W-H can’t cover payroll next week; District hopes to pay workers by the end of the month, is working on a loan

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

The leaders at the top are changing, but the news is familiar: Wilmer-Hutchins will not be meeting payroll this month.

Interim Superintendent James Damm said Wednesday that the district will not have enough funds to pay its employees their monthly paychecks Wednesday. The district is seeking a loan, and it hopes employees will be paid before the end of the month.

“We’re working on a couple of things,” Mr. Damm said.

The district’s principals were told about the problem Wednesday morning and asked to inform their staffs.

Mr. Damm took over last week after Superintendent Charles Matthews was indicted on a felony evidence-tampering charge. On Tuesday, the Texas Education Agency announced it would take charge of the troubled district’s financial affairs by imposing a state management team.

The state intervention is based on the results of a TEA audit, which found significant financial mismanagement.

That audit, in turn, was launched in part because Wilmer-Hutchins ran out of money and couldn’t meet payroll on Aug. 25. Employees spent the next two weeks juggling bills and trying to scrape together money. They were finally paid Sept. 9, after state officials made a previously scheduled payment to the district.

November may not be the last time paychecks are delayed in Wilmer-Hutchins. The district relies on state funds for about 55 percent of its budget, and it has been able to meet payroll this fall in part because the state has made monthly deposits of more than $1 million into district coffers.

But after a final payment Nov. 25, Wilmer-Hutchins is not scheduled to receive any more state foundation school fund money until April. Without an infusion of cash, the district won’t be able to pay employees in December, either.

Making payroll in the first months of 2005 should be less problematic, as local residents begin to pay their annual property taxes.

Meanwhile, one of the figures most closely associated with the district’s financial collapse will soon be returning to office. Mr. Damm said he has brought back the district’s chief financial officer, Phillip Roberson.

Dr. Matthews suspended Dr. Roberson with pay Sept. 17 as the district’s financial operations came under scrutiny from state officials and multiple law enforcement agencies. Over the last several months, as Wilmer-Hutchins’ finances unraveled, Dr. Roberson said several times that he did not know the size of the district’s deficit or where its $1.6 million fund balance went.

Mr. Damm said that if Dr. Roberson was going to be paid his $78,000 salary, he might as well be performing work for the district. “He can pay his way,” Mr. Damm said. “He has a degree of expertise, and I want him to use that.”

Dr. Roberson will no longer be the district’s chief financial officer, however. That title will go to Bill Goodman, a financial consultant for the district since September. Dr. Roberson will retain the title of business director.

The change in Dr. Roberson’s status reduces by one the number of people the district is paying not to work. Dr. Matthews, who is paid $175,000 a year, and indicted maintenance director Wallace Faggett, who is paid $63,500, are both still being paid while suspended because of their legal troubles.

Mr. Damm and Mr. Goodman are both paid substantial daily rates. And the two-person management team announced Tuesday also will be paid by the district at a rate of $480 per day each. That works out to nearly $250,000 per year, although Mr. Damm said he expected the state managers would actually work less than full time.

The district will soon have one other change in its financial arrangements. Wells Fargo, the district’s depository bank, has formally asked the district to sever their relationship. Mr. Damm said the district received the bank’s request earlier this month, and it will take effect after the first of the year.

The district is talking to other banks, seeking a replacement.

Mr. Damm said Wells Fargo provided no reason for its decision, but it comes on the heels of Wilmer-Hutchins’ financial near-collapse over the last few months. “They said, ‘We want out,'” he said. “I can’t say I can blame them.”

State management team on way to run W-H schools; Initial focus likely to be financial, not academic; some call action weak

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

After months of turmoil in Wilmer-Hutchins schools, the state is ready to take over.

Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said Tuesday that she had decided to send a state management team to run the district’s operations.

“We want everyone to have a positive feeling about Wilmer-Hutchins at the end of the school year,” Dr. Neeley said. “The management team will work collaboratively with the district.”

But some critics said the move wasn’t strong enough. Under state law, a management team is limited in the actions it can take, and its initial focus probably will be only the district’s financial state, not its history of academic failure.

The state also imposed a management team in the late 1990s, but that didn’t reverse the district’s problems.

“TEA came in once before, and the minute they left, the same things started all over again,” said board member Joan Bonner, an opponent of the district’s leadership. “I am not impressed.”

Dr. Neeley took the unusual step of announcing the move Tuesday evening after a two-hour meeting in Austin with Wilmer-Hutchins officials. Normally, the TEA announces the creation of a management team by letter, and the team’s members are made public at the same time.

This time, the agency said the members of the management team have not been selected. TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said she hoped they could be announced by week’s end.

