W-H seniors get wish granted; DISD: Group to attend S. Oak Cliff; 25 schools to be youths’ new homes

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

And the winner is … South Oak Cliff High.

That’s where Wilmer-Hutchins’ senior class will attend school starting next month. Wilmer-Hutchins’ financial problems led the district to seek a new home for its 2,700 students, and the Dallas school district agreed Monday to take them in.

Dallas trustee Ron Price had wanted the seniors shipped to Madison High, which would have created a football team that could compete for a state title. But students preferred South Oak Cliff, which is closer to their homes.

“That’s where we’ve been wanting to go ever since school shut down,” said senior-to-be Frankie Solomon. “It’s worked out fine.”

Other refugees from Wilmer-Hutchins High will attend Carter, Roosevelt and A. Maceo Smith. In all, the district’s students will be split among 25 Dallas school district campuses.

Dallas Independent School District employees did a phone survey this week of Wilmer-Hutchins students to determine their preferences. Nearly all the seniors surveyed said they would rather be sent to one school than be split along geographic lines.

“As a result of this input, we feel obliged and duty-bound to honor their request,” DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said.

In many cases, even the infusion of new students will still leave the Dallas hallways thinly populated. Clara Oliver Elementary, for instance, will still only be at 38 percent of its student capacity. Roosevelt High, even after taking 257 Wilmer-Hutchins students, will be at only 57 percent of capacity.

The low enrollment at southern Dallas campuses was one reason DISD leaders insisted on moving Wilmer-Hutchins students into those schools. Most Wilmer-Hutchins parents preferred having DISD educate the students on Wilmer-Hutchins campuses.

With the moves, some Wilmer-Hutchins students will attend schools more than 18 miles from their homes. Bus service will be provided for students who need it.

Suit over trustees’ removal dismissed; Wilmer-Hutchins ISD: Plaintiffs had argued official had no right

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 4B

A lawsuit that could have stopped the deal between Dallas and Wilmer-Hutchins schools was dismissed Tuesday.

The suit argued that state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley did not have legal authority to remove Wilmer-Hutchins’ elected school board in May because not enough time had passed since the district was declared “academically unacceptable.” That move replaced the old board with a state-appointed board of managers.

Those managers have made a number of controversial decisions, including laying off all the district’s teachers and seeking to ship Wilmer-Hutchins students to another district for the coming school year. On Monday, Dallas agreed to take in the students.

Lawyers from the Texas attorney general’s office argued that the suit’s plaintiffs – Roosevelt Robinson, Jan Calloway and Linda McDonald – did not have the right to challenge Dr. Neeley’s decision. State District Judge Karen Gren Johnson agreed, issuing a three-sentence ruling dismissing the case.

“Being a taxpayer doesn’t give you standing to challenge a lot of different types of government action,” said Robert O’Keefe, deputy chief of general litigation in the attorney general’s office. “Being a voter didn’t give them the kind of standing they need.”

No attorneys for the Association of Texas Professional Educators – the teachers’ group that funded the suit – were available for comment Tuesday. But spokesman Eric Allen said the group will evaluate the ruling and will consider refiling the case with other plaintiffs.

Meanwhile, Dr. Neeley issued a prepared statement Tuesday, praising Dallas school leaders for their willingness to aid Wilmer-Hutchins.

“I’m convinced that Dallas is committed to doing the best possible job they can for Wilmer-Hutchins children,” she said. “The students of Wilmer-Hutchins will be in good hands.”

DISD backs W-H deal; Southern Dallas schools to absorb kids; Wilmer might sell campuses

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

The students of Wilmer-Hutchins may finally have a home.

The Dallas school board voted Monday night to accept Wilmer-Hutchins’ roughly 2,700 students into its existing south-end campuses.

“We’re absolutely thrilled,” said Wilmer-Hutchins attorney Kevin O’Hanlon. “We have a home.”

The adoption was made necessary by Wilmer-Hutchins’ mounting debts and budget problems. District leaders determined at the end of the last school year that the district could not proceed in its current financial state. They first asked Lancaster officials to take in their students, but Lancaster turned them down.

That left Dallas as the last choice available. Dallas trustees approved the deal, 8-0, with almost no debate.

Had Dallas said no, Wilmer-Hutchins probably would have been forced to open this fall with a per-pupil budget less than half the size of any other area district.

The move happened in the nick of time: New Dallas teachers are scheduled to report to work today.

“These kids are going to be well-taken care of,” said Dallas board President Lois Parrott. “And they’re very welcome in our schools.”

Assuming Wilmer-Hutchins leaders approve and no courts intervene, Wilmer-Hutchins students will be bused to dozens of schools in southern Dallas. The specific schools were left up to Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, who will decide in the next few days so athletes know their new assignments in time for football practice next week.

