Staffing has W-H in a bind; District has too many workers but can’t abide by class cap, officials say

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Wilmer-Hutchins has too many employees, district officials say, and its overflowing staffing is largely to blame for the district’s ongoing financial crisis.

But those same officials also say the district doesn’t have enough teachers to fill its classrooms and meet state class-size requirements.

It’s the latest in a long line of conundrums facing the troubled district: Wilmer-Hutchins manages to have too many employees and too few at the same time.

“I can say what’s happened,” interim Superintendent James Damm said. “I can’t say why it’s happened.”

In the coming months, officials will have to determine how best to cut jobs from a district that, in some areas, is already short on manpower. Last month, Wilmer-Hutchins laid off 16 employees and eliminated 10 unfilled positions. And another round of layoffs is expected in December. Officials say the new year could bring a third round of cuts.

All of these reductions follow the district’s disastrous fall, when its fund balance disappeared and teachers went weeks without paychecks because Wilmer-Hutchins didn’t have the cash to back them.

Mr. Damm – who was a financial consultant to the district before becoming interim superintendent on Nov. 1 – said the budgetary crisis was brought on by overstaffing and bad estimates of district revenues. He and auditors from the Texas Education Agency have said serious cuts are needed to make the district solvent.

“The district must take very aggressive measures to cut costs,” said Tom Canby, TEA’s managing director of financial audits. “And the school district has no option other than to look to that area which is the largest cost component, and that’s salaries.”

Familiar pattern

The district’s enrollment has dropped slowly but steadily over the last several years. It now enrolls about 2,900 students, down from 3,651 in 1999.

But the district’s staffing level has increased over that span, from 393 to 463 at the start of the 2003-04 school year. (Cuts since then have reduced the total to 392.)

That pattern follows what happened in the last school district run by Charles Matthews, Wilmer-Hutchins’ superintendent until a felony indictment led to his firing on Monday.

In the late 1990s, Dr. Matthews led Karnack ISD, a small district in East Texas with declining enrollment. But as the student body shrank, Dr. Matthews allowed the staff to grow – quickly draining the district’s fund balance and leading it into a financial crisis.

But compared with other districts its size, Wilmer-Hutchins’ staffing levels are not unusually high. There are 65 Texas school districts with between 2,500 and 3,500 students. Wilmer-Hutchins lands squarely in the middle on several common measures of staffing levels: student-teacher ratio, student-administrator ratio, and student-employee ratio.

And just last week, district officials said they didn’t have the teaching staff necessary to fill district classrooms.

State law requires schools to have no more than 22 students per class from kindergarten to fourth-grade. According to information the district filed with the state this month, 49 percent of the district’s classrooms in lower grades were in violation of the class-size cap.

That’s easily one of the worst records in the state. By contrast, only 4 percent of classrooms in the Dallas Independent School District are over the cap this year. Last year, out of more than 4,200 elementary schools statewide, only 486 had even one classroom over the 22-to-1 cap.

“We would like to hire additional teachers where it’s allowed by the budget,” said Lew Blackburn, the district’s executive director of human resources.

State and district officials say the complicating factor is Wilmer-Hutchins’ location. Most districts its size are in small towns or rural areas with low costs of living. Because they’re often the only school district for miles around, they can afford to offer relatively low salaries.

That doesn’t work in North Texas, with more than 50 districts in the metropolitan area. Wilmer-Hutchins has to compete with some of the state’s highest teacher salaries. As a result, Wilmer-Hutchins’ starting teacher salary is almost $6,000 higher than the average for districts its size – although about average for districts in the Dallas area.

That combination of factors puts Wilmer-Hutchins in a bind. It’s too small to create the economies of scale that allow larger districts to save money. But its location means it has to compete with those larger districts on salary.

“Not every district can sustain the same budget and the same staffing ratios,” Mr. Canby said. “Some can afford more than others, depending on other conditions.”

For some in the district, that combination is another reason to dissolve Wilmer-Hutchins altogether and merge it into DISD.

“The whole district would be better off,” said Lionel Churchill, a former Wilmer-Hutchins board member who is leading a petition drive to force a merger. “There are so many opportunities available in a larger district like Dallas because of its size. You get more bang for your buck.”

Making cuts

Now, Mr. Damm and the state management team imposed earlier this month must figure out where cuts can be made with the least pain. Mr. Damm said administrative and support staff will probably be harder hit than the district’s teaching corps.

“We’re not going to have teacher layoffs,” he said. “If we have vacancies we don’t have to refill, that’s one thing. But I don’t see any teacher layoffs.”

