W-H board could face removal, report says; Officials suggest review in May; president calls criticism a conspiracy

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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State officials could try to kick the Wilmer-Hutchins school board out of office as soon as May if board members don’t improve their attitude, according to a new state report.

But the board’s president said the report is just the latest sign of a “major conspiracy” that seeks to destroy the troubled school district and has already stolen a state football championship from Wilmer-Hutchins High.

“Ray Charles was blind, but even he could see the conspiracy,” Luther Edwards said. “You may beat us, just like slavery, but we will still fight you until the last breath.”

“That is ridiculous,” said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe. “If we had wanted to close this district down, there probably could have been opportunities before now. It’s an insult to suggest the management team wants to do anything other than save this district. But because of long-term mismanagement, its future is unclear right now.”

The report – written by the district’s two state managers, Albert Black and Michelle Willhelm – criticizes the school board for not being cooperative with emergency measures required to bring the nearly insolvent district to financial stability.

“The board of trustees has taken very little initiative to find solutions to its financial and instructional problems,” the report says. “This unwillingness to deal with difficult financial decisions supports the concern expressed by many in the community that the board would be unable or unwilling to meet its governance responsibilities without the state’s presence and oversight of the district’s operations.”

The report recommends that the Texas Education Agency keep the state managers in place until May, when “a determination can be made about the board of trustees’ commitment to the efficient and effective operations of the school district.”

Under state law, the TEA can eliminate the board by upgrading the level of its intervention in the district from a management team – the title Mr. Black and Ms. Willhelm hold – to a board of managers.

Under that scenario, the TEA would remove the entire school board from office and appoint a state-selected group of trustees to replace them.

Conspiracy theory

Mr. Edwards, the board president, said the criticism is unfounded and the latest step in what he said is a decades-old, wide-ranging conspiracy to destroy Wilmer-Hutchins. The district has been among the state’s worst for decades, and state officials have intervened in Wilmer-Hutchins’ affairs dozens of times. Many have accused board members of sabotaging state efforts.

“You’ve got people who want to see this district abolished,” Mr. Edwards said. “It’s all about money. It’s a conspiracy. People need to wake up.”

He said he would not speculate who was a part of the conspiracy but that it included “major players in the state.” He said he did not know whether Mr. Black and Ms. Willhelm were part of the conspiracy.

Mr. Edwards said the conspiracy was driven by wealthy people who want to profit off the purchase of land within the district’s boundaries. He said he believes that the district’s endless stream of problems in recent years have largely been the invention of members of the conspiracy.

“You want to get us out of the way, so you put the state in charge and they find all these things that are wrong,” he said. “Anybody who is standing in the way of progress will get run over.”

Mr. Edwards said the conspiracy intervened in Wilmer-Hutchins High’s football season last fall, when the high-ranked Eagles lost a Nov. 26 playoff game to Tatum, 23-19.

“Our football team would have won the state championship, but the politics got in the way,” he said. “The referees took the game away from the kids.”

He said referees also stole a football championship from Wilmer-Hutchins when he was a student in the early 1970s.

Options open

Since the current state takeover began in November, board members have had to be overruled by state managers when they have refused to carry out TEA’s cost-cutting wishes.

“At recent board meetings, several trustees have strongly expressed opposition to urgent, emergency measures needed to balance the budget, solve cash flow problems, and meet payroll obligations,” according to the report.

Several TEA officials expressed interest in imposing a board of managers when considering the agency’s takeover options last fall. But they eventually determined that, under state law, it could not remove the school board unless the district had received the lowest mark, academically unacceptable, in the state’s school ratings system.

But the district could earn that rating in the next few weeks. In November, The Dallas Morning News analyzed Wilmer-Hutchins’ test scores and found statistical patterns that strongly suggest organized, educator-led cheating on the state TAKS tests.

That led the TEA to launch an investigation into allegations of cheating in Wilmer-Hutchins elementary schools.

State investigators are expected to report their findings in the next few weeks. If they confirm widespread cheating, TEA could choose to lower the district’s rating to academically unacceptable, which could ease the way for a takeover.

Ms. Ratcliffe said no final decision has been reached on eliminating the school board. But she said the agency is “studying the section of the law that dictates how a board of managers can be appointed.”