Questions and answers on Wilmer-Hutchins district; Future of students, staff at shuttered schools remains uncertain

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 11B

On Monday night, Wilmer-Hutchins managers voted to shut down the district’s schools for the coming school year. Here are some common questions and answers about what happens next:

Who will be teaching Wilmer-Hutchins’ students next school year?

It’s unclear. The top choice of district leaders is the Lancaster Independent School District, in part because Lancaster officials have pledged to keep students housed in Wilmer-Hutchins campuses for at least the near future. But Lancaster’s school board will have to approve such a move, and there has been some community opposition. A vote is scheduled for Friday.

If Lancaster says no, what happens?

The second choice is the Dallas Independent School District. Dallas officials initially said they would take Wilmer-Hutchins’ students only if they could be bused north to existing DISD schools, many of which are underpopulated. That would leave no public schools within the boundaries of Wilmer-Hutchins ISD. But several Dallas board members have said in recent days they would consider keeping one or more current Wilmer-Hutchins schools open.

And if Dallas says no?

That’s considered unlikely, because Dallas leaders have said they would be willing to help and community opposition is not expected to be as intense as in Lancaster. But if Dallas says no, that leaves only Ferris ISD, which borders Wilmer-Hutchins’ southern edge, as an alternative.

Why can’t Wilmer-Hutchins just operate normally this coming school year?

Money. A variety of problems – a failed tax-authorization vote, mountains of debt, no money to pay current teachers – would leave Wilmer-Hutchins with about $8 million to spend next school year. The district needs about $18 million to operate at a level comparable to neighboring districts.

Does this mean Wilmer-Hutchins is gone forever?

Not necessarily. The district’s board of managers said it would recommend closing the district permanently next year unless three things happen. First, voters must agree to raise the district’s tax rate to previous levels. Second, the district must pass a bond proposal to rebuild its schools. Third, test scores must increase – though it’s unclear by how much. It’s likely the Texas Legislature would have to approve a number of one-time changes to state funding law.

Can’t the Texas Education Agency dissolve Wilmer-Hutchins on its own?

Yes – but not for another year. Next month, TEA officials will receive results from this spring’s Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests. Wilmer-Hutchins scores are almost certain to be low enough to earn an “academically unacceptable” rating. When that happens, Commissioner Shirley Neeley will legally gain the authority to shut down the district. But there’s a catch. Such an order could not take effect until July 1, 2006 – after the next school year. There’s very little the commissioner can do to influence where Wilmer-Hutchins students will be taught this year.

What will happen to Wilmer-Hutchins’ teachers?

On Monday night, the board of managers laid off all campus-based employees, including teachers, principals and librarians. If Lancaster takes over the district, it has pledged to hold a job fair – and the district probably would hire some Wilmer-Hutchins staff to work in their former schools under new management.