Mr. Damm has said he wants the district to move to permanent ratios of 17 students per teacher and 10 students per district employee. Both ratios would leave Wilmer-Hutchins’ staff substantially leaner than the state average, but Mr. Damm said that sort of fiscal discipline is necessary for the district’s future.

High on the list of potential cuts is the district’s performing-arts magnet school. It has only 72 students, but it employs 17 staff members – precisely the opposite of an economy of scale.

Its creation in 2003 by Dr. Matthews was controversial, and district officials acknowledge it is a significant drain on district resources.

“It doesn’t make sense in a district this size,” Mr. Damm said.

In lower grades, consolidating elementary schools could be an option. The district has six elementary schools, but only one has more than 400 students. Two, Hutchins and A.L. Morney, have fewer than 100.

Another potential target is the district’s police department. The school board, at Dr. Matthews’ suggestion, voted to eliminate the department and fire its employees this spring.

But Police Chief Cedric Davis and other employees sued the district to prevent the move. Chief Davis had been investigating allegations of corruption in the district, and he argued the school board’s decision was an attempt to silence a whistle-blower.

State District Court Judge Charles Stokes initially agreed and issued an order preventing the firings. But he reversed course last month, and the matter is on appeal.

Head of W-H schools fired; District lawyer is also ousted under pressure from state managers

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

In August, Wilmer-Hutchins board President Luther Edwards described the troubled district’s leaders as a “team of nine” – the seven-member school board, Superintendent Charles Matthews and district lawyer James Belt.

On Monday, the team’s roster shrank to seven.

Under intense pressure from state officials, the school board fired Dr. Matthews, who was indicted last month on felony evidence-tampering charges and had been on paid leave since Nov. 1.

It also broke ties with Mr. Belt. But it took two votes and a direct order from the state-imposed management team to get it done.

“This district cannot achieve excellence unless it pursues excellence every step of the way,” state manager and local businessman Albert Black said.

After meeting for an hour in closed session, the board voted quickly and unanimously to put Dr. Matthews on unpaid leave.

On Nov. 1, board member Joan Bonner attempted such a move, but no other board member seconded her. Dr. Matthews was put on paid leave instead – a controversial move, considering Dr. Matthews’ $175,000 salary and the district’s struggles to pay its teachers and vendors each month.

But this time around, state officials had let it be known they wanted Dr. Matthews out.

“This was a position we wanted to take,” said Ron Rowell, senior director of school governance for the Texas Education Agency.

After voting to put Dr. Matthews on unpaid leave, the board voted 6-1 to fire him altogether. Under state law, Dr. Matthews will be able to appeal the decision to the TEA and will remain on the payroll until his appeals are exhausted.

“The bottom line is to put the Matthews era behind us,” interim Superintendent James Damm said.

The more contentious move involved Mr. Belt, the district’s $120,000-a-year attorney.

In September, The Dallas Morning News reported that Mr. Belt’s law license had been suspended twice since 2001. Mr. Belt continued to perform legal services during his first suspension, which led to the State Bar of Texas handing down the second suspension. He has had a number of other grievances filed against him with the bar association, two of which led to formal reprimands.

The board has been asked to remove Mr. Belt before. In 2002, a report by the state comptroller’s office said Wilmer-Hutchins was spending a disproportionate amount of its budget on legal fees, including unusual payments to Mr. Belt to pay for his office equipment and law library. It also said Mr. Belt provided poor legal advice.

The report said the district should fire Mr. Belt and hire an in-house counsel, which the comptroller’s office said would cost $79,000. Mr. Belt’s contract guarantees him $120,000 per year.

Failed termination vote

But the board took no action against Mr. Belt then, and it initially did the same Monday. When termination of Mr. Belt’s contract was put to a vote, it failed. Doris Strickland, Sha Brewer and Joan Bonner voted to terminate; Lamar Walton, Debra Harwell, Dortha Thomas and Mr. Edwards voted no.

Mr. Edwards quickly adjourned the meeting. But the state management team – Mr. Black and new member Michelle Willhelm – let it be known that it did not approve of the board’s decision.

Under state law, a management team can reverse nearly any decision of the board. But rather than use that tactic, Mr. Black simply ordered the board to sit back down, reconvene and vote again.

On the second try, Mr. Edwards switched his vote to yes. Ms. Harwell – whom Mr. Belt represents in a lawsuit questioning the validity of her election to the board – abstained.