The Dallas high schools under consideration are South Oak Cliff, Roosevelt, Carter and A. Maceo Smith. Madison High is also being considered as a home for Wilmer-Hutchins’ seniors.

Madison is almost 10 miles away from the current Wilmer-Hutchins High, but it would have one of the state’s top football teams if Wilmer-Hutchins’ senior football players were added to its squad. Trustee Ron Price has advocated keeping the seniors together at one school.

“We will consider it strongly,” Dr. Hinojosa said, adding that everything will be done to “minimize the impact on those students.”

$4 million more

Finances had been a sticking point for Dallas trustees, who worried that taking in Wilmer-Hutchins’ students could force Dallas to spend money it had planned to spend on its own students.

But Texas Education Agency officials agreed last week to sweeten the pot by upping the state funding Dallas would receive from $11.2 million to $15.2 million.

“It was a no-brainer that the kids of Wilmer-Hutchins deserve to be educated,” said Dallas trustee Nancy Bingham. “But we had to make sure all the details were in place so we were being fair to our own taxpayers.”

TEA officials have said that extra $4 million would come from Wilmer-Hutchins’ already limited resources. Mr. O’Hanlon said Wilmer-Hutchins would probably have to sell some or all of its campuses and land holdings to raise funds.

The Wilmer-Hutchins board of managers will meet on Thursday to evaluate the deal. Also on the agenda: hiring a team of appraisers to determine how much the district’s land could fetch on the open market.

At least one Wilmer-Hutchins manager, Donnie Foxx, has publicly opposed a land sale. Another manager, Sandra Donato, is a Dallas schools employee and, as a result, cannot vote on the deal. That means that if any one of the remaining three managers – Albert Black, Michelle Willhelm and Saundra King – opposes the deal, it will fail. None of the three were present at Monday’s meeting.

Monday’s deal could dampen the possibility of a proposal approved by the Wilmer-Hutchins board of managers last month. That proposal would have revived Wilmer-Hutchins schools in 2006 if taxpayers agreed to two tax increases and if test scores improved markedly.

Beyond this year

The deal with Dallas would probably mean a revived Wilmer-Hutchins would have even less money to spend in 2006-07 than it would have had in 2005-06. In addition, selling some or all of Wilmer-Hutchins’ campuses to pay Dallas would make it more difficult for the district to reopen its doors.

Dallas officials had asked for more concessions to approve the deal. They wanted the TEA to pay off some of Wilmer-Hutchins’ debts, including the $2.8 million it owes to Wells Fargo. But TEA said no, according to Ron Rowell, TEA’s senior director of governance.

The deal struck Monday covers only the coming school year. But it is expected that state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley will make the marriage permanent this fall when Wilmer-Hutchins’ poor test scores from last school year become official and she gains legal authority to force a merger.

When that happens, everything that belongs to Wilmer-Hutchins – including assets like its land and problems such as its debts and legal liabilities – will belong to Dallas, said TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman.

Undecided issues

Not all issues have been settled. For instance, it’s still undetermined how many years the test scores of Wilmer-Hutchins students will not count against Dallas for school ratings purposes, Mr. Rowell said. And the board has not decided how to handle the drawing of trustees’ districts, which would probably have to change if a permanent merger occurs next year.

The saga of Wilmer-Hutchins is still far from over. One lawsuit pending in district court argues that TEA never had the authority to appoint the board of managers in May. A key ruling in that case is expected in the next few days. If the suit is successful, it could mean the board of managers would be replaced with the district’s ousted elected board. And all actions of the board of managers – such as the negotiations of Monday’s deal – would be null and void.

Even if that suit fails, several residents threatened further litigation.

“I believe the community is going to find the necessary resources to battle this thing in court,” said Cedric Davis, a former Wilmer-Hutchins police chief who was elected to the school board shortly before all of its members were thrown out of office in May.

“You’re going to see some children writing their legislators,” he said. “And in upcoming elections, you’re going to see our elected officials getting hurt at the ballot box because of this.”

Pinkie Gardner, the oldest living black graduate of Wilmer-Hutchins, said she wasn’t sure what to think about the deal. “The kids have got to go somewhere,” she said. “But I want to think about the future. We could do great things in the future.”

Staff writer Tawnell D. Hobbs contributed to this report.

Firm to look for TAKS cheating; Company says it will search for patterns in Texas students’ results

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 4A

A Utah company has been hired to investigate the test scores of Texas schools and determine which ones are cheating.

The decision to hire Caveon was prompted by a series of stories in The Dallas Morning News last winter that found highly unusual swings in test scores at some Texas schools. Investigations at some of those schools have found that dozens of educators in Dallas and Houston were improperly helping students with the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS.

