Column: TAKS push not so equal

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

Sometimes it takes an outsider.

Something you’ve seen a thousand times may seem as normal as heat in a Texas summer – until someone new stops in and points out just how wrong it is.

That’s how I felt when I read an academic paper by Jennifer Booher-Jennings, a grad student at Columbia. She spent months observing how a Texas elementary school prepared for the TAKS test. (She promised not to reveal its identity in exchange for the access.)

Her paper didn’t tell me much I hadn’t seen repeatedly across the state. But I’d never really stopped to think through the damage well-meaning educators can cause in pursuit of a high passing rate and a good school rating.

Here’s how it worked at the school she watched. In the fall, teachers gave students a sample TAKS test. Based on the results, students were divided into three groups: passers at the top, remedial kids at the bottom and bubble kids in between.

The bubble kids are the ones whose scores put them just below the state’s passing standards. (That varies from grade to grade, but kids generally have to get 65 to 70 percent of questions right to pass the TAKS.) The bubble kids are the ones who, with a coordinated effort, can be pushed over the passing bar. And pushing kids over that bar is everything in Texas.

So how did the educators at this particular school react?

By pouring all the resources they could into the bubble kids.

The bubble kids get special sessions with the school’s reading specialist. The bubble kids get after-school and Saturday tutoring. The bubble kids get small-group attention in class. The bubble kids get extra reading time with librarians and the P.E. teacher.

All that’s great if you’re a bubble kid. That extra time and attention works – those kids usually end up passing TAKS.

But what if you’re one of the “remedial” kids – everyone below the bubble?

You get the shaft.

Teachers aren’t stupid. They realize they’re going to be judged on how many of their kids pass – not how much improvement they can squeeze out of their weakest kids. So they go after the low-hanging fruit: the bubble kids.

Here are some direct quotes from the teachers Ms. Booher-Jennings interviewed:

“I guess there’s supposed to be remediation for anything below [a TAKS score of] 55. But you have to figure out who to focus on in class, and I definitely focus more attention on the bubble kids.”

“If you look at her score [pointing at one student’s score], she’s got a 25 percent. What’s the point in trying to get her to grade level? It would take two years to get her to pass the test, so there’s really no hope for her.”

“If you have a kid who is getting a 22, even if they improve to a 40, they won’t be close. But if you have a kid with a 60, well, they’re in shooting range. … Some kids are always going to be left behind, especially in this district, when we have the emphasis on the bubble kids.”

As one teacher said of the remedial kids: “It’s really a lost cause. They must have fallen through the cracks somehow.”

These are third-graders we’re talking about. These kids are getting written off as hopeless cases before they turn 9.

Ms. Booher-Jennings only visited one school. But I’ve talked to dozens of teachers who do some version of the same practice.

Principals call it being “data-driven.” I call it an excuse to ignore the weak.

But it isn’t just the weakest students who lose in this system. Bright kids, the ones schools know are going to pass, don’t get much attention either. Neither do the special education kids whose scores don’t count against the school, or the kids who transfer into a school after October and aren’t counted for ratings either.

Here’s the criminal thing about focusing so much attention on the bubble kids: All it does is make the adults look better.

It makes teachers look better when their classroom’s passing rates are posted in the teacher’s lounge. It makes principals look better when they get called to a meeting in the central office.

It makes superintendents look better when test scores get published in the newspaper. And it makes legislators look good when the statewide passing rate marches up every year.

But does it help children when teachers are willing to pour hours into turning a 64 into a 71 – but consider moving a kid from a 31 to a 59 not worth the effort?

It’s the precise opposite of “no child left behind.”

I hope every TAKS-giving teacher reading this asks herself a simple question: Is there anything I do for bubble kids that I don’t do for weaker kids? And if the answer is yes: How can I justify that?

The final irony in Ms. Booher-Jennings’ paper comes from one constant among almost all of the teachers she interviewed. They always complained about their colleagues in earlier grades.

