Wilmer-Hutchins board votes to close 3 schools; Police Department also gets ax as district tries to rein in costs

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The Wilmer-Hutchins district will be three schools smaller when classes start again next month.

The district’s school board voted, 5-2, Monday night to close Hutchins Elementary, A.L. Morney Learning Center and the performing arts magnet high school.

It also voted to eliminate the district’s Police Department and fire its chief, Cedric Davis – a man some consider partially responsible for exposing many of the district’s problems.

Officials said both moves were a necessary part of massive cost-cutting that the troubled district needs.

“This is a very difficult recommendation to make,” interim Superintendent James Damm said of the school closings. “But we must lower costs.”

Each of the three schools enrolls fewer than 100 students. The performing arts high school has only 55. Running the small schools has proved inefficient, and Mr. Damm said the expenses are unsustainable while the district tries to recover from a fund balance deficit of $3 million.

Several community members objected to the closings, saying students should be able to continue in their current academic programs.

“The children really like it down there,” resident Cynthia Fowler said of Hutchins Elementary, where she said she was considering sending her child. “The teachers out there are really teaching the students.”

Several board members asked Mr. Damm whether alternatives were possible: keeping the schools open through the end of the school year, or moving the performing arts program to the main high school campus.

“I have no problem closing the building,” board member Lamar Walton said. “But the program means so much.”

But Mr. Damm resisted changes, saying the district spends about $17,000 per student at the performing arts school.

“It would be a serious setback to our financial recovery plan,” he said.

In the end, board members Debra Harwell and Dortha Thomas were the only two to oppose the move. If the board had voted against the closings, the state management team overseeing Wilmer-Hutchins could have overturned the decision.

Layoffs, savings

No teachers will lose their jobs as a result of the closings, Mr. Damm said. Some support personnel and administrators will be laid off.

The closings will save the district more than $400,000. Once the closings take effect, Wilmer-Hutchins’ staff will be reduced to 338 people. At the start of the school year, before a series of layoffs, the district had 406 employees.

Students of the closed elementary schools will be shifted to C.S. Winn and Wilmer elementary schools. The performing arts students will move to Wilmer Hutchins High.

Mr. Damm said some high school students would be hurt by the transfers because the performing arts high school runs on a different kind of block schedule than Wilmer Hutchins High.

He said administrators would work with students so they can earn the credits they need.

The district’s unusual enrollment pattern is largely the result of parents’ decision to abandon Wilmer-Hutchins, which has ranked among the state’s worst for decades. Ten year ago, Wilmer-Hutchins enrolled more than 4,000 students. Now it enrolls 2,900, making it the only area district to have lost enrollment over that span.

Many of the students have fled to the Dallas ISD or to charter schools. That has left all the district schools smaller, but the impact has been strongest on the elementary schools – which typically have smaller enrollment totals in any district.

The board’s vote to eliminate the four-person Police Department was unanimous. The board had voted to eliminate the department in June, but Chief Davis and the department’s other employees sued, saying they were being targeted as whistleblowers.

This spring, Chief Davis turned over evidence to the Dallas County district attorney’s office regarding allegations of corruption among district administrators. That investigation has since spiraled outward, leading indirectly to the state’s takeover of the district and criminal investigations by the FBI, the Texas Rangers and several other law-enforcement agencies.

State District Judge Charles Stokes granted a temporary injunction requiring the district to rehire Chief Davis and the other employees. But the judge reversed course in September.

Chief Davis said the move was expected, and he said he would consider his legal options. “It’s ‘slay the messenger,'” he said.

Michelle Willhelm, one of the district’s two state managers, said: “It’s very unfortunate that nonessential personnel must be released, but the budget must be balanced.”

As if to emphasize the point, district officials chose Monday night to make a state-mandated presentation on the district’s poor financial shape.

Wilmer-Hutchins was one of a few districts statewide to receive failing marks in the state’s financial rating system, and the Texas Education Agency requires such low-performing school districts to inform the public of their standing.

Mr. Damm said he expects the school district to receive another poor rating next year because the ratings are based on year-old data.

“It will be two years before we can hopefully bring you a positive report,” he said.

Searching for a bank

Normally the district’s depository bank would be assisting the district through its financial difficulties. But Wells Fargo told Wilmer-Hutchins last month that it no longer wanted to handle the district’s money.

The district’s financial staff asked for bids for a replacement. But no banks have been willing to offer their services, forcing the district to extend its deadline for bidders.

“We’re finding this to be quite challenging,” said Bill Goodman, the district’s business director.