U.S. Justice allows dissolution of W-H district; Scandal-plagued district is set to merge with DISD schools July 1

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The Wilmer-Hutchins schools have lost the final appeal of their death sentence.

The U.S. Department of Justice, in a letter to state officials Monday, said it would not object to the permanent dissolution of Wilmer-Hutchins. That clears the way for the district to be dissolved into Dallas ISD on July 1.

“We’re happy to get a conclusion on this,” said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe.

Wilmer-Hutchins exploded in a series of scandals in August 2004. That’s when the district’s high school was unable to open its doors on time after a rainstorm damaged its roof.

The district’s inability to repair the damage exposed rampant financial mismanagement, with district budgets containing made-up numbers and hundreds of thousands of dollars unaccounted for.

Three district officials have been indicted. Most prominent is the district’s former superintendent, Charles Matthews, who is charged with destroying purchasing documents and faking attendance records to obtain extra state funding.

Cheating inquiry

But the district’s shutdown derives from a separate scandal: widespread cheating on the state’s standardized tests. A Dallas Morning News investigation found strong evidence of educator-led cheating in the district’s elementary schools.

That prompted a state inquiry, which eventually found that two-thirds of Wilmer-Hutchins elementary teachers were improperly helping students – in some cases by distributing answer keys to students beforehand.

Because of the cheating findings, TEA lowered the district’s state rating to academically unacceptable and sent monitors to oversee testing this spring. Scores plummeted, triggering a second unacceptable rating.

Under Texas law, the state education commissioner can order a district merged into a neighboring district if it has been unacceptable for two consecutive years. Commissioner Shirley Neeley made that order in September.

Some opposed merger

The Justice Department has the authority to stop such mergers if it finds that they violate voting rights. Some Wilmer-Hutchins residents had hoped the federal agency would oppose the merger of Wilmer-Hutchins, which has a majority of black students, with Dallas, which has a majority of Hispanic students.

But the ruling disappointed those who sought to stop the merger.

“The attorney general does not interpose any objection to the specified change,” wrote John Tanner, chief of the Justice Department’s voting section. The letter was faxed to state officials at 4:59 p.m. Washington time – one minute before a 5 p.m. deadline set by law.

Dallas schools officials were not available for comment. But Dallas schools already have been teaching Wilmer-Hutchins students since August, because Wilmer-Hutchins didn’t have enough money to start school this fall.

“We hope that will make the transition easier,” Ms. Ratcliffe said.

Bus rides to Dallas

Wilmer-Hutchins students are being educated in existing Dallas campuses, which means bus rides of 20 miles or more for some students. After the merger, Wilmer-Hutchins’ existing campuses will become Dallas’ property, and some residents have expressed hope students could return to their neighborhood schools.

Wilmer-Hutchins, founded in 1927, has been a troubled district for decades. It has been the subject of dozens of investigations and inquiries, including multiple raids by FBI agents and takeovers by state authorities.

It’s unclear who will lead Wilmer-Hutchins in its final days. On Monday, Superintendent Eugene Young confirmed rumors that he is considering resigning his position.

But he said he didn’t want to talk about it before conferring with the district’s board of managers at tonight’s meeting. “It’s not time to discuss it now,” he said.

Mr. Young was appointed to the job in May, after TEA threw out the district’s elected school board. He replaced interim Superintendent James Damm, who had been working under a short-term contract after Mr. Matthews was indicted last October.

If Mr. Young resigns, his replacement would be appointed by state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley, not by the state-appointed board of managers.

Redrawing boundaries

The merger will force a number of changes in the Dallas school district. First, the boundaries of trustee districts will have to be redrawn to integrate the 64 square miles of Wilmer-Hutchins. That could reopen an issue that has sharply divided the board along racial lines in the past.

Second, it will cost Dallas trustee Lew Blackburn either his job or his board seat. Dr. Blackburn is an administrator in Wilmer-Hutchins, and board members are not allowed to be district employees.