Those other teachers didn’t do enough to prepare these kids when they had them, the teachers argued. Now these hopeless cases are going to lower my passing rate.

Gee, I wonder how those kids on the bottom got there? Perhaps if they’d gotten the same attention the bubble kids had, their futures wouldn’t seem quite so hopeless.

Funds misspent, school audit finds; Money for kids used for love seat, locksmith

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

A baritone horn from a pawnshop. A $7,700 set of murals. A pizza crisper, cookie-dough scoops, and a Queen Anne love seat for the principal’s office.

According to state auditors, those are some of the ways Wilmer-Hutchins officials spent more than $270,000 in federal education funds – money that was supposed to pay for reading and math instruction for the district’s weakest students.

In addition, the audit found that Wilmer-Hutchins officials defrauded state taxpayers of about $185,000 by overstating the number of students they were instructing.

It also found evidence of gross misspending on things like computers and TV sets – all at a time when district officials complained the state was not giving them enough money to operate schools.

“I wish there was a way that these people could receive an indictment for each child in this district,” said former board member Joan Bonner, who was a frequent critic of Wilmer-Hutchins’ administration during the 2003-04 school year, the period the Texas Education Agency audit examined.

“There are 2,700 students they hurt, and they should be punished for each one.”

Eugene Young, who took over as the district’s state-appointed superintendent in June, said this week that the district did not dispute the findings or the $455,000 it now must repay state and federal governments. “We owe the money, and it will be paid,” he said.

The biggest problems outlined in the audit related to the improper spending of three pools of federal funding: Title I money, which is aimed at schools with high concentrations of poor students; school improvement money, which goes to schools that have had low test scores for several consecutive years; and special-education money.

All three types of funds are supposed to be used strictly for academic purposes or, in the case of special-ed dollars, for the purchase of equipment designed for children with disabilities.

Instead, school improvement dollars dedicated to Kennedy-Curry Middle bought several pieces of furniture for the principal’s office: a $422 chair-and-pillow combination, a $1,094 bookcase and a $509 Queen Anne love seat.

Money from that fund also bought a $1,155 custom-made mat for the school’s entry, $958 worth of furniture for the teacher’s lounge, and a $2,029 keyboard for playing music in the school gym. In all, nearly $54,000 was spent improperly at Kennedy-Curry, according to the audit report.

Special-ed funds were used to pay an electrician working at Wilmer-Hutchins High and to buy a software package the district didn’t have any computers capable of running.

The Title I money went to a range of kitchen, athletic and construction equipment, including basketballs, trumpets, spatulas, serving tongs, Sheetrock and caulk. More than $600 went to a locksmith who changed locks on classrooms.

District personnel told audit investigators they were sometimes told to alter the books to shift the funding source for items from the general fund to the federal money “because there were insufficient funds available in the general fund.” By the end of the 2003-04 school year, Wilmer-Hutchins was completely broke, unable to pay its bills on time for the opening of school last fall.

“It’s this kind of activity that led them to financial collapse,” TEA spokesman Suzanne Marchman said.

Wilmer-Hutchins didn’t have enough money to open its doors this fall; its students are bused to Dallas each morning.

The improper use of federal funds could put district personnel in trouble with federal authorities. Last September, a team of FBI agents raided the district’s offices – the second such raid in the last decade. No federal charges have been filed in the investigation. An FBI spokeswoman was unavailable for comment.

Ms. Bonner said she hopes officials are indicted and that those who spent educational funds on loveseats and bronze statues will be forced to repay the money themselves.

“I don’t care if they have to sell a kidney, they need to pay this money back,” she said. “We know they don’t have a heart or a brain, but a kidney might be usable.”

The faked attendance data has been suspected since an inquiry began last fall. The audit found that that district officials intentionally inflated the number of students in attendance every day as a way to get the district more state money than it deserved.

Auditors found that teachers were specifically told not to mark students absent even if they stayed home. Even when teachers did mark a child absent, office personnel sometimes changed that marking before forwarding.

