Master urged for W-H; State report blasts troubled school district over ‘disregard for law’

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 29A

The long-troubled Wilmer-Hutchins school district has displayed “a pattern of disregard for law” and needs a full-time state master to oversee its activities, according to a withering report issued Thursday by the Texas comptroller’s office.

“You can fix things our way, or you can fix it your way,” said Betty Ressel, manager of the Texas School Performance Review, which assembled the report on the southern Dallas County district. “But one thing that is totally unacceptable is not to fix it.”

“I think they’ve given us the key to unlock the door today,” said school board President Joan Bonner. “It’s a very impressive report on what we need to do.”

The report outlines, in detail, the many problems faced by the district, which has 3,300 students, 72 percent of whom are poor:

*Its test scores are among the lowest in the state. Only 58 percent of the district’s students passed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) last year, compared with 65 percent for Dallas ISD and 82 percent statewide. The mean SAT score for Wilmer-Hutchins seniors in 2000 was 721, well below the state average of 990. If scores don’t improve markedly, “few WHISD students will earn a high school diploma” when the new, tougher Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills replaces TAAS next year, the report concluded.

*Only 0.7 percent of Wilmer-Hutchins graduates get the “recommended” diploma, which requires a more difficult set of classes than minimum graduation requirements. Statewide, 39 percent do. The district also has no curriculum plan, and its attendance rate ranks 1,032nd of the state’s 1,034 school districts.

*There is little staff stability. Last year, 27 percent of Wilmer-Hutchins teachers left the district, a rate which has remained consistent for the last four years. The state average is 16 percent per year. The district also has had five superintendents since 1995.

*The staff is often poorly allocated. Since 1997, enrollment has dropped 6.1 percent, but the number of district employees increased 8.9 percent. The report recommends reducing the number of administrators from 15 to 10. Wilmer-Hutchins has four times as many central administrators as the state average for its size, despite having fewer teachers per student than similar Texas

*The district is disorganized, disregards regulations, and its leaders sometimes have little control over what goes on. For instance, the district has no idea how many computers it has at Wilmer-Hutchins High School. The current budget was created by a hurriedly hired consultant “with no real knowledge regarding the district’s inner workings” and “cannot be considered an accurate representation of the district’s fiscal operation.”

According to the report, “board members told the review team that they did not understand the budget or the financial statements” they were supposed to evaluate.

State officials also said the district regularly breaks the law by purchasing goods or services without putting them up for bid. The district could not produce contracts for vendors that supply its banking, legal, telephone or auditing services, the report said.

Record keeping is so bad that the report’s authors “had difficulty gathering and confirming data from the district” and instead relied primarily on the Texas Education Agency.

Although Ms. Ressel credited the district’s current leadership for “being ready to take the heat and head in the right direction,” she said it will be difficult to reverse the district’s many wrongs.

“This report was not easy to write, and it will not be easy to implement,” she said.

The biggest recommendation is for the district to hire a TEA master, who would have the power to overrule any decision of the school board, any campus principal or Superintendent Harvey Rayson.

TEA officials previously took over the district, which includes Wilmer and Hutchins and includes portions of Dallas, Lancaster and Ferris, from 1996 to 1998. A monitor is in place at Kennedy-Curry Middle School, which the state rates as low-performing.

“You’ve got to make sure there is no question in anyone’s mind that if someone in the district goes astray and does something not within the law, someone will gently bring them back in and tell them, ‘No, that is not possible,'” Ms. Ressel said.

The report makes 98 recommendations, which if fully implemented would save the district $7.3 million by 2007, Ms. Ressel said. The district’s annual budget is $19.9 million.

Mr. Rayson and Ms. Bonner said the recommendations are welcome and will be considered. The comptroller’s office has no statutory authority to force the district to follow its suggestions.

“We’re very pleased with the report, and we’re going to start work on it right away,” said Mr. Rayson, who had been on the job one year as of Thursday.

The school board requested the state review last April. Normally, when a district makes such a request, the comptroller’s office requires the district to pay 25 percent of the costs, which in this case totaled $150,000.

But financial controls in the district were so poor at the time that Wilmer-Hutchins officials didn’t even know if they could afford that contribution.

“Mr. Rayson told us, ‘I need help, but I can’t tell you if we have the money or not to pay for it,'” Ms. Ressel said. In the end, the comptroller’s office agreed to foot the bill.