State Steps Up Role in Ailing Texas District

Health Investigators, Financial Auditors Visit Wilmer-Hutchins

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Texas sent financial auditors and health inspectors into a Dallas-area school district last week, a move that suggested further state intervention could be next.

The action came after the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District's main high school was closed, some employees went unpaid, and a grand jury heard a complaint involving the district.

Auditors from the Texas Education Agency and state health inspectors began work in the district on Aug. 30. They expect to report on their findings in about a month.

The 2,900-student district had shown signs of financial and administrative chaos.

The district—which includes small sections of Dallas, several inner suburbs, and some rural areas—was unable to pay all its employees after last month's state payment didn't arrive on time. Texas lawmakers delayed the August payments to districts to help mend a major state budget deficit.

"Districts have known about this [delay] for at least 15 months," said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the state education agency. "But Wilmer-Hutchins doesn't seem to have gotten the word, and they didn't prepare for it."

Wilmer-Hutchins' students were in class last week, though the district's main high school remained closed. Damage to the high school from a flood in June was not repaired, and some 750 students have been moved to an elementary school, portable classrooms, and a separate high school for the arts.

"It appears the district didn't go in and try to repair the damage right away, so moldy carpet didn't come out of the building," Ms. Ratcliffe said. State health officials were checking the air quality in the schools last week.

On another front, a Dallas County grand jury met recently to consider a case involving the Wilmer-Hutchins district, said Rachel Horton, a spokeswoman for the local district attorney. The case is pending and more evidence could be considered, she said. She would not comment on the nature of the case.

Questions about possible misspending have been reported widely in the Texas news media, and have even been debated in a Wilmer-Hutchins school board meeting. It is not clear whether such issues are part of the grand jury inquiry.

'We Have Failed'

Meanwhile, Luther Edwards, the president of the Wilmer-Hutchins board, says he welcomes the state auditors. "They're really just here looking at things and helping, more or less," he said in an interview last week.

Mr. Edwards attributes the current situation to a limited tax base, and added that the district is in the process of fixing the payroll problem.

Striking a much tougher tone, school board member Joan Bonner contends the district's $20 million budget is disorganized and that some money may be missing. She called on Texas Commissioner of Education Shirley Neeley to take control of the school system.

"I'm hoping that the commissioner will use her powers to remove the board," Ms. Bonner said. "We should have enough sense to resign. We have failed. We have failed our children. We have failed our community."

While Texas law prohibits the state from stripping a local school board's control—and such an action in a mostly African-American district such as Wilmer-Hutchins could require the approval of the U.S. Department of Justice—the state has assisted in district fiscal affairs off and on for years.

The state has a few other options, however.

It could send in a management team to run the daily financial operations of the district, or appoint a "conservator" to help manage the district entirely. If criminal charges emerge, further action could be taken.

Under state policy, the district's test scores are high enough to prevent a complete takeover. Wilmer-Hutchins received an "acceptable" rating on the state's most recent report cards.

A 2002 report by the state comptroller's office was less encouraging. It showed district passing rates on state tests of more than 90 percent in some 3rd grade subjects, but less than 20 percent in some high school grades and subjects.

District Superintendent Charles Matthews could not be reached for comment last week.

Wilmer-Hutchins clearly has had its share of challenges.

'In Disarray'

The district had five superintendents from 1996 to 2001, it has seen its enrollment drop, and it lacked any sort of curriculum and guides for teachers until 2002, the comptroller's report showed.

A separate 2002 report by the Texas Association of School Administrators found the school buildings in "grave condition." Only 6 percent of the district's classrooms were deemed operational.

One former Wilmer-Hutchins superintendent, Johnny E. Brown, said the Wilmer-Hutchins district was deeply troubled when he was hired there in the mid-1990s. "I found a system that was in disarray," said Mr. Brown, who is now the leader of the 100,000-student DeKalb County school district near Atlanta.

Mr. Brown, who is also a former superintendent in Birmingham, Ala., and deputy superintendent in Houston, added: "I hope that the state and the community and system leaders will come together around a plan for reform and dramatic change, because those children deserve more from adults."

PHOTO: Workers clear canvas from the walls of Wilmer-Hutchins High School Aug. 11. The school was closed last week as state health inspectors awaited the results of tests for mold.
—Richard Michael Pruitt/The Dallas Morning News

Vol. 24, Issue 02, Pages 29, 31

Published in Print: September 8, 2004, as State Steps Up Role in Ailing Texas District
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