Texas public schools are funded based on how many students they enroll and how many days those students actually attend. If a student skips school, the campus doesn’t receive money for the absence. Auditors say the fraudulent reporting led to Wilmer-Hutchins receiving $185,000 in state tax dollars it did not deserve.

The alleged tampering led to the indictment of the district’s former superintendent, Charles Matthews, in March. The charge is a second-degree felony carrying a potential sentence of 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Dr. Matthews, through his attorney, has denied the charges.

In 2003-04, the year of the alleged fraud, Wilmer-Hutchins’ attendance rate was 95.4 percent, up almost two percentage points from the year before. But it’s possible even the earlier year’s data may have problems. In 2002-03, Wilmer-Hutchins had the largest increase in its attendance rate of any independent school district in Texas.

Dr. Matthews had a personal financial incentive to boost attendance rates.

According to his employment contract, he would have received a bonus of nearly $9,000 if every school in the district reported an attendance rate of 95 percent or better. In 2003-04, seven of the district’s 10 campuses met that level.

One obvious sign of the attendance fraud, according to auditors: All the seniors at Wilmer-Hutchins High School were still marked present for three days after graduation, even though no senior classes were held.

The audit also found several other problems:

*The district did a poor job tracking its equipment.

It spent $1,953 on handheld computers that never arrived. It bought a number of new TVs in 2004 despite having 19 new sets sitting untouched, still in their boxes, in a storage room.

*The district had no tracking system for most of its equipment – including 20 laptop computers that were stolen, allegedly by an employee. Auditors found several former employees who still possessed district equipment.

*Wilmer-Hutchins did not track the travel costs of its employees or board members.

On several occasions, employees and board members were given advance checks for travel expenses but not required to show receipts to prove the money had been spent on district business.

W-H board OKs bond plan, tax-rate vote; Action comes despite collapse of district, lack of students

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 4B

Wilmer-Hutchins officials on Tuesday approved a $74 million bond program and a new tax election – despite having no students and a state-imposed death sentence looming.

And at least one official plans to ask the federal government to, in effect, give it a stay of execution.

“If we are actually trying to save the district, we need to act quickly,” board member Donnie Foxx said.

The state-appointed board’s unusual decisions came during a three-hour meeting which, for long stretches, seemed to ignore the fact that state education Commissioner Shirley Neeley – tired of decades of corruption and mismanagement – had announced Sept. 2 that she is shutting the district down.

The only step standing in the way of that order becoming official is approval from the Justice Department, which must evaluate whether the closure impacts voting rights. If the Justice Department approves the deal, Wilmer-Hutchins will cease to be on July 1. All Wilmer-Hutchins students have already been bused to schools in Dallas, which took them in when Wilmer-Hutchins couldn’t afford to operate school this fall.

Nonetheless, the board members discussed plans for the largest construction program in the district’s history, including the construction of three schools and a renovation of the district’s high school.

They also approved asking voters to increase the district’s property-tax rate from 90 cents per $100 of assessed value to $1.50.

In both cases, Mr. Foxx, board President Albert Black and Saundra King voted to approve the elections. Michelle Willhelm and Sandra Donato voted no.

“This is extremely premature,” Ms. Willhelm said. “We don’t even know what we’re planning to do with the money.”

The district did not set a date for the election but indicated it would probably be in December or early 2006. Wilmer-Hutchins voters have resoundingly rejected a bond issue and a higher tax rate in the past year.

Mr. Foxx said he wanted the district to formally ask the Justice Department to delay a ruling on Dr. Neeley’s request until after the tax and bond elections. It is unclear whether the Justice Department would agree to such a request.

Dr. Neeley gained legal authority to dissolve the district after it reported a second consecutive year of abysmal academic performance. That performance was hidden in 2004 by widespread teacher-led cheating on state tests. But in 2005, the district’s scores were among the worst in the state.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board also accepted its outside audit of finances for the 2003-04 school year – more than a year late.

