Some in Lancaster rail against helping W-H; ‘Take care of our own first’ the message as 200 gather for merger hearing

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

Lancaster schools are in too delicate a position to be taking on the massive problems of Wilmer-Hutchins, more than a dozen residents argued at a public hearing Tuesday night.

“If your boat is already sinking, you don’t put another rock in the boat,” resident Herman Tucker said.

Mr. Tucker’s opinion was a popular one among the roughly 200 Lancaster residents gathered in the local high school auditorium to talk about the proposed shotgun wedding between their district and Wilmer-Hutchins.

Wilmer-Hutchins’ budgetary collapse has left it begging for help from its neighbors to the west. Lancaster residents said they understand the need but have their own priorities. Among the speakers who expressed a clear opinion, they were nearly 3-to-1 against.

“I don’t want to say I don’t care about the parents and students of Wilmer-Hutchins, but they are not my responsibility,” said James Adams, a Lancaster parent. “I think we should take care of our own first.”

Wilmer-Hutchins’ board of managers voted Monday to shut down the district’s schools for the upcoming school year. Its dire financial straits have left it unable to fully fund the education of its 2,700 children.

But a quirk of school funding law allows the students’ education to be fully paid for if Wilmer-Hutchins can outsource the running of its schools to another district. Lancaster is the choice of district leaders.

“Of the options out there, this is the best one available,” Wilmer-Hutchins board member Donnie Foxx said.

What would happen to Wilmer-Hutchins students after this school year remains unclear. If a number of hurdles aren’t met – including two popular votes, improved test scores and legislative action – Wilmer-Hutchins could be dissolved next summer and merged permanently with Lancaster.

The two districts’ boards could make such a move themselves, or it could be imposed upon them by state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley.

Larry Lewis, Lancaster’s superintendent, argued that running Wilmer-Hutchins – either temporarily or as part of a permanent merger – would not harm the district’s finances. State aid to Lancaster would increase by more than $15 million if it took on Wilmer-Hutchins students.

“It will not cost us one additional dime,” he said. “Actually, we gain money from having Wilmer-Hutchins students in our school system.”

But several in the crowd said financial gains aren’t enough. They pointed out that Lancaster’s performance on state tests was barely better than Wilmer-Hutchins’. According to a Dallas Morning News analysis of preliminary 2005 test scores, Wilmer-Hutchins had the region’s worst scores. But Lancaster had the second worst.

“I’m a teacher, and I know that the child with the greatest problems is the one that demands most of my energy,” Mary Jane Colton said. “Wilmer-Hutchins will have the greatest problems and it will demand the administration’s energy.”

Some expressed concern that the two school systems, rivals in athletics, would not mix well together. Arvivian Roberts of Lancaster said the district had to triple the security at sporting events between Lancaster and Wilmer-Hutchins.

But others argued that children deserved assistance no matter where political boundaries fall, particularly if Lancaster can help without substantial financial cost.

“These children need our help – it’s the Christian thing to do,” Don Kilgore said. “When this city had the tornado in 1994, people came from all around to help us. We need to do the same thing.”

A number of speakers from Wilmer-Hutchins said they were offended at the way their students were being treated as pariahs.

“Our children are not busloads of nuclear waste,” said former Wilmer-Hutchins trustee Joan Bonner. “They’re children.”

The next step comes Friday, when Lancaster board members are scheduled to vote whether to take over Wilmer-Hutchins for the coming school year.

If they vote yes, Lancaster will hire teachers and principals immediately and prepare for an adventurous school year. If they vote no, Wilmer-Hutchins will have to turn somewhere else – most likely Dallas schools – for help.

Questions and answers on Wilmer-Hutchins district; Future of students, staff at shuttered schools remains uncertain

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 11B

On Monday night, Wilmer-Hutchins managers voted to shut down the district’s schools for the coming school year. Here are some common questions and answers about what happens next:

Who will be teaching Wilmer-Hutchins’ students next school year?