“Cheating is a concern,” said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman. She said state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley “doesn’t feel like this is a widespread epidemic. But anyone who is cheating is cheating the student, and that needs to be addressed.”

Caveon will be paid with tax dollars, although it is not being hired directly by the TEA. Instead, it will be a subcontractor for Pearson Educational Measurement, the company TEA pays to run its testing program. Caveon vice president Don Sorensen said he could not say how much the company would be paid.

Caveon will analyze student scores from this spring’s TAKS test and look for unusual patterns.

Examples would include a student whose scores swing from abysmal to stellar in one year’s time or a classroom where all students answer each question in the same way.

“We’re looking to make sure that those who test are doing it right,” Mr. Sorensen said. “We’re seeing more and more testing, and any time there’s a high-stakes test, there’s always that temptation to cheat.”

A News analysis found that nearly 400 Texas schools had suspicious swings in their test scores in at least one grade. The project stemmed out of suspicious scores in the Wilmer-Hutchins district, where one poor elementary school suddenly recorded the state’s best scores on the high-stakes third-grade reading TAKS test.

A state investigation prompted by the stories found that two-thirds of elementary teachers in Wilmer-Hutchins were cheating or otherwise helping students improperly. Their methods included distributing answer keys to students or having brighter students correct the answers on weaker students’ tests.

Caveon is expected to report on its findings to the TEA this fall.

Suit seeks to return W-H teachers, board; Ex-principal says state law gives district more time to fix problems

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

Add one more item to the list of question marks about the future of Wilmer-Hutchins schools.

A lawsuit in state district court is seeking to throw out the state-appointed board of managers, rehire all the district’s laid-off teachers and bring back the old school board that state officials declared dysfunctional.

“The employees shouldn’t have to suffer because the district made some mistakes,” said Roosevelt Robinson, the former principal of Wilmer-Hutchins’ alternative school and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The core argument of the suit is that the Texas Education Agency lacked the authority to remove the elected school board, which it did in May after major financial and academic problems and allegations of mismanagement. It was only the second time the TEA had thrown out a school district’s elected board.

State law says the agency can take such a drastic step “if a district has been rated as academically unacceptable for a period of one year or more.”

It all depends on what “one year” means.

School ratings are typically announced each fall, and last October, Wilmer-Hutchins was labeled “acceptable.” But a TEA investigation, prompted by a series of Dallas Morning News articles, found that more than 20 Wilmer-Hutchins teachers were improperly helping students on state tests – including correcting wrong answers or even preparing answer keys for students to use.

Because of the cheating, Wilmer-Hutchins’ rating was formally lowered to “academically unacceptable” on March 21. Less than two months later, state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley announced she was throwing out the board.

So does the law mean that a district has to be saddled with the poor rating for 12 months before its board can be thrown out? Or is it enough that the bad rating reflects the previous year of performance?

“It’s like when a kid comes home at the end of the year with a bad report card,” TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said. “It represents the year that’s already over with.”

Mark Robinett, Mr. Robinson’s attorney, called that argument ridiculous.

“You take a look at it grammatically, syntactically, and it’s clear that you need a full year after the rating,” he said. “You get a year to clean up your act. It’s a power grab.”

The lawsuit is seeking an injunction that would bring the old school board back to office. It would also reverse all actions the board of managers has taken since May – which would mean the layoffs of more than 200 employees last month would be reversed.

Mr. Robinson says that’s his main motivation.

“There are people who have been working for the district for 30 years who now don’t have anywhere to go,” he said. “Those are the people this is for.”

He said he has no problem with the proposed merger of Wilmer-Hutchins into the Dallas school district, but he thinks Wilmer-Hutchins teachers should come with the deal.

A hearing on the injunction is expected next week. The suit is in the court of Judge Karen Gren Johnson.

Because of mismanagement, indictments and lawsuits, Wilmer-Hutchins has changed leadership at a dizzying pace over the last year.

Superintendent Charles Matthews was suspended and later fired last fall after being indicted on evidence-tampering charges. His interim replacement, James Damm, was unpopular with the school board and removed from office twice this spring – only to be reappointed by state overseers.

Mr. Robinson is also a subject of two other lawsuits against Wilmer-Hutchins, one each in state and federal court. Two former district employees allege that Mr. Robinson sexually harassed them and that the district did nothing to stop it.

The suits allege Mr. Robinson demanded sexual favors from the women, Sylvia Rhodes and Bridget Parson, and asked them to act in pornographic videos.

Lew Blackburn, Wilmer-Hutchins’ human resources director, said he has also received other complaints from district employees about Mr. Robinson’s behavior.