The managers later said they were prepared to throw out the board’s second vote if it had not gone against Mr. Belt.

“We assumed they saw the obvious,” Ms. Willhelm said. “Some of the things that have happened in this district would not have occurred if the district had received better legal advice.”

Mr. Belt had no comment. Neither did Mr. Belt’s personal attorney, who was also in attendance.

The strongest dissenting voice Monday night belonged to Mr. Walton, who was the sole board member to vote against firing Dr. Matthews. He also voted against firing Mr. Belt both times, the second time saying “opposed” quite forcefully into his microphone.

“I want to be fair,” he said. “He knows the cases we have. Mr. Belt has done a good job.”

Mr. Belt is also Mr. Walton’s personal attorney on a lawsuit he has filed against Dallas County, but Mr. Walton said that did not factor into his decision.

Like earlier state action

State and district officials had been expressing hope privately in recent days that the school board would be more cooperative with state overseers than it was during the last state takeover, from 1996 to 1998. Back then, the board was repeatedly accused of undermining state officials.

Despite Monday night’s dust-up, the state managers expressed optimism this time will be different. “I think the cooperation will grow,” Mr. Black said.

The school board was originally scheduled to also consider the termination of indicted maintenance director Wallace Faggett. He is the man Dr. Matthews is accused of ordering to destroy a stack of purchase orders before TEA investigators could examine them. But Mr. Damm said he had discovered firing Mr. Faggett did not require board action and said he would move to do it himself today.

The “team of nine” could shrink again. Law enforcement officials have testified under oath that several board members are targets of the ongoing criminal corruption investigation into the district. That investigation includes the FBI, the IRS, the Texas Rangers and two grand juries. The Dallas County district attorney’s office has said more indictments are likely to be handed down soon.

At evening’s end, Dr. Matthews’ nameplate had already been removed from the superintendent’s seat in the board’s meeting room. But an 8-by-10 photo of Dr. Matthews remained on display in a locked cabinet in the next room over.

“We don’t have the key to the lock,” Mr. Damm said.

3 W-H figures may see their contracts end; School board set to consider interim chief’s recommendation

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

The Wilmer-Hutchins schools may soon be cutting ties with some of its most troubled figures.

James Damm, the district’s interim superintendent, has recommended terminating the contracts of Superintendent Charles Matthews, maintenance director Wallace Faggett and district lawyer James Belt. The school board will consider the recommendations at its Monday meeting.

“It’s a business decision,” board President Luther Edwards said. “It’s not personal.”

Dr. Matthews and Mr. Faggett were indicted last month on charges of tampering with evidence in an investigation. Dr. Matthews is accused of ordering Mr. Faggett to destroy purchase orders and other documents sought by a Texas Education Agency audit team.

The school board put both men on paid administrative leave shortly thereafter, with Mr. Damm, a financial consultant, sliding into the district’s top job.

But that move has proved controversial among district residents, who have complained at recent board meetings about having to pay their salaries – $175,000 for Dr. Matthews, $63,500 for Mr. Faggett – while the district is in financial collapse.

Twice this fall, the district has not had enough cash on hand to meet teachers’ payroll on time. What the district claimed was a $1.6 million fund balance this summer has turned into a deficit.

“We’re looking at ways to put funds back into the general fund so we will not miss payroll again,” Mr. Edwards said. “We need to ensure that will not happen to our teachers again.”

Dr. Matthews’ pay has long been an issue for some residents. According to state data, last year he had the second-highest salary of the 892 Texas superintendents who work in districts with fewer than 5,000 students.

Mr. Damm had previously said he was not sure whether the district could terminate Dr. Matthews’ contract without triggering a lawsuit. On Monday the board will consider shifting Dr. Matthews and Mr. Faggett from paid to unpaid leave and beginning the termination process.

Mr. Belt has been a controversial figure in the district for several years. Last week, in a court hearing, district Police Chief Cedric Davis testified that Mr. Belt was a target of an ongoing multi-agency criminal investigation in the district. His retainer with the district guarantees him $10,000 a month.

“I was caught by surprise,” Mr. Belt said of Mr. Damm’s recommendation. “I’ve served the district for a number of years and served it well.”

Dr. Matthews could not be reached for comment. Mr. Faggett declined to comment.

Teachers were supposed to receive their November paychecks Wednesday, before the Thanksgiving holiday. That didn’t happen, but Mr. Edwards said employees will be paid Nov. 26.