“I look forward to working with the agency,” board President Luther Edwards said. “I believe it’s going to be helpful for the children and the community.”

Wilmer-Hutchins has been in financial turmoil since summer, at one point missing payroll and leaving hundreds of teachers without pay for weeks. The district’s facilities are near collapse as well, and its academic record is among the state’s worst. After a Dallas Morning News data analysis found evidence of teachers cheating on state tests, the TEA began a preliminary inquiry.

Wilmer-Hutchins officials are the subject of multiple state and federal criminal corruption investigations. Superintendent Charles Matthews was suspended last week after he was indicted on a charge of tampering with evidence in an investigation, a third-degree felony.

The Wilmer-Hutchins management team will be made up of two administrators. They will have the authority to overrule any decision of the school board, interim Superintendent James Damm or any principal in the district.

Some advocates for reform in the district praised the move.

“I think it’s good news,” said Lionel Churchill, a former board member who is leading a petition drive to have the district dissolved. “The only thing that can help this district is outside help. I hope they do a real thorough cleaning job.”

A management team took over Wilmer-Hutchins from 1996 to 1998. Cyrus Holley, who was half of the original management team, said he thinks the TEA’s action Tuesday would not be enough.

“They need to replace the school board, take over the school district, fire the superintendent and merge it into Dallas or another school district,” he said.

Mr. Holley said the school board was resistant to working with the last management team. “They were a complete roadblock,” he said.

He asked the TEA to pursue legal means for removing the board. When then-Commissioner Mike Moses said he would not go after the board, Mr. Holley and his fellow manager, Lois Harrison-Jones, resigned. Replacements served out the rest of TEA’s stay in the district.

Mr. Holley said he thinks he has been proved right by the district’s continued problems.

“They have demonstrated over the last 10 years-plus that they cannot run themselves, they cannot administer themselves, and it’s time for the state of Texas to face up to that.”

Ms. Ratcliffe said the agency considered going beyond a management team and installing a board of managers – a tougher intervention that would have involved throwing the entire school board out of office and replacing its members with state appointees.

“But we didn’t feel that we had all the legal groundwork for more intense intervention,” she said.

The management team will have no set term in office, but state law requires its status to be reviewed every 90 days.

She said the agency viewed a management team as a “very severe sanction” but acknowledged some critics were hoping for more.

“This commissioner is looking at all manner of creative options, including things this agency has never done before,” she said. “Frankly, there is a concern that we have tried this before in Wilmer-Hutchins, and it hasn’t caused a sustained change in the district’s behavior. The commissioner is very interested in a long-term solution to the district’s operations and the educational services it delivers.”

But Ms. Ratcliffe said Ms. Neeley is not actively considering dissolving the school district.

“State law makes it extremely hard to dismantle a school district or a city government,” she said.

Mr. Churchill’s petition drive has gathered enough signatures for the question of dissolving Wilmer-Hutchins to be placed before voters. Before that can happen, state law requires the school board to approve the vote, which is unlikely.

With a management team in place, the state managers could decide to overrule the school board and put the issue to a vote. Ms. Ratcliffe said she doubted the TEA managers would do such a thing, however.

“We want to give the management team a chance to work with the board and get it back on track,” she said.

Mr. Holley said a TEA official had called him recently and asked whether he would be interested in being part of the new management team.

“I said no,” he said. “I’m 70 years old. I’m too old to be involved in that mess.”

Judge’s order cancels W-H trustee meeting

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 5B

The Wilmer-Hutchins administration building was silent Monday night after district officials unsuccessfully tried to convince a judge that its school board should be allowed to meet.

State District Judge Merrill Hartman refused to rescind the temporary restraining order he issued Friday, preventing trustees from meeting or making any decisions. That canceled Monday night’s board meeting. But he did agree to move up the order’s expiration from Nov. 16 to Thursday, when a hearing will be held to determine whether the board will return to work.

“It’s an issue of whether the district is able to function” without a school board, said James Damm, Wilmer-Hutchins’ interim superintendent. Mr. Damm took charge after Charles Matthews was indicted Oct. 28 on a felony evidence tampering charge.

By Thursday, Wilmer-Hutchins’ leadership may be in altogether different hands. The Texas Education Agency is expected to take over the district shortly, probably before the end of the week.

The district is under scrutiny because its finances are near collapse; it is also the subject of state and federal criminal investigations.

TEA could choose to keep the board in place or sweep it aside and appoint replacements.

The restraining order was sought by a group of Wilmer-Hutchins residents who, in a separate lawsuit, are seeking to have the board removed for what the residents see as a series of unwise decisions.

