State management team on way to run W-H schools; Initial focus likely to be financial, not academic; some call action weak

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

After months of turmoil in Wilmer-Hutchins schools, the state is ready to take over.

Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said Tuesday that she had decided to send a state management team to run the district’s operations.

“We want everyone to have a positive feeling about Wilmer-Hutchins at the end of the school year,” Dr. Neeley said. “The management team will work collaboratively with the district.”

But some critics said the move wasn’t strong enough. Under state law, a management team is limited in the actions it can take, and its initial focus probably will be only the district’s financial state, not its history of academic failure.

The state also imposed a management team in the late 1990s, but that didn’t reverse the district’s problems.

“TEA came in once before, and the minute they left, the same things started all over again,” said board member Joan Bonner, an opponent of the district’s leadership. “I am not impressed.”

Dr. Neeley took the unusual step of announcing the move Tuesday evening after a two-hour meeting in Austin with Wilmer-Hutchins officials. Normally, the TEA announces the creation of a management team by letter, and the team’s members are made public at the same time.

This time, the agency said the members of the management team have not been selected. TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said she hoped they could be announced by week’s end.

“I look forward to working with the agency,” board President Luther Edwards said. “I believe it’s going to be helpful for the children and the community.”

Wilmer-Hutchins has been in financial turmoil since summer, at one point missing payroll and leaving hundreds of teachers without pay for weeks. The district’s facilities are near collapse as well, and its academic record is among the state’s worst. After a Dallas Morning News data analysis found evidence of teachers cheating on state tests, the TEA began a preliminary inquiry.

Wilmer-Hutchins officials are the subject of multiple state and federal criminal corruption investigations. Superintendent Charles Matthews was suspended last week after he was indicted on a charge of tampering with evidence in an investigation, a third-degree felony.

The Wilmer-Hutchins management team will be made up of two administrators. They will have the authority to overrule any decision of the school board, interim Superintendent James Damm or any principal in the district.

Some advocates for reform in the district praised the move.

“I think it’s good news,” said Lionel Churchill, a former board member who is leading a petition drive to have the district dissolved. “The only thing that can help this district is outside help. I hope they do a real thorough cleaning job.”

A management team took over Wilmer-Hutchins from 1996 to 1998. Cyrus Holley, who was half of the original management team, said he thinks the TEA’s action Tuesday would not be enough.

“They need to replace the school board, take over the school district, fire the superintendent and merge it into Dallas or another school district,” he said.

Mr. Holley said the school board was resistant to working with the last management team. “They were a complete roadblock,” he said.

He asked the TEA to pursue legal means for removing the board. When then-Commissioner Mike Moses said he would not go after the board, Mr. Holley and his fellow manager, Lois Harrison-Jones, resigned. Replacements served out the rest of TEA’s stay in the district.

Mr. Holley said he thinks he has been proved right by the district’s continued problems.

“They have demonstrated over the last 10 years-plus that they cannot run themselves, they cannot administer themselves, and it’s time for the state of Texas to face up to that.”

Ms. Ratcliffe said the agency considered going beyond a management team and installing a board of managers – a tougher intervention that would have involved throwing the entire school board out of office and replacing its members with state appointees.

“But we didn’t feel that we had all the legal groundwork for more intense intervention,” she said.

The management team will have no set term in office, but state law requires its status to be reviewed every 90 days.

She said the agency viewed a management team as a “very severe sanction” but acknowledged some critics were hoping for more.

“This commissioner is looking at all manner of creative options, including things this agency has never done before,” she said. “Frankly, there is a concern that we have tried this before in Wilmer-Hutchins, and it hasn’t caused a sustained change in the district’s behavior. The commissioner is very interested in a long-term solution to the district’s operations and the educational services it delivers.”

But Ms. Ratcliffe said Ms. Neeley is not actively considering dissolving the school district.

“State law makes it extremely hard to dismantle a school district or a city government,” she said.

Mr. Churchill’s petition drive has gathered enough signatures for the question of dissolving Wilmer-Hutchins to be placed before voters. Before that can happen, state law requires the school board to approve the vote, which is unlikely.

With a management team in place, the state managers could decide to overrule the school board and put the issue to a vote. Ms. Ratcliffe said she doubted the TEA managers would do such a thing, however.

“We want to give the management team a chance to work with the board and get it back on track,” she said.

Mr. Holley said a TEA official had called him recently and asked whether he would be interested in being part of the new management team.

“I said no,” he said. “I’m 70 years old. I’m too old to be involved in that mess.”