Elementary principal resigns immediately

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 2B

The principal of Wilmer Elementary School has decided to move up her resignation and make it effective immediately. Geraldine Hobson had said she would leave at the end of the current semester. Her sudden departure comes after a Dallas Morning News analysis found strong evidence of organized cheating on the TAKS test at the school. Ms. Hobson told district officials the reason for her departure was the recent death of her mother, not the growing cheating scandal. James Damm, the interim superintendent of Wilmer-Hutchins schools, said Ms. Hobson apologized for the controversy but denied doing anything wrong.

Wilmer Elementary principal to resign; District says decision not tied to questions about TAKS scores

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

The principal of Wilmer Elementary has decided to resign, less than two weeks after a Dallas Morning News analysis of TAKS test scores found strong evidence of organized cheating at the school.

But Geraldine Hobson told district officials that her decision is based on family circumstances, not the cheating allegations, Wilmer-Hutchins interim Superintendent James Damm said.

“We’ll be putting together a plan to replace her,” he said.

The cheating allegations center on the third-grade reading TAKS test, which, in most cases, students must pass to be promoted to fourth grade. Wilmer historically has been an academic underachiever.

But this spring, nearly all of Wilmer’s third-graders had perfect or near-perfect scores on the test – substantially better than even the highest-scoring suburban districts fared statewide. Among the more than 3,000 Texas elementary schools that tested at least 30 students, Wilmer Elementary finished No. 1.

Even the scores of Wilmer students who, by state standards, have trouble speaking and reading English, beat out every other school in the state.

But the school’s scores in other grades – where passing the test is not required for students to be promoted – were poor.

Since the News’ initial story, a former fourth-grade teacher at Wilmer has come forward to support the allegations.

Addie Stepney said many of the students she taught – all of whom had passed the third-grade reading test the year before – couldn’t read at all. She said other teachers told her that the third-grade teachers had helped students cheat.

An investigative team from the Texas Education Agency arrived in the district on Monday afternoon and is interviewing principals and teachers from several Wilmer-Hutchins elementary schools about allegations of cheating.

Ms. Hobson, 65, will leave the job at the end of the fall semester. Mr. Damm said she had previously planned to retire at the end of the school year. Her mother died recently, and Mr. Damm said she cited that as the main reason for her resignation.

Reached at home, Ms. Hobson said she had no comment. She has previously said there was no cheating at her school.

In another Wilmer-Hutchins development, one half of the new state-appointed management team has resigned. Robert Payton, a former Dallas administrator and interim superintendent, told TEA officials he underestimated how much time it would take to fix the troubled district’s problems.

“He decided it’s going to take more time than he can offer,” TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said. “He didn’t think it would take the time commitment he realized once he was on site.”

Mr. Payton started the job Monday. The TEA announced the state takeover last week. Under state law, a management team can order the district’s school board, superintendent or principals to take almost any action, and it can veto any decision they make.

His replacement is Michelle Willhelm, former chief of operations at the TEA. Ms. Willhelm has worked in a variety of Texas districts in positions ranging from teacher to superintendent.

“I understand they need me, and I’m going to find out what I need to know,” she said Wednesday. “I was told to be ready to roll up my sleeves.”

During her stint at the TEA in the mid-1990s, Ms. Willhelm oversaw a 30 percent reduction in the agency’s operating costs, including reductions in personnel. That experience will come in handy in Wilmer-Hutchins, which recently cut 26 positions and is planning another round of layoffs in the next few weeks.

Ms. Willhelm lives in San Antonio, and her appointment probably will increase Wilmer-Hutchins’ costs. Under state law, a district must pay the travel expenses of its state managers. The other manager, businessman Albert Black, lives in Dallas.

But Ms. Willhelm said she expects to do some of her work by phone and e-mail.

“There can be advantages to not being local,” she said. “You can be so neutral, you can be objective. It may be worthwhile one of us is from outside and one from inside.”

W-H custodian indicted on theft charge; 3rd person indicted in district inquiry accused of stealing computers

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 7B

A Wilmer-Hutchins custodian is the third person indicted in the ongoing criminal investigations into the district.

Willie Dunn is accused of stealing 18 laptop computers from the district’s administration building this summer. The charge, issued by a Dallas County grand jury on Thursday, is a third-degree felony and could carry up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Authorities have given Mr. Dunn 24 hours to surrender. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The computers were purchased as incentives to attract new teachers to the district. Their disappearance had been one of the first issues addressed by the multiagency criminal task force, which includes the FBI, the IRS and the Texas Rangers.

“The allegations were brought to us and the Rangers pretty much at the beginning of the investigation,” Assistant District Attorney Pat Batchelor said.

