Wilmer-Hutchins district plans to close 3 campuses to cut costs; Schools chief says arts magnet, elementary, learning center to shut

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Wilmer-Hutchins officials plan to shut down three of the district’s eight schools as part of an attempt to cut costs and move the district out of its financial emergency.

“In good times, I’m not sure I could support these schools,” interim Superintendent James Damm said at Monday’s board meeting. “In the times we find ourselves in, I know we can’t support them.”

He is recommending closing Hutchins Elementary, A.L. Morney Learning Center and the district’s performing-arts magnet high school. Each enrolls fewer than 100 students.

The board will take action on the recommendation at its meeting next Monday.

According to a district staffing analysis prepared last month, Hutchins had 83 students, Morney had 82 and the performing-arts high school had 55. Because of their small size, it is more difficult for the district to maintain reasonable staffing there. On the three campuses, the student-teacher ratio is 10 to 1. In the district’s other schools, the ratio is 15.6 to 1.

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.

The performing-arts high school recently has been the district’s most controversial. About half its few students reside outside the district and pay tuition to attend. But it costs the district about $10,000 per student to run the school, since it must employ teachers in the traditional academic disciplines as well as its arts programs.

“Only a large urban district like Dallas can afford the luxury of these magnet schools,” Mr. Damm said, referring to Dallas’ noted Booker T. Washington School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

Mr. Damm said that if the board approves the closures next week, students from the performing-arts school would be transferred to Wilmer-Hutchins High School. The elementary students would be moved to C.S. Winn Elementary, Wilmer Elementary or both.

Last month, Mr. Damm cited the performing-arts school as a source of a potential cost savings. But at the time, he expressed hesitation about changing the school’s status in the middle of the year. On Monday, he said he wants the school closed after semester exams later this month.

Mr. Damm said the closings would save the district more than $400,000. The district is in a severe financial crisis, having run short of money to pay teachers twice this fall.

For Hutchins Elementary students, a move would mean attending classes in a third location this school year. When Wilmer-Hutchins High was considered unusable in August – because of poorly repaired summer storm damage – the high school students took over Hutchins for the first few weeks of school. The elementary students moved to a building down the street.