Team meets trustees; State-appointed managers positive about job ahead at W-H

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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After being introduced to the Wilmer-Hutchins school board they will govern, one of the district’s new state-appointed managers had something to tell trustees.

“God help us,” businessman Albert Black said.

His statement – which prompted supportive noises from the audience at Monday night’s meeting – reflected the size of the task ahead for the state takeover team.

It will be taking over a district with an indicted superintendent, collapsing buildings, a looming cheating scandal and more bills than cash.

“We want to provide leadership,” said Mr. Black’s fellow manager, former Dallas interim Superintendent Robert Payton. “I really think we can turn things around.”

State Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley announced the team last week after an audit report found the district’s finances near collapse.

Under state law, a management team can veto any action of the school board, superintendent or campus principals. In addition, the two-member team can order district officials to take almost any action they choose.

Karen Case, the state’s deputy associate commissioner of support services, said the intervention was necessary because of the district’s “comprehensive deficiencies.”

Many of those deficiencies – disappearing funds, academic failure, allegations of cheating on state tests – are not new. The Texas Education Agency has had to step into the troubled district’s affairs many times.

“I recognize some of you,” Dr. Case said. “Unfortunately, I’ve been here in this role before.”

But she said she hopes whatever reforms the state imposes on Wilmer-Hutchins this time will have more lasting power than before.

“We’ve learned the sustainability of the changes is tenuous, at best,” she said.

During the meeting, interim Superintendent James Damm confirmed that the district will not be able to meet payroll on time this month.

Employees are supposed to be paid Wednesday, but for the second time this fall, the district doesn’t have enough cash to issue paychecks.

Mr. Damm said he is hopeful the district can borrow money in the next few days and assured the audience that employees would be paid by month’s end.

Mr. Damm said he was heartened by the number of businesses and individuals who have come forward to offer assistance to the cash-strapped district.

“It’s a strong outpouring of support,” he said.

Dr. Case wasn’t the only visitor from the TEA in the district Monday. A team of investigators from the agency’s test security department arrived to investigate the district’s scores.

The agency is investigating whether teachers and principals in some of the district’s elementary schools helped students cheat on the state’s TAKS test. A Dallas Morning News data analysis and the testimony of several teachers and students support the allegations.

Dr. Case said the agency’s investigation has found that an unusually high number of answers on this spring’s TAKS answer sheets had been erased. She said a high number of the erasures corrected wrong answers.

“The integrity of our accountability system rests on being able to trust test scores,” she said.

The investigators are expected to stay at least through the end of the week. A report on their findings is expected in early December.