The residents’ attorney, Phillip Layer, said Friday that he had been in discussions with TEA officials and that the restraining order “cleared the way” for the TEA to take over the district Monday.

But TEA officials say the restraining order isn’t pushing them any faster into action.

Wilmer-Hutchins officials will meet with the commissioner, Shirley Neeley, in Austin today to discuss the district’s future.

State officials have said they would not take any action on Wilmer-Hutchins’ governance until they had received and evaluated the district’s official response to a preliminary audit report issued last month. That response was due Monday.

Mr. Damm said the district has prepared a number of legal arguments against the restraining order, including arguing that the judge violated the government’s separation of powers.

W-H scores suspicious; Exclusive: News analysis triggers cheating concerns

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

On this year’s third-grade TAKS reading test, an unlikely school finished No. 1 in the state.

Wilmer Elementary – a perennial underachiever in a district many consider the state’s worst – beat out the scores of 3,212 other elementary schools.

But substantial evidence, including a Dallas Morning News data analysis, indicates that cheating may be behind that success.

“This large of a gain is highly improbable due simply to improved instruction,” said Gregory Cizek, a professor at the University of North Carolina and a national expert on cheating.

After being informed of The News’ analysis of scores at Wilmer Elementary, the Texas Education Agency began a preliminary inquiry and is considering launching a full investigation. Last week, the agency decided it would analyze 2004 TAKS answer sheets at several Wilmer-Hutchins’ elementary schools to see if large numbers of answers had been erased and changed.

Wilmer educators strongly denied there was anything improper about their scores. “What are they suspicious of?” Wilmer Principal Geraldine Hobson asked. “We just worked real hard.”

James Damm, the district’s new interim superintendent, said he is aware of the cheating concerns and hopes state officials will determine the truth.

“Someone is presumed innocent until proven guilty,” said Mr. Damm, who took over last week after Superintendent Charles Matthews was indicted on charges of tampering with evidence in a TEA investigation. “But if they’re guilty, they’ll be held accountable. If that’s the case here, and there’s been any sort of tampering, the individuals involved can be prosecuted under felony law. It’s not a very happy thing to think about.”

Not a first for district

This isn’t the first time that improvements in Wilmer-Hutchins’ test scores have been attributed to cheating. In 1999, TEA decided to monitor the test-taking process at Alta Mesa Elementary after suspicions of cheating arose. The school’s test scores plummeted when the tests were administered in the presence of state officials.

This time, the questions are being asked at Wilmer Elementary, a historically underachieving campus. It has twice been labeled “low performing” by the state, most recently in 2000. That ranked the school in the bottom 3 percent of the state.

But in 2004, its students aced the third-grade reading test – the high-stakes exam that students must pass to be promoted to fourth grade. Of all elementary schools in the state that tested at least 30 students, Wilmer Elementary finished No. 1 – and by a significant margin over No. 2, Canyon Creek Elementary in the Austin suburb of Round Rock.

Almost all of Wilmer’s students got nearly 100 percent of the test’s questions correct.

Although schools with impoverished students typically fare worse academically than those in more affluent communities, Wilmer Elementary far outpaced the performance of the best schools in Highland Park, Plano, Carroll and every other wealthy district in the state. More than 90 percent of the test-takers at Wilmer were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced school lunch.

Immigrant students

Among the most striking results were the scores of Wilmer’s limited-English-proficient students. These students – typically recent immigrants from Latin America – by definition have difficulties speaking, reading and writing English. Last year, Texas’ limited-English students had a passing rate 9 percentage points lower than the state average on the third-grade reading test.

But at Wilmer Elementary, those students did extraordinarily well on the TAKS. All of Wilmer’s children with limited English skills had perfect or nearly perfect scores on the reading test. They, as a group, outscored every other school in the state.

“Clearly these results ought to be looked into,” said Dr. Cizek, who is also a member of the committee that advises Texas officials on how to run the state’s testing system.

He said it was conceivable that a school as poor and underachieving as Wilmer could end up with the best test scores in the state. “It’s about as likely as the Texans winning the Super Bowl,” he said. “I suppose it could happen. But it’s highly unlikely.”

Principal is proud

Wilmer’s principal, Ms. Hobson, said that’s exactly what happened. “For us to have beaten Highland Park and all the others, I say thank you, Jesus,” she said. “I’m real proud of that. We have absolutely nothing to hide.”

“We were very confident before the test,” said Janeece Choice, one of the two third-grade teachers at Wilmer. “The children had learned what they needed to know, how to analyze and summarize.”

