W-H schools may be up for sale; State agency trying to sell campuses, pay Dallas to educate its students

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The Texas Education Agency is close to an agreement that would sell off most of Wilmer-Hutchins’ campuses and land and indirectly use the proceeds to funnel $4 million to Dallas schools.

Officials hope that the extra money will make it more appealing for Dallas to accept Wilmer-Hutchins’ 2,700 students as transfers. But one state-appointed board member, outraged by the plan, said he will resign his district post rather than participate.

“I’m done,” Donnie Foxx said. “TEA is not interested in saving this district. They just want to shut it down. And they don’t need me to do that.”

The offer of extra cash comes after state officials have found more resistance than some expected to a merger. Wilmer-Hutchins’ financial troubles have left the district shopping its students around to neighboring districts, and thus far none has been willing to accept them.

The Dallas Independent School District’s financial concerns are rooted in a quirk of the state funding system for schools. DISD is what’s known in school parlance as a “gap” district. Gap districts have property values that are too high to receive certain kinds of state funding, but not quite so high that they must send local tax money to state coffers.

As a gap district, Dallas would receive about $11.2 million in state money for enrolling Wilmer-Hutchins students, according to Ron Rowell, TEA’s senior director of governance. That’s well below the roughly $15.2 million that Lancaster would have received for teaching the same kids. Lancaster trustees voted not to accept Wilmer-Hutchins children two weeks ago.

A higher price

Several Dallas trustees have said they will consider taking in Wilmer-Hutchins students only if they can be educated without using existing Dallas resources – that is, if state aid is sufficient on its own to do the job. They say they need the full $15.2 million that Lancaster would have received for taking in the same kids.

“Dallas just wants to be made whole,” Mr. Rowell said.

Dallas and TEA officials met Wednesday in Austin and hashed out a tentative deal. Mr. Rowell said the TEA is not willing to simply give Dallas the money from state coffers. Instead, Wilmer-Hutchins would pay the money directly to Dallas.

The problem is that Wilmer-Hutchins has no money.

Mr. Rowell said the Dallas payments would come out of Wilmer-Hutchins property-tax revenues next year, which are expected to be around $5.5 million. But those tax dollars are already spoken for.

The district owes $2.8 million to Wells Fargo for a defaulted loan. And it will owe $3 million to the TEA after the agency loans Wilmer-Hutchins the money it needs to meet its payroll for July and August. Both those debts were expected to be paid off with local property tax revenues.

So, Mr. Rowell said, Wilmer-Hutchins would have to sell off some or all of its land to raise the extra cash. That could include any of Wilmer-Hutchins’ schools, all of which are in disrepair.

“There are too many pots to pay,” Mr. Rowell said.

Mr. Foxx said selling off the land flies in the face of the board of managers’ hopes to revive the Wilmer-Hutchins district after the upcoming school year. Last month, the board of managers voted to reopen Wilmer-Hutchins schools in 2006 if voters pass two tax increases and if student test scores improve. If the school buildings are sold, reopening would be impossible.

“From everything that I’ve seen, and everything they’ve done, they just want to shut us down,” Mr. Foxx said.

He referred to a speech given by state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley in May, when she said the state-appointed managers had to decide whether to save the district or shut it down.

“She lied to us,” he said. “There was never an option to save the district. I cannot be part of something where I am being lied to.”

No contract yet

The deal is not official yet, Mr. Rowell said. In any event, land sales would have to be approved by the Wilmer-Hutchins board of managers, who could object to the deal being negotiated for them by the TEA.

It’s also unclear whether Dallas trustees are willing to take on Wilmer-Hutchins students. Lancaster was once assumed to be willing, but its board voted 4-3 to reject them. In Dallas, public opposition has been stronger than some anticipated, with some trustees appearing to be ready to vote no.

In addition, DISD trustee Lew Blackburn is a Wilmer-Hutchins employee and, as a result, cannot vote on the issue. That means only four no votes could kill a deal, since a 4-4 tie would mean Dallas wouldn’t enroll Wilmer-Hutchins students.