Tough choices ahead in Wilmer-Hutchins; State hopes panel dissolves district before big budget cuts kick in

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

State officials say it’s unlikely they will force the shutdown of Wilmer-Hutchins schools in the next few months. But they are hopeful a federally approved board of managers may do it for them.

If that can happen before next school year, children would be saved from the results of Saturday’s tax vote that will force the district to cut its budget by 40 percent.

“It’s very hard to predict the fate of this district,” said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman. “We can’t recall a time where we’ve had a district go bankrupt in the state. We’re not sure what will happen next.”

Wilmer-Hutchins residents voted by a 2-to-1 ratio Saturday to reject a proposal that would have let the district tax property up to the state’s legal limit. District officials were supposed to put the issue before voters in the 1970s but never did. That meant the district has been collecting taxes illegally for the last three decades.

The voters’ rejection will mean a roughly 40 percent drop in the district’s revenue when students return to school in the fall. Wilmer-Hutchins officials have said they will start cutting. But it’s difficult to imagine what the district has left to trim just a few months after laying off 20 percent of its staff during the last financial crisis.

Additionally, the district has a $3.3 million loan due and no money to pay it off. It’s also unclear how Wilmer-Hutchins will find the money to pay its employees through the summer.

Interim Superintendent James Damm said Monday night that the district would ask voters this summer to authorize a higher tax rate.

“In the next month, we’ll explore all the options … within the restraints we will have to work with,” Mr. Damm said. “It could be difficult. People could lose their jobs. Schools could be closed. Programs could be reduced or eliminated.”

Saturday’s results were not unexpected, but they have left officials in Dallas and Austin wondering what’s next for the troubled district.

TEA officials have investigated the possibility of forcibly annexing Wilmer-Hutchins into a neighboring district – most likely the much larger Dallas school system, which borders it to the north. Under state law, an annexed Wilmer-Hutchins could be taxed at the state maximum without voter approval.

Donald Claxton, the Dallas schools spokesman, said the district has not been formally approached about accepting Wilmer-Hutchins students.

“It’s all in the hands of the state at this point,” he said. “We don’t feel it’s our position to be making any overtures of melding the two.”

But state officials say their hands are, at this point, probably tied. If Wilmer-Hutchins is to be forcibly annexed, it must happen by July 1 under state law. And two other puzzle pieces must fall into place: The district’s test scores must be low enough to earn the “academically unacceptable” tag, and the U.S. Justice Department must approve the takeover.

However, school ratings aren’t typically released until the fall. Even if TEA speeds up the release of Wilmer-Hutchins’ rating, the district’s tests won’t be fully graded until June. Even then, an appeals process is guaranteed under state law.

If forced annexation is out, that wouldn’t prevent Wilmer-Hutchins from seeking a merger on its own. The current school board has been a staunch defender of the district’s autonomy, making such a move unlikely in the short term.

But TEA officials are seeking the board’s ouster from office. Later this week, agency officials will announce the names of three area residents who they wish to appoint to a new board of managers, along with the two state-appointed managers already in place.

The board of managers also requires Justice Department approval, but Ms. Marchman said a Justice decision could be coming as soon as next week.

Once in place, the board of managers would have all the powers of the current school board – including the ability to negotiate the district’s formal demise. The board also wouldn’t face the strict deadlines required under a forced annexation.

“Other districts that have gotten into this sort of financial trouble have put themselves on the path to consolidation before they find themselves in financial ruin,” Ms. Marchman said.

TEA will not bail out Wilmer-Hutchins if it can’t pay its bills, she added. All the agency could do is advance about $1.2 million the district is due this summer.

TEA is attempting the forced annexation of one other district, tiny Mirando City in South Texas, which has had serious academic problems in recent years. It is being merged into the neighboring Webb Consolidated district.

“I went to school here, my husband did, my son did,” said Hilda Esquivel, school board president of Mirando City, population 500. “It’s hard to think about losing the school. It means a lot to this town.”

So far, the annexation process in Mirando City has taken about four months and could still be derailed by a threatened lawsuit. That timeline is an indicator that a speedy annexation in Wilmer-Hutchins is unlikely, Ms. Marchman said.