The accounting firm of Frazier Gills completed the audit. That firm had previously been the district’s auditor, but it was fired after state and local officials criticized its inability to uncover what ended up being the financial collapse of the district.

Wilmer-Hutchins officials have spent the last several months trying to find another firm to complete the audit, which is mandatory for certain types of federal funding. But the district could not find any other firm willing to touch it, leading to Frazier Gills’ rehiring.

Wilmer-Hutchins maintains sliver of hope; Board of troubled district might seek tax hike to build schools

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 4B

Wilmer-Hutchins isn’t quite dead yet.

At its meeting tonight, the district’s board of managers will consider asking voters to raise their taxes and spend millions on building new schools.

That’s despite the fact that state officials have announced their intention to drive the school district out of legal existence by this time next year. Not to mention the fact that the district currently doesn’t have any students.

“I was surprised to see that on the agenda,” board member Michelle Willhelm said. “But we do have to be prepared for the future.”

Wilmer-Hutchins’ series of problems – academic and financial – led to the district being unable to open its doors this fall. Wilmer-Hutchins students are instead being bused to schools in the Dallas district.

On Sept. 2, state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley announced that Wilmer-Hutchins’ decades of underperformance and scandal had gone on too long, and she invoked a rarely used power to dissolve the district altogether, effective July 1.

But that decree must be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice, which generally must approve governmental changes that could affect voting rights. Although federal officials have approved the state’s two previous sanctions against Wilmer-Hutchins, a formal ruling could be several weeks away.

In the meantime, the board is proceeding in the belief that Wilmer-Hutchins will be around for the long term.

On tonight’s agenda are nearly a dozen items related to a new construction program and a bond package that would fund it. Such a bond issue would have to be approved by voters. The agenda also includes consideration of a separate tax election that would raise the maximum property tax rate from 90 cents per $100 of assessed value to $1.50.

Wilmer-Hutchins voters have rejected the district’s last two attempts to seek more cash, both by wide margins.

But those elections came when the district’s unpopular elected school board was in office. Dr. Neeley removed the board in May and replaced it with her own appointees. Several district residents have said they would reconsider their past votes if it meant keeping an independent Wilmer-Hutchins.

“The emotional attachment is so strong,” Ms. Willhelm said.

She said she would consider approving new elections, but only if the Justice Department rejects the district’s dissolution. “We have to be ready to react no matter what Justice does,” she said. “We would be negligent if we were not prepared for that eventuality.”

The district could run into a timing problem. It’s already too late for the district to put either issue on the November ballot.

Ms. Willhelm said that, if an election goes forward, she hopes it would be held relatively soon so the district could have time to plan the 2006-07 school year if voters approve more funding. She said waiting until May, the next major scheduled election date, would be too long.

But a new Texas law, approved by the Legislature this year, appears to eliminate the possibility of an earlier vote. House Bill 57 removed school districts’ power to call special elections for bond packages. That means the soonest Wilmer-Hutchins could ask voters for more money is in eight months.

“They’re stuck on May,” Dallas County elections administrator Bruce Sherbet said. “They don’t have a choice.”

If the Justice Department approves Wilmer-Hutchins’ demise after an election is called, the district could easily rescind its order, Mr. Sherbet said.

Poor scores for urban schools; Jonathan Kozol finds segregation persists, shortchanging kids

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 12G

Jonathan Kozol knows full well that “apartheid” is a loaded word.

It may literally mean “separateness” in Afrikaans, but it implies much more: a total governmental separation of the races, based on violence or the threat of violence.

Which is why Mr. Kozol’s use of the word in the title of his new book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, is purposefully provocative. The laws that once sent black kids to one school and white kids to another have been gone for decades. But schools are nearly as segregated today as they were 30 years ago, as white parents have moved to the suburbs and minorities have remained in central cities.

Mr. Kozol argues that separateness is, by itself, a problem. Black and Hispanic kids feel abandoned by society when they’re put in schools with only a smattering of white faces, he says. Segregation is a problem whether it’s mandated by law or a result of housing patterns.