But the remarkable test scores at Wilmer are not duplicated in other grades or on other tests. On the fourth-grade reading test, Wilmer’s students finished in the bottom 20 percent of the state. In fifth grade, scores were also well below the state average.

The amazing scores came only in the one grade where poor test scores have severe consequences – and, according to cheating experts, educators have a greater incentive to fudge.

“Cheating responds to the costs and the benefits,” said Brian Jacob, a Harvard public-policy professor who studied seven years of test scores in Chicago schools. By searching for unlikely patterns on answer sheets and unexplained jumps in scores, he found strong evidence of educators cheating in about 4 percent of classrooms.

But that percentage increased if a test was high-stakes, as the third-grade reading TAKS is. Cheating was 30 percent to 40 percent more common in classrooms taking a high-stakes test than in those where a test had no concrete consequences, he said.

Analyzing the scores

The News analysis was performed by examining the scale scores of each school in the state. TEA typically reports only a school’s passing rate – how many of its students did well enough to meet state standards on the TAKS.

A school’s average scale score gives more detail. It indicates whether students were barely passing the test or if – as at Wilmer Elementary – they were getting nearly every question correct.

To put it in traditional classroom terms, scale scores can tell you whether a school’s students are squeaking by with a D-minus average or if they’re all scoring an A-plus.

Lionel Churchill, a community activist and critic of the administration, said several district employees have told him they believe there was TAKS cheating in several Wilmer-Hutchins elementary schools. He said many of the district’s children had excellent TAKS scores despite having poor grades. Some students, he said, were recommended for summer school despite near-perfect scores on the TAKS.

“There’s a lot of cheating going on,” he said. “The scores just do not match up.”

Last month, Mr. Churchill raised his concerns in a formal complaint to TEA. His suspicions are based in part on how much better the district’s students scored in its elementary schools than in later grades.

In 2003, 77.2 percent of Wilmer-Hutchins’ fifth-graders passed the math TAKS. But in sixth grade, the passing rate dropped to 32 percent. There was a similar drop in reading: 75.7 percent in fifth grade, 49 percent in sixth.

Sixth grade is the year when students move up to Kennedy-Curry Middle School. Test scores at Kennedy-Curry and Wilmer-Hutchins High School have long been among the lowest in the state.

Susan Barnes, TEA’s associate commissioner of standards and programs, said that the unusual test scores at Wilmer Elementary “are of interest.” But she said the agency had not done enough investigating to decide whether any state action is needed. “We’ll look at everything that we think is appropriate,” she said.

Rebuttal to critics

At an October school board meeting, board president Luther Edwards said the high test scores were a rebuttal to those who criticized Wilmer-Hutchins – currently the subject of federal and state criminal investigation and likely to soon be taken over by the TEA.

“You showed them,” he told a group of students and teachers in the audience. “You knocked the bottom out of those test scores. You sent a message.”

Staff writer Holly K. Hacker contributed to this report.

Claims of inflated attendance inspire criminal inquiry; W-H stood to gain more funding than most districts

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 13A

Wilmer-Hutchins schools are under criminal investigation over allegations that they reported false attendance information to the state – which could have been a way to get more state funding than the district deserved.

James Damm, the district’s interim superintendent since Monday, confirmed that Texas Education Agency auditors are examining attendance books at Wilmer-Hutchins schools to compare them with data submitted to TEA.

A TEA spokeswoman would not confirm or deny the investigation.

“There is a broad criminal investigation ongoing, and our auditors are assisting them,” Suzanne Marchman said. “At this point, we can just say that auditors are not finished at Wilmer-Hutchins.”

In Texas, state funding for schools is based on what administrators call WADA – weighted average daily attendance. Boosting a school district’s attendance rate by even a few percentage points can increase its state funding.

Wilmer-Hutchins stood to gain more than most districts from increasing its attendance numbers. That’s because it had one of Texas’ worst attendance records. In the 2001-02 school year, its attendance rate was 93.6 percent. That rated it 484th out of the 488 Texas school districts with at least 1,000 students. More recent data were not available from TEA on Friday.

If the allegations prove true, it would not be the first time that the district has been in trouble for misreporting attendance data. Last year, the state determined it had overpaid Wilmer-Hutchins $1.97 million because of faulty attendance and enrollment numbers for the 2002-03 school year. It demanded the money be paid back.

The district agreed to do so and freed up the money in its budget by laying out a list of cuts, including freezing hiring and raises for staff, and improving bidding procedures with contractors.

State auditors have since found that the district violated the terms of that agreement by, among other things, giving numerous employees raises and continuing to hire.

Despite having the undeserved state cash, Wilmer-Hutchins still ran out of money this summer, at one point failing to meet payroll for teachers. The district recently projected a $5.4 million shortfall for the current school year.

