Hope Chest

Before DISD goes marrying Wilmer-Hutchins, let's get a look at the dowry

So now the Dallas Independent School District is going to marry the suburban Wilmer-Hutchins district? Let me ask you something. Is this not every parent's absolute worst nightmare?

"Hi, Mom and Dad. Me and Wilmer-Hutchins here have something really, really important to tell you. First, I know how you feel about Wilmer flunking out and embezzling money and getting in trouble with the FBI and allowing all the buildings to collapse. But you see...

"We're in loooooooove."

As parents of our darling school district, we need a lot of self-control right at this moment. Sure, we could say things. Things come to mind like "This may be love, darlin', but that right out there is the highway."

But we can't say that. Know why? Because we can't kick the Dallas Independent School District out of the house. Our school system seems to have fallen in love with the most notoriously failed school district in the known history of Texas, and we have to find a way to finesse the deal.

Oh, and right off the bat, please, let us all agree that this is all about the kids. Really. We will say it now together: It's all about the kids.

Now, with that out of the way, I wonder if we might discuss what else it's about. Because the Dallas school board is supposed to be voting on this thing even as we speak.

This is also all about the prenuptial agreement. And, uh, would you mind stepping over here a little bit with me, out of earshot of the kids? I know it's all about the kids and love, but there happens to be another issue I thought I might bring up to you--a thing I need to mention before either one of us says anything that can't be forgiven. I'm going to whisper it:

I think Wilmer may come into money.

Shhh! I don't think Wilmer or any of the country cousins like Lancaster quite gets it yet. But there does happen to be a little pot of gold here, a trust fund so to speak. Now then, your cold, cold heart is starting to melt a little already, isn't it?

I need to take you on a little motor tour down South Millers-Ferry Road, parallel to Interstate 45 about three miles south of Interstate 20, right at the border between the communities of Wilmer and Hutchins. On our right to the west we see a round-shouldered clump of buildings owned by the Wilmer-Hutchins school district, including C.S. Winn Elementary, still in operation incredibly enough. To say that these aging brick and metal buildings are decrepit--with beat-up window-unit air conditioners, crumbling driveways, trash-blown grounds--is to put it mildly. Let me just detour us a second here down this uncurbed, eroded asphalt path, around a large school building with rain-warped plywood in all the windows, and here we are at what I am going to call the Wilmer-Hutchins Memorial Post-Nuclear Holocaust Football Stadium.

I don't know the story here. I'm not sure I want to know the story. Before us is a fair-sized high school football stadium with large trees growing through all the bleachers. I assume it's not being used. Where would people sit? But it still says something that any school district or other public entity would allow any piece of property in its name to arrive at this state. Something bad.

And, in fact, last week the Dallas schools sent a team to assess the condition of the "new" Wilmer-Hutchins High School, because parents there had expressed an interest in keeping it open. Dallas school spokesman Donald Claxton told me the conclusion was that the high school is unusable and unfixable. I didn't ask about the bleachers.

Several board members and a representative for the Texas Education Agency with whom I spoke all agreed that Dallas cannot use its own bond fund money to fix any buildings in the Wilmer-Hutchins district. Not legally. That means the only money Dallas could use to put any of those buildings into minimally safe condition would have to come out of Dallas' operating budget.

Which is broke. Dallas is already cutting its own staff and bloating class sizes, because it's broke for operating money. So there is one example of a prenuptial contract issue. If Dallas marries Wilmer-Hutchins and tries to keep any of the W-H buildings open, who pays to fix them? With what money?

But wait. We haven't looked out the left side of the car yet. To the east of Millers-Ferry Road, between us and the freeway, is the biggest construction project I think I've ever seen--350 acres of concrete and railroad siding, administration buildings, all kinds of gates and scales and other goodies being built.

This is the Union Pacific Wilmer Intermodal Terminal, a $70 million construction project being built by AUI Contractors LP, Prime Rail Interests Inc. and Halff Associates--a shipping facility so huge that it's already being called an inland port and attracting national and international attention in the shipping business.

The expectation is that this vast rail and truck shipping center will bring in major amounts of collateral development, as new industries hunker down nearby in the years ahead.

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