It’s great to take a school that’s 90-percent Hispanic and low socioeconomic and often beat the private schools,” said teacher and chess coach Julie Blasingame.

OLDER KIDS: But Lipscomb enrolls students in only kindergarten through third grade – which leaves an opening for rival Dealey, a K-6 campus. With older elementary students, Dealey has ranked among the city’s top three chess programs seven times in its last 10 chances.

OTHER CHALLENGERS: Sudie Williams, George Peabody and James Hogg Elementaries

UIL ACADEMICS:
Lindsay vs. Muenster vs. Valley View

SMALL-TOWN RIVALS: These three tiny towns near the Oklahoma line are within 20 miles of one another and not close to much else. But Lindsay (pop. 710), Muenster (pop. 1,387), and Valley View (pop. 640) eat like big dogs when it’s time for UIL academic competitions.

STATE DOMINANCE: “They’re probably the top three small schools in the state,” said Bobby Hawthorne, UIL’s director of academics. Lindsay is the biggest star: They’ve won state sweepstakes titles nine of the last 13 years. But Muenster and Valley View have both grabbed state titles during that span, too.

REUNITED: After realignment, all three schools will be in the same district this fall for the first time in years. “We’re all cousins to each other,” said Craig Hertel, Lindsay’s UIL director. “I try to downplay the rivalry a bit, but the kids are very much aware of it.”

DEBATE:
Plano Senior vs. Plano East

YES, IT IS: These two traditional powerhouses both often finish the year ranked in the state’s top five. Plano Senior’s had the edge of late – five state sweepstakes wins in the last 10 years and three students winning national championships over the same span.

NO, IT’S NOT: But Plano East is a program on the rise – it beat Senior at district, regional and state competitions this year.

MOUTHING OFF EARLY: The key to their success? Starting early. Plano middle schools start speech programs in sixth grade and debate in seventh. In-district tournaments give the younger kids experience; by the time they reach ninth grade, they’re already battle-scarred veterans.

UP-AND-COMING: And if either school rests on its laurels? “Plano West is the newbie, but some of the best debaters are coming up through its feeder pattern,” said Nancy Connors, Plano ISD’s former speech coordinator.

MARCHING BAND:
Duncanville High vs. L.D. Bell

ONE, TWO; TWO, ONE: UIL scheduling means these titans face off for state titles only in even-numbered years. Lately, they’ve made the most of those chances. Duncanville finished first in 2002 and second in 2000; L.D. Bell finished first in 2000 and second in 2002.

MARCHING ARMIES: Both have rosters stacked with hundreds of students, and both prided themselves on precision marching and playing. Duncanville – whose repeat appearances on this list help explain the suburb’s nickname, “City of Champions” is a perennial power, with state titles in 1986 and 1990.

SLIPPERY WHEN WET: The last time these two faced off, in 2002, the weather got in the way. The state finals were canceled after officials feared injuries on a rain-slick field, and Duncanville was given the title for having the best score in preliminary rounds. If both squads can make state again this year (they’ll face off first in area round) the turf is sure to be dry this time. The finals will be at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

VOLLEYBALL:
Arlington Martin vs. Arlington Lamar vs. Arlington

THIS TOWN’S NOT BIG ENOUGH: They’re three of the region’s top programs, finsihing 2003 with a combined 101 victories against 24 losses.

BUMP, SET, SPIKE: “They’re three high-quality, competitive programs,” said Scott White, editor of LoneStarVolleyball.com. “The gym is always full when they play each other.” Rivalries are fueled by the club volleyball season, when many girls cross boundaries to play on each other’s club teams.

WHO’S ON TOP: Martin has current bragging rights. The Warriors finished the year 39-5; the team was ranked as high as No. 2 in the state before losing in the state semifinals. But Arlington and Arlington Lamar both finished in the state’s top 20.

JOURNALISM:
DeSoto’s Eagle Eye vs. Duncanville’s Panther Prints

SKINS ON THE WALL: Since the 19080s, Duncanville High and DeSoto have had two of the best high school newspapers in the nation. Since 1989, DeSoto has won three Gold Crown awards from the high school equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize. That sounds nice, but Duncanville has won 11 over the same span.

SIZING THEM UP: “Duncanville has some of the most outstanding student photography in the nation,” says Randy Vonderheid, journalism guru for the University Interscholastic League. “DeSoto often has stronger writing and stronger design.” (Mr. Vonderheid, a former DeSoto teacher, claims no bias.)