Cedric Davis, police chief of Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District, was given the task of removing Mr. Dunn from district property when he was suspended from his job two weeks ago. He said Mr. Dunn acknowledged taking the laptops from the office of Lew Blackburn, the district’s executive director of human resources.

“He said he did it, but what I felt was strange was that he said ‘I did most of it,'” said Chief Davis, the initial investigator in the case. “I believe it goes further than Willie Dunn. I can’t see him planning out something like this.”

“It was really a surprise,” interim Superintendent James Damm said of Mr. Dunn’s indictment.

Mr. Batchelor said investigators have recovered 12 of the 18 computers, which had a retail value of about $900 each.

Chief Davis said that Mr. Dunn is a popular figure in the community and that a group of residents would be raising money for his legal defense.

More indictments likely

Mr. Dunn joins Superintendent Charles Matthews and maintenance director Wallace Faggett as indicted targets of the criminal corruption investigation. Dr. Matthews and Mr. Faggett were indicted last month on charges of document tampering.

Law enforcement officials have said more indictments are likely. In court testimony last week, Chief Davis said the targets of the investigation include several school board members, Dr. Matthews, district lawyer James Belt and several other top administration officials.

Meanwhile, the district’s school board is now able to meet without restrictions, state District Court Judge Merrill Hartman ruled Tuesday.

On Nov. 5, Judge Hartman issued a temporary restraining order preventing the board from meeting or taking action. He issued the order after a group of district residents filed a lawsuit asking for the removal of all the board’s members because the residents disagree with some of the board’s past decisions.

The residents’ attorneys had sought last week to have the restraining order extended into an injunction, but Judge Hartman decided to let the board meet Monday even with the restraining order in place.

On Tuesday, the judge ended the restraining order and declined to issue an injunction. As a result, the school board will be able to meet without restrictions, although Judge Hartman ordered district officials to provide him and the plaintiffs with copies of the agenda of all future board meetings.

‘A good solution’

“It’s a good solution,” Mr. Damm said.

Last week, the Texas Education Agency appointed a two-person management team to oversee the troubled district’s affairs, with the power to overrule almost any district decision. Both the plaintiffs and Judge Hartman said TEA’s intervention lessened the need for the board to be made powerless by judicial order.

But Cyrus Holley, who led the TEA management team the last time the state took over Wilmer-Hutchins, said he was disappointed in the judge’s decision.

“This board has had its chance,” he said. “My recommendation is to get rid of this school board once and for all.”

Mr. Holley said the school board tried to sabotage his stewardship of the district when he was appointed in 1996. Board members openly disobeyed managers’ orders and told staff members to ignore the demands of state officials, he said. His car was vandalized twice in district parking lots.

He also said he discovered phone taps on several office phones and a hidden recording system in the superintendent’s office. Information gathered from those clandestine devices was reaching school board members, he said.

Mr. Holley and his fellow manager, Lois Harrison-Jones, eventually resigned their posts, citing the board’s interference.

Team meets trustees; State-appointed managers positive about job ahead at W-H

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

After being introduced to the Wilmer-Hutchins school board they will govern, one of the district’s new state-appointed managers had something to tell trustees.

“God help us,” businessman Albert Black said.

His statement – which prompted supportive noises from the audience at Monday night’s meeting – reflected the size of the task ahead for the state takeover team.

It will be taking over a district with an indicted superintendent, collapsing buildings, a looming cheating scandal and more bills than cash.

“We want to provide leadership,” said Mr. Black’s fellow manager, former Dallas interim Superintendent Robert Payton. “I really think we can turn things around.”

State Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley announced the team last week after an audit report found the district’s finances near collapse.

Under state law, a management team can veto any action of the school board, superintendent or campus principals. In addition, the two-member team can order district officials to take almost any action they choose.

Karen Case, the state’s deputy associate commissioner of support services, said the intervention was necessary because of the district’s “comprehensive deficiencies.”

Many of those deficiencies – disappearing funds, academic failure, allegations of cheating on state tests – are not new. The Texas Education Agency has had to step into the troubled district’s affairs many times.

“I recognize some of you,” Dr. Case said. “Unfortunately, I’ve been here in this role before.”

But she said she hopes whatever reforms the state imposes on Wilmer-Hutchins this time will have more lasting power than before.

“We’ve learned the sustainability of the changes is tenuous, at best,” she said.

During the meeting, interim Superintendent James Damm confirmed that the district will not be able to meet payroll on time this month.

