State to dissolve W-H district; Merger with DISD needs OK from Justice Department

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

The Wilmer-Hutchins school district is being put out of its misery.

State Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley announced Friday that the long-troubled district will cease to exist July 1. Its boundaries will be merged into the Dallas school district – which is already educating Wilmer-Hutchins’ students, since Wilmer-Hutchins can’t afford to.

The commissioner’s move – which awaits federal approval – closes one of the most traumatic chapters that a Texas school district has faced. The district saw two indictments of its superintendent, the forced ouster of its school board, a widespread cheating scandal and a complete financial collapse.

“I think it’s the most humane decision for the kids,” said Eugene Young, the man that Dr. Neeley named the district’s superintendent in May.

The commissioner’s decision also turns the page on the nearly 80-year history of one of Texas’ few majority-black districts. Wilmer-Hutchins has been battered by scandal, mismanagement and corruption charges for decades.

“How can you have an entire community without a school?” asked Joan Bonner, a former school board member and mother of a high school senior. “We have three jails, but we don’t have a school?”

Of all Wilmer-Hutchins’ problems, it was the cheating scandal that proved fatal. Last fall, a series of stories in The Dallas Morning News reported strong evidence that teachers in the district’s elementary schools were helping students cheat on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Those stories prompted a state investigation, which found evidence that two-thirds of the district’s elementary teachers were helping students cheat.

Those findings led Dr. Neeley to lower the district’s state rating to academically unacceptable, the state’s lowest. It also led her to order a team of test monitors to prevent cheating last spring. Wilmer-Hutchins’ passing rates plummeted – in some cases by more than 50 percentage points.

That led to a second year of “unacceptable” status. Under state law, the commissioner has authority to shut down a district only after it is rated unacceptable for two straight years.

But changes would have been coming even without the cheating, because of Wilmer-Hutchins’ financial crisis. It was twice unable to meet monthly payroll in the last 12 months, and teachers received July and August paychecks only after the TEA agreed to an unusual $3 million emergency loan. It owes about $2.8 million to Wells Fargo, which has sued to recover it.

And because of a decision by voters in May, Wilmer-Hutchins could only charge a tax rate of 90 cents per $100 of assessed property value. That’s well below the $1.50 that nearly every other district in North Texas charges.

The result was that Wilmer-Hutchins had no way to open school this fall and offer something close to an acceptable education. The state-appointed team running the district began searching another district to take its children for the next year.

Lancaster backs out

Initially, Lancaster officials seemed ready to accept them and educate them in Wilmer-Hutchins campuses. But a group of Wilmer-Hutchins residents objected to the merger, believing their district could be kept alive. In the end, Lancaster trustees voted it down.

“Lancaster didn’t turn down our kids – they turned down our adults,” said Mr. Young, whose district’s employment has dropped from 406 to 11 in the last year.

Wilmer-Hutchins officials then turned to Dallas. Dallas agreed, but on the condition that all Wilmer-Hutchins students would be bused to Dallas campuses. Those 2,700 students are going to nearly 40 schools in southern Dallas.

“Some parts of the community said we should fight to keep everything,” Mr. Young said. “They fought to keep everything, and they ended up with nothing.”

State officials have effectively been in control of the district since November, when a state management team was appointed. In May, the elected school board – which state officials considered an obstacle to progress – was thrown out of office and replaced with state appointees.

But some residents argue that state officials were uninterested in saving Wilmer-Hutchins and are happy to see it go. “They haven’t given us a chance,” Ms. Bonner said, noting that Texas Education Agency officials had approved a plan this summer that could revive the district if a number of financial and academic hurdles were met.

She and others pointed to an incident in June in which the state-appointed board wanted to ask voters for a tax increase that would have strengthened the district’s finances. State officials asked them not to put it before voters, even though many residents believed it would have passed.

But Mr. Young said the district’s problems were just too great to overcome. “The kids are going to be fine” in Dallas, he said. “It’s the adults who can’t let it go sometimes.”

The biggest complaint of Wilmer-Hutchins residents has been about the distance they must travel to schools in Dallas. Some, particularly in the city of Wilmer, must be bused more than 20 miles.

Donald Claxton, the Dallas schools spokesman, said the district could consider renovating some of the old Wilmer-Hutchins schools or building new ones as part of a future bond package. “That’s something we’d have to look at long term and discuss with trustees,” he said.

Opponents of the district’s deposed leadership welcomed the commissioner’s decision, saying Wilmer-Hutchins had been too dysfunctional for too long.

“This is excellent news,” said Lionel Churchill, a Wilmer-Hutchins board member in the 1970s. “This allows everyone to focus on the future and start planning and settling down.”

A troubled history

Wilmer-Hutchins has been the target of more state interventions than any other district and arguably more investigations by law enforcement than any other district its size.

Dr. Neeley’s decision must still be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice, which must determine whether the decision negatively affects the voting rights of Wilmer-Hutchins residents.

Mr. Churchill said the need for Justice Department approval might be one reason why Dr. Neeley gave the entire district to Dallas, rather than shaving off the southern sector for absorption into neighboring Ferris schools. Those southern areas have larger white and Hispanic populations than the rest of Wilmer-Hutchins, which could have raised race discrimination issues for federal officials.

The merger will become official July 1. At that point, all assets of Wilmer-Hutchins will become the property of Dallas – including the 10 school campuses, all in varying states of disrepair and all declared unusable by officials.

Some of those campuses may have to be sold to pay some of the district’s bills, Mr. Young said. That would help lower the district’s debt – a boon to Dallas, because any debts remaining by July also will become Dallas’ problem.