Last in the Class

Why nobody will erase the board at Wilmer-Hutchins, the worst-run school district in Texas

In the early '90s, as Texas debated ways of leveling the differences between rich and poor school districts, the Hutch became a handy stop for reporters looking for an example of "property-poor" schools. In Wilmer-Hutchins--the storyline often would go--students in typing class were begging for working typewriters, while in property-rich Highland Park, they were booting up the latest PCs.

True, Wilmer-Hutchins' per-student tax base has been the lowest in Dallas County for decades. But even before school finance reform came into play, state funds were making up much of the gap.

In 1987, for instance, Wilmer-Hutchins' total revenue per pupil was higher than five of the 15 districts in Dallas County: Mesquite, Irving, Lancaster, Garland, and Grand Prairie. That year, Dallas had per-pupil revenues of $3,811, compared to $3,456 at Wilmer-Hutchins.

In 1995, with taxpayers in the wealthy Highland Park school district sending Wilmer-Hutchins $1.2 million under the state-mandated school financing scheme, Wilmer-Hutchins' per-pupil revenues came in at $4,867--higher than seven of the county's 15 districts, including DISD.

"It's not the money; it's the way they waste it," says Rick Mills, a Dallas attorney who is representing Roberts-Quintyn in a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the district. "If people in Highland Park saw how their money is spent, I think they'd be a little shocked."

Stepping back a bit, it is easy to see Wilmer-Hutchins' present troubles as a product of the district's history. The district is a misbegotten child, born of racial strife, segregation, and economic isolation.

One telling news item comes from September 1954, when about 100 black parents and children filed in to the district's then-all-white Linfield Elementary School and demanded they be allowed to register. According to the article in the Dallas Times Herald, the children's parents had gotten fed up with white cotton growers' practice of recessing the all-black Melissa Pierce School for September and October so the kids could pick the cotton harvest.

Wilmer-Hutchins turned the kids away, citing Texas' decision to continue operating segregated schools despite the U.S. Supreme Court's decision outlawing the practice earlier that year.

For the next 30 years, divisions over race would be the district's biggest torment.

In 1958, Wilmer-Hutchins schools had 577 black students and 1,746 whites. The numbers changed rapidly in the next decade as federal housing policies concentrated hundreds of black families into neighborhoods in the district's northern half.

The Dallas Housing Authority's low-cost single-family homes drew black families from less desirable public housing throughout Dallas. "You could buy a house here for $17,200," says district resident Gary Hill, who bought his in 1970. Terms typically were $500 down and something like $56 a month.

At first, the schools remained largely segregated along with the neighborhoods: whites to the south in Wilmer and Hutchins, blacks to the north in Dallas.

In February 1970, though, the white-dominated school board succumbed to federal pressure and approved a plan to bus children between the two districts. The next day, the board began trying to dissolve the Wilmer-Hutchins district. U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice halted that drive and a variety of other such attempts during the next 14 years.

In the summer of 1974, for instance, the towns of Wilmer and Hutchins voted to form their own school system. In a display that would have warmed George Wallace's heart, Hutchins Mayor Don Lucky and a small band of followers crossed their arms and took over Hutchins Elementary for their renegade district.

And eight years after busing began, white trustee Billy Kyser aligned himself with several black board members, saying whites "will have to realize blacks are going to be here with us." His Hutchins neighbors responded by hammering up a big wooden petition in front of his house that read: "Will You Resign, Bill Kyser?" The blank lines beneath it quickly filled up.

There never was any resolution of Wilmer-Hutchins' racial strife. White flight, which saw two out of three whites leaving the district in the early 1970s, simply rendered it moot.

"The only whites left around here are poor farmers, and they don't want to mess with those schools," says Sammy Tanner, who lost his seat on the Wilmer-Hutchins board in 1984 and was one of the last whites to hold a seat. In his view, theft and petty corruption have been longtime problems at Wilmer-Hutchins under both whites and blacks. "In the summer, the air conditioners disappear, and they go out and buy new ones. One year we bought 149 footballs."

The district has had policies governing procurement of supplies and hiring, says Tanner, who runs a sand and gravel pit midway between Wilmer and Hutchins. "But they don't get anybody in that administration to get people to follow them," he says.

In the early '80s, state education officials became alarmed with the district's educational programs and leadership squabbles, and an investigation turned up instances of nepotism and family members accompanying trustees on expensive trips. At the same time, students were going without supplies.

The Dallas County District Attorney's Office presented a grand jury "a lot of evidence involving travel and business practices," says former assistant prosecutor Ted Steinke. But no indictments were returned.

Wilmer-Hutchins' demographic shift led to a black majority on the board in the early 1980s that has remained solid. That majority engineered the selection of a black superintendent who, for a while, found ways to solve some of the district's problems.

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