W-H puts off decision; Meeting turns raucous over proposal to merge with Lancaster

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The five members of the Wilmer-Hutchins board of managers are ready to dissolve the troubled district and merge with Lancaster schools.

But the board didn’t take action at Monday night’s meeting because a sometimes rowdy crowd made it clear it wanted a chance to speak its mind.

“We have run out of time,” Superintendent Eugene Young said.

The board put off action for more than a week, but Lancaster’s superintendent said the delay could prevent his district from being able to take Wilmer-Hutchins’ students.

Mr. Young was appointed Wilmer-Hutchins superintendent barely a month ago, when state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley threw out the elected school board.

Until then, Mr. Young was an assistant superintendent in Lancaster.

He proposed a number of other options for the district but rejected them all. Merging with Dallas schools would require busing the district’s students north, he said. Splitting the district into parts would unnecessarily divide the community, he argued. And keeping the district alive in its current state is a financial impossibility.

Instead, he proposed outsourcing the job of running Wilmer-Hutchins schools this fall to Lancaster. Students would be taught on Wilmer-Hutchins campuses, but Lancaster would provide the teachers and principals. Nearly all Wilmer-Hutchins employees would lose their jobs, although Lancaster could choose to hire some of them.

Wilmer-Hutchins would continue to exist on paper for one more year, collecting tax money and putting it toward some of the district’s debts. Then, next June, the district would be formally dissolved and merged with Lancaster. For local children to get a good education, Mr. Young said, “the district has to die.”

All five members of the Wilmer-Hutchins board said after the meeting that they considered the Lancaster merger the best option available to the district.

“This change is coming,” board president Albert Black said.

Board member Michelle Willhelm said the merger could help the two districts, both of which are traditionally low-achieving. In this spring’s TAKS testing, Wilmer-Hutchins had the worst scores of 52 North Texas districts surveyed by The Dallas Morning News. Lancaster had the second worst.

“I think this is a merger where the whole will be greater than the parts,” Ms. Willhelm said. “This will help both districts with resources.”

Board members may have a tough time convincing Wilmer-Hutchins residents of the wisdom of the move, however. The roughly 100 who gathered at Monday night’s meeting were vocal in their opposition to anything that would dissolve Wilmer-Hutchins.

“This is a modern-day lynching,” said Wilmer-Hutchins alumnus and parent Michael Rodgers, one of several residents who yelled at board members intermittently throughout the meeting.

While there were no physical confrontations, tensions approached the boiling point several times – including a 15-minute delay in the start of a closed board session when some audience members verbally confronted board members and Texas Education Agency officials.

The district’s head of curriculum and instruction, B. Ellen Johnson, broke down crying at one point after Mr. Young said “severe problems with instructional leadership” was one of the district’s biggest problems.

The crowd reaction was so negative that Mr. Black proposed pushing back a final decision on the district’s fate until after a public hearing could be conducted.

Mr. Black proposed three additional meetings: a public hearing this week, a workshop for board members to go over options, and a final vote near the end of next week, on or about June 30.

That schedule doesn’t work well for at least three district leaders, including Mr. Young, all of whom are scheduled to be out of town on vacation or other trips at some point over the next two weeks. Mr. Black said they could be included via conference calls.

The schedule also doesn’t work for Lancaster. Its school board must vote on whether to accept Wilmer-Hutchins’ students before a deal can be finalized, and Lancaster Superintendent Larry Lewis said the proposed timetable doesn’t leave enough time for that to happen.

“If we don’t find out their decision until that late, there’s no way we can know where the students are going to be in time,” he said.

Despite that issue, Dr. Lewis said he believed the marriage between Wilmer-Hutchins and Lancaster would be “a good match.”

Carolyn Morris, a Lancaster school board member who attended Monday’s meeting, said she believed Dr. Lewis would be able to get the votes to approve a merger. But she said she was not convinced the move was a good one.