MAYBE NEXT YEAR: This year’s Gold Crowns did nothing to settle the rivalry. Both Schools won one in 2004. (So did The ReMarker, student newspaper at St. Mark’s School of Texas.)

FOOTBALL:
Dallas Carter Cowboys vs. Dallas Kimball Knights

IT’S A FAMILY AFFAIR: These longtime rivals, only five miles apart, face off in the Oak Cliff Super Bowl every year. “It’s just like playing a game against your family,” says Charles Breithaupt, UIL’s director of athletics. “They’re so close together. They compete so hard. It’s bragging rights for a full year.”

COWBOYS ON TOP: Carter, one of the area’s top programs, has held bragging rights lately. The Cowboys have won the last two games, including a 31-7 shellacking last year. “I just thank the Lord we won,” Carter QB Twaneil Spead said afterward. “I can come back and brag.”

A NEW HOME: For years, the Oak Cliff Super Bowl has been played in – Addison? But not for long: In March, Dallas ISD broke ground on the $40 million Jesse Owens Memorial Athletic Complex, which will include a 12,000-seat football stadium within jogging distance of both squads.

TOUGH CLASSES:
Highland Park vs. Colleyville Heritage

PENCIL PUSHERS: All high school students complain they’ve got so much work to do because their classes are so hard. Students at these two schools aren’t kidding. Each year, Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews compiles the Challenge Index, a rough measure of how challenging the course load is at thousands of high schools nationwide.

DO THE MATH: Mr. Mathews’ index is a count of how many Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests are given at a school, divided by how many graduating seniors it has.

SCOTS ON TOP: Highland Park has the area’s highest Challenge Index, with 3.69 AP and IB tests for every senior. That’s good enough for 15th in the nation. Colleyville Heritage is next, with 2.27 tests per senior. (Plano West and McKinney are right behind.) But everybody in Texas is stuck looking up at the state’s top performer: the Science Academy of South Texas in Mercedes, with 4.02 tests per senior.

IVY LEAGUE ADMISSIONS:
The Greenhill School vs. St. Mark’s School of Texas

NO THIN ENVELOPES: They’re two of the area’s top private schools. And every spring, you can be sure officials are more than a little curious to see where graduating seniors will have their mail forwarded.

LONE STAR CHAMPS: In 2002, when Worth magazine published a ranking of which American high schools send the most graduates to Yale, Harvard and Princeton, Greenhill was tops in Texas. It was the 37th-best “feeder school” in the nation; roughly one out of every 13 Greenhill grads lands at one of the three elite Ivys. St. Mark’s finished 100th.

ELSEWHERE: Only one other Texas school made the top 100: Houston’s St. John’s School, which came in 31st.

State audit set for W-H; School leaders are corrupt, police chief tells grand jury

By Joshua Benton and Robert Tharp
Staff Writers

Page 1A

Wilmer-Hutchins schools faced double scrutiny Tuesday: from the state, which announced a rare investigative audit into its finances, and from their own police chief, who alleged corruption among district leaders.

“I can promise you that TEA will act decisively and will do the right thing,” state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said after a high-level meeting of Texas Education Agency officials to discuss the district’s difficulties.

But she said she has a preference for solving problems at the local level.

“I know that as a former superintendent, I want to give districts every chance in the world to get things settled locally,” she said. “The state can’t run every district in the state.”

Cedric Davis, Wilmer-Hutchins school district police chief, testified before a Dallas County grand jury investigating allegations of wrongdoing in the district. Later, he told reporters of his allegations of corruption and graft against a number of Wilmer-Hutchins officials.

“Somebody has to be held accountable,” Chief Davis said as he left the Crowley Criminal Courts Building in Dallas. “If they’re indicted, I will definitely feel satisfied.”

Chief Davis declined to discuss his grand jury testimony in detail, but he said he’s hoping that the panel returns indictments against those responsible for the district’s financial mess.

“Right now, our kids are losing,” said Chief Davis, who has sued the district for firing him in June. He has since been reinstated by a judge.

Chief Davis outlined a number of accusations against district officials, including contracts not awarded through the legal bidding process, misuse of federal education funds and improper travel by trustees.

TEA officials said it is rare for Texas school districts to be in such poor financial shape that an investigative audit is necessary. Ed Flathouse, the associate commissioner for finance and compliance, said the state performs two or three a year in traditional school districts, with an additional half-dozen or so performed in charter schools.

