State to dissolve W-H school board; TEA report says more than 20 educators gave students TAKS answers

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The Wilmer-Hutchins school board will soon be out of work.

State Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley has decided to dissolve the troubled district’s board because state investigators found widespread cheating by teachers on the state’s TAKS test.

The investigation – prompted by a series of Dallas Morning News stories in November – found that more than 20 Wilmer-Hutchins teachers and administrators gave answers to students.

According to a confidential Texas Education Agency report obtained by The News, teachers ordered students who finished the test early to fix answers on other students’ answer sheets. Some students were required to have their answers checked before proceeding to the next question. And some teachers prepared answer keys for students.

In all, 22 educators were fingered by the investigation – two-thirds of all the educators who administered tests in the district’s elementary schools.

“This significant number appears to indicate a pervasive lack of oversight at three of the four elementary campuses and at the district level to such an extent that the validity of the test results is compromised,” the report said.

Some trustees reacted with outrage at the board dissolution

“We’re being declared guilty for nothing,” said board President Luther Edwards. “We haven’t done anything wrong. It’s the major power brokers who are arranging all this.”

But other area leaders welcomed the change and said the idea of teachers helping students cheat on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills is shameful.

“They treated those kids horribly,” Wilmer Mayor Don Hudson said of the educators accused of cheating. “They weren’t doing anyone any favors except themselves. Now we’ll have kids who can’t function in society even with a Wilmer-Hutchins diploma because they were never really taught.”

Under state law, a board of managers is the most severe intervention the commissioner can impose on a school district. The school board will be dissolved and a superintendent appointed.

James Damm has been interim superintendent since Superintendent Charles Matthews was fired in November after being indicted on felony document tampering charges. It was unclear whether Dr. Neeley would choose to reappoint Mr. Damm to the position or choose a new leader.

“I have to try to digest … the report and see what it really means,” Mr. Damm said.

District woes

Wilmer-Hutchins has been hammered by a series of crises in the last year, beginning with a summer storm that damaged Wilmer-Hutchins High School and left it in such condition that the start of school had to be delayed. Among the other problems:

*The district’s evaporating fund balance, which meant the district didn’t have the money to pay teachers on time twice last fall.

*Criminal investigations launched by the FBI, the Texas Rangers and county and federal grand juries, including allegations that district officials fudged attendance records to increase state funding.

*The indictment of Dr. Matthews and maintenance director Wallace Faggett after they were accused of destroying purchase orders and other documents sought by criminal investigators.

*The revelation that its chief attorney – since fired – practiced for a time without a law license.

*A judge’s ruling that banned the school board from meeting because it posed a danger to the district’s well-being.

*The discovery that the district had been setting its tax rate illegally since the 1970s.

“School governance is unstable in Wilmer-Hutchins ISD and has been so for many years,” Dr. Neeley wrote in a letter to district leaders Monday.

The final trigger for the dissolution of the school board was the cheating scandal. Even before Monday’s report, the allegations were supported by the district’s abysmal performance on this spring’s TAKS. In response to concerns about cheating, more than 70 state monitors were sent to oversee the first round of TAKS testing last month in all the district’s elementary schools.

With teachers being watched for improper behavior, scores plummeted.

This year, 39 percent of the district’s fifth-graders passed the reading TAKS. That’s 36 percentage points below the state average.

It’s also quite a change from last year, when 89 percent of Wilmer-Hutchins fifth-graders passed the reading test – 9 percentage points above the state average.

“It’s a pretty unbelievable drop in scores,” said Suzanne Marchman, a TEA spokeswoman. “The fifth-grade scores are lousy.”

Third-graders saw a similar, though smaller, drop – from 89 percent last year to 72 percent this year.

Concerns about the validity of Wilmer-Hutchins’ test scores were first raised in a News investigation in November that found statistically unlikely swings in the district’s performance. Several students also said teachers had given them answers while administering the TAKS.

State investigation

After the News articles, the TEA began an investigation. In all, 54 students and 31 current and former district employees were interviewed.

Investigators also found that unusually high numbers of answers were erased and replaced on the answer sheets of Wilmer-Hutchins students – and that unusually high numbers of the erasures changed wrong answers to correct ones.

For example, in one third-grade classroom at Wilmer Elementary, student answer sheets had 57 times more erasures than the state average.

Through interviews, investigators found evidence of cheating at all four Wilmer-Hutchins elementary schools: Alta Mesa, C.S. Winn, Wilmer and Hutchins. (Hutchins Elementary was closed as a cost-cutting measure in December.)

The report does not identify any of the teachers involved but does indicate that violations were most commonly found among third-grade teachers. Of the 10 educators who administered the test to third-graders, eight were found to have committed violations. Third grade is the year that students take a must-pass reading test in order to be promoted.

As a result of the findings, Dr. Neeley said she will be lowering the ratings of Alta Mesa, C.S. Winn and Wilmer to “academically unacceptable,” the lowest possible. The district’s overall rating will also be lowered.

That’s important because state officials have said that, under state law, a board of managers can be imposed only on a district with the state’s lowest rating.

Dr. Neeley must now appoint a board and superintendent. Mr. Hudson, the Wilmer mayor, said that he spoke with Dr. Neeley on Monday and that the commissioner gave him the names of some of the members, though he said he did not recognize them. He said some were from the immediate area and some were not.

The TEA must also get Justice Department approval for the move because it involves the removal of an elected body.

Since the November appointment of a two-person management team, board members have clashed repeatedly with their state overseers, forcing the state managers to use their power to overrule decisions. Most recently, the board voted three times this month not to finalize the firing of Dr. Matthews, despite a state hearing examiner’s report recommending the indicted leader’s termination be finalized.

Mr. Edwards, a board member for 12 years, has said repeatedly that state intervention is not driven by poor decisions by the board. The real cause, he said, is a conspiracy of greed, led by shady, unknown individuals.

“We’re being held accountable for things that we didn’t do wrong,” he said. If there was cheating in Wilmer-Hutchins, blame should fall on principals, not the board, he said.

But Michelle Willhelm, one of the state managers, said she agreed with the decision to impose a board of managers.

“The board is a hindrance to progress,” she said. “It’s better to move them aside and let a board of managers move ahead.”

The commissioner’s recommendations are included in a preliminary report that was released to district officials Monday. Mr. Damm and board members have 10 days to comment on the report’s findings, after which the TEA will issue a final report and formally take steps to dissolve the board.