W-H’s fate in DISD’s hands; Trustees to discuss whether to take in ailing district’s students

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Having been spurned in its first attempt at courtship, the Wilmer-Hutchins school district now turns to Dallas.

Dallas Independent School District trustees are to meet today to discuss taking over the job of educating Wilmer-Hutchins’ 2,700 students – either for the next school year or permanently.

“I openly welcome the children of Wilmer-Hutchins into the district,” said Dallas trustee Nancy Bingham, who represents an area bordering Wilmer-Hutchins’ boundaries. “But I don’t want it to be a temporary fix. These children deserve stability.”

Wilmer-Hutchins’ extensive financial problems have left it so deep in debt that officials say it cannot open for classes in the fall. Last week, the district’s state-appointed board of managers voted to hand Wilmer-Hutchins students off for the next school year to another district, where they can receive a better education than Wilmer-Hutchins can provide.

But on Friday, their top choice – Lancaster schools – said no thanks. The school board there voted 4-3 not to accept the job of managing Wilmer-Hutchins’ schools, even though it could have meant a financial gain for Lancaster.

Dallas, with nearly 160,000 students, would be in a much stronger position to absorb Wilmer-Hutchins than the much smaller Lancaster.

Dallas officials initially said they would take Wilmer-Hutchins students only if they could bus them to 12 existing Dallas schools. That created resistance among Wilmer-Hutchins residents who said they want to keep students close to home. But in recent days, several Dallas trustees have said they would be willing to reconsider that stance.

“I’m hoping the district would do what it can to assist in whatever way Wilmer-Hutchins might need,” said Dallas trustee Lew Blackburn. Dr. Blackburn is in the stickiest position of any Dallas board member because his day job is being Wilmer-Hutchins’ human resources director. If the two districts merge, he would have to give up either his board seat or his source of income.

Dallas school district spokesman Donald Claxton said the board is not expected to make a final decision tonight. Another meeting would have to be called for that, perhaps next week.

“This meeting is to put information on the table, hear the reactions of the trustees and find out what questions they want us to answer,” he said.

But continued delays – the merger with Lancaster was supposed to be wrapped up more than a week ago – are making the transition more difficult. New Dallas teachers are due to report for training in less than three weeks. Classes start Aug. 15.

“It’s incredibly unsettling for parents and students who don’t know where they’ll attend next year,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, who said time is running out for important repairs to dilapidated Wilmer-Hutchins buildings.

Mr. Claxton said that because of the delays, it’s likely that Dallas would keep Wilmer-Hutchins students in those crumbling schools this year because there wouldn’t be time to move them to Dallas schools before school starts.

One remaining wildcard is the state’s education commissioner, Shirley Neeley. Sometime in the next few days, she is expected to officially receive Wilmer-Hutchins’ test scores from this spring, which will be among the worst the state has seen in years. When that happens, she will gain the legal authority to merge Wilmer-Hutchins with one of its neighbors unilaterally. Such a merger would take effect in July 2006 – and officially end Wilmer-Hutchins’ hopes of reopening the district.

“It all still hinges on what the commissioner wants to do,” Mr. Claxton said.

Dr. Neeley would not have the power to affect where students go for the upcoming school year. But if she orders a merger for 2006, the districts involved could choose to move up the wedding date on their own.

Public opposition to a merger in Lancaster was strong, ultimately derailing the efforts of Lancaster Superintendent Larry Lewis to bring the districts together. But TEA officials said they did not expect as many difficulties from Dallas.

“I haven’t talked to all the board members, but I’m thinking they would try to help,” Dr. Blackburn said.

But what happens if DISD says no? It’s unclear. Wilmer-Hutchins simply won’t have the money to open its doors this fall. And Ferris schools, the district’s only other contiguous neighbor, has not expressed interest, Ms. Ratcliffe said.

One option being floated around TEA headquarters: asking a charter school to take over district operations.

“We don’t have a lot of history to go on here,” Ms. Ratcliffe said. “State law just doesn’t anticipate everything going wrong in a district at the same time. This is unique.”