Dr. Neeley, who took office in January, said she received a thorough briefing on the long history of problems in Wilmer-Hutchins schools Tuesday morning. “I just walked on the job, and I know there are two sides to every story,” she said.

Taking a close look

Dr. Flathouse said the Wilmer-Hutchins audit will begin Monday and will probably last a week. The district’s chief financial officer said the district would cooperate with the investigation.

“We don’t have anything to hide,” Phillip Roberson said. “Everything is open.”

Dr. Neeley said she had arranged for a team from the Texas Department of Health to inspect the district’s buildings for health concerns – primarily mold and mildew caused by recent maintenance problems.

The district’s most recent round of problems began Aug. 11, when Superintendent Charles Matthews announced that 2-month-old storm damage at Wilmer-Hutchins High School would delay the start of classes. Students are now in classes on other campuses around the district; officials say it could be another month or more before the high school is ready for students.

The high school’s underclassmen missed a week of classes in the shuffling between campuses. Dr. Flathouse said that the TEA had decided not to penalize the district financially for the missed week of classes and that students will not be required to make up the missed days for the district to get its regular state funding.

The district has also said it is $100,000 or more in the red and will probably have to take out a short-term loan to pay its bills during the next month.

Wilmer-Hutchins has been criticized for a weak academic record – perhaps the state’s worst. Dr. Neeley said that the new set of state ratings will be released at the end of September and that TEA may choose then to intervene on the academic side.

Corruption alleged

Chief Davis said the money problems are the fault of corrupt administrators and board members.

Texas school districts are required to seek competitive bids for expenditures of more than $25,000, but Chief Davis said district administrators knowingly circumvented the law in at least one case by awarding $61,000 in work to a roofing contractor who used two different business names to secure different work contracts.

“This guy ended up getting $61,000, and we still have leaking roofs,” Chief Davis said of the arrangement, which came before this summer’s maintenance problems at the high school.

Superintendent Matthews also appeared before the grand jury Tuesday but left the courthouse without commenting about his testimony or the district’s problems.

The grand jury isn’t the only legal venue in which Chief Davis and the district are at odds. In June, the school board voted to dissolve the district’s police department. The chief and three department employees then sued the district, contending that they had been wrongfully terminated.

Chief Davis also said in the lawsuit that he should be protected under Texas whistle-blower laws, which protect public employees who report corrupt activity in their organization. He said the department was dissolved in retaliation for investigative work he was doing within the district – including the fraud allegations he turned over to the Dallas County district attorney’s office.

On July 21, state District Court Judge Charles Stokes ruled that Chief Davis and the other plaintiffs “will probably prevail” when the case goes to trial, scheduled for October. As a result, he issued a temporary injunction requiring the district to rehire the employees and reconstitute the police department.

W-H is ‘broke,’ official testifies; As district’s debts, problems grow, state considers intervening

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

The Wilmer-Hutchins school district is out of money, according to its chief financial officer, and the Texas Education Agency is considering intervening.

“I talked to my accountant and we’re $100,000 in the hole right now,” the district’s business manager, Phillip Roberson, testified during a hearing Monday regarding a wrongful-termination suit against the district. “We’re pretty much broke right now.”

Meanwhile, a Dallas County grand jury is set to meet today to consider allegations of wrongdoing involving the district and its school board.

And the district’s financial ills could be even worse than they appear, Dr. Roberson said.

“We’ve got quite a few bills piled up,” he said. “I think if we ran them all through, we may be even further behind.”

The financial shortfall is the latest in a series of problems in Wilmer-Hutchins.

This morning, Texas Education Agency officials, including Commissioner Shirley Neeley, are scheduled to discuss possible state involvement in running the troubled district’s affairs. One likely scenario: an informal visit to Wilmer-Hutchins to inspect the district’s financial records.

Assistant District Attorney Pat Batchelor said a Dallas County grand jury will hear testimony today regarding complaints against the school district and trustees. Citing state statutes about the confidential nature of grand jury testimony, Mr. Batchelor said he could not comment in detail about the complaints.

News about the district’s finances came as Dr. Roberson was testifying in a lawsuit filed against the district by employees of its own police department. The employees say they were wrongfully fired in June when the school board voted to dissolve the department. They also say they were fired because they were attempting to expose wrongdoing in the district.

Superintendent Charles Matthews and school board President Luther Edwards declined to comment after the hearing Monday. Both testified in court, but on matters other than the financial state of the district.

Wilmer-Hutchins has a history of poor financial management. The district has had its financial operations taken over by the state several times, most recently in 1998.

