Some feel nostalgic over W-H; Group seeks to revive fallen district, says area deserves its own schools

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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It’s the school district that refuses to die.

For decades, Wilmer-Hutchins ISD was an object of investigation and a subject of derision. It was, by common assent, the worst district in North Texas: miserable test scores, a chaotic school board and a string of financial problems.

But now, a year after the district’s state-induced euthanasia, some Wilmer-Hutchins residents are feeling a strange emotion: nostalgia.

“We deserve to have our own schools back,” said Faye Gafford, who leads a group trying to bring Wilmer-Hutchins back to life.

It’s been two years since Wilmer-Hutchins schools enrolled any students, and one since Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley formally and permanently shut the district’s doors. The district was merged into the neighboring Dallas school system. But Ms. Gafford and others say their students aren’t getting the attention they deserve in the bigger district.

Ms. Gafford’s group appealed to lawmakers during the last legislative session, asking them to revive Wilmer-Hutchins through a rider attached to other legislation. That didn’t work. Now, she and her allies are considering legal action.

“We’re looking into all our options,” she said. “It’s unbelievable what they did to us out here. It ought to be a crime.”

If nothing else, the quest to reopen the district keeps its distinctive memory alive.

Wilmer-Hutchins had been the Texas Education Agency’s problem child for many years, with state investigators a regular fixture in the district’s halls. The district’s financial problems came to a head in 2004, when it did not have enough money to pay teachers or properly repair storm damage at Wilmer-Hutchins High School.

A quick succession of problems – indictments, an FBI raid and missing millions – led TEA to take control of the district. And after many previous failed attempts to fix Wilmer-Hutchins, Dr. Neeley decided to shut it down instead.

“I think the kids are better off this way,” said Lionel Churchill, a former Wilmer-Hutchins board member and one of the district’s most persistent critics in its last years. “I don’t know how you could have made the district work if it had stayed open.”

But many residents remain bitter over the decision. And if Wilmer-Hutchins can’t return, phoenix-like, the second-best option in the eyes of many would be for Dallas ISD to open new schools within the district’s former boundaries.

When Dallas absorbed Wilmer-Hutchins, officials distributed the students among more than 30 schools. That meant long bus rides for many children, particularly those who live in Wilmer and other southern parts of the district.

It also meant clashes between Wilmer-Hutchins students and the incumbents in some Dallas schools. Wilmer-Hutchins, for all its troubles, had something of a small-town feel in its schools. Classes and schools were small. Students had what some district officials considered a country demeanor.

“It’s almost like my kids have gotten more street, more ‘hood’-ish, more thuggish” in Dallas, said Tennis E. Thomas, the father of five boys and pastor of South Central Missionary Baptist Church. He said the bus now arrives at 6:45 a.m., not 7:30 like it did when Wilmer-Hutchins was open.

“They treated our kids better in Wilmer-Hutchins,” said Sandra Howard, a Hutchins resident who now sends two children by bus to Dallas schools. “It’s like we’re not wanted in Dallas, but we don’t have a choice.”

After the merger, the mostly dilapidated buildings that housed Wilmer-Hutchins students for decades were sealed like time capsules. Residents hope a future Dallas bond proposal – like the one that could come this November – will include either new schools in Wilmer-Hutchins or extensive renovations of the shuttered ones.

DISD officials said it’s too early to know exactly what a new bond proposal might entail for the area. But some construction is likely.

“I don’t think there’s any question about it,” said Craig Reynolds, who chairs DISD’s future facilities task force. “Whether it’s new construction or renovating old buildings, we haven’t decided. But there is a population out there that needs to be served.”

That’s despite low projections for future residential growth in the area.

A recent Dallas ISD study of the area’s demographic trends divided DISD into six sub-regions and predicted the number of new housing units that each will see over the next 10 years. The lowest projections were in Area 2 – the one that includes the former Wilmer-Hutchins.

The study projects just 1,010 new housing units in Area 2. Compare that to two other regions of the district, each of which had more than 12,000.

And many of the south Dallas schools that currently hold Wilmer-Hutchins students have low enrollments and empty seats themselves. That could make it more difficult to justify a large-scale expansion that would bleed students away from those schools.

“Every community needs a school,” Hutchins Mayor Artis Johnson said. “We miss having our own. We need our kids to be well educated.”

Those nostalgic for Wilmer-Hutchins’ past might look to one place where the district still survives: the courts.

Superintendent Charles Matthews and maintenance director Wallace Faggett were indicted in October 2004 on evidence tampering charges, for allegedly coordinating the shredding of purchase orders sought by investigators. (At the time, Dr. Matthews said he had only ordered documents thrown out because they made district offices look “untidy.”)

Dr. Matthews was indicted on separate charges five months later, for allegedly ordering district employees to create fake attendance records that would generate more state revenue for the district.

But almost three years later, a lengthy series of delays has kept Dr. Matthews out of court. He is set to go to trial on the attendance charges in August. (The evidence-tampering case with Mr. Faggett still has no court date set.)

“He is pleading not guilty and will vigorously defend himself,” said Dr. Matthews’ attorney, Ted Steinke.

Wilmer-Hutchins also lives on in Austin, where a long line of teacher-discipline cases awaits action.

They stem from a series of Dallas Morning News stories in 2004 that found extensive cheating in the district’s elementary schools. A state investigation supported those findings, identifying 22 teachers and other educators who improperly assisted students on the TAKS test. That assistance included, in some cases, distributing answer keys to test-takers.

But backlogs at the State Board for Educator Certification have delayed potential discipline for these educators that could include revoking their teaching certificates. As a result of those delays, at least 11 former Wilmer-Hutchins educators implicated in the cheating investigation have gotten teaching jobs in other area public schools.

State officials say they hope to hold discipline hearings regarding former Alta Mesa Elementary principal Jatis McCollister in August. A state complaint says she knew about cheating at her school, but her attorney denies those charges.

The hearing would be the first case against a Wilmer-Hutchins educator to reach that stage – more than three years after the alleged cheating that triggered the case.