Employees are supposed to be paid Wednesday, but for the second time this fall, the district doesn’t have enough cash to issue paychecks.

Mr. Damm said he is hopeful the district can borrow money in the next few days and assured the audience that employees would be paid by month’s end.

Mr. Damm said he was heartened by the number of businesses and individuals who have come forward to offer assistance to the cash-strapped district.

“It’s a strong outpouring of support,” he said.

Dr. Case wasn’t the only visitor from the TEA in the district Monday. A team of investigators from the agency’s test security department arrived to investigate the district’s scores.

The agency is investigating whether teachers and principals in some of the district’s elementary schools helped students cheat on the state’s TAKS test. A Dallas Morning News data analysis and the testimony of several teachers and students support the allegations.

Dr. Case said the agency’s investigation has found that an unusually high number of answers on this spring’s TAKS answer sheets had been erased. She said a high number of the erasures corrected wrong answers.

“The integrity of our accountability system rests on being able to trust test scores,” she said.

The investigators are expected to stay at least through the end of the week. A report on their findings is expected in early December.

A little help on TAKS; Exclusive: At W-H, students say teachers gave answers

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

James Wright was having some trouble with the science TAKS test last year at Wilmer-Hutchins’ Alta Mesa Elementary. He says his teacher was willing to help.

“The teacher would walk around the class during the test and be like, ‘Hey, that’s wrong,'” said James, now a 12-year-old sixth-grader at Kennedy-Curry Middle School.

“You’d go through the answers and you’d say, ‘Is this the right one?’ They’d say ‘nope.’ And you’d say, ‘Is this the right one?’ And they’d say ‘nope’ until you got the right one. Then they’d say ‘Yeah’ and nod their head.”

He’s one of several students and teachers in Wilmer-Hutchins schools who have come forward to support suspicions first raised by a Dallas Morning News data analysis that cheating took place on the TAKS tests.

As a result of The News analysis, the Texas Education Agency began a preliminary inquiry into the possibility of TAKS cheating in Wilmer-Hutchins. On Friday, the agency announced it is upgrading its inquiry to a full investigation.

Interim Superintendent James Damm said he strongly suspects that cheating occurred in at least one of the district’s schools, although he cautioned he had not closely examined test scores at all campuses. “Is it possible those scores are real? Yes,” he said. “Is it likely? No. Statistically, it’s highly unlikely there wasn’t something amiss there.”

He said he has told the district’s principals that if any of them knowingly allowed cheating at their schools, they will be treated as if they did the cheating themselves. “If somebody has violated the law, they’re going to be held accountable. These are felonies.”

Falsifying testing documents is a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The News’ initial analysis focused on Wilmer Elementary, which despite a history of poor academic performance managed to have the state’s highest scores on the third-grade reading TAKS test last year. Even the school’s students with limited English skills outscored most students in the state.

Those concerns are supported by a former fourth-grade teacher, who said she suspected cheating from the day she started work there last year. She noticed immediately that half of her class either couldn’t read at all or couldn’t comprehend the few words they could make out.

These were the same students who had passed the high-stakes third-grade TAKS test the year before with flying colors.

“Those poor babies,” said Addie Stepney, who no longer works at Wilmer. “If someone had really worked with them, I think most of them could have passed, eventually. But the best scores in the state? Are you kidding?”

Ms. Stepney said several teachers openly acknowledged that cheating was going on. When she raised the issue with Wilmer Principal Geraldine Hobson, she said she got no response. In the middle of the school year, the principal moved Ms. Stepney from a fourth-grade classroom to second grade – a grade in which no TAKS test is given.

Her theory: “They didn’t want someone asking questions.”

Ms. Hobson did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story. But earlier this month she denied there had been any cheating on the TAKS at her school.

After being transferred to a second-grade classroom, Ms. Stepney went on a medical leave for much of the spring semester last year. The district chose not to renew her contract for this year.

Journal

Ms. Stepney had previously taught third grade in Hearne, a small, poor district near College Station with its own history of low performance. “The third-graders there were miles ahead of the fourth-graders I had at Wilmer,” she said.

She kept a journal throughout the fall semester, and its entries show the progression of her suspicions.

From her first week on the job: Two teachers were questioning me about several students in my room. They kept talking about how they could not read but they passed the reading test. Every day they would ask me if the children could read. Finally I became concerned about that so I asked to see the records from 3rd grade. They had all passed the reading test so I let it go.