Scores have spiked before in district; In 1999, Alta Mesa Elementary was cleared after investigation

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 13A

Wilmer-Hutchins has seen one of its schools’ test scores jump unexpectedly before.

In the late 1990s, passing rates on the old Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test soared at Alta Mesa Elementary. From 1994 to 1997, the fourth-grade passing rate rose by 53.1 percentage points.

In 1999, the Texas Education Agency performed a routine analysis on the TAAS answer sheets of students at Alta Mesa and other schools throughout the state. It found an exceptionally high number of answers on Alta Mesa’s test forms had been erased and replaced. In addition, a much higher than expected number of the erasures changed incorrect answers into correct ones.

TEA officials suspected cheating, but agency policy required them to request that Wilmer-Hutchins perform its own investigation. Wilmer-Hutchins’ superintendent at the time, Stanton Lawrence, complained in a letter to TEA that it was “neither practical nor reasonable” for the agency to expect the district to have the expertise to perform such an investigation. But the district went ahead.

In their final report, Wilmer-Hutchins officials conceded there was “compelling evidence” that the level of erasures was “excessive.” But Alta Mesa’s principal and the accused teachers told district leaders that they had not cheated. The report said it found “no evidence that would cause us to question” the educators’ denials. As a result, the report indicates no educators were fired or disciplined.

But in 1999, TEA decided to send a team of monitors to Alta Mesa to administer the test. With state officials making sure answer sheets were not doctored and answers were not given to students, Alta Mesa’s test scores plummeted.

The year before, for example 75 percent of Alta Mesa’s fourth-graders had passed all sections of the TAAS. In 1999, only 33.8 percent passed.

District officials asked Alta Mesa’s principal, Ray Smith, for his explanation of the drop. According to the report, “teacher morale” was the primary reason he gave.

Mr. Smith is currently principal of Wilmer-Hutchins’ performing-arts high school.

TEA stopped monitoring Alta Mesa’s testing procedures after 1999. Since then, the school’s test scores have increased again. In September, Alta Mesa was rated “exemplary” because of those scores. Only the top 6.6 percent of Texas schools earned that rating.

W-H board hit with restraining order; Move to halt school actions leads to confusion over superintendent

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

The Wilmer-Hutchins school board is supposed to meet Monday night.

That is, if it’s allowed to.

A Dallas County district court judge issued a temporary restraining order Friday preventing the school board from doing anything for at least the next 10 days.

The highly unusual move left confusion about basic matters – such as whether the district has a superintendent, and if so, who that person is.

By one interpretation, the order returns the recently indicted Charles Matthews to office – ironic, because the order was sought by some of Dr. Matthews’ fiercest opponents.

“I’m just shocked and surprised,” said the district’s attorney, James Belt, who added that no representatives of the district had been informed of the order before it was granted.

Wilmer-Hutchins has been a whirlwind of controversy since August. The district is being investigated by the FBI, Texas Rangers, IRS and state and federal grand juries. New allegations of corruption surface weekly. The district has run out of money and recently projected a shortfall of $5.4 million for the fiscal year.

The Texas Education Agency is auditing the district’s books and is considering whether to take over some of the district’s operations. But Phillip Layer, the attorney who sought the temporary restraining order, said he expects the order will make the TEA move more quickly – as in first thing Monday morning.

“This is just a stopgap type of move until TEA can get here,” he said.

TEA officials have said they were not planning to move so quickly. For one thing, agency officials have said they would not take over the district until a final report is prepared by the TEA’s audit team. That can’t be done until the district files a response to the agency’s preliminary report. That won’t happen until sometime Monday, according to interim Superintendent James Damm.

“The commissioner Shirley Neeley is certainly considering all of her options at this time and should decide shortly whether to take any kind of action against the district,” said TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, who called Judge Merrill Hartman’s order “highly unusual.”

It’s unclear whether Judge Hartman’s order invalidated the major decisions made at Monday’s board meeting. That night, the board put Dr. Matthews on paid administrative leave because he was indicted last week on felony charges of tampering with evidence in an investigation. It hired Mr. Damm, a financial consultant for the district, to serve as his interim replacement.

The district also formally laid off eight employees Monday as part of a staff cut approved at an earlier meeting.

One of the plaintiffs, former school board member Brenda Duff, said all those moves by the board were reversed by the order.

“I’m very pleased that Judge Merrill is listening to the people,” she said.

The order’s language made it appear that such a reversal may have been intended. It catalogues the board’s Monday decisions and says the board is “hereby restrained from acting” in all the ways it did at the meeting.