“We’ll be meeting to determine what role, if any, we should play in the immediate future,” said Ed Flathouse, TEA’s associate commissioner for finance and compliance.

He said one option will be to send an informal state team to analyze the district’s records.

“It puts a whole new light on it when you call it an ‘investigation,'” Dr. Flathouse said. “This is more of a ‘visit.'”

In audited figures released last week, TEA said Wilmer-Hutchins was one of only 12 districts – of 1,039 statewide – that finished the 2002-03 school year with a negative fund balance.

Earlier optimism

District officials had been optimistic that things might improve this year. Dr. Matthews said last week that financial reporting was his administration’s strong suit, and officials had said they hoped to have a positive fund balance this year.

But in his testimony, Dr. Roberson said the current shortfall would be larger if the district hadn’t taken out a $500,000 short-term loan from a Utah bank this summer.

“If we had to repay the loan we got to help us out, we could be $600,000 in the hole,” he said.

Dr. Flathouse said that the TEA evaluates interventions on a case-by-case basis and that there are no “clear lines” that, when crossed, trigger state action.

But he said running a negative fund balance for two consecutive years “would certainly create more interest in us” intervening.

The spotlight fell on Wilmer-Hutchins on Aug. 11, when district officials said damage from a June storm at the district’s high school was so extensive that the school would not be able to open on time.

Seniors began school last week on a remote campus. The rest of the students began class Monday, a week late. District officials say it will be weeks until the high school is ready for student use.

Current administrators have said their predecessors, led by former Superintendent Harvey Rayson, left the district in poor financial condition. Among other problems, the previous administration overspent its state funding by $1.9 million, forcing the district to cut its budget and repay the TEA.

Dr. Flathouse said districts with no fund balances often seek short-term funding to cover their bills in early fall, before state aid kicks in. The first state payments to districts for the current school year will not be made until the second week in September. He said Wilmer-Hutchins may have to take out some form of loan to pay its bills.

Monday’s hearing

Dr. Roberson’s testimony came during a motion hearing in the police department lawsuit. On July 21, state District Judge Charles Stokes ruled that the fired employees “will probably prevail” and issued a temporary injunction requiring the district to rehire the employees and reassemble the district’s police department.

At Monday’s hearing, the district asked whether it could put up a $4,500 bond to set aside the temporary injunction pending an appeal. Dr. Roberson’s testimony was that the district’s financial resources were such that it could not afford a substantially larger bond. Judge Stokes granted the district’s motion.

The court heard one other motion on the case Monday, denying a plaintiff’s motion to hold Wilmer-Hutchins ISD in contempt of court. Philip Layer, attorney for the police department employees, said the district was attempting to circumvent the judge’s temporary injunction by limiting the duties that the rehired police officers could perform.

For example, they were banned from providing security at board meetings. The district hired off-duty deputies from the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department at added expense. Two deputies were hired for each school board meeting and were paid $35 an hour.

Judge Stokes denied the contempt motion, but not before Mr. Edwards, the board president, said in testimony that he was fearful of district Police Chief Cedric Davis.

“The gentleman carries a gun,” said Mr. Edwards, after saying that Chief Davis’ mother had previously caused a disturbance at a Wilmer-Hutchins school board meeting and that the chief had interfered with efforts to remove her from the meeting room.

Staff writer Robert Tharp contributed to this report.

School’s in session for everyone now; Freshmen, sophomores and juniors begin one week late at other sites

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 2A

The year’s first school bell finally rang for the rest of Wilmer-Hutchins High School.

Freshmen and sophomores reported for class Monday at Hutchins Elementary. Juniors started at the career and technology building on the high school campus. Officials had decided seniors would start school last week at the Performing Arts High School.

The shifting was caused by a June storm that caused roof leaks and serious damage to the high school. On Aug. 11, the district announced that the start of school would be delayed.

“I love the district, but it just keeps on having problems,” said Sharon Coleman, mother of Kervin, a 10th-grader. She waited outside after school started Monday morning, just in case there was some a delay or cancellation. “You never know what could happen,” she said.

Officials say it will be weeks before the high school’s main building is usable and the entire student body can be reunited under one roof. Until then, students will be bused to classes at Hutchins Elementary, the technology building and C.S. Winn Elementary.

Hutchins Elementary has suffered from the same maintenance problems that the district’s other schools have. In a 2002 report, a school facilities consultant said the elementary should be abandoned and razed as soon as possible because of the building’s poor condition. The school’s 10 portable units, in particular, had “deteriorated beyond use.”

