Wilmer-Hutchins maintains sliver of hope; Board of troubled district might seek tax hike to build schools

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Wilmer-Hutchins isn’t quite dead yet.

At its meeting tonight, the district’s board of managers will consider asking voters to raise their taxes and spend millions on building new schools.

That’s despite the fact that state officials have announced their intention to drive the school district out of legal existence by this time next year. Not to mention the fact that the district currently doesn’t have any students.

“I was surprised to see that on the agenda,” board member Michelle Willhelm said. “But we do have to be prepared for the future.”

Wilmer-Hutchins’ series of problems – academic and financial – led to the district being unable to open its doors this fall. Wilmer-Hutchins students are instead being bused to schools in the Dallas district.

On Sept. 2, state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley announced that Wilmer-Hutchins’ decades of underperformance and scandal had gone on too long, and she invoked a rarely used power to dissolve the district altogether, effective July 1.

But that decree must be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice, which generally must approve governmental changes that could affect voting rights. Although federal officials have approved the state’s two previous sanctions against Wilmer-Hutchins, a formal ruling could be several weeks away.

In the meantime, the board is proceeding in the belief that Wilmer-Hutchins will be around for the long term.

On tonight’s agenda are nearly a dozen items related to a new construction program and a bond package that would fund it. Such a bond issue would have to be approved by voters. The agenda also includes consideration of a separate tax election that would raise the maximum property tax rate from 90 cents per $100 of assessed value to $1.50.

Wilmer-Hutchins voters have rejected the district’s last two attempts to seek more cash, both by wide margins.

But those elections came when the district’s unpopular elected school board was in office. Dr. Neeley removed the board in May and replaced it with her own appointees. Several district residents have said they would reconsider their past votes if it meant keeping an independent Wilmer-Hutchins.

“The emotional attachment is so strong,” Ms. Willhelm said.

She said she would consider approving new elections, but only if the Justice Department rejects the district’s dissolution. “We have to be ready to react no matter what Justice does,” she said. “We would be negligent if we were not prepared for that eventuality.”

The district could run into a timing problem. It’s already too late for the district to put either issue on the November ballot.

Ms. Willhelm said that, if an election goes forward, she hopes it would be held relatively soon so the district could have time to plan the 2006-07 school year if voters approve more funding. She said waiting until May, the next major scheduled election date, would be too long.

But a new Texas law, approved by the Legislature this year, appears to eliminate the possibility of an earlier vote. House Bill 57 removed school districts’ power to call special elections for bond packages. That means the soonest Wilmer-Hutchins could ask voters for more money is in eight months.

“They’re stuck on May,” Dallas County elections administrator Bruce Sherbet said. “They don’t have a choice.”

If the Justice Department approves Wilmer-Hutchins’ demise after an election is called, the district could easily rescind its order, Mr. Sherbet said.