But the order seems to apply only to future action, not retroactively. That would mean Monday’s actions are not reversed.

The question is not academic: It will probably determine who is the school district’s superintendent Monday morning. If the board’s actions are reversed, Dr. Matthews would return to office. If not, Mr. Damm would remain in charge.

At a news conference Friday afternoon, Mr. Layer at times argued both sides. He said he did not think Dr. Matthews’ paid suspension was still in effect, but he referred to Mr. Damm as the current superintendent. But the order and Ms. Duff called Dr. Matthews the current superintendent.

Mr. Layer said the intent was “to set aside the enforcement of any of these resolutions” from Monday’s meeting. But Mr. Belt said it was too late for that.

“What they’re talking about has already taken place,” he said. “We’ve already hired an interim superintendent. We’ve already laid people off.”

Board President Luther Edwards declined to comment. But trustee Joan Bonner, a frequent dissenter on the board, welcomed the move.

“I wish this could’ve happened last week,” she said. “Board members didn’t know how to use their powers.”

Mr. Damm and Mr. Belt both said the district will appeal the order Monday morning. But, as Mr. Damm pointed out, it’s unclear who has the authority to file the appeal. Normally, he said, the school board would approve an appeal – but the order seems to prevent it from meeting to do so.

Judge Hartman’s order is in effect until Nov. 16, when his court will hold a hearing on extending the order into a temporary injunction.

The restraining order was sought as part of a larger lawsuit Mr. Layer filed last month on behalf of several Wilmer-Hutchins residents. It attempts to remove the district’s board permanently, saying that it has made a number of unwise decisions, including hiring Dr. Matthews. The suit is still pending.

TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said it was unclear whether the law Mr. Layer cites in the lawsuit applies to school boards. The law is intended for use with county officials, she said, and was written at a time when Texas still used county school districts. She said TEA attorneys were examining the judge’s order and the underlying law.

Staff writer Herb Booth contributed to this report.

Petition seeks vote on future of W-H; Group has obstacles to overcome on proposition to abolish district

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

Wilmer-Hutchins schools weren’t on the ballot Tuesday. But they weren’t far from it.

Outside polling places throughout the school district, a group of activists gathered hundreds of signatures on a petition to abolish Wilmer-Hutchins altogether.

“Everybody realizes this needs to happen,” said Frances Churchill, who spent Tuesday morning standing in the cold outside Alta Mesa Elementary, clipboard in hand. The drive is being led by her husband, former Wilmer-Hutchins trustee Lionel Churchill.

The petition asks Dallas County to give voters the opportunity to abolish the long-troubled district in May. Wilmer-Hutchins is the subject of a number of criminal investigations and teeters on the edge of financial collapse.

Charles Matthews, the district’s superintendent, was put on paid leave Monday after being indicted last week on felony charges that he tampered with evidence.

The petition says students could be shifted into the Dallas, Lancaster and Ferris school systems.

“They should have done this a long time ago,” said Lazell Preston, who said she spent a year at Wilmer-Hutchins High before fleeing to Dallas’ Carter High School. “In Dallas, you actually learned something. At Hutch, you were self-taught. It was ‘Show up and we’ll give you a grade.'”

Ms. Churchill said she was getting a positive response. On Tuesday morning, it appeared that only about one in 10 voters at Alta Mesa were unwilling to sign the petition.

“I went to school here in fourth grade,” said Christina Smith, who signed the petition at Alta Mesa on Tuesday morning. “I love my schools. I love them. But these children need more than what we’re giving them.”

Resident Louise Kirk said she believed that Wilmer-Hutchins children would get a better education in Dallas schools.

“Dallas has its problems, too, but it’s still better than Wilmer-Hutchins,” she said.

It appears that getting enough signatures will not be a problem. In just a few hours Tuesday morning, the Alta Mesa volunteers had gathered well over 200. And Alta Mesa was just one of the 10 precincts where Wilmer-Hutchins voters were casting ballots. The petition will need about 1,300 signatures, or 10 percent of the district’s registered voters, to proceed.

But that doesn’t mean Mr. Churchill’s efforts are home free. The Texas Education Code requires that before being forwarded to the county judge, a petition “must be signed by a majority of the board of trustees of the district to be abolished.” It is unlikely the board would agree to put itself out of business.

Even Joan Bonner – the one board member who has been consistently critical of the district’s leadership – opposes Mr. Churchill’s petition.

“There will always be a Wilmer-Hutchins,” she said at Monday night’s meeting.

Another potential obstacle is that a neighboring district would have to agree to take Wilmer-Hutchins’ students. Some Dallas school officials have said quietly that they would be willing to take on the added students, since Dallas has struggled with lower-than-expected enrollment.