His case will be unconvincing to many, since the sort of busing programs necessary to realign racial boundaries have proved unpopular among whites and minorities.

But he moves to stronger ground when he points out the yawning gaps between white and minority schools. The biggest is funding. Across America, it’s not uncommon for wealthy suburban districts to spend 50 or 100 percent more per pupil than poor urban districts. For minority kids, that often turns into larger classes, less experienced teachers and crumbling facilities.

(Texas is something of an exception here. The Robin Hood wealth-sharing mechanism, mandated by the state Supreme Court, creates one of the nation’s more equitable systems. But Robin Hood regularly comes under attack from suburbanites who want a wider funding gap between rich and poor. Mr. Kozol is merciless with wealthy parents who argue that more funding won’t help poor schools while sending their children to $20,000-a-year private schools.)

But Mr. Kozol smartly goes beyond the finances to the tonal differences that show up in various schools. Urban schools, worried about discipline and the basic skills that raise test scores, often impose a martial-law atmosphere, enforcing silence all day long and teaching math and vocabulary with drill-sergeant precision. It’s a far cry from the holistic approach many suburban schools offer, and Mr. Kozol argues it can drain away kids’ interest in learning.

Mr. Kozol’s argument is, on the surface, idealistic: That we should all live life together, crossing racial lines. But at its core, it’s pure political pragmatism. Unless the kids of the powerful are in the same classrooms as the kids of the poor, it’ll be difficult to rally support for the kinds of changes Mr. Kozol wants. As long as suburban schools are fine, abandoning the central city will always be alarmingly easy.

Baylor extends search for president; Interim leader removes his candidacy, delaying vote at regents’ meeting

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 7A

Baylor University’s interim president has withdrawn his name from consideration for the permanent job. That delays the university’s efforts to fill its top spot and find a unifying leader for a divided campus.

“Hopefully, one of these days we’ll bring you a permanent president,” Will Davis, chairman of Baylor’s Board of Regents, said after a regents meeting Friday. “We’ll be able to get a candidate that will coalesce all of the Baylor family. When, I don’t know.”

The board had been expected to vote Friday on a recommendation from its presidential search committee. William Underwood, interim president since April, was rumored to be one of the two top candidates for the position, along with Linda Livingstone, the dean of the business school at Pepperdine University in California. Dr. Livingstone is a former associate dean of Baylor’s business school.

But Mr. Davis said Mr. Underwood’s withdrawal “changed the dynamics” and led the regents to extend the search.

The Baylor community has been sharply divided in recent years, primarily between supporters and opponents of former President Robert Sloan. Dr. Sloan resigned in January after a scandal in the school’s basketball program, controversy over Dr. Sloan’s 10-year vision for the school and a series of no-confidence votes by the Faculty Senate. He is now the university’s chancellor, a largely honorary title.

Mr. Underwood, a law school professor, had served on the internal committee investigating the basketball program and is supported by many Sloan opponents. Shortly after taking office, Mr. Underwood angered Sloan supporters by removing Provost David Jeffrey and other top administrators.

Mr. Underwood said Friday he has never wanted the permanent post. But he said his ability to be an effective interim president was being compromised by his continuing candidacy.

“Every time you do something, people wonder if you’re doing it to further your own interests or whether you’re doing it to further the interests of the university,” he said. “My being a candidate for the permanent job would be unnecessarily divisive.”

Mr. Davis declined to confirm that Mr. Underwood and Dr. Livingstone had been the leading candidates for the job. He said the search committee would continue its work. “We have no timetable,” he said.

Wilmer-Hutchins High set to house evacuees; Superintendent says area near gym is in acceptable condition

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 8B

Wilmer-Hutchins has lost its students, but that doesn’t mean its schools will sit empty.

Some evacuees from Hurricane Katrina will be moved to the district’s high school in southern Dallas, according to Superintendent Eugene Young.

