W-H nears a decision on its fate; District might shut down this year or next, send kids to DISD, Lancaster

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The Wilmer-Hutchins school district may be in its final days as an independent, functioning body.

At the urging of state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley, the district’s board of managers is expected to meet early next week to make a final decision on Wilmer-Hutchins’ future. And the two top options involve dissolving the district and educating its children in either the Dallas or Lancaster districts or both.

“We’ve got to figure out what to do with the kids very quickly,” said Kevin O’Hanlon, a Wilmer-Hutchins attorney who was among the district leaders who met with Dr. Neeley. “She wants us to have a plan by the first of July.”

Texas Education Agency officials have been concerned that the district’s board of managers wasn’t moving quickly enough to determine the district’s future. Dr. Neeley appointed the board last month after tossing out the incumbent school board, which had overseen the district’s financial collapse and a cheating scandal.

Wilmer-Hutchins faces a summer cash crunch. It owes $2.8 million to Wells Fargo, which the bank is suing to recover. It needs about $3 million to pay teachers and keep its offices open for the next two months. It has money for neither.

In addition, last month voters rejected a tax authorization that would have allowed the district to keep funding essentially flat from last year. Instead, the district’s revenue will be cut by about 40 percent.

When she appointed the board of managers last month, Dr. Neeley asked its members to evaluate whether the district was worth saving. Wilmer-Hutchins has been a thorn in TEA’s side for decades, and the agency has been criticized for not doing enough to combat local mismanagement.

The managers have had a series of public forums to discuss the district’s future, with two more scheduled for this month. But in a meeting with district leaders Wednesday in Austin, Dr. Neeley said she wants a decision more quickly – particularly if students will have to be moved to another district in the fall.

“The commissioner let them know the urgency of the matter,” TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said.

TEA officials say there are two major options being considered:

* Shutting down the district immediately. Wilmer-Hutchins would be merged permanently into either the Dallas and Lancaster districts or both of them, and students would start attending classes there in the fall.

* Waiting a year to formally shutter the district but temporarily contracting out the job of educating Wilmer-Hutchins students to Dallas or Lancaster. Under a quirk of state funding law, such a move would free up more money to educate Wilmer-Hutchins students and allow the district to pay off its debts with local property-tax revenue.

Dallas school officials have said they would be willing to take Wilmer-Hutchins students if necessary. Many of the schools in Dallas’ southern sector have low enrollment and have the space to deal with a spike in admissions.

Making severe cuts

Ms. Marchman said other options – including keeping Wilmer-Hutchins alive in a crippled state – could be considered.

But district officials have said Wilmer-Hutchins would have to make draconian cuts to remain open. At Tuesday’s board meeting, officials proposed a budget that would cut the number of teachers from last year’s 187 to 126. The number of teachers’ aides would drop from 36 to four.

In all, Wilmer-Hutchins would have to eliminate nearly half of all district jobs, cutting payroll to 182 people. That’s an enormous drop from the 406 employees Wilmer-Hutchins had at the start of last year, before the scope of the economic collapse became clear.

“We want you to see what it’s going to look like if we go in that direction,” Superintendent Eugene Young told the board Tuesday. “We don’t need to look at a fairy tale. This is reality.”

The board could also choose to put the tax-authorization issue back before voters and ask them to raise their taxes back to prior levels. Such an election could take place only after school starts in the fall.

Dr. Neeley has let it be known that she does not support such an election, and most board members have followed her wishes. At Tuesday’s meeting, scheduling another election was listed on the board’s agenda, but the board voted 4-1 to table it. Only Donnie Foxx, who has been vocal in his support for another election, opposed it.

“If the people in this community think the district can be saved, I don’t think we have a choice but to put it back before the voters,” Mr. Foxx said Tuesday.

Optimism fading

The newly appointed board members could not be reached Thursday, but some of the early optimism they showed about the district’s survival has waned at recent public meetings. Board President Albert Black – who only a month ago said he was very confident the district would survive – said Tuesday night that “the district is in a financial state where we don’t know what will happen.”

Even if the board decides not to dissolve the district, the matter could be out of its hands. On July 8, official results from this spring’s TAKS tests will be released to Dr. Neeley. Wilmer-Hutchins’ results are among the worst achievement test scores the state has ever seen, and they are expected to earn the district the label “academically unacceptable.” When that happens, Dr. Neeley will have the legal authority to dissolve the district herself, effective in July 2006.

The district, which enrolls about 2,700 students, owes about $9 million to a variety of sources. That includes $2 million in tax anticipation notes whose existence was discovered only in the last few days.

On Thursday, the Texas State Teachers Association formally asked TEA to loan Wilmer-Hutchins the money needed to meet payroll so educators can be paid. Ms. Marchman said the agency is evaluating the request, but it appears that state law prevents the agency from issuing such a loan.

The district normally could count on receiving well over $1 million a year in federal dollars. But the U.S. Department of Education has frozen access to those funds because Wilmer-Hutchins’ financial records are in disarray and haven’t been audited for the last two fiscal years. The district has tried to hire an outside auditing firm to do the work, but none have proved willing.