Claims of inflated attendance inspire criminal inquiry; W-H stood to gain more funding than most districts

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Wilmer-Hutchins schools are under criminal investigation over allegations that they reported false attendance information to the state – which could have been a way to get more state funding than the district deserved.

James Damm, the district’s interim superintendent since Monday, confirmed that Texas Education Agency auditors are examining attendance books at Wilmer-Hutchins schools to compare them with data submitted to TEA.

A TEA spokeswoman would not confirm or deny the investigation.

“There is a broad criminal investigation ongoing, and our auditors are assisting them,” Suzanne Marchman said. “At this point, we can just say that auditors are not finished at Wilmer-Hutchins.”

In Texas, state funding for schools is based on what administrators call WADA – weighted average daily attendance. Boosting a school district’s attendance rate by even a few percentage points can increase its state funding.

Wilmer-Hutchins stood to gain more than most districts from increasing its attendance numbers. That’s because it had one of Texas’ worst attendance records. In the 2001-02 school year, its attendance rate was 93.6 percent. That rated it 484th out of the 488 Texas school districts with at least 1,000 students. More recent data were not available from TEA on Friday.

If the allegations prove true, it would not be the first time that the district has been in trouble for misreporting attendance data. Last year, the state determined it had overpaid Wilmer-Hutchins $1.97 million because of faulty attendance and enrollment numbers for the 2002-03 school year. It demanded the money be paid back.

The district agreed to do so and freed up the money in its budget by laying out a list of cuts, including freezing hiring and raises for staff, and improving bidding procedures with contractors.

State auditors have since found that the district violated the terms of that agreement by, among other things, giving numerous employees raises and continuing to hire.

Despite having the undeserved state cash, Wilmer-Hutchins still ran out of money this summer, at one point failing to meet payroll for teachers. The district recently projected a $5.4 million shortfall for the current school year.