DISD backs W-H deal; Southern Dallas schools to absorb kids; Wilmer might sell campuses

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The students of Wilmer-Hutchins may finally have a home.

The Dallas school board voted Monday night to accept Wilmer-Hutchins’ roughly 2,700 students into its existing south-end campuses.

“We’re absolutely thrilled,” said Wilmer-Hutchins attorney Kevin O’Hanlon. “We have a home.”

The adoption was made necessary by Wilmer-Hutchins’ mounting debts and budget problems. District leaders determined at the end of the last school year that the district could not proceed in its current financial state. They first asked Lancaster officials to take in their students, but Lancaster turned them down.

That left Dallas as the last choice available. Dallas trustees approved the deal, 8-0, with almost no debate.

Had Dallas said no, Wilmer-Hutchins probably would have been forced to open this fall with a per-pupil budget less than half the size of any other area district.

The move happened in the nick of time: New Dallas teachers are scheduled to report to work today.

“These kids are going to be well-taken care of,” said Dallas board President Lois Parrott. “And they’re very welcome in our schools.”

Assuming Wilmer-Hutchins leaders approve and no courts intervene, Wilmer-Hutchins students will be bused to dozens of schools in southern Dallas. The specific schools were left up to Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, who will decide in the next few days so athletes know their new assignments in time for football practice next week.

The Dallas high schools under consideration are South Oak Cliff, Roosevelt, Carter and A. Maceo Smith. Madison High is also being considered as a home for Wilmer-Hutchins’ seniors.

Madison is almost 10 miles away from the current Wilmer-Hutchins High, but it would have one of the state’s top football teams if Wilmer-Hutchins’ senior football players were added to its squad. Trustee Ron Price has advocated keeping the seniors together at one school.

“We will consider it strongly,” Dr. Hinojosa said, adding that everything will be done to “minimize the impact on those students.”

$4 million more

Finances had been a sticking point for Dallas trustees, who worried that taking in Wilmer-Hutchins’ students could force Dallas to spend money it had planned to spend on its own students.

But Texas Education Agency officials agreed last week to sweeten the pot by upping the state funding Dallas would receive from $11.2 million to $15.2 million.

“It was a no-brainer that the kids of Wilmer-Hutchins deserve to be educated,” said Dallas trustee Nancy Bingham. “But we had to make sure all the details were in place so we were being fair to our own taxpayers.”

TEA officials have said that extra $4 million would come from Wilmer-Hutchins’ already limited resources. Mr. O’Hanlon said Wilmer-Hutchins would probably have to sell some or all of its campuses and land holdings to raise funds.

The Wilmer-Hutchins board of managers will meet on Thursday to evaluate the deal. Also on the agenda: hiring a team of appraisers to determine how much the district’s land could fetch on the open market.

At least one Wilmer-Hutchins manager, Donnie Foxx, has publicly opposed a land sale. Another manager, Sandra Donato, is a Dallas schools employee and, as a result, cannot vote on the deal. That means that if any one of the remaining three managers – Albert Black, Michelle Willhelm and Saundra King – opposes the deal, it will fail. None of the three were present at Monday’s meeting.

Monday’s deal could dampen the possibility of a proposal approved by the Wilmer-Hutchins board of managers last month. That proposal would have revived Wilmer-Hutchins schools in 2006 if taxpayers agreed to two tax increases and if test scores improved markedly.

Beyond this year

The deal with Dallas would probably mean a revived Wilmer-Hutchins would have even less money to spend in 2006-07 than it would have had in 2005-06. In addition, selling some or all of Wilmer-Hutchins’ campuses to pay Dallas would make it more difficult for the district to reopen its doors.

Dallas officials had asked for more concessions to approve the deal. They wanted the TEA to pay off some of Wilmer-Hutchins’ debts, including the $2.8 million it owes to Wells Fargo. But TEA said no, according to Ron Rowell, TEA’s senior director of governance.

The deal struck Monday covers only the coming school year. But it is expected that state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley will make the marriage permanent this fall when Wilmer-Hutchins’ poor test scores from last school year become official and she gains legal authority to force a merger.

When that happens, everything that belongs to Wilmer-Hutchins – including assets like its land and problems such as its debts and legal liabilities – will belong to Dallas, said TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman.

Undecided issues

Not all issues have been settled. For instance, it’s still undetermined how many years the test scores of Wilmer-Hutchins students will not count against Dallas for school ratings purposes, Mr. Rowell said. And the board has not decided how to handle the drawing of trustees’ districts, which would probably have to change if a permanent merger occurs next year.

The saga of Wilmer-Hutchins is still far from over. One lawsuit pending in district court argues that TEA never had the authority to appoint the board of managers in May. A key ruling in that case is expected in the next few days. If the suit is successful, it could mean the board of managers would be replaced with the district’s ousted elected board. And all actions of the board of managers – such as the negotiations of Monday’s deal – would be null and void.

Even if that suit fails, several residents threatened further litigation.

“I believe the community is going to find the necessary resources to battle this thing in court,” said Cedric Davis, a former Wilmer-Hutchins police chief who was elected to the school board shortly before all of its members were thrown out of office in May.

“You’re going to see some children writing their legislators,” he said. “And in upcoming elections, you’re going to see our elected officials getting hurt at the ballot box because of this.”

Pinkie Gardner, the oldest living black graduate of Wilmer-Hutchins, said she wasn’t sure what to think about the deal. “The kids have got to go somewhere,” she said. “But I want to think about the future. We could do great things in the future.”

Staff writer Tawnell D. Hobbs contributed to this report.