District seeking image repair; Consultants hired for finances, construction before bond election

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Looking for ways to improve its image with voters before next week’s bond election, Wilmer-Hutchins ISD hired consultants to manage its finances and construction Tuesday night.

District officials pledged the outsiders would ensure there would be no financial shenanigans in the district’s future.

“We want to earn the taxpayer’s trust,” board President Luther Edwards said. “We want voters to know that the projects they vote for are the projects that will be built.”

The school board voted 7-0 to hire Jim Damm, a former top business official with Plano, Highland Park and Dallas schools. Mr. Damm will be tasked with bringing order to the district’s financial operations.

Those hit a low two weeks ago when officials announced there was not enough money to meet payroll. A team of Texas Education Agency auditors is examining the district’s finances.

“The primary area we’ve discussed is making sure there is a good set of procedures and controls in place and that the system is maintained in a manner consistent with good business practices,” Mr. Damm said.

He said he would also work with a TEA conservator team if the state decides to take over the district later this month.

He said he was connected to the district through its financial adviser, First Southwest, and its bank, Bank of America. At the board meeting, Mr. Edwards said, “This is what our financial advisers are asking us to do.”

The district also voted to hire Gallagher Construction Management to run the building of three schools and renovation of others. Those improvements will be made only if voters approve the $68 million bond issue on the Sept. 18 ballot.

In other action, the board approved a lawsuit against TEA over a disputed $500,000 short-term loan Wilmer-Hutchins took out in June. TEA says the district paid back the loan illegally by dipping into its debt service fund – money that is only supposed to be used for paying off bond issues under state law.

Last month, the agency gave Wilmer-Hutchins until Aug. 31 to repay the loan from a legal source. The district did not have the money to do so. The lawsuit the board approved Tuesday will argue that the debt service fund was an appropriate source of money to repay the loan.