It’s unclear. The top choice of district leaders is the Lancaster Independent School District, in part because Lancaster officials have pledged to keep students housed in Wilmer-Hutchins campuses for at least the near future. But Lancaster’s school board will have to approve such a move, and there has been some community opposition. A vote is scheduled for Friday.

If Lancaster says no, what happens?

The second choice is the Dallas Independent School District. Dallas officials initially said they would take Wilmer-Hutchins’ students only if they could be bused north to existing DISD schools, many of which are underpopulated. That would leave no public schools within the boundaries of Wilmer-Hutchins ISD. But several Dallas board members have said in recent days they would consider keeping one or more current Wilmer-Hutchins schools open.

And if Dallas says no?

That’s considered unlikely, because Dallas leaders have said they would be willing to help and community opposition is not expected to be as intense as in Lancaster. But if Dallas says no, that leaves only Ferris ISD, which borders Wilmer-Hutchins’ southern edge, as an alternative.

Why can’t Wilmer-Hutchins just operate normally this coming school year?

Money. A variety of problems – a failed tax-authorization vote, mountains of debt, no money to pay current teachers – would leave Wilmer-Hutchins with about $8 million to spend next school year. The district needs about $18 million to operate at a level comparable to neighboring districts.

Does this mean Wilmer-Hutchins is gone forever?

Not necessarily. The district’s board of managers said it would recommend closing the district permanently next year unless three things happen. First, voters must agree to raise the district’s tax rate to previous levels. Second, the district must pass a bond proposal to rebuild its schools. Third, test scores must increase – though it’s unclear by how much. It’s likely the Texas Legislature would have to approve a number of one-time changes to state funding law.

Can’t the Texas Education Agency dissolve Wilmer-Hutchins on its own?

Yes – but not for another year. Next month, TEA officials will receive results from this spring’s Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests. Wilmer-Hutchins scores are almost certain to be low enough to earn an “academically unacceptable” rating. When that happens, Commissioner Shirley Neeley will legally gain the authority to shut down the district. But there’s a catch. Such an order could not take effect until July 1, 2006 – after the next school year. There’s very little the commissioner can do to influence where Wilmer-Hutchins students will be taught this year.

What will happen to Wilmer-Hutchins’ teachers?

On Monday night, the board of managers laid off all campus-based employees, including teachers, principals and librarians. If Lancaster takes over the district, it has pledged to hold a job fair – and the district probably would hire some Wilmer-Hutchins staff to work in their former schools under new management.

Wilmer-Hutchins closing for a year; District employees out of jobs; where students will go is undecided

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Wilmer-Hutchins schools will shut down for the next year, district leaders decided Monday night, and their teachers, principals and librarians are out of work.

But the district received an unexpected lifeline from its state managers that could bring the district back from the dead in one year’s time.

“This is a very, very difficult decision,” said Albert Black, the board president. “But I think it’s the right one for the children of Wilmer-Hutchins.”

Monday’s vote by the board of managers finally answered one question Wilmer-Hutchins residents have asked in the last few turbulent weeks, as it became increasingly clear the district’s financial chaos would not allow it to open its doors as usual this fall.

The answer to another question – where the district’s 2,700 students will go instead – is unclear.

Lancaster is the preferred choice of Wilmer-Hutchins leaders, but it’s far from clear that Lancaster wants them.

Two Dallas school board members said they would be willing to reconsider a key sticking point – the survival of Wilmer-Hutchins High – that could make a merger with Dallas schools more likely.

Jobs lost

What is clear is that roughly 300 Wilmer-Hutchins employees lost their jobs Monday night. For them, it was a maddening end to a bewildering school year.

“The reward I get for my hard work is ‘Find another place to go work’?” asked Joe Tave, a science teacher at Kennedy-Curry Middle School.

The major surprise came from a twist supported by Mr. Black. The board had been expected to consider giving Lancaster operational control over Wilmer-Hutchins for the upcoming school year, then shutting down Wilmer-Hutchins entirely next June. For a number of legal reasons, such a move would allow the district to pay off most of its roughly $9 million in debt. It would also allow students to remain at Wilmer-Hutchins campuses.