Mr. Robinson said that he did not harass anyone and that the lawsuits are motivated by greed and revenge.

A family on both sides of district’s demise; Pioneer fought to save W-H; granddaughter cast key vote to close it

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Pinkie Mae Gardner entered this world in 1924, three years before the Wilmer-Hutchins school district did.

She never thought she would outlive it.

“I hope it lasts forever,” she says. “It doesn’t look like that’s gonna happen, though.”

Ms. Gardner is a walking piece of district history. She’s the only surviving member of the first and only graduating class of the Wilmer-Hutchins Colored High School.

Her diploma sits proudly in the living room of her home, three blocks from where the school stood until it burned down under mysterious circumstances. She’s a visible link to the district’s segregated past, when blacks were servants and sharecroppers, not superintendents and school board presidents.

Which is why it’s awkward that her granddaughter, Saundra King, is one of the people in charge of shutting down the district.

*

Pinkie Mae King was born on a scorching July day on the Lancaster farm where her father, Robert, sharecropped cotton and corn.

The spot is now a truck stop on an Interstate 20 frontage road. But there’s still an old cedar tree from Pinkie’s childhood standing there, near where Dr. Carnes, the horse-and-buggy doctor, delivered her.

Pinkie went to school where all the local black boys and girls did – a small, two-story building in Hutchins, a three-mile walk each way. Wilmer-Hutchins was still a new district then, having been formed in 1927 in the merger of four smaller school systems. The area’s population was mostly white; control of the district was totally white.

The new brick Wilmer-Hutchins High School was “the finest rural high school in the state,” the superintendent bragged in 1928, with “the most modern equipment available.” It was for whites only. The budget for its construction was $60,000.

Blacks didn’t have a high school. The black elementary school that Pinkie attended was built on a budget of $2,000. It had outhouses, a coal potbelly stove for heat and one strict teacher, Odella Morney, for all its students.

Pinkie enjoyed school, particularly history. Ms. Morney thought it was important that her students learn to sing, and once a year the black students would walk over to the white school and put on a little concert. They sang religious songs such as “Never Grow Old”: When our work here is done and the life crown is won / And our troubles and trials are o’er / All our sorrow will end, and our voices will blend / With the loved ones who’ve gone on before.

“They were nice to me,” Ms. Gardner says of her white peers. “I didn’t think anything about race. It was the way things were back then.”

When Pinkie was 9, her father died of congestive heart failure. She watched him die, slumped in his chair at home. “There was nothing I could do,” she says. “I stood there and stared at him.”

It was then that she decided she would be a nurse when she grew up – so the next time someone was dying, she could help.

To be a nurse, she would have to go to high school. Her timing was perfect: When she was the right age, district officials decided to clean the upstairs of the black schoolhouse and convert it into what they called the Wilmer-Hutchins Colored High School. Pinkie was in the first freshman class. Four years later, in 1939, she was one of eight graduates.

“I’ve still got the black robe and the black cap somewhere,” she says.

*

As it turns out, Ms. Gardner’s class was the only one to graduate from the Wilmer-Hutchins Colored High School. Not long after graduation, the building burned to the ground.

No one ever figured out the cause. It wasn’t unheard of for Southern whites of that era to attack black schools. And with walls like dry paper, the school could have burned from any stray spark.

But, Ms. Gardner says, rumor had it that the school was burned by blacks.

“It was such a shack,” she says. “I heard they burned it down because it was so awful they wanted the kids to be sent somewhere else” – namely Booker T. Washington or Lincoln high schools in Dallas.

Indeed, that’s where the high school students were bused. Wilmer-Hutchins’ black elementary school students went to a makeshift school inside Little Flock Baptist Church until a new school, named for Ms. Morney’s father-in-law, could be built on the site of the burned one.

Ms. Gardner wanted to attend nursing school. But none in Dallas County accepted blacks back then, and she couldn’t afford to travel to the nearest black school, at Prairie View. “I had to go to work,” she says.

She found vocational nursing work for years until El Centro College opened and she could start a program in registered nursing. She graduated in 1973 and worked until her retirement in 1988. By then, Wilmer-Hutchins was a very different place from her childhood.

*

In 1967, a court order forced Wilmer-Hutchins to integrate its schools. Many whites left town in response. Over time, Wilmer-Hutchins’ population shifted, and blacks gained control of the district’s school board.

The change was not without tension. The cities of Wilmer and Hutchins – which, despite the district’s name, make up less than half of its population – tried to break away and form their own majority-white districts in the 1970s. A legal battle with racial overtones delayed construction of the district’s current high school for seven years.

