W-H board OKs bond plan, tax-rate vote; Action comes despite collapse of district, lack of students

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 4B

Wilmer-Hutchins officials on Tuesday approved a $74 million bond program and a new tax election – despite having no students and a state-imposed death sentence looming.

And at least one official plans to ask the federal government to, in effect, give it a stay of execution.

“If we are actually trying to save the district, we need to act quickly,” board member Donnie Foxx said.

The state-appointed board’s unusual decisions came during a three-hour meeting which, for long stretches, seemed to ignore the fact that state education Commissioner Shirley Neeley – tired of decades of corruption and mismanagement – had announced Sept. 2 that she is shutting the district down.

The only step standing in the way of that order becoming official is approval from the Justice Department, which must evaluate whether the closure impacts voting rights. If the Justice Department approves the deal, Wilmer-Hutchins will cease to be on July 1. All Wilmer-Hutchins students have already been bused to schools in Dallas, which took them in when Wilmer-Hutchins couldn’t afford to operate school this fall.

Nonetheless, the board members discussed plans for the largest construction program in the district’s history, including the construction of three schools and a renovation of the district’s high school.

They also approved asking voters to increase the district’s property-tax rate from 90 cents per $100 of assessed value to $1.50.

In both cases, Mr. Foxx, board President Albert Black and Saundra King voted to approve the elections. Michelle Willhelm and Sandra Donato voted no.

“This is extremely premature,” Ms. Willhelm said. “We don’t even know what we’re planning to do with the money.”

The district did not set a date for the election but indicated it would probably be in December or early 2006. Wilmer-Hutchins voters have resoundingly rejected a bond issue and a higher tax rate in the past year.

Mr. Foxx said he wanted the district to formally ask the Justice Department to delay a ruling on Dr. Neeley’s request until after the tax and bond elections. It is unclear whether the Justice Department would agree to such a request.

Dr. Neeley gained legal authority to dissolve the district after it reported a second consecutive year of abysmal academic performance. That performance was hidden in 2004 by widespread teacher-led cheating on state tests. But in 2005, the district’s scores were among the worst in the state.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board also accepted its outside audit of finances for the 2003-04 school year – more than a year late.

The accounting firm of Frazier Gills completed the audit. That firm had previously been the district’s auditor, but it was fired after state and local officials criticized its inability to uncover what ended up being the financial collapse of the district.

Wilmer-Hutchins officials have spent the last several months trying to find another firm to complete the audit, which is mandatory for certain types of federal funding. But the district could not find any other firm willing to touch it, leading to Frazier Gills’ rehiring.