District seeks help from Austin, voters; If all else fails, students could be sent to other districts

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The future of Wilmer-Hutchins will come down to two votes: one in Austin, one at the district’s polling places.

The troubled school district is relying on legislative action to make its financial bind less painful – and counting on voters to extend the district a lifeline this July.

“It really is up to the citizens to determine if the district has any additional service to provide to the children of Wilmer-Hutchins,” said Al Black, president of the district’s state-appointed board of managers.

If things don’t work out on either end, the district may be forced to turn to what Mr. Black called Plan B: keeping the district formally open but shipping its students to neighboring districts this fall.

Most pressing of the district’s many problems is the result of its May 7 election, in which voters refused to authorize a tax rate above 90 cents per $100 of assessed property value.

The district had been taxing near the state-allowed maximum of $1.50 per $100, but it had been doing so illegally. The voters’ decision effectively cuts the district’s budget by 40 percent.

In recent weeks, interim Superintendent James Damm and other district leaders had said they were working on plans to operate the district at the lower funding level – plans that included major cuts in staffing and student activities. But on Tuesday, Mr. Damm said that effort had failed.

“We have come to the conclusion that the district just can’t function under those assumptions,” he said. “It cannot provide even the basic necessities of a school district.”

The district is looking to Austin for help. The Legislature is considering bills that would reduce how much school districts must rely on property taxes to fund their operations. If legislators can approve such a change before the session’s end Monday, it would make Wilmer-Hutchins’ tax problems less crippling.

But even with the Legislature’s help, Mr. Black said the district would struggle to provide a decent education. That’s why board members said they wanted to put the tax rate issue back before voters, probably in late July.

Board members didn’t formally approve the July revote at Tuesday night’s meeting, but they asked that the issue be put on the agenda of its next meeting.

They said they would try to sell the public on the district’s new face in a series of public hearings – some to be held in such areas as Wilmer and Hutchins, which have sometimes felt marginalized from the district’s political center of gravity in southern Dallas.

“I’m confident we can show residents the improvements that have been made and are being made,” board member Sandra Donato said.

It has become increasingly unlikely the district will be dissolved before classes begin this fall. Under state law, Commissioner Shirley Neeley can order the district’s absorption into one or more neighbors – but only if the district is rated academically unacceptable for two years. That second year’s rating won’t come until July at the earliest.

By then, a statutory deadline for dissolution will have passed, and Dr. Neeley could not order Wilmer-Hutchins shuttered until the summer of 2006.

The board of managers is free to negotiate the district’s demise itself, but that too looks increasingly unlikely. Even if the tax revote in late July fails, it would probably be too late to dissolve the district before the start of school a few weeks later.

Instead, district leaders sketched out their Plan B, which could involve divvying up Wilmer-Hutchins students among neighboring districts. For example, it’s possible high school students could be lent to one district and elementary students to several others, Mr. Black said. Administrative duties could be handled by districts outside southern Dallas County, he said.

Under this scenario, Wilmer-Hutchins wouldn’t be formally dissolved. But because the students would be lent to districts with higher tax rates, they could be funded at higher levels.

Mr. Damm said there was no model for Wilmer-Hutchins to follow. “We’re blazing new ground here,” he said. “No one’s been in a situation like this before.”

Even if the revenue problem is solved, Wilmer-Hutchins won’t be home free. It owes $2.8 million to Wells Fargo, a loan the bank is suing to recover. That case goes to court Friday. The district also needs to borrow about $3 million just to pay its salaries and utility bills through the summer break. A teachers group sued the district Monday to stake employees’ claim to that money.