The district – which had a number of management problems while under white control – had plenty more under black leadership. Finances were a mess. Test scores were miserable. The Texas Education Agency intervened so often in Wilmer-Hutchins affairs that it sometimes seemed the agency should have set up a permanent office at district headquarters.

Black parents began to flee the district, just as white parents had a generation earlier. Wilmer-Hutchins’ student body has shrunk by a third in the last decade; more of its residents send their children to charter schools than any other district its size in the state.

“I don’t know when it happened, but things started to go downhill at some point,” Ms. Gardner says. “My kids were already through, so I didn’t go to the board meetings anymore. I didn’t keep up with it as closely as I should have.”

Her own family saw the decline in quality. Her granddaughter, Saundra King, attended Wilmer-Hutchins schools until seventh grade, when her family moved to Lancaster.

“We moved because we thought the schools in Lancaster were better,” Ms. King says. “There were rumors about the school district. They just felt I would get a better education if we moved.”

Ms. King graduated from Lancaster High in 1987 and has gone on to a successful career as an analyst for a Dallas financial services firm.

Flash forward to 2005. Wilmer-Hutchins is a mess. Its former superintendent is under indictment. Its offices have been raided by the FBI. A financial crisis has forced the closure of A.L. Morney, the school on the site of the old black high school.

The Texas Education Agency, tired of dealing with the combative Wilmer-Hutchins school board, decides to throw it out of office. Under state law, it would be replaced with a five-member, state-appointed board of managers. Looking for candidates with financial skills, they call Ms. King and ask her to serve.

The board’s main job, as dictated by state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley: Determine whether Wilmer-Hutchins could be saved. If not, the board’s task was to shut it down forever.

*

That got Ms. Gardner mad.

She started showing up at board meetings. She’s now a regular sight at public forums, walking slowly up to the podium to speak. The district may have mounting debts and an academic crisis, but she thinks it’s worth saving.

“I hate it,” she says. “There has to be some way to keep the school going.”

She says she’s not comfortable being political. “I couldn’t have been a Martin Luther King. I couldn’t get out there and march,” she says. But she’s lending her emotional support to keeping the district alive.

One might think she would try to use her grandmotherly pull on Ms. King. But she says her granddaughter is an adult capable of making her own decisions.

“I let her make up her own mind,” she says. “She’s knowledgeable. I don’t want to be an influence.”

Ms. King says she understands her grandmother’s mind-set.

“I know she’s very proud of her attachment to the district,” she says. “With the district closing, it’s affecting her greatly.

“I’m compassionate, because it tears my heart, too, that the district might not be there. But I have to focus on the children and what’s best for them.”

*

Last month, the Wilmer-Hutchins board of managers met to decide the district’s fate.

It appeared the board had reached an uneasy consensus. Wilmer-Hutchins’ finances were in such a state that opening its schools this fall was an impossibility. The district would have to ask someone else to take over the responsibility of educating Wilmer-Hutchins students for the next school year.

The managers discussed the possibility that the district could be revived in 2006, if a number of hard-to-reach goals were met. But for the residents in the audience, the meeting had the air of a funeral.

Ms. Gardner spoke briefly during the public-forum portion of the meeting, then took a seat in the audience’s front row. Three hours into the often-tense meeting, it came time for the evening’s biggest vote: the resolution authorizing the shutdown of all district schools.

It was presumed that board president Albert Black and his colleague Michelle Willhelm would support the resolution. Donnie Foxx, a Wilmer-Hutchins graduate and the most outspoken critic of a shutdown, was expected to be a no vote. The fifth board member, Sandra Donato, was absent.

So the resolution – and the district’s future – rested on Ms. King’s vote.

Mr. Black asked his fellow board members for a motion. Ms. Willhelm moved that the resolution be adopted.

“Do I hear a second?” Mr. Black asked.

The audience, which had been rowdy earlier in the evening, fell silent. People shifted to the edges of their seats.

Almost 10 seconds passed.

Then Ms. King leaned into her microphone and said: “I second.”

Some in the crowd gasped. The fight was over, and they had lost. A moment later, the board’s vote turned out as expected: 3-1, with Ms. King voting yes. The audience filed out slowly, beaten.

Disappointing as it was to Ms. Gardner, it came as no surprise.

“It was a done deal,” she says. “I guess it’s all finished now.”

W-H schools may be up for sale; State agency trying to sell campuses, pay Dallas to educate its students

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

The Texas Education Agency is close to an agreement that would sell off most of Wilmer-Hutchins’ campuses and land and indirectly use the proceeds to funnel $4 million to Dallas schools.

Officials hope that the extra money will make it more appealing for Dallas to accept Wilmer-Hutchins’ 2,700 students as transfers. But one state-appointed board member, outraged by the plan, said he will resign his district post rather than participate.