But Mr. Black proposed reviving Wilmer-Hutchins next summer if three hurdles can be overcome by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

First, district voters must approve a maximum property tax rate of $1.50. In May, voters agreed to only 90 cents, which immediately killed about 40 percent of the district’s budget and made operating the district untenable.

Second, voters must agree to a bond package to renovate or rebuild all of the district’s schools. Voters overwhelmingly rejected such a package in September, but that was when the widely unpopular Charles Matthews was superintendent and the elected school board was still in control. Dr. Matthews has since been indicted, and the school board was thrown out of office last month.

Finally, the district’s test scores – currently by far the area’s lowest – must improve. District officials did not specify by how much.

There is probably a fourth requirement: action from the Legislature. Under a quirk of current funding law, by shipping away its students for 2005-06, Wilmer-Hutchins would become a so-called Robin Hood district in 2006-07. That means it would not be able to receive any state funding and would have to give up most or all of its local property-tax revenue to other districts around the state.

It’s unlikely Wilmer-Hutchins – or any district – could operate under that near-zero funding level, so the Legislature probably would have to make a one-time exception for Wilmer-Hutchins.

Mr. Black’s proposal passed 3 to 1. Mr. Black, Michelle Willhelm and Saundra King voted in favor. Sandra Donato and superintendent Eugene Young were absent.

The lone voice of opposition was Donnie Foxx. He said he agreed with the broad strokes of the plan but wanted the district to have two years to overcome the various obstacles.

“There’s no reason we can’t take more time,” he said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

As they have at past meetings, Monday night’s audience members rallied against the proposed shutdown, calling managers heartless and, in some cases, traitors to their race. Unlike at last week’s board meeting, security officers were on hand.

Alternative proposed

The audience reacted most positively during a presentation by Bill McIntyre, a Dallas legal researcher who said he could single-handedly save the district’s finances by getting a multimillion-dollar loan from a bank, passing a $100 million bond issue, and getting grants from the National FFA Organization.

He supported his proposal with statistical data that TEA officials said seemed wildly inaccurate – such as saying Wilmer-Hutchins’ spending was nearly $70 million one year in the mid-1990s and barely $1 million the next, or that only 5 percent of the district’s funds go to teacher salaries.

Mr. McIntyre, whose law firm has sued Wilmer-Hutchins several times in the last year, refused to name the bank or any other institution willing to back his proposal. He said that would improperly “tip his hand” and would lead to TEA officials interfering with his work to save the district.

In reality, Wilmer-Hutchins has not been able to find a bank willing to hold its main checking account – much less loan it millions of dollars. The last bank to loan Wilmer-Hutchins money, Wells Fargo, is suing. Mr. Foxx called Mr. McIntyre’s proposal “cotton candy – all fluff.” But the audience reacted with spirited applause and shouts of approval.

The saga of Wilmer-Hutchins is by no means over. Mr. McIntyre promised a lawsuit. So did a group led by civil rights activist Lee Alcorn, who had its own meeting Monday night in downtown Dallas and called the board’s move a violation of their voting rights.

The Lancaster school board has been less receptive to a merger than some had hoped, and many area residents have opposed the move. The board is expected to vote on the matter Friday.

Wilmer-Hutchins leaders had earlier rejected Dallas’ merger offer because Dallas wanted to shutter all of Wilmer-Hutchins’ schools and bus students to underpopulated existing Dallas schools.

But Dallas trustees Ron Price and Hollis Brashear both said Monday that they would be willing to consider keeping Wilmer-Hutchins High School open.

Staff writer Paul Meyer contributed to this report.

Column: Can cash buy good schools?

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

It may cost $20,000 a year or more. But is private-school tuition really worth the big bucks?

An interesting new study by two University of Illinois researchers seems to indicate it often isn’t. And it gives further evidence that many folks can’t spot a “good” school when they see one.

“More often than not when people try to judge the quality of schools, they look at who is walking in the doors of that school, not what the school is doing with them once they’re there,” said Chris Lubienski, co-author of the study with his wife and fellow professor, Sarah.