But students said they didn’t mind the new surroundings, despite the bathrooms designed for small students. “It was kind of confusing not knowing where things were,” sophomore Crystal Molina said. “But it was all right.”

Schools not worth saving, W-H told; ’02 study urged district to abandon poorly maintained campuses

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Wilmer-Hutchins ISD officials were told two years ago that nearly all their schools suffered from such poor maintenance that they should be abandoned and razed, according to a consultant’s report.

The August 2002 report, prepared by the Texas Association of School Administrators, said only 6 percent of classrooms in the district met minimum standards, and some had significant safety issues.

Use of all of the district’s elementary and middle schools should be discontinued “as soon as possible,” according to the report, obtained last week by The Dallas Morning News.

“Their schools reflected that history of a low level of care and maintenance,” said Paul Trautman, the facilities consultant who wrote the study. “Things were fixed only when they judged them to be absolutely necessary. Their schools had deteriorated more than most.”

District officials said they know Wilmer-Hutchins’ schools are not in good shape, and they hope to address some of the problems with a $68 million bond issue that goes before voters Sept. 18.

“We know our buildings are extremely old,” said Superintendent Charles Matthews. “We need to change the face of the district. But we simply don’t have the money for facilities right now.”

HS salvageable

The only school Dr. Trautman deemed worth saving was Wilmer-Hutchins High School, the campus in such disrepair after a June storm that the start of school on the site has been postponed for weeks. Seniors began a limited form of classes last week at another campus.

According to the 2002 facilities audit, roof leaks at the school didn’t start this summer.

Dr. Trautman wrote of the high school: “Roof leaks appear to be extensive, based on the number of water-stained, damaged, and missing ceiling tile throughout the building.”

Sophomore Jasmine Griffin experienced those leaks firsthand during her TAKS exam last spring. She said her test proctor had to place a trash can in her testing room to catch the staccato dripping of water from the ceiling. “That drove me nuts,” she said.

Underclassmen were due to start today at an elementary and some portable classrooms.

Those portables were in such bad shape two years ago that Dr. Trautman said they “appeared to have deteriorated beyond use and should be razed and removed from the site as soon as possible.”

The report cost Wilmer-Hutchins $16,400. It is an evaluation of the district’s facilities and a statement of projected needs. It was requested by the district’s previous superintendent, Harvey Rayson, who was replaced two months after the report was turned in, although board members did not cite facilities as a reason for the decision.

Dr. Trautman rated all the district’s schools on a 100-point scale based on how well they met state and national facilities standards. He said that the average score of the school buildings he usually examines is 65, but he noted that most of the work he does is on substandard buildings.

Five of the seven schools evaluated in Wilmer-Hutchins scored in the 40s. C.S. Winn Elementary rated in the low 50s, and the high school in the low 60s – “low for its age and design,” the report said.

‘Historic neglect’

The report says the “primary contributor to the unusually low score is the evidence of historic neglect that has allowed the building to deteriorate to a critical level in most areas.” If the high school is to be used for any length of time, the report says, “a complete refurbishing of the entire campus” is necessary.

Among the problems cited in the 2002 report:

*Bishop Heights Elementary had no functioning fire alarm system. Its bathrooms were deemed “old and marginally serviceable” and supplemented by a “free-standing portable restroom unit … that is deteriorating significantly.”

*At Alta Mesa Elementary, staff covered up the smell of mildew with candles and potpourri, and “it is likely that microbiologicals are present.” Some portables had holes punched through their walls by vandals. Up to 60 to 70 percent of classroom lights weren’t functioning.

*Most of the classrooms at C.S. Winn were considered too small – less than two-thirds of the state minimum size. The gym floor was called unsafe because it had buckled from moisture. The school had a termite problem.

*Wilmer Elementary’s library is in an old kitchen and was called “especially inadequate.” To get to the playground, students must cross active vehicular traffic.

*Kennedy-Curry Middle had “significant roof leaks” and likely air-quality problems. Classrooms had damaged ceilings, “window blinds beyond repair, much old and marginally functional furniture, stuffy air, and musty odors.” Dressing rooms in the gym “have been allowed to deteriorate so they are no longer useable.”

Findings not shocking

Luther Edwards, the school board president, said he wasn’t surprised by the findings when they were presented to the board in 2002. “Being in the state we’re in financially, it wasn’t a shock,” he said.