“I feel like they should just get some new people in there who will stop robbing the district,” said cosmetology student Shemeka Webber, who refused to sign the petition. “They don’t need to destroy the whole district. They just need new people.”

This is not the first time voters have attempted to dissolve Wilmer-Hutchins, which has been rated among the state’s worst districts for decades. But past attempts, dating to the 1970s, have failed.

Among the morning voters at Alta Mesa was Dr. Matthews. Ms. Churchill did not ask him to sign her petition; he did not volunteer.

W-H chief is put on leave with pay; Interim superintendent expects state agency to take over district soon

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

Charles Matthews is out as superintendent of Wilmer-Hutchins schools, and his replacement says the Texas Education Agency probably will take over the district by the end of the month.

Dr. Matthews, who was indicted last week on felony charges of tampering with evidence, was put on paid administrative leave by the district’s board Monday night.

His replacement is James Damm, a veteran school administrator who has worked in top financial positions in several area districts.

“I will do everything I can to bring this community together to work for the betterment of the district,” Mr. Damm said after getting the job.

He later said that based on his conversations with TEA officials, he thinks he will soon be working with a management team from the agency. He expects the TEA to take control of some district operations in the coming weeks.

That move could happen as soon as next week. Agency auditors delivered a preliminary report of their findings to the school board last month, and Wilmer-Hutchins has until Thursday to respond formally. Once the response is received, TEA will issue a final report and probably will take action on the district’s governance.

The TEA sent a management team the last time Wilmer-Hutchins was in serious trouble, from 1996 to 1998.

It is not the most severe step that the agency could take. It could choose to install a board of managers, which would mean removing the superintendent and all board members and replacing them with state appointees.

The TEA could also choose to dissolve the district and send its students to a neighboring district, such as Dallas ISD.

“I don’t think it will be as fast progress as some would like, and it will be faster than some others would like,” Mr. Damm said. “We have to debug the system and see what will fall out.”

TEA officials have said they will not comment on any intervention until it is announced.

Dr. Matthews was indicted Thursday after he allegedly ordered maintenance director Wallace Faggett to destroy purchase orders and other documents sought by TEA auditors and law enforcement. Wilmer-Hutchins is under investigation by several agencies, including the FBI, the Texas Rangers, the IRS and state and federal grand juries.

Mr. Damm said Dr. Matthews requested to be put on administrative leave. Neither he nor Mr. Faggett – who was also put on paid leave by the board – attended Monday’s meeting.

2 salaries to be paid

The board’s decision means the district is paying two men to be superintendent at the same time. Mr. Damm’s contract with the district is for only six months, but it prorates to an annual salary of $169,000. That’s only $2,600 more than what he had been paid to be a financial consultant to the district.

Dr. Matthews is paid $178,600. That’s the second-highest salary in the state among superintendents in districts with 5,000 or fewer students. Last month, a TEA preliminary audit report said that Dr. Matthews must repay $16,000 of his salary because it was paid to him illegally.

This isn’t the first time that Wilmer-Hutchins has had to pay multiple superintendents. At one point in the mid-1990s, the district was paying four current and past superintendents – including Dr. Matthews, who was fired in his first stint in 1994.

The double salaries were a point of controversy for some residents. At Monday’s meeting, the board also voted to officially terminate the eight contract employees it had preliminarily chosen to lay off at its previous meeting. Among them was Annie Lee, the district’s former interim superintendent. Another eight employees will be laid off later this week, Mr. Damm said, and 10 other positions have been eliminated.

“I don’t think we should be paying two superintendents while they’re laying off teachers,” resident Faye Gafford said. “We’re trying to educate children here.”

Ms. Lee has retained an attorney to fight the layoff. Anticipating that other employees will do the same, trustees hired Austin education lawyer Kevin O’Hanlon to represent it in such cases.

Dr. Matthews and Mr. Faggett join the district’s chief financial officer, Phillip Roberson, on paid administrative leave. Dr. Matthews put Dr. Roberson on leave after he agreed to testify before the federal grand jury about the district’s finances.

Mr. Damm said he expects Dr. Roberson’s status with the district to be “resolved soon,” though he did not say how.

Trustee Joan Bonner, a regular Matthews critic, sought to put the superintendent on unpaid leave. But no other board members were willing to second her motion. The board then voted, 6-1, to put him and Mr. Faggett on paid leave, with Ms. Bonner the one dissenter.

Board president Luther Edwards said it would not be appropriate to terminate Dr. Matthews just because he had been indicted.

“Let the courts make their decisions,” he said.

