Troubled district may be out of options; Wilmer-Hutchins: State opposes tax election, cites lack of trust

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Wilmer-Hutchins leaders said last week that there were only two lifelines that could keep the beleaguered school district alive much longer: an act of the Legislature or a new emergency appeal to voters.

The first lifeline has disappeared. And Tuesday night, state officials asked the district not to reach for the other.

If district officials follow the suggestion of the Texas Education Agency, it could be the beginning of the district’s final chapter.

“I don’t want there to be any false hope,” said Albert Black, president of the district’s state-appointed board of managers. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

At issue is the district’s property tax rate. For years, it charged an illegally high tax rate of about $1.50 per $100 of assessed value. The district’s voters had never formally approved a rate above 90 cents per $100.

In May, the district asked for exactly that approval, and voters rejected it overwhelmingly. That move has left the district with a tough choice: Gouge about 40 percent out of its budget, seek some other source of income or shut the district down.

Had the Legislature passed school finance reform this session, the size of the cuts would have been reduced. But lawmakers went home Monday with no such bill passed.

The other hope was putting the tax issue back before the voters. Under state law, a school board must call an election at least 62 days in advance. That means that the earliest another tax authorization vote could be held is Aug. 6, assuming the board makes that decision at its next meeting on Friday. That date is already perilously close to the scheduled start of school, Aug. 10.

But Ron Rowell, the head of TEA’s governance division, told board members that the agency did not want another vote. “We feel it is too early to call another election,” he said. “We feel there has not been enough trust established with the community to go that route.”

The district’s board of managers is not legally obligated to follow the agency’s desires. But the managers were all appointed by the agency last month, when TEA threw out the previous school board for being too dysfunctional. Commissioner Shirley Neeley has the power to remove board members who do not follow her wishes.

If there is no new vote, it would guarantee that if the district opens this fall, it will be at the 90-cent tax rate. Interim Superintendent James Damm, whose last day on the job was Tuesday, has said the district can’t operate at that level.

Board members have said the district’s best option under that scenario may be to subcontract nearly all district operations to neighboring districts such as Lancaster and Dallas.

Business manager Bill Goodman said Tuesday that a 90-cent tax rate is theoretically possible, although “it’s really not pretty.” He said the district could compress itself to just three schools – cramming grades six through 12 into the Wilmer-Hutchins High, moving about 1,200 elementary students into the dilapidated Kennedy-Curry middle school and keeping one smaller campus open.

The district would also have to trim nearly all its administration, cut back severely on nonteaching staff, and consider eliminating bus service and other essentials.