Their study looks at math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. NAEP is the big federal test whose results researchers love to slice and dice, since it includes scores and demographic data for tens of thousands of students.

When NAEP scores are reported, they always show private-school students outperforming their peers in public school. It’s been a consistent finding for decades.

But the Lubienskis were curious. Is that because private schools are really better? Or is it just because they generally enroll wealthier, better-prepared students?

So they built a way to try to remove social class as a factor. They gathered up data on the students taking the test. Were they poor enough to qualify for free school lunch? Did they have a computer at home? Did their parents graduate from college, or did they drop out of high school? They then compared how public and private schools fared when these socioeconomic factors were stripped away.

They found that, at all class levels, public schools had a small but consistent edge over privates. Their suspicions were supported by the numbers: The reason private schools look better on paper is because they serve more middle- and upper-class kids.

Or, to be even plainer: Poor kids in public schools did better than poor kids in private schools. Middle-class kids in public schools did better than middle-class kids in private schools. And rich kids in public schools did better than rich kids in private schools.

I’ve got no grudge here. I attended both public and private schools. And there may be plenty of reasons to send a child to private school that aren’t about test scores – religion, for instance.

More affluent students

But the Lubienskis’ findings make sense. Private schools generally pay their teachers less than public schools and often have fewer resources. The one edge they generally do have is a better-off student body.

Why does this matter? A few reasons.

First, it’s a reminder of how important poverty and home life are to a child’s academic success.

“All kids can learn” is a nice idea, and “no child left behind” is a nice slogan. But kids who come from poor, literacy-starved homes start school so far behind better-off suburbanites that the gap isn’t closable on any large scale. Dallas ISD could corner the market on the world’s best teachers and its test scores still wouldn’t beat Highland Park’s.

I once heard a researcher say that if you want to eliminate the achievement gap in American schools, the answer was simple: Just end poverty. Good luck with that.

Second, it shows we have a problem with how we evaluate schools.

Easy kids to teach

Real estate agents in the northern suburbs love to talk up how great the local schools are. Their scores have been among North Texas’ highest for years. But were they “great” because they employed great teachers and brilliant principals? Or were they coasting on the fact they were handed a group of upper-middle-class kids with involved parents – the kind of kid that’s easiest to teach?

Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine Plano West High’s student body were suddenly switched with South Oak Cliff’s.

Plano’s test scores would collapse; South Oak Cliff’s would skyrocket. But would that mean the teachers at Plano West have suddenly forgotten how to teach? Would it mean the maligned schools of Dallas’ southern sector suddenly became world beaters? Nope on both counts.

The governance issue

Finally, the Lubienski study suggests that changing how a school is governed isn’t an easy way to “fix” education.

In the 1990s, some education reformers argued that schools were being held back by the systems that run them. If you could just find a way to get rid of the school boards and the public-education bureaucracies, they argued, schools would flourish.

It’s one of the core arguments for vouchers and charter schools. Change the governance structure – or let private schools get public dollars – and kids’ performance will improve.

The Illinois study is just one study, and it’s certainly an area that needs more research. But it’s a sign that the old public-school model may not be as troubled as some argue.

“I’m a parent, and I like to have choices,” Dr. Lubienski said. “But people were very excited about governance as a magic bullet 10 years ago. They’re not as excited anymore.”

W-H puts off decision; Meeting turns raucous over proposal to merge with Lancaster

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

The five members of the Wilmer-Hutchins board of managers are ready to dissolve the troubled district and merge with Lancaster schools.

But the board didn’t take action at Monday night’s meeting because a sometimes rowdy crowd made it clear it wanted a chance to speak its mind.

“We have run out of time,” Superintendent Eugene Young said.

The board put off action for more than a week, but Lancaster’s superintendent said the delay could prevent his district from being able to take Wilmer-Hutchins’ students.

Mr. Young was appointed Wilmer-Hutchins superintendent barely a month ago, when state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley threw out the elected school board.

