Petition seeks vote on future of W-H; Group has obstacles to overcome on proposition to abolish district

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Wilmer-Hutchins schools weren’t on the ballot Tuesday. But they weren’t far from it.

Outside polling places throughout the school district, a group of activists gathered hundreds of signatures on a petition to abolish Wilmer-Hutchins altogether.

“Everybody realizes this needs to happen,” said Frances Churchill, who spent Tuesday morning standing in the cold outside Alta Mesa Elementary, clipboard in hand. The drive is being led by her husband, former Wilmer-Hutchins trustee Lionel Churchill.

The petition asks Dallas County to give voters the opportunity to abolish the long-troubled district in May. Wilmer-Hutchins is the subject of a number of criminal investigations and teeters on the edge of financial collapse.

Charles Matthews, the district’s superintendent, was put on paid leave Monday after being indicted last week on felony charges that he tampered with evidence.

The petition says students could be shifted into the Dallas, Lancaster and Ferris school systems.

“They should have done this a long time ago,” said Lazell Preston, who said she spent a year at Wilmer-Hutchins High before fleeing to Dallas’ Carter High School. “In Dallas, you actually learned something. At Hutch, you were self-taught. It was ‘Show up and we’ll give you a grade.'”

Ms. Churchill said she was getting a positive response. On Tuesday morning, it appeared that only about one in 10 voters at Alta Mesa were unwilling to sign the petition.

“I went to school here in fourth grade,” said Christina Smith, who signed the petition at Alta Mesa on Tuesday morning. “I love my schools. I love them. But these children need more than what we’re giving them.”

Resident Louise Kirk said she believed that Wilmer-Hutchins children would get a better education in Dallas schools.

“Dallas has its problems, too, but it’s still better than Wilmer-Hutchins,” she said.

It appears that getting enough signatures will not be a problem. In just a few hours Tuesday morning, the Alta Mesa volunteers had gathered well over 200. And Alta Mesa was just one of the 10 precincts where Wilmer-Hutchins voters were casting ballots. The petition will need about 1,300 signatures, or 10 percent of the district’s registered voters, to proceed.

But that doesn’t mean Mr. Churchill’s efforts are home free. The Texas Education Code requires that before being forwarded to the county judge, a petition “must be signed by a majority of the board of trustees of the district to be abolished.” It is unlikely the board would agree to put itself out of business.

Even Joan Bonner – the one board member who has been consistently critical of the district’s leadership – opposes Mr. Churchill’s petition.

“There will always be a Wilmer-Hutchins,” she said at Monday night’s meeting.

Another potential obstacle is that a neighboring district would have to agree to take Wilmer-Hutchins’ students. Some Dallas school officials have said quietly that they would be willing to take on the added students, since Dallas has struggled with lower-than-expected enrollment.

“I feel like they should just get some new people in there who will stop robbing the district,” said cosmetology student Shemeka Webber, who refused to sign the petition. “They don’t need to destroy the whole district. They just need new people.”

This is not the first time voters have attempted to dissolve Wilmer-Hutchins, which has been rated among the state’s worst districts for decades. But past attempts, dating to the 1970s, have failed.

Among the morning voters at Alta Mesa was Dr. Matthews. Ms. Churchill did not ask him to sign her petition; he did not volunteer.