He said he believed the report’s safety concerns – such as the broken fire alarm at Bishop Heights – had been addressed. But, he said, the district was hesitant to pour too much money into schools that, if next month’s bond package is approved, will simply be torn down and rebuilt.

In his report, Dr. Trautman said four schools – Bishop Heights, Alta Mesa, Wilmer and Kennedy-Curry – are “instructionally and economically obsolete and should be abandoned for regular instructional use as soon as possible. None of these buildings have any discernable long-term use for regular instruction.”

C.S. Winn – the former site of the district’s high school – fared only marginally better and should also be abandoned for regular school use, Dr. Trautman said.

The high school, built in 1982, was in poorer condition than it should have been, the report said.

“The general conditions of the buildings is indicative of serious neglect over the years, both from normal wear and tear and from acts of vandalism,” it read.

“At this point, the facility needs complete refurbishing of … fixtures and systems and a commitment to address repairs to vandalism and malfunctions promptly to promote pride among both students and staff.”

A problem with upkeep

Brian Thruston, the Dallas architect who designed the school in the late 1970s, said he has seen images of the school on television and in the newspaper.

“Most of it appears to be maintenance problems,” Mr. Thruston said. “You can’t build anything and not maintain it over the years. It all gets down to what money is allocated for maintenance.”

The report does not address the Performing Arts High School, where seniors are currently attending classes. The school was not in use when Dr. Trautman visited the district. It had previously been Mamie White Elementary but was shuttered in the late 1990s as the district’s enrollment declined.

Similar report

Dr. Trautman’s study wasn’t the first time the district was told of maintenance problems. When the state comptroller’s office reviewed the district’s operations in 2002, it found that Wilmer-Hutchins was spending 28 percent more per pupil on building maintenance than similar districts.

Despite the extra spending, facilities were “in a state of disrepair,” the comptroller’s office found.

The report recommended eliminating virtually the entire maintenance staff – all but three of 20 employees. The job of maintaining the district’s buildings should be outsourced, the report recommended.

The comptroller’s report made nine recommendations on reforming the district’s facilities policies. But when comptroller staff returned 18 months later for a progress report, they found the district had implemented only three. The district ended up outsourcing the work of five maintenance employees, not 17.

Staff writer Herb Booth contributed to this report.

Texas’ worst schools; Wilmer-Hutchins’ recent woes are part of a long, dismal pattern

By Joshua Benton and Herb Booth
Staff Writers

Page 1A

No one who has paid attention through the years could have been surprised by word that Wilmer-Hutchins High School was finally so neglected and dilapidated – roach-infested, full of rot, leaky roof – that it couldn’t open for weeks or even months.

To those who have spent decades trying to shut down Wilmer-Hutchins ISD, the bad news has become background noise.

Barely five miles south of downtown Dallas, it is quite likely the worst school district in Texas.

“I think there are some who just don’t care – about students, about buildings, about anything,” said Sharon Holden, whose daughter Sharee was supposed to start her senior year at the broken-down high school last week.

“What’s happening to the money that we’re paying to the schools? Where’s our tax money going? We’re not seeing anything out of it.”

It’s hard to imagine a school district performing so poorly, in so many ways, for so very long.

Wilmer-Hutchins’ test scores are abysmal. Its buildings are falling apart for lack of maintenance. State auditors say it can’t manage money. Staffers at the Texas Education Agency break out in sad laughter when the district comes up. Parents unlucky enough to live there plot escape routes; enrollment has been dropping steadily for years.

“It’s disgraceful,” said Johnny Brown, the district’s superintendent in the late 1990s, a period of brief optimism. “It just breaks my heart. Those children in that community can learn as well as any children in any community.”

The state has taken over the district before. One Texas education official said last week that the state might have to head down that path again.

Until then, nearly 3,000 children try to find some way to squeeze an education out of what they’re given by “the Hutch.”

Idle time

At midday Friday, students across Texas were in school. The underclassmen of Wilmer-Hutchins High School were just hanging out. Somewhere.

Few kids were on the street in the Highland Hills neighborhood. None were at the parks or a nearby recreation center.

A couple of younger students in uniforms walked up to someone’s garage door. They knocked, and a window opened. A man stuck his head out: “Whaddya want?” The kids said something. The man took their coins and handed over a couple of red sodas.

Nearby, some men drank from large bottles of beer.

And down the street, Chris Pratt, 15, answered his door. The Wilmer-Hutchins sophomore had been watching TV. He wanted to start school this week.

“I sure hope they hurry up and fix that high school,” he said.

