Some in Lancaster rail against helping W-H; ‘Take care of our own first’ the message as 200 gather for merger hearing

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Lancaster schools are in too delicate a position to be taking on the massive problems of Wilmer-Hutchins, more than a dozen residents argued at a public hearing Tuesday night.

“If your boat is already sinking, you don’t put another rock in the boat,” resident Herman Tucker said.

Mr. Tucker’s opinion was a popular one among the roughly 200 Lancaster residents gathered in the local high school auditorium to talk about the proposed shotgun wedding between their district and Wilmer-Hutchins.

Wilmer-Hutchins’ budgetary collapse has left it begging for help from its neighbors to the west. Lancaster residents said they understand the need but have their own priorities. Among the speakers who expressed a clear opinion, they were nearly 3-to-1 against.

“I don’t want to say I don’t care about the parents and students of Wilmer-Hutchins, but they are not my responsibility,” said James Adams, a Lancaster parent. “I think we should take care of our own first.”

Wilmer-Hutchins’ board of managers voted Monday to shut down the district’s schools for the upcoming school year. Its dire financial straits have left it unable to fully fund the education of its 2,700 children.

But a quirk of school funding law allows the students’ education to be fully paid for if Wilmer-Hutchins can outsource the running of its schools to another district. Lancaster is the choice of district leaders.

“Of the options out there, this is the best one available,” Wilmer-Hutchins board member Donnie Foxx said.

What would happen to Wilmer-Hutchins students after this school year remains unclear. If a number of hurdles aren’t met – including two popular votes, improved test scores and legislative action – Wilmer-Hutchins could be dissolved next summer and merged permanently with Lancaster.

The two districts’ boards could make such a move themselves, or it could be imposed upon them by state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley.

Larry Lewis, Lancaster’s superintendent, argued that running Wilmer-Hutchins – either temporarily or as part of a permanent merger – would not harm the district’s finances. State aid to Lancaster would increase by more than $15 million if it took on Wilmer-Hutchins students.

“It will not cost us one additional dime,” he said. “Actually, we gain money from having Wilmer-Hutchins students in our school system.”

But several in the crowd said financial gains aren’t enough. They pointed out that Lancaster’s performance on state tests was barely better than Wilmer-Hutchins’. According to a Dallas Morning News analysis of preliminary 2005 test scores, Wilmer-Hutchins had the region’s worst scores. But Lancaster had the second worst.

“I’m a teacher, and I know that the child with the greatest problems is the one that demands most of my energy,” Mary Jane Colton said. “Wilmer-Hutchins will have the greatest problems and it will demand the administration’s energy.”

Some expressed concern that the two school systems, rivals in athletics, would not mix well together. Arvivian Roberts of Lancaster said the district had to triple the security at sporting events between Lancaster and Wilmer-Hutchins.

But others argued that children deserved assistance no matter where political boundaries fall, particularly if Lancaster can help without substantial financial cost.

“These children need our help – it’s the Christian thing to do,” Don Kilgore said. “When this city had the tornado in 1994, people came from all around to help us. We need to do the same thing.”

A number of speakers from Wilmer-Hutchins said they were offended at the way their students were being treated as pariahs.

“Our children are not busloads of nuclear waste,” said former Wilmer-Hutchins trustee Joan Bonner. “They’re children.”

The next step comes Friday, when Lancaster board members are scheduled to vote whether to take over Wilmer-Hutchins for the coming school year.

If they vote yes, Lancaster will hire teachers and principals immediately and prepare for an adventurous school year. If they vote no, Wilmer-Hutchins will have to turn somewhere else – most likely Dallas schools – for help.