Wilmer Elementary principal to resign; District says decision not tied to questions about TAKS scores

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The principal of Wilmer Elementary has decided to resign, less than two weeks after a Dallas Morning News analysis of TAKS test scores found strong evidence of organized cheating at the school.

But Geraldine Hobson told district officials that her decision is based on family circumstances, not the cheating allegations, Wilmer-Hutchins interim Superintendent James Damm said.

“We’ll be putting together a plan to replace her,” he said.

The cheating allegations center on the third-grade reading TAKS test, which, in most cases, students must pass to be promoted to fourth grade. Wilmer historically has been an academic underachiever.

But this spring, nearly all of Wilmer’s third-graders had perfect or near-perfect scores on the test – substantially better than even the highest-scoring suburban districts fared statewide. Among the more than 3,000 Texas elementary schools that tested at least 30 students, Wilmer Elementary finished No. 1.

Even the scores of Wilmer students who, by state standards, have trouble speaking and reading English, beat out every other school in the state.

But the school’s scores in other grades – where passing the test is not required for students to be promoted – were poor.

Since the News’ initial story, a former fourth-grade teacher at Wilmer has come forward to support the allegations.

Addie Stepney said many of the students she taught – all of whom had passed the third-grade reading test the year before – couldn’t read at all. She said other teachers told her that the third-grade teachers had helped students cheat.

An investigative team from the Texas Education Agency arrived in the district on Monday afternoon and is interviewing principals and teachers from several Wilmer-Hutchins elementary schools about allegations of cheating.

Ms. Hobson, 65, will leave the job at the end of the fall semester. Mr. Damm said she had previously planned to retire at the end of the school year. Her mother died recently, and Mr. Damm said she cited that as the main reason for her resignation.

Reached at home, Ms. Hobson said she had no comment. She has previously said there was no cheating at her school.

In another Wilmer-Hutchins development, one half of the new state-appointed management team has resigned. Robert Payton, a former Dallas administrator and interim superintendent, told TEA officials he underestimated how much time it would take to fix the troubled district’s problems.

“He decided it’s going to take more time than he can offer,” TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said. “He didn’t think it would take the time commitment he realized once he was on site.”

Mr. Payton started the job Monday. The TEA announced the state takeover last week. Under state law, a management team can order the district’s school board, superintendent or principals to take almost any action, and it can veto any decision they make.

His replacement is Michelle Willhelm, former chief of operations at the TEA. Ms. Willhelm has worked in a variety of Texas districts in positions ranging from teacher to superintendent.

“I understand they need me, and I’m going to find out what I need to know,” she said Wednesday. “I was told to be ready to roll up my sleeves.”

During her stint at the TEA in the mid-1990s, Ms. Willhelm oversaw a 30 percent reduction in the agency’s operating costs, including reductions in personnel. That experience will come in handy in Wilmer-Hutchins, which recently cut 26 positions and is planning another round of layoffs in the next few weeks.

Ms. Willhelm lives in San Antonio, and her appointment probably will increase Wilmer-Hutchins’ costs. Under state law, a district must pay the travel expenses of its state managers. The other manager, businessman Albert Black, lives in Dallas.

But Ms. Willhelm said she expects to do some of her work by phone and e-mail.

“There can be advantages to not being local,” she said. “You can be so neutral, you can be objective. It may be worthwhile one of us is from outside and one from inside.”