He worries about the education he’s getting.

“Some of the teachers are OK, but sometimes the kids get out of hand and the teachers don’t know what to do,” he said.

The latest word from Wilmer-Hutchins officials is that the 450 underclassmen will start class Monday, a week late. For now, they’ll go to Hutchins Elementary and the broken-down portables out back.

Dreadful for years

Wilmer-Hutchins has been awful for decades.

It was bad in the 1960s, when a school board controlled by whites battled integration and children performed so poorly that the TEA dropped its accreditation.

It was bad in the 1970s, when separate grass-roots efforts tried to dissolve it into the Lancaster, Ferris and Dallas school districts.

It was bad in the 1980s, when a trustee went to prison for food-stamp fraud and the TEA had to loan the district money to meet payroll.

And it was bad in the 1990s, when the state took over for two years, four superintendents in four years came and went, and evidence was uncovered of cheating on the TAAS test.

“When I was a kid, we had to fight the gnats and the flies,” said Luther Edwards, the current school board president and a member of the Wilmer-Hutchins High School Class of ’73. “We didn’t have air conditioning. The problems go way back before desegregation. When people say things used to be so much better, I know better.”

District makeup

The district includes its two namesake cities, part of Lancaster, and a large swath of southern Dallas. It is a disjointed mix of urban and rural landscape, cotton fields and weed-choked abandoned lots.

Considering the area’s relative poverty, a surprising percentage of people – three-quarters – own their own homes. Many of the dwellings are small, worn wooden homes valued at less than $50,000. Pockets of older, white retirees live in the district’s southern reaches, but black residents have been in the majority for years. The district also has a growing Hispanic population – about one in five residents.

The simplest way to assess the district is through test scores. Wilmer-Hutchins, whether measured against all schools or against only those schools with similar levels of poverty, has consistently had some of the lowest scores in the state.

Student performance suffers most at Kennedy-Curry Middle School and the high school. Kennedy-Curry has earned the state’s lowest rating, low performing, five times since 1993.

In 2003 – the last year for which complete state data are available – 11th-graders in Wilmer-Hutchins had the lowest TAKS passing rate of all 488 Texas school districts with at least 1,000 students. Only 5.7 percent of juniors passed all sections of the state test. Statewide, 49.8 percent did.

The district’s 10th-, 7th-, and 6th-graders were dead last among all districts. Ninth-graders were among the worst five; eighth-graders were in the bottom 15.

The numbers go on. Rank Texas schools on just about any academic measure – Advanced Placement tests taken, SAT scores, even attendance – and Wilmer-Hutchins is at or near the bottom.

“From public schools, private schools, colleges – it’s one of the worst,” said Cyrus Holley, a consultant who was the TEA monitor over district finances in 1996. “I’m terribly sorry for the kids.”

Quwana Harris has five of those kids. She balanced a toddler Friday outside her home on Frosty Trail. Her hands were full.

“We moved here from Duncanville schools for a better housing deal,” Ms. Harris said of the modest home with maroon trim.

“I’m not so sure we made the right decision,” Ms. Harris said. “Wilmer-Hutchins is terrible.”

Her oldest, 15-year-old Jasmine Griffin, is a sophomore.

“We’ve got no options,” the mother said. “I’m thinking about letting the kids stay with relatives or something like that so they can go to good schools.”

Assigning blame

Who or what is to blame for decades of pathetic performance?

*District officials said they are handed a uniquely difficult set of children to educate. “We’re not a rich district like some,” Mr. Edwards said last week. “Kids are a product of their environment. When you fall behind early, you can’t ever catch up.”

According to state data, 63.1 percent of Wilmer-Hutchins students meet the state’s definition of poor – meaning their families’ income is low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch. Statewide, 51.9 percent meet this definition.

About a third of Texas’ school districts have a student body with greater poverty than Wilmer-Hutchins.

Grand Prairie, Irving and Fort Worth all have comparable levels of poverty but much higher scores. A greater percentage of Dallas Independent School District students are poor (77.6 percent). Despite DISD’s many problems, its test scores have never dipped to Wilmer-Hutchins’ levels.

*Mr. Edwards said the district’s test scores are low because some Hispanic students have a weak command of English. “How many of the districts in this state have so many kids who can’t even speak English?” Mr. Edwards said. “That hurts your scores.”

