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Published in Print: May 18, 2005, as Texas Chief Ousts Troubled District’s Elected Board

Texas Chief Ousts Troubled District’s Elected Board

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The state of Texas has deposed the school board of a Dallas-area district that has been plagued by financial and academic problems.

Commissioner of Education Shirley Neeley announced May 12 that she wanted to replace the seven-member elected board of the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District with five of her own appointees and replace the district’s interim superintendent with an administrator from a neighboring school system.

Later that day, the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice approved Ms. Neeley’s appointees, who were sworn in that afternoon.

“There is no doubt that this is drastic action, but the time for patches and timid steps is past,” Ms. Neeley said in a May 12 statement announcing her plans. “The state has periodically placed monitors and management teams in this district for 20 years. Those steps provided temporary help, but never produced a sustained turnaround of the district.”

The turmoil in the 2,900-student district has been escalating this school year. The local district attorney is investigating the district’s finances, and the school board suspended Superintendent Charles Matthews in October after he was indicted and charged with destroying a document related to the probe. ("Superintendent of Troubled Texas District Indicted," Nov. 10, 2004.)

Just days before Ms. Neeley’s announcement, voters dealt the district a huge financial blow when they rejected a proposal to formally increase the property-tax rate for the school district’s operating budget to $1.495 per $100 of assessed value. The district has been collecting revenue at that rate for several years, but officials can find no record of voters’ approving a tax rate above 90 cents—a cap set in 1956.

A dissident school board member said the failure of the tax measure should be seen as a vote of no confidence for the school board.

“The voters didn’t mind paying the $1.50 tax [rate],” said Joan Bonner, a member of the board that Ms. Neeley ousted. “It’s the board that they’re sick of.”

In announcing her decision to oust the members of the elected board, Ms. Neeley also released the report of state investigators who found that cheating on state tests occurred throughout the Wilmer-Hutchins district. The seven-month investigation found that 22 teachers improperly assisted students on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

Based on the investigators’ findings, Ms. Neeley said she dropped the district’s overall ranking on the state’s accountability index to “academically unacceptable” for the 2003-04 school year.

The district’s immediate challenge is to stem the flow of red ink in its $17 million operating budget.

Ms. Neeley said the district is projected to face a $5.7 million deficit by August, which includes a $3.3 million loan due on June 1.

The district has put $500,000 into escrow to pay down the loan, but won’t have enough money to pay it off on schedule, said James A. Damm, the district’s interim superintendent.

Under Ms. Neeley’s plan, Mr. Damm will leave his post when his contract expires at the end of this month. To replace him, Ms. Neeley will appoint Eugene Young as superintendent. Mr. Young is an assistant superintendent in the 5,253-student Lancaster Independent School District, which borders Wilmer-Hutchins.

In her announcement last week, Ms. Neeley said she has told her appointees to either fix Wilmer-Hutchins’ problems or shut down the district.

With the tax rate of 90 cents for the 2005-06 school year, the district is unlikely to survive, Mr. Damm and the president of the elected board said. That tax rate would produce enough revenue for a $10.2 million operating budget—about 59 percent of current spending, according to a voter-information guide distributed before the May 7 election.

“We can’t operate” within that budget, said Luther D. Edwards III, the president of the elected board. “If you do … you’re going to stack kids in the classroom like cattle.”

Moving On

The state-appointed board is unlikely to succeed because it will face the same low tax base and aging population that the elected board had, Mr. Edwards said.

“If they remove the board and they try and they fail again, then what do they say?” he asked. Mr. Edwards and Mr. Damm said the most likely solution would be to close the school district and send its students to a nearby district.

“It would be in the best interest of the kids to split it up,” Mr. Edwards said.

Wilmer-Hutchins’ students live in Dallas and its inner-ring suburbs. The district also borders the Lancaster district and the 2,200-student Ferris Independent School District.

Ms. Neeley wants the board she appointed to make those decisions. The new school board would be composed of the two managers that Ms. Neeley appointed in November to manage the district, as well as three current or former residents of the Wilmer-Hutchins district.

PHOTO: Joan Bonner, left, one of Wilmer-Hutchins’ outgoing school board members, exchanges words with an unidentified woman during a board meeting April 4. The state disbanded the board last week.
—File photo by John F. Rhodes/The Dallas Morning News

Vol. 24, Issue 37, Pages 3,11

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