“I’m done,” Donnie Foxx said. “TEA is not interested in saving this district. They just want to shut it down. And they don’t need me to do that.”

The offer of extra cash comes after state officials have found more resistance than some expected to a merger. Wilmer-Hutchins’ financial troubles have left the district shopping its students around to neighboring districts, and thus far none has been willing to accept them.

The Dallas Independent School District’s financial concerns are rooted in a quirk of the state funding system for schools. DISD is what’s known in school parlance as a “gap” district. Gap districts have property values that are too high to receive certain kinds of state funding, but not quite so high that they must send local tax money to state coffers.

As a gap district, Dallas would receive about $11.2 million in state money for enrolling Wilmer-Hutchins students, according to Ron Rowell, TEA’s senior director of governance. That’s well below the roughly $15.2 million that Lancaster would have received for teaching the same kids. Lancaster trustees voted not to accept Wilmer-Hutchins children two weeks ago.

A higher price

Several Dallas trustees have said they will consider taking in Wilmer-Hutchins students only if they can be educated without using existing Dallas resources – that is, if state aid is sufficient on its own to do the job. They say they need the full $15.2 million that Lancaster would have received for taking in the same kids.

“Dallas just wants to be made whole,” Mr. Rowell said.

Dallas and TEA officials met Wednesday in Austin and hashed out a tentative deal. Mr. Rowell said the TEA is not willing to simply give Dallas the money from state coffers. Instead, Wilmer-Hutchins would pay the money directly to Dallas.

The problem is that Wilmer-Hutchins has no money.

Mr. Rowell said the Dallas payments would come out of Wilmer-Hutchins property-tax revenues next year, which are expected to be around $5.5 million. But those tax dollars are already spoken for.

The district owes $2.8 million to Wells Fargo for a defaulted loan. And it will owe $3 million to the TEA after the agency loans Wilmer-Hutchins the money it needs to meet its payroll for July and August. Both those debts were expected to be paid off with local property tax revenues.

So, Mr. Rowell said, Wilmer-Hutchins would have to sell off some or all of its land to raise the extra cash. That could include any of Wilmer-Hutchins’ schools, all of which are in disrepair.

“There are too many pots to pay,” Mr. Rowell said.

Mr. Foxx said selling off the land flies in the face of the board of managers’ hopes to revive the Wilmer-Hutchins district after the upcoming school year. Last month, the board of managers voted to reopen Wilmer-Hutchins schools in 2006 if voters pass two tax increases and if student test scores improve. If the school buildings are sold, reopening would be impossible.

“From everything that I’ve seen, and everything they’ve done, they just want to shut us down,” Mr. Foxx said.

He referred to a speech given by state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley in May, when she said the state-appointed managers had to decide whether to save the district or shut it down.

“She lied to us,” he said. “There was never an option to save the district. I cannot be part of something where I am being lied to.”

No contract yet

The deal is not official yet, Mr. Rowell said. In any event, land sales would have to be approved by the Wilmer-Hutchins board of managers, who could object to the deal being negotiated for them by the TEA.

It’s also unclear whether Dallas trustees are willing to take on Wilmer-Hutchins students. Lancaster was once assumed to be willing, but its board voted 4-3 to reject them. In Dallas, public opposition has been stronger than some anticipated, with some trustees appearing to be ready to vote no.

In addition, DISD trustee Lew Blackburn is a Wilmer-Hutchins employee and, as a result, cannot vote on the issue. That means only four no votes could kill a deal, since a 4-4 tie would mean Dallas wouldn’t enroll Wilmer-Hutchins students.

Decrepit conditions will keep high school closed if DISD takes over

By Joshua Benton and Tawnell Hobbs
Staff Writers

Page 1B

The Wilmer-Hutchins High Eagles may have flown for the last time.

Dallas school officials have decided that Wilmer-Hutchins High is too dilapidated to keep open – even just for the next year.

“We’ve concluded and notified trustees that we’re not going to use Wilmer-Hutchins High School,” Dallas spokesman Donald Claxton said.

That decision means every school in Wilmer-Hutchins will be closed if Dallas agrees to take the district’s students. Wilmer-Hutchins’ other schools, in various states of disrepair, had been marked for closure.

Instead, all Wilmer-Hutchins students would be bused to Dallas campuses: Carter, South Oak Cliff and A. Maceo Smith high schools, plus the lower schools in their feeder patterns.

The high school’s closure would affect University Interscholastic League events such as football. Wilmer-Hutchins athletes will be allowed to compete on Dallas teams, UIL athletic director Charles Breithaupt said.