Financial woes linger

Mr. Damm said the layoffs will save about $1 million annually, although the current savings will be substantially lower since the district is already several months into the fiscal year.

He said an additional $1.2 million will have to be cut within the next two to three weeks to help the district climb out of financial crisis. Before the layoffs, the district projected a deficit of $5.4 million this year, out of a budget of about $20 million.

“We still have a ways to go,” Mr. Damm said.

Law enforcement officials are continuing their investigations, and Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill has said more indictments could be coming.

As a reminder of investigators’ presence in the district, the board also voted last night to cancel a planned auction of district property at the request of the district attorney’s office. In a letter to Mr. Edwards, officials had expressed concern that allegedly stolen district property, including laptop computers, would be among the goods sold.

Column: Vision care in schools deserves second look

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

A big bold E, followed by F P T O Z.

And, if all is well, L P E D, P E C F D, and E D F C Z P.

Bring back any childhood memories? At some point, someone slapped a poster on a wall, stood you 20 linoleum tiles away and made you read as many of those letters as you could.

That nice school nurse may have been doing you a disservice. An increasing pile of evidence says the way schools check their students’ vision is broken. And some say it’s time for strong action.

“Most optometrists will tell you that the current system isn’t adequate,” said Clarke Newman, past president of the Texas Optometry Association. “Too many kids have problems that don’t get caught.”

The role of eye care in education has been on my mind because of Richard Rothstein’s terrific new book, Class and Schools. It’s a thought-provoking look at the reasons why, despite our best efforts, the achievement gaps between rich and poor and whites and minorities persist.

His answer: The impact of poverty is too strong for schools to truly overcome. You can’t close the achievement gap as long as basic class differences persist. Schools are, in the end, minor players in children’s education compared with their home environments.

Mr. Rothstein’s book is more than a little depressing. Even worse, it’s convincing. Track down a copy if you’re interested.

But what piqued my interest was his cataloging of all the ways poor students get stuck with a raw deal. They’re more likely to be born prematurely, to be exposed to lead, to have no books in the home, and to have less-educated parents. And they’re twice as likely as middle-class children to have severe vision problems.

“There are a whole bunch of kids who don’t have access to the eye care they need,” said John Todd Cornett, an Amarillo optometrist and a local school board member. “As a profession, we haven’t done enough to overcome that inertia.”

If a kid gets to kindergarten and has trouble reading his letters, the teacher thinks he’s slow – maybe a candidate for special ed. But in a lot of cases, he just can’t see the letters in front of him.

“Kids typically aren’t very good at reporting vision problems because they don’t know it’s possible to see things more clearly,” said Karla Zadnik, an Ohio State University professor whose research has shown high rates of vision problems in poor communities.

Texas leaves eye-care decisions up to individual school districts, and many don’t do more than slap that old eye chart on the wall once a year. But those screenings don’t do much beyond diagnose nearsightedness.

That’s great for kids who can’t see the chalkboard from their seats. But nearsightedness is rare among young kids – only about 2 percent of kindergartners have it. Farsightedness and astigmatism are much more common, particularly among the poor. And those are precisely the problems that can make reading a book frustrating and exhausting.

Vision problems are a huge part of academic difficulties. Harvard researcher Antonia Orfield did a study of inner-city Boston kids that showed between 10 percent and 30 percent of the variation in their reading test scores was attributable purely to untreated vision problems. When the kids who needed vision help got it, their test scores increased 4.5 percentile points in one year. Kids who didn’t get any help went up just 0.6 points.

If eye problems are a big academic drag, and the current school screenings aren’t getting the job done, what’s the answer? The example researchers point to is Kentucky. In 2000, Kentucky made a full doctor’s eye exam mandatory for a child enrolling in public school – just as mandatory as a measles vaccination. The idea is to catch eye problems before a kid runs into trouble reading. Any teacher will tell you that it’s awfully hard for a child who has early trouble reading to ever recover.

Kentucky educators and optometrists call it a success. “Parents love it,” said Bill Reynolds, a Kentucky optometrist who helped get the law passed. “They realize it makes sense to catch these problems early.”

Officials feared a backlash from parents over the cost of an exam – typically $30 to $80. But it never materialized. Nearly every child in the state was covered by private insurance, the state’s poor children’s insurance program or donations from optometrists. The Legislature dedicated a special fund to pay for kids who can’t afford even those options, but it costs the state less than $5,000 a year – total.

A number of states are considering the Kentucky model or something like it. When the Texas Legislature comes back into session in January, it will be looking for ways to boost academic achievement while keeping costs low. They may want to think about what the first George Bush might have called “the vision thing.”