Until then, Mr. Young was an assistant superintendent in Lancaster.

He proposed a number of other options for the district but rejected them all. Merging with Dallas schools would require busing the district’s students north, he said. Splitting the district into parts would unnecessarily divide the community, he argued. And keeping the district alive in its current state is a financial impossibility.

Instead, he proposed outsourcing the job of running Wilmer-Hutchins schools this fall to Lancaster. Students would be taught on Wilmer-Hutchins campuses, but Lancaster would provide the teachers and principals. Nearly all Wilmer-Hutchins employees would lose their jobs, although Lancaster could choose to hire some of them.

Wilmer-Hutchins would continue to exist on paper for one more year, collecting tax money and putting it toward some of the district’s debts. Then, next June, the district would be formally dissolved and merged with Lancaster. For local children to get a good education, Mr. Young said, “the district has to die.”

All five members of the Wilmer-Hutchins board said after the meeting that they considered the Lancaster merger the best option available to the district.

“This change is coming,” board president Albert Black said.

Board member Michelle Willhelm said the merger could help the two districts, both of which are traditionally low-achieving. In this spring’s TAKS testing, Wilmer-Hutchins had the worst scores of 52 North Texas districts surveyed by The Dallas Morning News. Lancaster had the second worst.

“I think this is a merger where the whole will be greater than the parts,” Ms. Willhelm said. “This will help both districts with resources.”

Board members may have a tough time convincing Wilmer-Hutchins residents of the wisdom of the move, however. The roughly 100 who gathered at Monday night’s meeting were vocal in their opposition to anything that would dissolve Wilmer-Hutchins.

“This is a modern-day lynching,” said Wilmer-Hutchins alumnus and parent Michael Rodgers, one of several residents who yelled at board members intermittently throughout the meeting.

While there were no physical confrontations, tensions approached the boiling point several times – including a 15-minute delay in the start of a closed board session when some audience members verbally confronted board members and Texas Education Agency officials.

The district’s head of curriculum and instruction, B. Ellen Johnson, broke down crying at one point after Mr. Young said “severe problems with instructional leadership” was one of the district’s biggest problems.

The crowd reaction was so negative that Mr. Black proposed pushing back a final decision on the district’s fate until after a public hearing could be conducted.

Mr. Black proposed three additional meetings: a public hearing this week, a workshop for board members to go over options, and a final vote near the end of next week, on or about June 30.

That schedule doesn’t work well for at least three district leaders, including Mr. Young, all of whom are scheduled to be out of town on vacation or other trips at some point over the next two weeks. Mr. Black said they could be included via conference calls.

The schedule also doesn’t work for Lancaster. Its school board must vote on whether to accept Wilmer-Hutchins’ students before a deal can be finalized, and Lancaster Superintendent Larry Lewis said the proposed timetable doesn’t leave enough time for that to happen.

“If we don’t find out their decision until that late, there’s no way we can know where the students are going to be in time,” he said.

Despite that issue, Dr. Lewis said he believed the marriage between Wilmer-Hutchins and Lancaster would be “a good match.”

Carolyn Morris, a Lancaster school board member who attended Monday’s meeting, said she believed Dr. Lewis would be able to get the votes to approve a merger. But she said she was not convinced the move was a good one.

W-H nears a decision on its fate; District might shut down this year or next, send kids to DISD, Lancaster

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

The Wilmer-Hutchins school district may be in its final days as an independent, functioning body.

At the urging of state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley, the district’s board of managers is expected to meet early next week to make a final decision on Wilmer-Hutchins’ future. And the two top options involve dissolving the district and educating its children in either the Dallas or Lancaster districts or both.

“We’ve got to figure out what to do with the kids very quickly,” said Kevin O’Hanlon, a Wilmer-Hutchins attorney who was among the district leaders who met with Dr. Neeley. “She wants us to have a plan by the first of July.”

Texas Education Agency officials have been concerned that the district’s board of managers wasn’t moving quickly enough to determine the district’s future. Dr. Neeley appointed the board last month after tossing out the incumbent school board, which had overseen the district’s financial collapse and a cheating scandal.

