W-H school opens; But lack of fire alarm, inspection nearly shut its doors hours later

By Joshua Benton and Herb Booth
Staff Writers

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Classes at Wilmer-Hutchins High School nearly came to a sudden halt Tuesday – only a few hours after they began.

District officials failed to repair the school’s faulty fire alarm system or seek a fire inspection before opening the school to students. Dallas fire officials threatened to shut the school down unless the district fixed the problem immediately or paid $50 an hour for a fire inspector to be stationed on campus.

“It’s truly a recipe for tragedy,” said Capt. Jesse Garcia, a Dallas Fire-Rescue spokesman.

Meanwhile, the district has suspended its chief financial officer, but officials were mum on the reason.

And auditors from the Texas Education Agency have decided to extend their stay in the district indefinitely, saying they have not been able to gather the financial information they need.

Tuesday was supposed to be a day of celebration at Wilmer-Hutchins High. It was the first day since spring that the entire student body was assembled under one roof.

A summer storm and years of maintenance neglect left the high school in unusable shape when classes were scheduled to begin Aug. 16. Roof leaks, roaches and mold made the school a health hazard.

Seniors began school on time at another district campus. Underclassmen started school a week late and have been bused between several campuses since.

OK from health officials

The district completed repairs and cleanup last week and got the OK from health officials to move students back in Tuesday. But no one notified Dallas Fire-Rescue.

“Wilmer-Hutchins did not tell us they were planning to bring the kids back into the school, like they were supposed to,” Capt. Garcia said. “One of our inspectors was watching the news and heard that they were reopening the school. He took it upon himself to see if the repairs were done to the alarm system at the school. They were not.”

An electrical panel that works with the alarm system had been damaged in the summer storm’s aftermath.

With no functioning alarm, fire officials instituted a “fire watch,” in which a fire inspector stays on campus as long as it is occupied and watches for signs of fire. The department charges $50 an hour for a fire watch.

There was some question Tuesday afternoon whether the district could afford the watch. It owes about $900,000 to vendors and missed payroll last month. Until a new infusion of state money arrives next week, Wilmer-Hutchins is short on cash.

But Nate Carman, the school’s principal, said the district would pay. He said he hoped the fire alarm company could complete repairs by early today.

Until this week, financial questions – such as whether the district could afford a fire watch – were answered by Phillip Roberson, the district’s chief financial officer. But Dr. Roberson was suspended Monday, several people in the district said.

Charles Matthews, the district’s superintendent, said through another district official Tuesday that he did not have time to talk to reporters. But he had discussed the possibility of removing Dr. Roberson from his post in recent weeks.

Finances in disarray

The district’s finances are in chaos. Dr. Roberson has several times recently said that he did not know the size of the school district’s deficit. Dr. Roberson and his attorney could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Earlier this month, school trustees hired consultant James Damm to fix the district’s finances. But he is on a multiweek vacation scheduled before Wilmer-Hutchins sought his services. So his temporary replacement is consultant Bill Goodman, a former school financial officer in Irving and a TEA official.

“I’m trying to fill in for Mr. Roberson,” Mr. Goodman said. “I’m trying to get a handle on where things are and take a look at what we can do.” He said he would be examining the district’s payroll, transportation and custodial costs, among other things.

He said it would probably take at least three years for the district’s fund balance to return to healthy levels.

Figuring out the scope of the district’s financial problems is the task of the TEA audit team, which arrived in the district Aug. 30. Originally, auditors said they would stay about a week. But Tuesday, a TEA representative said they would be staying indefinitely. One reason: to provide assistance to the multiple law-enforcement agencies investigating the district.

“As long as law enforcement is involved, the auditors will be there,” spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said.

She said auditors had been having more trouble than expected tracking down the financial information they needed to perform a thorough audit. Several district employees are being investigated on allegations that they destroyed financial records before auditors could find them.

Staff writer Jason Trahan contributed to this report.