W-H bond issue sparks fierce debate; Backers cite new-school needs; foes say district would squander funds

By Herb Booth and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

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A booming bass reverberated through the warm breeze: “Young man, vote for the Wilmer-Hutchins school district bond election.”

The voice emanated from a speaker attached to the top of a 1989 Ford Escort. Elijah McGrew, a parent in the beleaguered school district, is taking matters into his own hands and campaigning “the way we used to get the word out in the old days.”

Despite the latest fixes Wilmer-Hutchins officials have gotten themselves into – missed payroll, questionable loans, uninhabitable high school, law enforcement investigations – Mr. McGrew supports giving them permission to borrow $68 million for construction.

The district’s bond plan, set to go before voters Sept. 18, calls for an overhaul of nearly all the school buildings.

Two years ago, auditors said most of the school structures should be abandoned and razed.

“It’s very important to get the bond package passed,” Mr. McGrew said. “My interest is in the kids. Obviously, there are other issues. They’ll find out where the blame belongs and settle it. But we need these new schools for the kids.”

Lionel Churchill, leader and treasurer of a group called Wilmer-Hutchins ISD Concerned Citizens, says district leaders have proved unworthy of such trust.

“We’re not going to give this administration any more money to waste,” Mr. Churchill said. “If this group of people gets their hands on $68 million, you can kiss it goodbye.”

The bond proposal calls for construction of three new elementary schools, demolition of one campus, expansion of one campus and renovation of three others.

In 2002, Wilmer-Hutchins paid the Texas Association of School Administrators for a facilities study that offered plenty of evidence supporting the need. The report deemed many of the facilities unusable.

The high school building, which has not yet opened this school year because of maintenance problems stemming from a leaky roof, was judged the only structure worth saving.

School board President Luther Edwards said the bond proposal is an attempt to address concerns raised in the study.

“We applied for the state facilities allotment grant, but we were denied twice,” Mr. Edwards said. “We had no other recourse but to ask for the bond election.”

Except for the high school, built in 1982, Wilmer-Hutchins’ facilities are older than many district parents, even grandparents. Hutchins Elementary was built in 1902.

For the last several weeks, it has served as one of four campuses where high school students are attending.

‘False allegations’

Mr. Edwards said he hopes voters can see through all the recent bad headlines – he has repeatedly said they are fed by “false allegations” – to see students’ needs.

“God’s people know the truth,” Mr. Edwards said. “They know who’s stirring up the false allegations that have plagued this district and community. … They’ll see through the lies and negative things the media have put out there.”

Besides the leaky roof and delay of school for high school students, Wilmer-Hutchins is under scrutiny from the Texas Education Agency, the state Health Department, a grand jury and the Texas Rangers.

Two-thirds of employees were not paid recently because the district’s coffers were empty. The district’s top financial officer, Phillip Roberson, said in court that Wilmer-Hutchins is “pretty much broke.”

The district’s financial management is a rallying cry for the Concerned Citizens.

Mr. Churchill, one of Wilmer-Hutchins’ first black board members in the 1970s, got politically active after moving back to the district in 2001.

He said the current leaders – “a bunch of dishonest people,” he says – have shown they can’t handle the money.

“We have no personal animosity towards anyone – not even towards Superintendent Charles Matthews, as bad as he’s been,” Mr. Churchill said. “But you don’t want to keep getting bitten by the same problems. We need to come face to face with reality.”

At a meeting last week in a South Dallas community center, residents discussed strategies for defeating the bond proposal. The gathering had the feel of a nascent grass-roots political movement. About 15 people sat on metal folding chairs, divided stacks of brochures and discussed tactics for monitoring polling places on election day.

“If we can get a group of people who were educated in this district, who care about this district, to run for school board, we can change things,” said Donnie Foxx, who is considering a run next year. “We need to come together as a community.”

Increasing turnout

Group members said one goal is to increase voter turnout, typically paltry in Wilmer-Hutchins. Fewer than 400 people cast ballots in May’s school board elections.

“Tell your friends there’s no excuse not to vote,” Mr. Churchill said.

Beyond the bond election, Mr. Churchill’s group has another plan for repairing the district’s ills. He supports a petition campaign to dissolve the district entirely, merging it into Dallas ISD. But that effort takes a backseat to the bond election.

“I’m getting out of this district some kind of way,” said Bernice Marshall, a 42-year district resident, “even if I have to crawl.”