Wilmer-Hutchins faces a summer cash crunch. It owes $2.8 million to Wells Fargo, which the bank is suing to recover. It needs about $3 million to pay teachers and keep its offices open for the next two months. It has money for neither.

In addition, last month voters rejected a tax authorization that would have allowed the district to keep funding essentially flat from last year. Instead, the district’s revenue will be cut by about 40 percent.

When she appointed the board of managers last month, Dr. Neeley asked its members to evaluate whether the district was worth saving. Wilmer-Hutchins has been a thorn in TEA’s side for decades, and the agency has been criticized for not doing enough to combat local mismanagement.

The managers have had a series of public forums to discuss the district’s future, with two more scheduled for this month. But in a meeting with district leaders Wednesday in Austin, Dr. Neeley said she wants a decision more quickly – particularly if students will have to be moved to another district in the fall.

“The commissioner let them know the urgency of the matter,” TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said.

TEA officials say there are two major options being considered:

* Shutting down the district immediately. Wilmer-Hutchins would be merged permanently into either the Dallas and Lancaster districts or both of them, and students would start attending classes there in the fall.

* Waiting a year to formally shutter the district but temporarily contracting out the job of educating Wilmer-Hutchins students to Dallas or Lancaster. Under a quirk of state funding law, such a move would free up more money to educate Wilmer-Hutchins students and allow the district to pay off its debts with local property-tax revenue.

Dallas school officials have said they would be willing to take Wilmer-Hutchins students if necessary. Many of the schools in Dallas’ southern sector have low enrollment and have the space to deal with a spike in admissions.

Making severe cuts

Ms. Marchman said other options – including keeping Wilmer-Hutchins alive in a crippled state – could be considered.

But district officials have said Wilmer-Hutchins would have to make draconian cuts to remain open. At Tuesday’s board meeting, officials proposed a budget that would cut the number of teachers from last year’s 187 to 126. The number of teachers’ aides would drop from 36 to four.

In all, Wilmer-Hutchins would have to eliminate nearly half of all district jobs, cutting payroll to 182 people. That’s an enormous drop from the 406 employees Wilmer-Hutchins had at the start of last year, before the scope of the economic collapse became clear.

“We want you to see what it’s going to look like if we go in that direction,” Superintendent Eugene Young told the board Tuesday. “We don’t need to look at a fairy tale. This is reality.”

The board could also choose to put the tax-authorization issue back before voters and ask them to raise their taxes back to prior levels. Such an election could take place only after school starts in the fall.

Dr. Neeley has let it be known that she does not support such an election, and most board members have followed her wishes. At Tuesday’s meeting, scheduling another election was listed on the board’s agenda, but the board voted 4-1 to table it. Only Donnie Foxx, who has been vocal in his support for another election, opposed it.

“If the people in this community think the district can be saved, I don’t think we have a choice but to put it back before the voters,” Mr. Foxx said Tuesday.

Optimism fading

The newly appointed board members could not be reached Thursday, but some of the early optimism they showed about the district’s survival has waned at recent public meetings. Board President Albert Black – who only a month ago said he was very confident the district would survive – said Tuesday night that “the district is in a financial state where we don’t know what will happen.”

Even if the board decides not to dissolve the district, the matter could be out of its hands. On July 8, official results from this spring’s TAKS tests will be released to Dr. Neeley. Wilmer-Hutchins’ results are among the worst achievement test scores the state has ever seen, and they are expected to earn the district the label “academically unacceptable.” When that happens, Dr. Neeley will have the legal authority to dissolve the district herself, effective in July 2006.

The district, which enrolls about 2,700 students, owes about $9 million to a variety of sources. That includes $2 million in tax anticipation notes whose existence was discovered only in the last few days.

On Thursday, the Texas State Teachers Association formally asked TEA to loan Wilmer-Hutchins the money needed to meet payroll so educators can be paid. Ms. Marchman said the agency is evaluating the request, but it appears that state law prevents the agency from issuing such a loan.