Later that month: Then I met up with a teacher in the restroom and she walked up to me and said, “Those students in your room are special, they cannot read.” I said, “Well they passed the test last year.” She said, “They all copied and were helped.”

A few weeks later: I was working one on one with a student with oral reading. He said “I can not read.” I said you took the reading test last year and passed, how did you read it.” He said his teacher read it to me and told me the answer.”

Ms. Stepney wrote that she talked to another teacher to see if such activity was normal: I asked the teacher about it and she said “I am not going to risk my license like that.” “People around here do all types of things.”

She described, in her journal and in an interview, an atmosphere where cheating was common – even on tests other than the high-stakes TAKS. For example, she said that when students took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in October 2003, some of the test booklets had the correct answers already circled.

Alta Mesa scores

At Wilmer Elementary, The News data analysis found strong evidence of cheating on the third-grade reading test, but not on other tests in other grades, where scores continued to be poor.

However, Alta Mesa scored highly in all grades and on all tests. Some students said that’s because cheating was widespread.

“We were doing our test and sitting in our desk,” said Guyler Easter, now a seventh-grader at Kennedy-Curry Middle in Wilmer-Hutchins. She attended Alta Mesa in the fifth grade.

“When the test started, some people didn’t know the answers, so they’d raise their hand and the teacher would come up to them,” she said. “The teacher read the question and then gave us the answer.”

The teachers also enlisted other children in the cheating, she said: “If they were tired of helping, they would ask another kid to help.”

“It’s really surprising,” said Loyce Bullock, a minister and guardian to both James and Guyler. “You send your kid there to learn – not for this.”

Alta Mesa has been accused of cheating before. In 1999, TEA detected unusually high numbers of erasures on the school’s test answer sheets from several previous years. The agency sent test monitors to Alta Mesa in order to prevent cheating.

With state officials watching, the school’s TAAS passing rate dropped from 82.9 percent to 49.9 percent – ranking it among the state’s worst schools. Its scores remained extremely low for the next several years.

But Alta Mesa’s scores have climbed again, to even higher heights than they reached before the last cheating investigation. This year, its scores were high enough for Alta Mesa to be rated “exemplary,” the state’s top label. Only the top 6.6 percent of Texas schools were so honored.

The school’s principal, Jatis McCollister, fervently denies there is any cheating at Alta Mesa. “The kids did well, and because they did well, they’re being made victims of their own success,” she said. “The media has decided that we’re cheating.”

She said that she was not at the school during the last investigation and that the current turnaround is based on positive work done by her and her staff since she arrived at the school in 2001.

Mr. Damm said he had not examined the school’s test scores but had visited Alta Mesa and found some positive signs. “They look like they’re doing a lot of really good things there,” he said.

Most schools – particularly poor schools like Alta Mesa – struggled when the old TAAS test was replaced with the more difficult TAKS in 2003. But Alta Mesa’s scores went in the opposite direction.

In 2002, under TAAS, Alta Mesa’s fourth-graders were in the bottom 10 percent of the state. The next year they jumped to the 73rd percentile statewide. Last year, Alta Mesa reached the 92nd percentile. Since the end of TAAS, Alta Mesa has had the second-highest increase in performance of the state’s more than 3,000 elementary schools.

Ms. McCollister said that increase coincides with her arrival and her installation of a new staff. “I don’t think a teacher would want to jeopardize his or her certification by cheating,” she said. “It took three years to build this staff. It takes a while to build this up. You can’t say our children aren’t capable of doing well.”

TEA actions

The state education agency has made several moves in response to the cheating concerns. Investigators will be arriving at the district Monday, questioning teachers and possibly students. In addition, the agency will send test monitors to Wilmer-Hutchins schools in the spring, when the TAKS will be taken again. Mr. Damm said he expects the district’s test scores to drop when that happens.

One top district administrator, who asked not to be named, said several officials have suspected cheating for some time. But their concerns went unreported because they feared being disciplined if they reported illegal or inappropriate activity to supervisors.

Mr. Damm said that hesitation to report wrongdoing must change. “The culture of the district has been a problem,” he said. “If someone has done this, they’ll be terminated. They can come back and sue us, fine. But if something is wrong, we’re going to take care of it.”

The interim superintendent, not quite two weeks into his job, said he’s no longer surprised to hear new allegations about the district, which is also the subject of multiple criminal investigations.

“Every time I open a door, there’s another skeleton or two behind it,” he said. “Hopefully, someday we’ll run out of doors.”

