Staffing has W-H in a bind; District has too many workers but can’t abide by class cap, officials say

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Wilmer-Hutchins has too many employees, district officials say, and its overflowing staffing is largely to blame for the district’s ongoing financial crisis.

But those same officials also say the district doesn’t have enough teachers to fill its classrooms and meet state class-size requirements.

It’s the latest in a long line of conundrums facing the troubled district: Wilmer-Hutchins manages to have too many employees and too few at the same time.

“I can say what’s happened,” interim Superintendent James Damm said. “I can’t say why it’s happened.”

In the coming months, officials will have to determine how best to cut jobs from a district that, in some areas, is already short on manpower. Last month, Wilmer-Hutchins laid off 16 employees and eliminated 10 unfilled positions. And another round of layoffs is expected in December. Officials say the new year could bring a third round of cuts.

All of these reductions follow the district’s disastrous fall, when its fund balance disappeared and teachers went weeks without paychecks because Wilmer-Hutchins didn’t have the cash to back them.

Mr. Damm – who was a financial consultant to the district before becoming interim superintendent on Nov. 1 – said the budgetary crisis was brought on by overstaffing and bad estimates of district revenues. He and auditors from the Texas Education Agency have said serious cuts are needed to make the district solvent.

“The district must take very aggressive measures to cut costs,” said Tom Canby, TEA’s managing director of financial audits. “And the school district has no option other than to look to that area which is the largest cost component, and that’s salaries.”

Familiar pattern

The district’s enrollment has dropped slowly but steadily over the last several years. It now enrolls about 2,900 students, down from 3,651 in 1999.

But the district’s staffing level has increased over that span, from 393 to 463 at the start of the 2003-04 school year. (Cuts since then have reduced the total to 392.)

That pattern follows what happened in the last school district run by Charles Matthews, Wilmer-Hutchins’ superintendent until a felony indictment led to his firing on Monday.

In the late 1990s, Dr. Matthews led Karnack ISD, a small district in East Texas with declining enrollment. But as the student body shrank, Dr. Matthews allowed the staff to grow – quickly draining the district’s fund balance and leading it into a financial crisis.

But compared with other districts its size, Wilmer-Hutchins’ staffing levels are not unusually high. There are 65 Texas school districts with between 2,500 and 3,500 students. Wilmer-Hutchins lands squarely in the middle on several common measures of staffing levels: student-teacher ratio, student-administrator ratio, and student-employee ratio.

And just last week, district officials said they didn’t have the teaching staff necessary to fill district classrooms.

State law requires schools to have no more than 22 students per class from kindergarten to fourth-grade. According to information the district filed with the state this month, 49 percent of the district’s classrooms in lower grades were in violation of the class-size cap.

That’s easily one of the worst records in the state. By contrast, only 4 percent of classrooms in the Dallas Independent School District are over the cap this year. Last year, out of more than 4,200 elementary schools statewide, only 486 had even one classroom over the 22-to-1 cap.

“We would like to hire additional teachers where it’s allowed by the budget,” said Lew Blackburn, the district’s executive director of human resources.

State and district officials say the complicating factor is Wilmer-Hutchins’ location. Most districts its size are in small towns or rural areas with low costs of living. Because they’re often the only school district for miles around, they can afford to offer relatively low salaries.

That doesn’t work in North Texas, with more than 50 districts in the metropolitan area. Wilmer-Hutchins has to compete with some of the state’s highest teacher salaries. As a result, Wilmer-Hutchins’ starting teacher salary is almost $6,000 higher than the average for districts its size – although about average for districts in the Dallas area.

That combination of factors puts Wilmer-Hutchins in a bind. It’s too small to create the economies of scale that allow larger districts to save money. But its location means it has to compete with those larger districts on salary.

“Not every district can sustain the same budget and the same staffing ratios,” Mr. Canby said. “Some can afford more than others, depending on other conditions.”

For some in the district, that combination is another reason to dissolve Wilmer-Hutchins altogether and merge it into DISD.

“The whole district would be better off,” said Lionel Churchill, a former Wilmer-Hutchins board member who is leading a petition drive to force a merger. “There are so many opportunities available in a larger district like Dallas because of its size. You get more bang for your buck.”

Making cuts

Now, Mr. Damm and the state management team imposed earlier this month must figure out where cuts can be made with the least pain. Mr. Damm said administrative and support staff will probably be harder hit than the district’s teaching corps.

“We’re not going to have teacher layoffs,” he said. “If we have vacancies we don’t have to refill, that’s one thing. But I don’t see any teacher layoffs.”

Mr. Damm has said he wants the district to move to permanent ratios of 17 students per teacher and 10 students per district employee. Both ratios would leave Wilmer-Hutchins’ staff substantially leaner than the state average, but Mr. Damm said that sort of fiscal discipline is necessary for the district’s future.

High on the list of potential cuts is the district’s performing-arts magnet school. It has only 72 students, but it employs 17 staff members – precisely the opposite of an economy of scale.

Its creation in 2003 by Dr. Matthews was controversial, and district officials acknowledge it is a significant drain on district resources.

“It doesn’t make sense in a district this size,” Mr. Damm said.

In lower grades, consolidating elementary schools could be an option. The district has six elementary schools, but only one has more than 400 students. Two, Hutchins and A.L. Morney, have fewer than 100.

Another potential target is the district’s police department. The school board, at Dr. Matthews’ suggestion, voted to eliminate the department and fire its employees this spring.

But Police Chief Cedric Davis and other employees sued the district to prevent the move. Chief Davis had been investigating allegations of corruption in the district, and he argued the school board’s decision was an attempt to silence a whistle-blower.

State District Court Judge Charles Stokes initially agreed and issued an order preventing the firings. But he reversed course last month, and the matter is on appeal.