Dallas school facilities officials inspected Wilmer-Hutchins High on Monday to see whether it could be salvaged, despite needs for a new roof and air-conditioning system.

“We just felt it would be impossible to get the building ready before Aug. 15,” the first day of school, Mr. Claxton said. “It’s not in any condition to educate kids, in our opinion.”

The schools’ closures depend on the Dallas school board’s willingness to take on Wilmer-Hutchins students.

Wilmer-Hutchins is in woeful financial shape, and its leaders say there isn’t enough money to operate on their own this fall.

Dallas trustees are expected to vote on the issue next week.

DISD open to W-H merger; Trustees amenable to plan – as long as it doesn’t cost them

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

Dallas school officials seem ready to take on the students of Wilmer-Hutchins – as long as it doesn’t cost the district any money.

“It’s not these children’s fault where they’ve been born or where they live,” trustee Ron Price said at a board meeting Thursday night. “But it will be our fault if we don’t step up and help them.”

Wilmer-Hutchins is in financial crisis, and its state-appointed board of managers has determined that the district cannot afford to operate its schools this fall. The district has been trying to hand off its students to someone else. Lancaster schools rejected the offer last week.

Although no formal decision was made at Thursday’s meeting, Dallas leaders said they were more willing to help.

“We’re the obvious ones to help here, and we ought to do it,” trustee Jack Lowe said.

Dallas is considering a two-stage marriage to Wilmer-Hutchins. For the 2005-06 school year, Dallas is being asked to accept the transfer of Wilmer-Hutchins’ 2,650 or so students. Wilmer-Hutchins would remain open as a shell of a district.

Starting in 2006-07, however, the districts would be formally merged into a united Dallas district. That merger could come from a decision of the two districts’ boards. Or, more likely, it could come from an order of state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley. She will gain legal authority to do so soon when Wilmer-Hutchins’ poor test scores are formally reported in the coming weeks.

Last month, Dallas officials had proposed busing all Wilmer-Hutchins students into Dallas schools. They were to be scattered among 14 elementary schools, four middle schools and three high schools: Carter, South Oak Cliff, and A. Maceo Smith.

That raised the hackles of some Wilmer-Hutchins residents because it would leave children attending schools some distance from their homes.

On Thursday, Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa offered a slight adjustment to that proposal.

Wilmer-Hutchins High School – whose leaky roof delayed its opening last fall – would remain open for one more year, serving only grades 10 through 12. Everyone else would be bused to Dallas.

Some Dallas trustees weren’t warm to the idea of keeping the high school open for even one more year.

“I want to make sure all the Wilmer-Hutchins children get access to the same quality of education,” trustee Nancy Bingham said.

Dr. Hinojosa said Dallas would hire teachers from its own applicant pool and would have enough qualified applicants to fill all necessary positions.

A merger would help Dallas financially in a number of ways. It would boost student enrollment, which has been stagnant or declining in recent years. It would also help lower Dallas’ property wealth per pupil, which has been creeping higher in the last decade. If it goes too high, Dallas could be forced to send local property tax revenue to the state.

Mr. Price said that he would support helping Wilmer-Hutchins but that students in the city of Wilmer may be better off transferring to Ferris schools, which are closer geographically.

One voice of criticism was Dallas trustee Joe May, who was concerned that adding Wilmer-Hutchins students might divert Dallas from what he called its primary task, the education of Spanish-speaking recent immigrants. He said students transferring in from Wilmer-Hutchins would have access to more resources than Spanish-speaking children in his neighborhood.

“Wouldn’t it be in the best interest of both districts if you attempted to send them to Mesquite, Highland Park or somewhere else?” Mr. May asked.

His concerns were echoed by trustee Jerome Garza.

“We talk about bringing in other children, and while I empathize with that, at the end of the day, we need to make sure this does not negatively affect the children we were elected to represent.”

Dr. Hinojosa said the district would “have to be made whole” for an agreement to be reached. He said it is unclear whether the state’s standard funding formula would cover the roughly $17.5 million it would take to pay for educating the new students. If there is a gap, Dallas could ask the Legislature to make up the difference, he said.

Dr. Neeley was initially expected to announce whether she would force a permanent merger in the next few days. But TEA officials now say an announcement could be pushed back to about Labor Day.

If the districts do merge next year, it won’t be a simple process. It raises a host of logistical questions:

* Redistricting: The boundary lines in which Dallas school board members are elected would have to shift if Wilmer-Hutchins is merged. That could particularly affect southern-sector trustees like Mr. Price and Ms. Bingham.

* Debt: Wilmer-Hutchins hopes to pay off its roughly $9 million in debts over the next year. Dr. Hinojosa promised that all debt would be paid off before a potential merger next summer. But Lancaster officials earlier said that up to $1.5 million might be left over when it’s time to merge.

