State getting ready to run W-H schools; Takeover would need federal OK; education officials arrive for audit

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The Texas Education Agency is laying the groundwork for a possible state takeover of Wilmer-Hutchins schools.

Ed Flathouse, the state’s associate commissioner for finance and compliance, said he expects the agency to begin talks with federal officials to clear the way. The U.S. Justice Department must approve a TEA intervention that would give a state official power to reverse any decision by the district’s board or superintendent.

“We’ll probably make some inquiries in anticipation of it,” Dr. Flathouse said, referring to the imposition of a state conservator or management team for the district.

The decision to take over the district, if it comes, will have to follow the report of the TEA’s audit team, which arrived Monday to examine the district’s finances. But Dr. Flathouse said “we won’t wait” until the report is in to start talking to the Justice Department.

Charles Matthews, the district’s superintendent, said he doesn’t believe the TEA will have to intervene at all because he expects to follow all recommendations the audit team comes up with during its investigation.

“I’m going to do what they tell me to do,” he said. “They’re here to help.”

The audit brings a fitting end to a whirlwind August in Wilmer-Hutchins schools, on Dallas County’s south side. In three weeks, the district’s high school was declared unusable, a grand jury heard allegations of corruption, and the district couldn’t meet payroll, leaving teachers and other employees wondering when they’ll next be paid.

“That is one of the failures we see here: Their business is not in order,” Dr. Flathouse said.

The TEA has a number of options when it chooses to intervene in a school district. On the low end, the state could demand the hiring of a consultant to improve the district’s handling of finances. It also could impose a monitor, who could sit in on board meetings and advise the administration. Wilmer-Hutchins most recently had a monitor for the 2001-02 school year because of low test scores.

The agency also has tougher interventions at hand. It could impose a conservator or management team, which could override any board vote, any administrative decision and any principal’s action. However, it would not be able to interfere in district elections, set tax rates or pass an annual budget.

(“Conservator” and “management team” are largely interchangeable terms and generally refer to the size of the state team taking over the district. Until a recent name change, the TEA called a conservator a “master.”)

The state’s most severe intervention, short of dissolving the district, is a board of managers. That involves replacing the board with state appointees and the appointment of a superintendent by the state education commissioner.

All of these interventions are rare. As of Aug. 16, only three school districts and six charter schools had a TEA monitor.

No Texas school districts are currently run by a conservator, management team or board of managers. Four charter schools are, including Dallas’ Inspired Vision and A-Plus Academy.

Anything from the conservator level or higher needs Justice Department approval. “It’s because it involves setting aside voter rights,” TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said. “The voters voted in that board of trustees to run the district, and by putting in a management team, we’re setting aside the power of that board.”

In June 1996 – when Wilmer-Hutchins was last taken over by the state – the Justice Department approved the move. That team ran the district until 1998.

On Monday, the TEA audit team and inspectors from the Texas Department of Health arrived at Wilmer-Hutchins’ headquarters on Illinois Avenue. The health inspectors are examining all district campuses. Their primary concern is mold and mildew caused by leaky roofs – most prominently at the high school, where a summer storm left parts of the building’s interior soaked.

Dr. Matthews said Monday he hopes the building can open to students shortly after Labor Day. In the meantime, students are on other campuses.

Also Monday, WFAA-TV (Channel 8) reported that the salary for an employee listed as the district’s maintenance director, Gerald Henderson, remained on the Wilmer-Hutchins budget at $30,000 per year even though he has not worked in the district since 2002 because of a disability.

The station also found a purchase order bearing Mr. Henderson’s signature dated last April. Mr. Henderson told WFAA he did not sign the order. Neither Dr. Matthews nor Mr. Roberson could explain the apparent discrepancies, but Dr. Matthews said Mr. Henderson “is not being paid one penny.”

Tom Canby, the TEA’s managing director of financial audits, said the audit team will spend the better part of the next month gathering information and analyzing the district’s financial state. A final report could be ready in a month.

Mr. Canby also said the district took out a $3.8 million tax anticipatory note loan in April, putting the district even further into debt. When asked why the district took out that loan, the district’s chief financial officer, Phillip Roberson, said it was to pay off a previous $2 million loan.

Without serious cost cutting, Mr. Canby said, the district will have trouble paying its bills for the rest of 2004 – even with millions in state aid on its way.

Dr. Flathouse pointed out that the state has intervened in Wilmer-Hutchins many times – from small, targeted investigations to the 1996 takeover. “I’ve been in this room many times before,” he said during a news conference in the district’s board chambers. “It goes in cycles.”

He said the district’s recent problems are typical.

“You have to ask yourself: Could this have happened in any other district in the state?” he said. “That’s the question that hangs.”