Wilmer-Hutchins’ door closes, another opens; Broke, scandalized and a failure, school district shuts down; At midnight, what’s left of agency becomes part of DISD, which took in its children last fall

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The earthly remains of Wilmer-Hutchins were, in the end, few.

A few broken buildings. Some debts, some indictments. A few thousand kids who learned less than they should have.

Everything that could be put in boxes was Thursday, as the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District slipped into the past tense. After decades of mismanagement and crisis, Wilmer-Hutchins will legally cease to exist when the clock strikes midnight tonight. Under orders from the state of Texas, it will be absorbed into the Dallas school district.

“It’s a sad day for the district, but it’s also a new day,” said Donnie Foxx, one of the state-appointed managers who have shepherded the district through its declining days.

The district’s skeleton staff – down to 10 from more than 400 two years ago – went out for a nice lunch at Truluck’s and said their goodbyes Thursday afternoon.

They would have locked the doors one last time. But Dallas staffers were too busy carting off the district’s remaining items of value.

“I think in the long run, kids will have a better chance to get a good education – that’s the important part,” said Ron Rowell, the Texas Education Agency employee who has spent the past few months as acting superintendent.

For decades, his agency was criticized for not doing enough to stop corruption and mismanagement in Wilmer-Hutchins. The district was sick, residents said, and needed immediate attention from TEA.

They got their wish. But most residents hoped the patient could be saved. Instead, state officials chose a mercy killing.

Long list of problems

The list of Wilmer-Hutchins’ problems was long.

For starters, it was broke. Despite being one of the best-funded districts in North Texas – it got more state and federal dollars per student than any other area district – it consistently found ways to fritter money away.

It mostly went to the salaries of its employees; Wilmer-Hutchins had 30 to 40 percent more staff than most districts its size. Many of those employees were hired at the recommendation of board members.

But the raid of district headquarters by the FBI and Texas Rangers in 2004 – and the seizure of many of its financial records – suggests something else may have been at work, too. (An FBI spokesperson confirmed this week that their investigation is still active.)

It was an academic failure. In grades six and up, in every subject, student test scores were dead last (or close to it) among the 1,000-plus school districts in Texas.

In the lower grades, test scores seemed better – until it became clear that teachers were helping students cheat in each of the district’s elementary schools. When the cheating was stopped, their scores crashed to the floor, too.

The district’s former superintendent, Charles Matthews, has been indicted twice. Prosecutors say that he ordered purchase orders shredded before the FBI could find them and faked attendance data in order to generate more state funding. His trials have been pushed back to November.

Race was the not-well-hidden subtext of just about everything about Wilmer-Hutchins, the only black-run district in North Texas. It was run by segregationist whites until the late 1960s and became largely run by blacks around 1980. It was, by most measures, a bad district under each group; state officials threatened to remove its accreditation when it was run by whites, too.

Since 2004, the district has gone through a series of interim superintendents, white and black, and moved through the stages of slow state takeover. The school board was thrown out of office in March 2005 and replaced by state appointees.

When Wilmer-Hutchins didn’t have enough money to open its doors last fall, Dallas ISD agreed to take the students for one year. Not long after that, TEA issued its death sentence, effective July 1.

For kids, the result has been daily bus rides to 25 Dallas schools, some an hour long. There have been fights between Wilmer-Hutchins kids and the Dallas natives, and many parents aren’t happy with the arrangement.

“They don’t know how to discipline students in Dallas,” said Doris Roberson, a grandmother of five whose children used to attend Wilmer-Hutchins schools. “I can’t stand that new school.”

Ms. Roberson lives one convenient block away from Bishop Heights Elementary and Kennedy-Curry Middle School, in the old Wilmer-Hutchins district. Now, 7-year-old Keion McKnight’s ride is about 30 minutes each way. He’s shy, but through shrugs and a few quiet sentences, he lets it be known he liked Bishop Heights better than his new school. “Because the teachers were nicer,” he said.

They’ll stay on those buses for years. Dallas officials say they have no plans to reopen any of the old Wilmer-Hutchins school buildings. At least one will be leased to a charter school; others may be sold to the highest bidder.

If the population in that part of the county grows, as demographers expect, Dallas may build new schools in the area. But that would have to wait until after the district passes another bond issue, which would be November 2007 at the earliest.

Vandals add insult

Closing a 79-year-old school district is not easy. What to do with the old yearbooks? The championship trophies? The kids’ art on the walls?

It’s all being boxed up for storage in DISD warehouses. On Thursday, Bill Gaston and his crew of four were in charge of gathering up the district’s computer equipment, loading it onto a semi truck backed up to the administration building’s side door.

Mr. Gaston has worked at DISD for 14 years. He’s a calm, measured man who takes working for a public school district seriously. Over the last year, as he has inventoried district computers, vandals have broken into Wilmer-Hutchins’ schools repeatedly.

Usually they’d smash a window to get in. A few times they stole computers. More often they just made a mess.

The worst break-in was a few months ago, at Alta Mesa Elementary. Alta Mesa was one of the schools that community volunteers cleaned up and repaired last year.

The vandals raged against the school library. “They completely destroyed it,” Mr. Gaston said. “They pulled down all the bookshelves. They destroyed the computers, the copy machine. They dumped the toner out everywhere, tore up the books. Emptied the fire extinguishers.”

Why would people destroy a school library? How enraged would they have to be?

“These schools are places for children to learn,” Mr. Gaston said. “I just can’t understand someone being that angry.”

After the administration building has been gutted of its productive innards, someone from Dallas ISD will come by with a giant padlock and seal it shut, perhaps for decades, like some bad-management time capsule.

Last meeting, last tears

Wednesday night was Wilmer-Hutchins’ final board meeting, and it was a sleepy affair – a far sight from the mud fights that used to erupt like Old Faithful. (As former trustee Joan Bonner used to say: “Instead of spending money and going to the zoo, just get yourself a bag of popcorn and a drink and come to a board meeting. It’s just as entertaining.”)

Only five people turned up for the valedictory. There was Ms. Bonner, the “1” of countless 6-1 board votes and often the only board voice opposing indicted Dr. Matthews. And there was Lionel Churchill, one of the district’s first black board members in the 1970s and perhaps the most tactically skilled opponent of the Matthews regime.

“So many things were not working that it was hard to see how it could be fixed,” he said. “You could never weed out the whole root cause of the problem without just terminating everybody and starting over.”

Those in the audience had one last chance to give the board a piece of their mind. Each had been a prominent critic of the Matthews administration, but – with the exception of Mr. Churchill – each thought dissolving the district was going too far.

“I’m hurt and I’m angry,” Ms. Bonner said. “Because as parents…”

Here she started to cry, something the iron-willed Ms. Bonner is not known for. Her son Jeremy just graduated from A. Maceo Smith High School without missing a single day of school from age 3 on. He’s joining the Marine Corps.

“Because as parents, all the love we had for our children was not enough to save the district,” Ms. Bonner said. “We didn’t have the legal power or the financial power.”

The substance of the meeting was perfunctory. There were accounts to be transferred, utilities to be cut, buildings to be rekeyed. Let it be noted that the last official act of the Wilmer-Hutchins board was to approve a $617 legal settlement with a former employee named Letha Green. Hers was one of the 72 lawsuits filed over the district’s demise.

At the meeting’s close, the district’s leaders gave a quick round of thank-yous to each other and to the remaining staff. Then board president Albert Black closed up shop.

“Today is the 28th of June, two thousand and six. The time is 8:52 p.m.” Pause. “And with our work being concluded, we are adjourned.”