The school would normally be housing students this time of year, but a series of scandals has shut down the district and sent its children to schools in the Dallas district.

“The building is available, and we were willing to help,” Mr. Young said.

Lew Blackburn, the district’s human resources director, said the district had received calls from the Red Cross and a number of church groups seeking to use the space. He said that Wilmer-Hutchins High could hold 200 to 300 people and that shower facilities in the school’s locker rooms made it an attractive location.

The high school’s physical condition has been a sticky issue. A year ago, storm damage and a slow response by district officials left the building unable to open for the first month of school.

In July, Dallas school officials inspected the campus in hopes of using it for this school year. They said it was in such bad shape that it could not be renovated in time for the start of school.

“I don’t see how, if that space was not a good place for the students to attend seven or eight hours a day, it could be good enough for hurricane victims,” said Gilbert Gonzales, a former Wilmer-Hutchins truancy officer whom district officials asked to help clean up the school for Katrina victims. “There are still leaks in the roof. How can you put people in there?”

But Mr. Young said the part of the school that will be used by Katrina victims, near the gym, is in acceptable shape. Dr. Blackburn said county health and fire inspectors would examine the building before evacuees move in, which could be in a few days.

“We have to clean it up first,” he said.

State education commissioner Shirley Neeley announced last week that she would dissolve Wilmer-Hutchins next summer and merge its territory into the Dallas school district. That move awaits federal approval.

State to dissolve W-H district; Merger with DISD needs OK from Justice Department

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

The Wilmer-Hutchins school district is being put out of its misery.

State Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley announced Friday that the long-troubled district will cease to exist July 1. Its boundaries will be merged into the Dallas school district – which is already educating Wilmer-Hutchins’ students, since Wilmer-Hutchins can’t afford to.

The commissioner’s move – which awaits federal approval – closes one of the most traumatic chapters that a Texas school district has faced. The district saw two indictments of its superintendent, the forced ouster of its school board, a widespread cheating scandal and a complete financial collapse.

“I think it’s the most humane decision for the kids,” said Eugene Young, the man that Dr. Neeley named the district’s superintendent in May.

The commissioner’s decision also turns the page on the nearly 80-year history of one of Texas’ few majority-black districts. Wilmer-Hutchins has been battered by scandal, mismanagement and corruption charges for decades.

“How can you have an entire community without a school?” asked Joan Bonner, a former school board member and mother of a high school senior. “We have three jails, but we don’t have a school?”

Of all Wilmer-Hutchins’ problems, it was the cheating scandal that proved fatal. Last fall, a series of stories in The Dallas Morning News reported strong evidence that teachers in the district’s elementary schools were helping students cheat on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Those stories prompted a state investigation, which found evidence that two-thirds of the district’s elementary teachers were helping students cheat.

Those findings led Dr. Neeley to lower the district’s state rating to academically unacceptable, the state’s lowest. It also led her to order a team of test monitors to prevent cheating last spring. Wilmer-Hutchins’ passing rates plummeted – in some cases by more than 50 percentage points.

That led to a second year of “unacceptable” status. Under state law, the commissioner has authority to shut down a district only after it is rated unacceptable for two straight years.

But changes would have been coming even without the cheating, because of Wilmer-Hutchins’ financial crisis. It was twice unable to meet monthly payroll in the last 12 months, and teachers received July and August paychecks only after the TEA agreed to an unusual $3 million emergency loan. It owes about $2.8 million to Wells Fargo, which has sued to recover it.

And because of a decision by voters in May, Wilmer-Hutchins could only charge a tax rate of 90 cents per $100 of assessed property value. That’s well below the $1.50 that nearly every other district in North Texas charges.

The result was that Wilmer-Hutchins had no way to open school this fall and offer something close to an acceptable education. The state-appointed team running the district began searching another district to take its children for the next year.

