Wilmer-Hutchins closing for a year; District employees out of jobs; where students will go is undecided

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Wilmer-Hutchins schools will shut down for the next year, district leaders decided Monday night, and their teachers, principals and librarians are out of work.

But the district received an unexpected lifeline from its state managers that could bring the district back from the dead in one year’s time.

“This is a very, very difficult decision,” said Albert Black, the board president. “But I think it’s the right one for the children of Wilmer-Hutchins.”

Monday’s vote by the board of managers finally answered one question Wilmer-Hutchins residents have asked in the last few turbulent weeks, as it became increasingly clear the district’s financial chaos would not allow it to open its doors as usual this fall.

The answer to another question – where the district’s 2,700 students will go instead – is unclear.

Lancaster is the preferred choice of Wilmer-Hutchins leaders, but it’s far from clear that Lancaster wants them.

Two Dallas school board members said they would be willing to reconsider a key sticking point – the survival of Wilmer-Hutchins High – that could make a merger with Dallas schools more likely.

Jobs lost

What is clear is that roughly 300 Wilmer-Hutchins employees lost their jobs Monday night. For them, it was a maddening end to a bewildering school year.

“The reward I get for my hard work is ‘Find another place to go work’?” asked Joe Tave, a science teacher at Kennedy-Curry Middle School.

The major surprise came from a twist supported by Mr. Black. The board had been expected to consider giving Lancaster operational control over Wilmer-Hutchins for the upcoming school year, then shutting down Wilmer-Hutchins entirely next June. For a number of legal reasons, such a move would allow the district to pay off most of its roughly $9 million in debt. It would also allow students to remain at Wilmer-Hutchins campuses.

But Mr. Black proposed reviving Wilmer-Hutchins next summer if three hurdles can be overcome by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

First, district voters must approve a maximum property tax rate of $1.50. In May, voters agreed to only 90 cents, which immediately killed about 40 percent of the district’s budget and made operating the district untenable.

Second, voters must agree to a bond package to renovate or rebuild all of the district’s schools. Voters overwhelmingly rejected such a package in September, but that was when the widely unpopular Charles Matthews was superintendent and the elected school board was still in control. Dr. Matthews has since been indicted, and the school board was thrown out of office last month.

Finally, the district’s test scores – currently by far the area’s lowest – must improve. District officials did not specify by how much.

There is probably a fourth requirement: action from the Legislature. Under a quirk of current funding law, by shipping away its students for 2005-06, Wilmer-Hutchins would become a so-called Robin Hood district in 2006-07. That means it would not be able to receive any state funding and would have to give up most or all of its local property-tax revenue to other districts around the state.

It’s unlikely Wilmer-Hutchins – or any district – could operate under that near-zero funding level, so the Legislature probably would have to make a one-time exception for Wilmer-Hutchins.

Mr. Black’s proposal passed 3 to 1. Mr. Black, Michelle Willhelm and Saundra King voted in favor. Sandra Donato and superintendent Eugene Young were absent.

The lone voice of opposition was Donnie Foxx. He said he agreed with the broad strokes of the plan but wanted the district to have two years to overcome the various obstacles.

“There’s no reason we can’t take more time,” he said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

As they have at past meetings, Monday night’s audience members rallied against the proposed shutdown, calling managers heartless and, in some cases, traitors to their race. Unlike at last week’s board meeting, security officers were on hand.

Alternative proposed

The audience reacted most positively during a presentation by Bill McIntyre, a Dallas legal researcher who said he could single-handedly save the district’s finances by getting a multimillion-dollar loan from a bank, passing a $100 million bond issue, and getting grants from the National FFA Organization.

He supported his proposal with statistical data that TEA officials said seemed wildly inaccurate – such as saying Wilmer-Hutchins’ spending was nearly $70 million one year in the mid-1990s and barely $1 million the next, or that only 5 percent of the district’s funds go to teacher salaries.

Mr. McIntyre, whose law firm has sued Wilmer-Hutchins several times in the last year, refused to name the bank or any other institution willing to back his proposal. He said that would improperly “tip his hand” and would lead to TEA officials interfering with his work to save the district.

In reality, Wilmer-Hutchins has not been able to find a bank willing to hold its main checking account – much less loan it millions of dollars. The last bank to loan Wilmer-Hutchins money, Wells Fargo, is suing. Mr. Foxx called Mr. McIntyre’s proposal “cotton candy – all fluff.” But the audience reacted with spirited applause and shouts of approval.

The saga of Wilmer-Hutchins is by no means over. Mr. McIntyre promised a lawsuit. So did a group led by civil rights activist Lee Alcorn, who had its own meeting Monday night in downtown Dallas and called the board’s move a violation of their voting rights.

The Lancaster school board has been less receptive to a merger than some had hoped, and many area residents have opposed the move. The board is expected to vote on the matter Friday.

Wilmer-Hutchins leaders had earlier rejected Dallas’ merger offer because Dallas wanted to shutter all of Wilmer-Hutchins’ schools and bus students to underpopulated existing Dallas schools.

But Dallas trustees Ron Price and Hollis Brashear both said Monday that they would be willing to consider keeping Wilmer-Hutchins High School open.

Staff writer Paul Meyer contributed to this report.