Schools not worth saving, W-H told; ’02 study urged district to abandon poorly maintained campuses

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Wilmer-Hutchins ISD officials were told two years ago that nearly all their schools suffered from such poor maintenance that they should be abandoned and razed, according to a consultant’s report.

The August 2002 report, prepared by the Texas Association of School Administrators, said only 6 percent of classrooms in the district met minimum standards, and some had significant safety issues.

Use of all of the district’s elementary and middle schools should be discontinued “as soon as possible,” according to the report, obtained last week by The Dallas Morning News.

“Their schools reflected that history of a low level of care and maintenance,” said Paul Trautman, the facilities consultant who wrote the study. “Things were fixed only when they judged them to be absolutely necessary. Their schools had deteriorated more than most.”

District officials said they know Wilmer-Hutchins’ schools are not in good shape, and they hope to address some of the problems with a $68 million bond issue that goes before voters Sept. 18.

“We know our buildings are extremely old,” said Superintendent Charles Matthews. “We need to change the face of the district. But we simply don’t have the money for facilities right now.”

HS salvageable

The only school Dr. Trautman deemed worth saving was Wilmer-Hutchins High School, the campus in such disrepair after a June storm that the start of school on the site has been postponed for weeks. Seniors began a limited form of classes last week at another campus.

According to the 2002 facilities audit, roof leaks at the school didn’t start this summer.

Dr. Trautman wrote of the high school: “Roof leaks appear to be extensive, based on the number of water-stained, damaged, and missing ceiling tile throughout the building.”

Sophomore Jasmine Griffin experienced those leaks firsthand during her TAKS exam last spring. She said her test proctor had to place a trash can in her testing room to catch the staccato dripping of water from the ceiling. “That drove me nuts,” she said.

Underclassmen were due to start today at an elementary and some portable classrooms.

Those portables were in such bad shape two years ago that Dr. Trautman said they “appeared to have deteriorated beyond use and should be razed and removed from the site as soon as possible.”

The report cost Wilmer-Hutchins $16,400. It is an evaluation of the district’s facilities and a statement of projected needs. It was requested by the district’s previous superintendent, Harvey Rayson, who was replaced two months after the report was turned in, although board members did not cite facilities as a reason for the decision.

Dr. Trautman rated all the district’s schools on a 100-point scale based on how well they met state and national facilities standards. He said that the average score of the school buildings he usually examines is 65, but he noted that most of the work he does is on substandard buildings.

Five of the seven schools evaluated in Wilmer-Hutchins scored in the 40s. C.S. Winn Elementary rated in the low 50s, and the high school in the low 60s – “low for its age and design,” the report said.

‘Historic neglect’

The report says the “primary contributor to the unusually low score is the evidence of historic neglect that has allowed the building to deteriorate to a critical level in most areas.” If the high school is to be used for any length of time, the report says, “a complete refurbishing of the entire campus” is necessary.

Among the problems cited in the 2002 report:

*Bishop Heights Elementary had no functioning fire alarm system. Its bathrooms were deemed “old and marginally serviceable” and supplemented by a “free-standing portable restroom unit … that is deteriorating significantly.”

*At Alta Mesa Elementary, staff covered up the smell of mildew with candles and potpourri, and “it is likely that microbiologicals are present.” Some portables had holes punched through their walls by vandals. Up to 60 to 70 percent of classroom lights weren’t functioning.

*Most of the classrooms at C.S. Winn were considered too small – less than two-thirds of the state minimum size. The gym floor was called unsafe because it had buckled from moisture. The school had a termite problem.

*Wilmer Elementary’s library is in an old kitchen and was called “especially inadequate.” To get to the playground, students must cross active vehicular traffic.

*Kennedy-Curry Middle had “significant roof leaks” and likely air-quality problems. Classrooms had damaged ceilings, “window blinds beyond repair, much old and marginally functional furniture, stuffy air, and musty odors.” Dressing rooms in the gym “have been allowed to deteriorate so they are no longer useable.”

Findings not shocking

Luther Edwards, the school board president, said he wasn’t surprised by the findings when they were presented to the board in 2002. “Being in the state we’re in financially, it wasn’t a shock,” he said.

He said he believed the report’s safety concerns – such as the broken fire alarm at Bishop Heights – had been addressed. But, he said, the district was hesitant to pour too much money into schools that, if next month’s bond package is approved, will simply be torn down and rebuilt.

In his report, Dr. Trautman said four schools – Bishop Heights, Alta Mesa, Wilmer and Kennedy-Curry – are “instructionally and economically obsolete and should be abandoned for regular instructional use as soon as possible. None of these buildings have any discernable long-term use for regular instruction.”

C.S. Winn – the former site of the district’s high school – fared only marginally better and should also be abandoned for regular school use, Dr. Trautman said.

The high school, built in 1982, was in poorer condition than it should have been, the report said.

“The general conditions of the buildings is indicative of serious neglect over the years, both from normal wear and tear and from acts of vandalism,” it read.

“At this point, the facility needs complete refurbishing of … fixtures and systems and a commitment to address repairs to vandalism and malfunctions promptly to promote pride among both students and staff.”

A problem with upkeep

Brian Thruston, the Dallas architect who designed the school in the late 1970s, said he has seen images of the school on television and in the newspaper.

“Most of it appears to be maintenance problems,” Mr. Thruston said. “You can’t build anything and not maintain it over the years. It all gets down to what money is allocated for maintenance.”

The report does not address the Performing Arts High School, where seniors are currently attending classes. The school was not in use when Dr. Trautman visited the district. It had previously been Mamie White Elementary but was shuttered in the late 1990s as the district’s enrollment declined.

Similar report

Dr. Trautman’s study wasn’t the first time the district was told of maintenance problems. When the state comptroller’s office reviewed the district’s operations in 2002, it found that Wilmer-Hutchins was spending 28 percent more per pupil on building maintenance than similar districts.

Despite the extra spending, facilities were “in a state of disrepair,” the comptroller’s office found.

The report recommended eliminating virtually the entire maintenance staff – all but three of 20 employees. The job of maintaining the district’s buildings should be outsourced, the report recommended.

The comptroller’s report made nine recommendations on reforming the district’s facilities policies. But when comptroller staff returned 18 months later for a progress report, they found the district had implemented only three. The district ended up outsourcing the work of five maintenance employees, not 17.

Staff writer Herb Booth contributed to this report.