Lancaster backs out

Initially, Lancaster officials seemed ready to accept them and educate them in Wilmer-Hutchins campuses. But a group of Wilmer-Hutchins residents objected to the merger, believing their district could be kept alive. In the end, Lancaster trustees voted it down.

“Lancaster didn’t turn down our kids – they turned down our adults,” said Mr. Young, whose district’s employment has dropped from 406 to 11 in the last year.

Wilmer-Hutchins officials then turned to Dallas. Dallas agreed, but on the condition that all Wilmer-Hutchins students would be bused to Dallas campuses. Those 2,700 students are going to nearly 40 schools in southern Dallas.

“Some parts of the community said we should fight to keep everything,” Mr. Young said. “They fought to keep everything, and they ended up with nothing.”

State officials have effectively been in control of the district since November, when a state management team was appointed. In May, the elected school board – which state officials considered an obstacle to progress – was thrown out of office and replaced with state appointees.

But some residents argue that state officials were uninterested in saving Wilmer-Hutchins and are happy to see it go. “They haven’t given us a chance,” Ms. Bonner said, noting that Texas Education Agency officials had approved a plan this summer that could revive the district if a number of financial and academic hurdles were met.

She and others pointed to an incident in June in which the state-appointed board wanted to ask voters for a tax increase that would have strengthened the district’s finances. State officials asked them not to put it before voters, even though many residents believed it would have passed.

But Mr. Young said the district’s problems were just too great to overcome. “The kids are going to be fine” in Dallas, he said. “It’s the adults who can’t let it go sometimes.”

The biggest complaint of Wilmer-Hutchins residents has been about the distance they must travel to schools in Dallas. Some, particularly in the city of Wilmer, must be bused more than 20 miles.

Donald Claxton, the Dallas schools spokesman, said the district could consider renovating some of the old Wilmer-Hutchins schools or building new ones as part of a future bond package. “That’s something we’d have to look at long term and discuss with trustees,” he said.

Opponents of the district’s deposed leadership welcomed the commissioner’s decision, saying Wilmer-Hutchins had been too dysfunctional for too long.

“This is excellent news,” said Lionel Churchill, a Wilmer-Hutchins board member in the 1970s. “This allows everyone to focus on the future and start planning and settling down.”

A troubled history

Wilmer-Hutchins has been the target of more state interventions than any other district and arguably more investigations by law enforcement than any other district its size.

Dr. Neeley’s decision must still be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice, which must determine whether the decision negatively affects the voting rights of Wilmer-Hutchins residents.

Mr. Churchill said the need for Justice Department approval might be one reason why Dr. Neeley gave the entire district to Dallas, rather than shaving off the southern sector for absorption into neighboring Ferris schools. Those southern areas have larger white and Hispanic populations than the rest of Wilmer-Hutchins, which could have raised race discrimination issues for federal officials.

The merger will become official July 1. At that point, all assets of Wilmer-Hutchins will become the property of Dallas – including the 10 school campuses, all in varying states of disrepair and all declared unusable by officials.

Some of those campuses may have to be sold to pay some of the district’s bills, Mr. Young said. That would help lower the district’s debt – a boon to Dallas, because any debts remaining by July also will become Dallas’ problem.

A new twist on transfers; Districts waiving admission rules for displaced children

By Joshua Benton and Toya Lynn Stewart
Staff Writer

Page 1B

Sunday morning, when Demetrice Nora fled New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward with her family, she only packed clothes for a few days.

But on Wednesday – seeing the destruction back home – she enrolled her daughters at Larson Elementary in Grand Prairie. It’s the first step toward a permanent relocation, she said.

“My main priority is to focus on my kids and getting them stable,” Ms. Nora said of daughters Kinyatta and Gilda. “I don’t want them to miss too much school.”

Among the hundreds of thousands who’ve fled New Orleans, there’s a growing recognition that they won’t be heading back home anytime soon. For those who’ve arrived in Texas, that means finding a school for their children.

As with most things about Hurricane Katrina, officials don’t know all the details – like how many new students have already enrolled, or how many more will come. But state officials expect the number to be in the thousands.