* School ratings: Dr. Hinojosa said the TEA has assured him that poor test scores from transferred Wilmer-Hutchins students would not count against Dallas’ accountability ratings for at least one year. That could be extended for an additional two years, he said.

Dr. Hinojosa said he would ask the board to make a decision about July 20.

Eight of Dallas’ nine board members were present Thursday night. The only exception was Lew Blackburn, who in addition to being a Dallas trustee is also a Wilmer-Hutchins employee. Dallas officials said he will not be allowed to vote on any matters relating to Wilmer-Hutchins.

W-H’s fate in DISD’s hands; Trustees to discuss whether to take in ailing district’s students

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

Having been spurned in its first attempt at courtship, the Wilmer-Hutchins school district now turns to Dallas.

Dallas Independent School District trustees are to meet today to discuss taking over the job of educating Wilmer-Hutchins’ 2,700 students – either for the next school year or permanently.

“I openly welcome the children of Wilmer-Hutchins into the district,” said Dallas trustee Nancy Bingham, who represents an area bordering Wilmer-Hutchins’ boundaries. “But I don’t want it to be a temporary fix. These children deserve stability.”

Wilmer-Hutchins’ extensive financial problems have left it so deep in debt that officials say it cannot open for classes in the fall. Last week, the district’s state-appointed board of managers voted to hand Wilmer-Hutchins students off for the next school year to another district, where they can receive a better education than Wilmer-Hutchins can provide.

But on Friday, their top choice – Lancaster schools – said no thanks. The school board there voted 4-3 not to accept the job of managing Wilmer-Hutchins’ schools, even though it could have meant a financial gain for Lancaster.

Dallas, with nearly 160,000 students, would be in a much stronger position to absorb Wilmer-Hutchins than the much smaller Lancaster.

Dallas officials initially said they would take Wilmer-Hutchins students only if they could bus them to 12 existing Dallas schools. That created resistance among Wilmer-Hutchins residents who said they want to keep students close to home. But in recent days, several Dallas trustees have said they would be willing to reconsider that stance.

“I’m hoping the district would do what it can to assist in whatever way Wilmer-Hutchins might need,” said Dallas trustee Lew Blackburn. Dr. Blackburn is in the stickiest position of any Dallas board member because his day job is being Wilmer-Hutchins’ human resources director. If the two districts merge, he would have to give up either his board seat or his source of income.

Dallas school district spokesman Donald Claxton said the board is not expected to make a final decision tonight. Another meeting would have to be called for that, perhaps next week.

“This meeting is to put information on the table, hear the reactions of the trustees and find out what questions they want us to answer,” he said.

But continued delays – the merger with Lancaster was supposed to be wrapped up more than a week ago – are making the transition more difficult. New Dallas teachers are due to report for training in less than three weeks. Classes start Aug. 15.

“It’s incredibly unsettling for parents and students who don’t know where they’ll attend next year,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, who said time is running out for important repairs to dilapidated Wilmer-Hutchins buildings.

Mr. Claxton said that because of the delays, it’s likely that Dallas would keep Wilmer-Hutchins students in those crumbling schools this year because there wouldn’t be time to move them to Dallas schools before school starts.

One remaining wildcard is the state’s education commissioner, Shirley Neeley. Sometime in the next few days, she is expected to officially receive Wilmer-Hutchins’ test scores from this spring, which will be among the worst the state has seen in years. When that happens, she will gain the legal authority to merge Wilmer-Hutchins with one of its neighbors unilaterally. Such a merger would take effect in July 2006 – and officially end Wilmer-Hutchins’ hopes of reopening the district.

“It all still hinges on what the commissioner wants to do,” Mr. Claxton said.

Dr. Neeley would not have the power to affect where students go for the upcoming school year. But if she orders a merger for 2006, the districts involved could choose to move up the wedding date on their own.

Public opposition to a merger in Lancaster was strong, ultimately derailing the efforts of Lancaster Superintendent Larry Lewis to bring the districts together. But TEA officials said they did not expect as many difficulties from Dallas.

“I haven’t talked to all the board members, but I’m thinking they would try to help,” Dr. Blackburn said.

But what happens if DISD says no? It’s unclear. Wilmer-Hutchins simply won’t have the money to open its doors this fall. And Ferris schools, the district’s only other contiguous neighbor, has not expressed interest, Ms. Ratcliffe said.

One option being floated around TEA headquarters: asking a charter school to take over district operations.

“We don’t have a lot of history to go on here,” Ms. Ratcliffe said. “State law just doesn’t anticipate everything going wrong in a district at the same time. This is unique.”