The district normally could count on receiving well over $1 million a year in federal dollars. But the U.S. Department of Education has frozen access to those funds because Wilmer-Hutchins’ financial records are in disarray and haven’t been audited for the last two fiscal years. The district has tried to hire an outside auditing firm to do the work, but none have proved willing.

15% of fifth-graders down to one last chance on TAKS; Final shot to move on is this month; districts vow an all-out effort

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Ending social promotion isn’t turning out to be as easy as state education leaders may have hoped.

After two tries, about 40,000 Texas fifth-graders still haven’t passed the math and reading sections of the TAKS test. That means a summer full of stress and, for many, another year of fifth grade.

“These kids are trying so very hard,” said Jennifer Costa, a fifth-grade bilingual teacher at Irving’s Townsell Elementary. “It’s frustrating, but we’re going to keep working at it until these kids have the skills they need.”

There is still hope that some of the fifth-graders will pass on their third try later this month. But the large number of failing students, about 15 percent of the state’s fifth-graders, could weaken support for what has been a relatively peaceful adoption of high-stakes promotion tests for young children.

“Having accountability is good,” said Harley Eckhart, associate executive director of the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association.

The unusually high failure rate has forced some districts to reshuffle their priorities. In Irving, for example, district leaders originally planned to offer summer school for students in grades two through five. But when it became clear how many failing fifth-graders the district would have to deal with, officials decided they had to cancel summer school for second- and fourth-graders.

“We just didn’t have the resources to go beyond that,” said Cheryl Jennings, Irving’s director of elementary teaching and learning. “We had to give the fifth-graders attention first.”

Earning promotion

The testing requirements are part of the Student Success Initiative, which was one of the centerpieces of Gov. George Bush’s legislative agenda in 1999. The idea is to stop social promotion, the practice of pushing kids to the next grade even if they don’t have the necessary academic skills.

The high stakes have followed the Class of 2012 as it marches through the school system. In 2003, third-graders had to pass the TAKS reading test to advance to fourth grade. This year, fifth-graders have to pass the reading and math tests. In 2008, eighth-graders will also have to pass reading and math exams.

Students get three chances to pass: two during the school year and one in the summer.

Some educators recoiled at the prospect of such a high-stakes test for 8-year-olds. But third-graders had surprising success when the measure debuted in 2003. In the end, only about 5,000 students were held back, out of more than 290,000 third-graders statewide.

This year’s fifth-grade failure rate is much higher. TEA officials are still analyzing results from this spring’s tests and can’t say exactly how many students are still in TAKS limbo. But they announced Wednesday that about 34,000 fifth-graders have yet to pass the math test, along with thousands more on the reading test.

In the Dallas Independent School District, more than 30 percent of fifth-graders have yet to meet the TAKS promotion requirements.

Running out of time

Sue Harris, the Grand Prairie district’s executive director of planning and evaluation, said: “We’re not at a panic level, but we’re at a point where we need to re-evaluate what we do at that grade.”

At Grand Prairie’s Milam Elementary, 12 of the school’s 55 fifth-graders haven’t yet passed TAKS. “People are trying as hard as they can to keep up with the changes,” principal Michele Loper said.

There are a number of reasons for the poor performance. Most obvious is that fifth-graders must pass both math and reading tests, while third-graders have only a reading test to worry about. The state has also raised the passing standards required on the TAKS each of the last two years.

Mr. Eckhart also pointed to teacher training as a possible reason. In the years leading up to the debut of the third-grade test, the state paid for intensive training for reading teachers from kindergarten through third grade. The Legislature then cut funding for training teachers in higher grades.

“These are the same students who were the first to take the third-grade test, and they did well,” Dr. Jennings said. “Now they’re in fifth and they’re not passing. That just boggles my mind.”

Townsell Elementary put on a “bridging” ceremony last week to celebrate the transition fifth-graders will make to Sam Houston Middle School next year. School officials allowed all the students to participate, even though several still hadn’t passed TAKS and may not cross that bridge after all.