“We’re just trying to get them in school as fast as we can,” said Toni Gallego, homeless liaison for the Irving schools, which had received enrollment inquiries from more than a dozen families.

Dallas school officials expect hundreds of new students. The district, like many others in the area, is waiving some of the traditional requirements for new students – like immunization records and transcripts – to enroll them faster. Those records “are either underwater or the school’s gone,” Dallas spokesman Donald Claxton said.

The district plans to set up shop at the Reunion Arena refugee center Friday to help students figure out what schools they should be attending.

Most large school districts in North Texas, including Mesquite, Richardson, Garland, Carrollton-Farmers Branch and Carroll, reported taking in students from Louisiana. Most said they would take students immediately.

Other districts, such as Plano, either asked students to stay away until next week, or said they would be enrolled only if space is available, as was the case with elementary-age students in Highland Park.

Arlington schools have already enrolled almost 30 new students, district officials said, and more are on the way. Nelva Hardin, a coordinator for the district’s Families in Transition program, said one woman with whom she spoke had 40 people living in her house, including several school-aged children.

“Those poor kiddos have been displaced and their emotional needs should be first,” said Susan Timms, principal at Miller Elementary in Arlington, where five new students enrolled Wednesday.

Terragon Smith had already planned to relocate his family from New Orleans to Cedar Hill in about a month. Katrina sped the family’s move. But their belongings stayed behind.

“I don’t know what’s left there, and it’s not like I can go back and get what’s left,” Mr. Smith said. “I have the most important parts of my life here – my wife, kids and my family.”

On Tuesday, he enrolled fifth-grader Saliq and second-grader Tariq at a Cedar Hill elementary school. The boys start school today.

The biggest impacts are likely to be in Houston. Its relative closeness to the state line meant it was already home to many people fleeing storm damage. And Louisiana officials announced Wednesday they would transport all those stranded in the Superdome to Houston’s Astrodome – bringing another influx of thousands of children.

A half-dozen students showed up in the small Port Neches-Groves school district in southeast Texas on Wednesday, and district officials expect that number to climb in the coming days. Port Neches has some of the strongest Louisiana ties of any Texas city. Large numbers of Cajuns, chasing refinery jobs, moved to Port Neches and the surrounding Golden Triangle area in the mid-1900s.

“There’s no one I know here who doesn’t have kinfolk in Louisiana,” Superintendent Lani Randall said.

State officials did their part to welcome the students Wednesday, informing superintendents that they could enroll most under federal regulations for homeless students. That means they will automatically be eligible for free school lunches. Students will not have to provide proof of residency in the school district to attend classes.

In most districts, the cost of educating the new students will be funded through a small bump in state money. As with other children, schools will be reimbursed based on how long students remain enrolled.

Some schools will get more textbooks to supply the newcomers, and in some cases they will be able to exceed state class-size limits.

The displaced students come in all sorts. Many fleeing New Orleans were poor and lost all their belongings in the storm.

On the other end of the spectrum is Morris Hyman, a New Orleans attorney staying with relatives in Richardson. His two children, 11th-grader Elizabeth and seventh-grader Ben, have attended the private Isidore Newman School since kindergarten. Now they’re trying to find new schools – for a few weeks or a few months.

Since she was already in the area, Elizabeth toured Southern Methodist University on Monday. In her tour group were five other New Orleans natives, all in the same boat.

“It’s going to be pretty strange being around all new people,” Elizabeth said Wednesday, an hour after visiting Lake Highlands High for the first time. She liked it.

Back in New Orleans, she was in the school chorus and did theater. At Lake Highlands, she’ll be able to join the chorus, but she said it’s probably too late to join the cast of the first school play. But there will be more plays.

“I think I’d like to do the musical this winter,” she said. “If I’m still here.”

Staff writers Katherine Leal Unmuth, Laurie Fox, Tawnell D. Hobbs and Kristen Holland contributed to this story.