DISD open to W-H merger; Trustees amenable to plan – as long as it doesn’t cost them

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Dallas school officials seem ready to take on the students of Wilmer-Hutchins – as long as it doesn’t cost the district any money.

“It’s not these children’s fault where they’ve been born or where they live,” trustee Ron Price said at a board meeting Thursday night. “But it will be our fault if we don’t step up and help them.”

Wilmer-Hutchins is in financial crisis, and its state-appointed board of managers has determined that the district cannot afford to operate its schools this fall. The district has been trying to hand off its students to someone else. Lancaster schools rejected the offer last week.

Although no formal decision was made at Thursday’s meeting, Dallas leaders said they were more willing to help.

“We’re the obvious ones to help here, and we ought to do it,” trustee Jack Lowe said.

Dallas is considering a two-stage marriage to Wilmer-Hutchins. For the 2005-06 school year, Dallas is being asked to accept the transfer of Wilmer-Hutchins’ 2,650 or so students. Wilmer-Hutchins would remain open as a shell of a district.

Starting in 2006-07, however, the districts would be formally merged into a united Dallas district. That merger could come from a decision of the two districts’ boards. Or, more likely, it could come from an order of state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley. She will gain legal authority to do so soon when Wilmer-Hutchins’ poor test scores are formally reported in the coming weeks.

Last month, Dallas officials had proposed busing all Wilmer-Hutchins students into Dallas schools. They were to be scattered among 14 elementary schools, four middle schools and three high schools: Carter, South Oak Cliff, and A. Maceo Smith.

That raised the hackles of some Wilmer-Hutchins residents because it would leave children attending schools some distance from their homes.

On Thursday, Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa offered a slight adjustment to that proposal.

Wilmer-Hutchins High School – whose leaky roof delayed its opening last fall – would remain open for one more year, serving only grades 10 through 12. Everyone else would be bused to Dallas.

Some Dallas trustees weren’t warm to the idea of keeping the high school open for even one more year.

“I want to make sure all the Wilmer-Hutchins children get access to the same quality of education,” trustee Nancy Bingham said.

Dr. Hinojosa said Dallas would hire teachers from its own applicant pool and would have enough qualified applicants to fill all necessary positions.

A merger would help Dallas financially in a number of ways. It would boost student enrollment, which has been stagnant or declining in recent years. It would also help lower Dallas’ property wealth per pupil, which has been creeping higher in the last decade. If it goes too high, Dallas could be forced to send local property tax revenue to the state.

Mr. Price said that he would support helping Wilmer-Hutchins but that students in the city of Wilmer may be better off transferring to Ferris schools, which are closer geographically.

One voice of criticism was Dallas trustee Joe May, who was concerned that adding Wilmer-Hutchins students might divert Dallas from what he called its primary task, the education of Spanish-speaking recent immigrants. He said students transferring in from Wilmer-Hutchins would have access to more resources than Spanish-speaking children in his neighborhood.

“Wouldn’t it be in the best interest of both districts if you attempted to send them to Mesquite, Highland Park or somewhere else?” Mr. May asked.

His concerns were echoed by trustee Jerome Garza.

“We talk about bringing in other children, and while I empathize with that, at the end of the day, we need to make sure this does not negatively affect the children we were elected to represent.”

Dr. Hinojosa said the district would “have to be made whole” for an agreement to be reached. He said it is unclear whether the state’s standard funding formula would cover the roughly $17.5 million it would take to pay for educating the new students. If there is a gap, Dallas could ask the Legislature to make up the difference, he said.

Dr. Neeley was initially expected to announce whether she would force a permanent merger in the next few days. But TEA officials now say an announcement could be pushed back to about Labor Day.

If the districts do merge next year, it won’t be a simple process. It raises a host of logistical questions:

* Redistricting: The boundary lines in which Dallas school board members are elected would have to shift if Wilmer-Hutchins is merged. That could particularly affect southern-sector trustees like Mr. Price and Ms. Bingham.

* Debt: Wilmer-Hutchins hopes to pay off its roughly $9 million in debts over the next year. Dr. Hinojosa promised that all debt would be paid off before a potential merger next summer. But Lancaster officials earlier said that up to $1.5 million might be left over when it’s time to merge.

* School ratings: Dr. Hinojosa said the TEA has assured him that poor test scores from transferred Wilmer-Hutchins students would not count against Dallas’ accountability ratings for at least one year. That could be extended for an additional two years, he said.

Dr. Hinojosa said he would ask the board to make a decision about July 20.

Eight of Dallas’ nine board members were present Thursday night. The only exception was Lew Blackburn, who in addition to being a Dallas trustee is also a Wilmer-Hutchins employee. Dallas officials said he will not be allowed to vote on any matters relating to Wilmer-Hutchins.