“It really pumped the students up and got them very excited about wanting to be middle-schoolers next year,” Ms. Costa said. “One of our parents said her boy came home after the ceremony just bubbling over with excitement: ‘I’m gonna pass that test!'”

Outcome expected

State officials said the lower fifth-grade performance is a natural part of the adjustment to a new system.

“The agency obviously wishes the passing rate was higher, but I don’t think it’s out of line with expectations,” TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said.

She said scores will probably improve as time passes, as they have on previous state assessments as teachers get used to teaching topics on the test.

In any event, it’s likely that a majority of the children who haven’t passed TAKS already will have to repeat fifth grade. Under state law, they’re required to attend intensive summer school for the month of June, with many districts offering three hours of small-group instruction every day.

In Irving, for example, the district will be employing about 50 teachers for the failing fifth-graders’ summer school. During the regular school year, it employs about 140 fifth-grade teachers.

“We’re doing the very best we can,” Dr. Jennings said. “We love every one of those children, and we want to see them all pass.”

After summer school, students will have one final chance to pass the TAKS tests: June 28 for math, June 29 for reading.

But even strike three won’t mean they’re out. A special committee made up of a student’s parent, principal and teacher can decide to promote the student anyway if they decide the youth’s academic performance was strong enough to justify it. In 2003, 41 percent of third-graders who failed TAKS three times were still promoted to fourth grade. In some districts, the rate was more than 80 percent.

Troubled district may be out of options; Wilmer-Hutchins: State opposes tax election, cites lack of trust

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 8B

Wilmer-Hutchins leaders said last week that there were only two lifelines that could keep the beleaguered school district alive much longer: an act of the Legislature or a new emergency appeal to voters.

The first lifeline has disappeared. And Tuesday night, state officials asked the district not to reach for the other.

If district officials follow the suggestion of the Texas Education Agency, it could be the beginning of the district’s final chapter.

“I don’t want there to be any false hope,” said Albert Black, president of the district’s state-appointed board of managers. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

At issue is the district’s property tax rate. For years, it charged an illegally high tax rate of about $1.50 per $100 of assessed value. The district’s voters had never formally approved a rate above 90 cents per $100.

In May, the district asked for exactly that approval, and voters rejected it overwhelmingly. That move has left the district with a tough choice: Gouge about 40 percent out of its budget, seek some other source of income or shut the district down.

Had the Legislature passed school finance reform this session, the size of the cuts would have been reduced. But lawmakers went home Monday with no such bill passed.

The other hope was putting the tax issue back before the voters. Under state law, a school board must call an election at least 62 days in advance. That means that the earliest another tax authorization vote could be held is Aug. 6, assuming the board makes that decision at its next meeting on Friday. That date is already perilously close to the scheduled start of school, Aug. 10.

But Ron Rowell, the head of TEA’s governance division, told board members that the agency did not want another vote. “We feel it is too early to call another election,” he said. “We feel there has not been enough trust established with the community to go that route.”

The district’s board of managers is not legally obligated to follow the agency’s desires. But the managers were all appointed by the agency last month, when TEA threw out the previous school board for being too dysfunctional. Commissioner Shirley Neeley has the power to remove board members who do not follow her wishes.

If there is no new vote, it would guarantee that if the district opens this fall, it will be at the 90-cent tax rate. Interim Superintendent James Damm, whose last day on the job was Tuesday, has said the district can’t operate at that level.

Board members have said the district’s best option under that scenario may be to subcontract nearly all district operations to neighboring districts such as Lancaster and Dallas.

Business manager Bill Goodman said Tuesday that a 90-cent tax rate is theoretically possible, although “it’s really not pretty.” He said the district could compress itself to just three schools – cramming grades six through 12 into the Wilmer-Hutchins High, moving about 1,200 elementary students into the dilapidated Kennedy-Curry middle school and keeping one smaller campus open.

The district would also have to trim nearly all its administration, cut back severely on nonteaching staff, and consider eliminating bus service and other essentials.