W-H gets new leaders; State ousts trustees, picks manager board and superintendent

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

For the fourth time since November, Wilmer-Hutchins teachers will have a new superintendent to call boss.

But this time they’ll have an entirely new board, too.

State Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley swept into the troubled district Thursday and swept out the seven-member school board that has overseen the district’s financial collapse.

The district’s new leadership has been assigned a pressing task: Determine quickly whether there’s anything salvageable in Wilmer-Hutchins schools, which are swimming in debt, indictments and scandal. Otherwise, Dr. Neeley said, the district will be shut down, perhaps very quickly.

“This community no longer trusts the sitting board with its children or its money,” she said. “Whatever decision the team makes, the decision will be one of permanency. No more Band-Aids. No more quick fixes.”

Eugene Young, an assistant superintendent in Lancaster, will become the new superintendent June 1. He replaces interim Superintendent James Damm, whose contract will expire at the end of the month. Some say it’ll take a miracle for Mr. Young to save the district, which took another blow Thursday when a bank filed a lawsuit to recover a $2.8 million loan.

“Are you all ready to walk on water?” Mr. Young asked a crowd at district headquarters. “If you are ready, I ask you to engage in a little water walking and step out of the boat and step out into the storm with me.”

Dr. Neeley had first proposed the housecleaning in March, when a Texas Education Agency investigation found that 22 of the district’s elementary school teachers were helping students improperly on the state’s TAKS test. That investigation was prompted by stories in The Dallas Morning News that alleged widespread cheating in the district.

“This is inexcusable, illegal, unprofessional, unethical and unacceptable behavior,” Dr. Neeley said.

Throwing out an elected school board requires approval from the Justice Department, which had to determine whether such a move improperly violated the voting rights of district residents.

When Dr. Neeley arrived at district headquarters Monday morning, she said she was hopeful that approval could come by month’s end. Instead, it came by fax just after 1 p.m.

The old seven-member board will be replaced with a five-member board of managers, all appointed by Dr. Neeley. Two are familiar faces: Dallas businessman Albert Black Jr. and former TEA administrator Michelle Willhelm. Both have been working in the district since November as a state-appointed management team.

The three other board members are fresh to district politics: Sandra Donato, an educator who works with recent immigrants in Dallas schools; Donnie Foxx, a technical support specialist with Exxon Mobil; and Saundra King, a financial analyst and portfolio manager.

While Mr. Foxx has spoken at school board meetings before, none of the three has been major players in the factional tug-of-war that has defined the district’s politics in recent years.

Finding people willing to sign up for duty wasn’t easy. The agency contacted dozens of people starting in March, and many weren’t willing to get involved. “Some people hung up on us,” said Ron Rowell, the agency’s senior director of school governance.

The job is likely to be a stressful one. TEA officials have advised the three new board members not to give their phone numbers to the public until special phone lines can be arranged. But the appointees say there’s hope for the district.

“I’m optimistic we can make some changes,” Ms. Donato said.

The three new board members will not be paid. But Mr. Black and Ms. Willhelm will continue to draw their previous salaries of $480 a day. Mr. Young’s annual salary will be $125,000 – assuming the district is still in existence a year from now.

Mr. Young, a former Dallas principal and teacher, faces an immediate fiscal crisis. The district does not have the money to repay the $2.8 million loan from Wells Fargo. It also doesn’t have the money to meet payroll this summer. In all, the district will need to find $5.7 million by August to meet its obligations.

Even if it does, Wilmer-Hutchins will have 40 percent less per-student funding this fall than nearly every other district in the state. That’s because the district has been setting its tax rate illegally since the 1970s, and voters overwhelmingly rejected a chance last Saturday to allow a higher tax rate.

Pressure will be strong to dissolve the district quickly and merge it with one or more neighboring districts: enormous Dallas or smaller Lancaster or Ferris. A merger would solve the tax rate problem immediately.

“If need be, I feel we would be willing to help out the children of Wilmer-Hutchins,” said Dallas trustee Lew Blackburn. Dr. Blackburn is also human resources director in Wilmer-Hutchins, which means a merger with Dallas probably would leave him without a job.

It’s been a very long school year for Wilmer-Hutchins. Its former superintendent, Charles Matthews, has been indicted twice on charges of fraud and document tampering. Its schools are literally falling apart. A suddenly vaporized fund balance led to the layoffs of nearly 20 percent of the district’s staff.

And the cheating scandal has put the district into academic freefall. For this year’s spring Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills testing, more than 80 monitors oversaw the process to prevent cheating. It worked. The district’s passing rate on the fifth-grade reading test, for example, dropped from 89 percent last year to just 39 percent with monitors in place.

It’s unlikely the debate over who’s running Wilmer-Hutchins is permanently closed. At Tuesday’s news conference, Brenda Duff and Cedric Davis both objected to the takeover. Both were elected to posts on the school board Saturday, but neither now will be able to take a seat.

Ms. Duff argued that she and Mr. Davis, who is her son, are actually now members of the new board of managers. Dr. Neeley firmly rejected that notion.

“I’m going to protect my rights,” said Ms. Duff, who said she would start having her own school board meetings without the state appointees.

Ms. Duff and Mr. Davis said they are considering taking legal action to be seated on the board. Mr. Davis said he is seeking advice from representatives of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

But the outgoing board president, Luther Edwards, says he won’t be trying to cling to power. “This is like a burden lifted off my shoulders,” he said.

He has argued repeatedly that he and the board should not be blamed for the district’s myriad problems. Instead, he said, the culprits are an array of powerful state and business interests who want to see the all-black school board pushed aside to increase the value of the district’s land.

Mr. Edwards said he knew this takeover was coming because, in January, he asked an undercover plainclothes officer to watch over Mr. Black and the other state-approved leadership in the district. He said they planned the removal of the board even then.

Dr. Neeley said scrapping the board was the strongest medicine she could give the district. But some said anything that keeps Wilmer-Hutchins alive – even for a few months – is not strong enough.

“How much longer is this going to go on?” asked Wilmer Mayor Don Hudson. “We have that Wilmer-Hutchins stigma. How can you turn it around? I think getting rid of the district is the way to do it.”