But Wilmer-Hutchins actually has fewer non-English-speakers than the state norm. According to state statistics, 12.7 percent of its students have limited English skills. The state average is 14.9 percent. Many suburban districts – including Arlington, Richardson, Garland, Grand Prairie, Carrollton-Farmers Branch and Irving – have higher rates of non-English-speakers. In DISD, the rate is 32 percent.

*Mr. Edwards and others say the state doesn’t give Wilmer-Hutchins enough money. “The problem has always been the lack of funds,” he said. “That’s the biggest problem, right there.”

Again, the record does not support that contention.

A series of court judgments in the late 1980s and early 1990s guaranteed all Texas districts roughly comparable funding per student. The state makes up the difference for what local tax dollars can’t raise.

Most of Wilmer-Hutchins’ money comes from outside the district’s boundaries. It gets more state funding per pupil than any other district in Dallas County. It also gets more federal dollars than anyone else.

In Dallas County, only one district – Carrollton-Farmers Branch – spends more money per pupil than Wilmer-Hutchins. Among the area districts that spend less per pupil: Dallas, Fort Worth, Duncanville, Richardson, McKinney, DeSoto, Rockwall, Cedar Hill, Garland and Allen.

‘Lack of leadership’

Outside observers with experience in the district are more prone to blame Wilmer-Hutchins’ problems on the school board and a string of superintendents.

“We found basically a true lack of leadership and accountability,” said Lois Harrison-Jones, the former superintendent of Boston schools who served as the district’s TEA-appointed master in 1996.

She cited what have become common complaints : infighting and micromanagement.

“There might have been good intentions, but the board failed to truly understand what governance is about,” Dr. Harrison-Jones said. Her former co-master, Cyrus Holley, is more direct: “They were focused on their own personal agendas: hiring their friends, making sure that anything personal that they wanted done got done. They weren’t focused on the kids.”

Mr. Edwards, the board president, said fingers shouldn’t be pointed at the trustees. “The board doesn’t deserve any blame,” he said. “People don’t really know what’s going on. They’re talking without information.”

Budget woes

Wilmer-Hutchins’ problems go well beyond academics. Just managing its budget has been a decades-long struggle. Charles Matthews, the superintendent, said money management is one of the strengths of his administration.

But the state, which has shuttled state financial monitors in and out of Wilmer-Hutchins since the early 1980s, sees things differently.

“It’s a pattern,” said Ed Flathouse, TEA’s associate commissioner for finance and compliance. “We go in, and we help them out. And it seems that they’re able to chart a correct course, so we leave. Then they regress. Then we go back in again.”

Last week, TEA released its second annual Financial Integrity Ratings. Out of 1,039 districts statewide, only 21 had problems serious enough to earn the lowest rating, “Substandard.” Wilmer-Hutchins was on the list.

The district was one of only 12 statewide to finish the 2002-03 school year with a negative balance in its cash reserves. It also is paying back the state $1.9 million it overspent in 2002. In June, the district borrowed $500,000 from a Utah bank to pay its bills.

When asked how he would describe Wilmer-Hutchins’ financial management over the last decade, Dr. Flathouse pauses: “I’m searching for an adjective that would be appropriate.”

A few seconds later: “I’ll be kind. I’ll say ‘minimal.’ Their management of financial matters has been minimal.”

Dr. Flathouse said it’s possible another state financial monitor could be in the future.

“I suspect if things continue to go the way they appear to be going, we will intervene, yes,” Dr. Flathouse said. “But that’s not definite.”

Moments of optimism

Dr. Matthews is confident that Wilmer-Hutchins’ test scores are headed up. He is planning new early-childhood programs, a summer bookmobile and “other innovative things” to increase passing rates.

He said his previous term as superintendent, from 1984 to 1994, was a “renaissance period in the school district.” Scores were strong enough to earn him the title of State Superintendent of the Year in 1991.

But when the board asked Dr. Matthews to resign in 1994, the main reason trustees cited for their decision was the district’s poor academic performance. In spring 1994, 21.7 percent of 10th-graders and 12 percent of eighth-graders passed all the state tests. The average composite SAT score for the Class of ’93 was 634.

There have been moments of optimism before in Wilmer-Hutchins. With each new superintendent, residents have hoped things were getting better. But each time, those hopes have turned out to be misplaced.

“In the community, expectations were much lower than what they should have been,” said Dr. Brown, the only superintendent to leave the district on friendly terms in the last decade. He now leads the 100,000-student DeKalb County school district in suburban Atlanta.

“If there’s going to be change, the public’s got to insist upon it. The leadership has to be held accountable.”