2 named overseers in W-H; Business leader, former DISD chief can overrule board, officials

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

A prominent business leader and a former interim Dallas superintendent will be the state overseers in Wilmer-Hutchins.

The Texas Education Agency announced Friday that the district’s two-person management team will be Albert C. Black Jr., a former chairman of the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce, and Robert Payton, who ran the Dallas Independent School District in the months between the terms of Bill Rojas and Mike Moses.

“I don’t think the job is one that we’re going to find insurmountable,” Mr. Black said. “I feel like there’s a calling of some kind for me to make some degree of contributions to Wilmer-Hutchins.”

TEA announced the appointment of a management team Tuesday. Wilmer-Hutchins’ many problems range from the indictment of Superintendent Charles Matthews last month to its troubled financial state. According to district officials, Wilmer-Hutchins will not be able to meet payroll on time this month, the second time this fall teachers will have gone without their regular pay.

Under state law, Mr. Black, 45, and Mr. Payton, 63, will have the power to overrule any decision made by the school board, the superintendent or campus principals. In addition, they can order district officials to follow their instructions in all but a few limited areas. Both men will be paid $60 an hour, up to a maximum of $480 a day.

Mr. Payton spent nearly 40 years working in DISD including stints as a teacher, principal and administrator.

“I’ve known Robert Payton for years and I think very highly of him,” Wilmer-Hutchins Interim Superintendent James Damm said. “He’ll help us a lot.”

Mr. Black said he does not have significant experience in K-12 education, but he said he can provide business advice to the district. He is the president and chief executive of Oak Cliff-based On-Target Supplies & Logistics.

Mr. Black and Mr. Payton will be introduced to the district’s residents at Monday’s board meeting.

Meanwhile, TEA has upgraded its inquiry into possible cheating on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills at Wilmer-Hutchins. The state is launching a full investigation, and a team of test-security investigators will arrive in the district Monday.

According to a letter sent to the district Friday, the investigators will be interviewing principals, teachers and other campus personnel. If necessary, students may be interviewed, officials said.

In addition to the TEA personnel, two representatives from the State Board for Educator Certification will also be present. Teachers found cheating can have their teaching licenses revoked.

Questions about possible cheating on TAKS exams have been raised at two Wilmer-Hutchins elementary schools. At Wilmer Elementary, third-graders were the top performers in the state last year despite the school’s history of underachievement.

Judge allows W-H board to convene; 2 state managers must be at trustees’ meeting planned for Monday

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

The Wilmer-Hutchins school board is no longer grounded.

State District Judge Merrill Hartman agreed Thursday to let the board hold a meeting next week. He had issued an unusual temporary restraining order last week banning the trustees from meeting or acting on any subject.

“We’re happy with the result,” interim Superintendent James Damm said.

The board meeting is contingent on the presence of two new state managers. The Texas Education Agency announced Tuesday that it would impose the managers on the troubled school district because of its recent financial collapse. District officials said earlier this week that the district will not be able to pay its teachers on time next week.

TEA officials have said the managers probably will be named today. The district plans a board meeting for Monday.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs who had sought the restraining order – a group of Wilmer-Hutchins citizens who want the school board removed from office permanently – said the decision was not a setback, even though they had argued that allowing the board to meet would put the district in imminent danger.

“We still have lots of evidence to present to the court,” attorney Phillip Layer said.

The judge’s decision does not mean the litigation is over. Attorneys for both sides argued for several hours Thursday about whether the board should be removed from office. Those arguments will continue at another hearing Tuesday, when Judge Hartman will decide whether to issue an injunction again banning the board from meeting.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs presented a lengthy list of what they considered poor decisions by the board and the administration they oversee. The district’s attorneys acknowledged Wilmer-Hutchins’ problems but said that the district needs a school board to function.

Mr. Damm said that without the board taking action on further budget cuts, “the district will fail shortly.”

Kevin O’Hanlon, attorney for the trustees, also argued that the statutes the plaintiffs cite do not allow for an entire board to be removed.

“This isn’t about whether the board is making good decisions or bad decisions,” Mr. O’Hanlon said. “You can remove specific board members, but you cannot remove ‘the board.'”

Among the plaintiffs’ witnesses Tuesday will be Cyrus Holley, a state-appointed manager in the district the last time the state took over, in 1996. Mr. Holley ended up resigning in protest over what he said was the school board’s interference in his work.

Mr. Holley said the plaintiffs’ attorneys want him to be appointed as a court-ordered manager of the district, perhaps in place of the school board. It is unclear how a court-appointed manager would interact with the two state-appointed managers.