In W-H, still no paychecks; Superintendent blames TEA, which says districts knew of change

By Joshua Benton and Herb Booth
Staff Writers

Page 1B

Friday came and went, and still there were no paychecks for nearly three-quarters of Wilmer-Hutchins school district employees.

Teachers and other workers were led to believe they could expect payment Friday – two days late. Instead, they were told there would be no pay until Sept. 10, another two weeks.

“I am fully aware of the burden this situation has caused you,” Superintendent Charles Matthews said in a letter to employees. “I know that you will continue to work with our children. They need you at this time.”

Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a Texas Education Agency spokeswoman, said officials wrote a letter on Wilmer-Hutchins’ behalf, guaranteeing any lenders that a $1 million state payment would arrive in district coffers Sept. 9.

“But apparently their bankers, for whatever reason, didn’t feel they could give the district that loan,” she said.

Anthony Miller, assistant principal at Wilmer-Hutchins High School, is one of about 280 employees who haven’t been paid.

“I’m lucky, though. My wife is an educator in Lancaster, and we have enough to make it,” Mr. Miller said. “Our bills don’t come until the middle of the month.”

Dr. Matthews said the district, with about $20 million in annual revenue, needed about $1 million to cover its obligations.

He blamed the TEA for the shortfall. The agency last year moved its August payment to districts to Sept. 9 – an accounting trick to balance the state budget.

Ms. Ratcliffe said she knew of no other Texas district that failed to account for the new payment date.

“This is absolutely not TEA’s fault,” she said. “The delay was widely reported by the media and through this agency. The other 1,036 school districts and 200 charter schools in the state managed to prepare financially for this two-week delay.”

Financial leaders in other districts said they had known about the delayed payment for over a year and had simply planned for it.

“We don’t foresee it causing any problems for us,” said Kurt Brandt, chief financial officer for DeSoto schools. “Over the past several years, we’ve built up our fund balance, and one of the benefits of that is we’re able to handle this delay.”

DeSoto had a record fund balance of $8.7 million at the end of the last fiscal year.

“We’re not in … Wilmer-Hutchins’ situation at all,” said Bill Althoff, Irving’s assistant superintendent for support services. “We maintain a reserve fund for situations like that. We feel it’s prudent.”

Mr. Althoff said it’s possible to debate whether the Legislature’s decision to delay the payment was appropriate. “But it’s reality, whether it’s fair or not,” he said. “We planned accordingly.”

Phillip Roberson, Wilmer-Hutchins’ chief financial officer, said bank officials cited negative publicity for hurting the district’s chance for a bridge loan.

Districts’ being denied a short-term loan is very rare, but not completely unheard of, Ms. Ratcliffe said. She said it has happened to some charter schools in recent years.

She said the payroll problems don’t materially change the goals of TEA auditors, who will arrive in the district Monday to check its books.

“The district had a fund balance not too long ago,” she said. “Now they’ve announced publicly they’re broke. We’re hoping to find out what happened.”

Dr. Matthews said Wilmer-Hutchins has no reserves on which to rely.

A memo to Wilmer-Hutchins High School staff said Wells Fargo denied the district a short-term loan. The district’s chief financial officer, Phillip Roberson, said the district applied elsewhere but received no response yet.

At a Monday court hearing, Dr. Roberson said the district was “pretty much broke” and facing a $100,000 deficit.

Nate Carman, the high school principal, said he wasn’t affected, but his wife, a teacher, was.

“We had two teachers and an office worker come in and ask for the afternoon off to try and arrange for short-term loans,” said Mr. Carman. “There were a couple of people who said they’d help financially. I helped someone pay for an electric bill.”

He said no one walked out on the job when told the paychecks would be delayed until Sept. 10.

Three high school teachers who were affected would not comment.

Dr. Matthews insisted the district did the “very best job we could do” to pay workers. He compared his plight with that of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who had to deal recently with Hurricane Charley.

Dr. Matthews said no improprieties led to the financial shortfall.

“There’s no corruption here,” he said. “Look at the grand jury. They cleared us. Jesus was persecuted for 36 months. Wilmer-Hutchins has been persecuted for many, many more.”

On Thursday, a Dallas County grand jury took “no action” on criminal allegations related to the district’s financial problems. The move is neither an indictment nor a decision not to indict.

Rachel Horton, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, said the grand jury’s decision means the case remains open. The panel has the ability to revisit the matter if new evidence or testimony is presented, she said.