Hope Chest

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.

All of this south I-45 corridor through Wilmer-Hutchins could be ours. Think of it: industrial tax base! A sweet little piglet ready for the spit.

Ah, love!

Now, wait. There are issues. You remember that the suburban Lancaster school board voted not to absorb Wilmer-Hutchins, citing all the same infrastructure problems I have already mentioned. They either didn't see what I'm showing you--all this vast new industrial tax base coming on line--or they couldn't make the math work between now and then. Just because there's a promise of fat profits way out over the horizon doesn't mean Dallas or anybody else can simply ignore the upfront costs.

I may have good news, though. It turns out our little school district is a bit cagier than we tend to give it credit for. In a week of phone calls to board members and other people close to this process, I got the impression some school board trustees and probably most of the administration are hip to all of these questions. District 7 trustee Jerome Garza (north central Oak Cliff, West Dallas) told me the board at its most recent meeting made its views plain:

"At least what I walked away with were two clear directives from the board to the superintendent," Garza said. "Number one was that in order for this marriage to occur, the district has to be made financially whole today and in the future, on both ends.

"We are not going to rush into a deal if it doesn't make financial sense to us. The last thing we want to do with our limited financial resources to educate our children is to spread them even thinner.

"The second statement I clearly hear coming from the majority of board members is that this has to be a contract written so that it holds harmless the district from any current or future lawsuits as a result of this marriage."

I also had a long sit-down with District 8 trustee Joe May (East and Northwest Dallas), who has amassed a damning set of numbers to show how poorly Dallas prepares all of its students, including the more than 60 percent who are Latino.

The Dallas Morning News editorial page beat up on May recently for expressing misgivings about a W-H merger, basically painting him as ungenerous and not caring about the kids. But I didn't get that at all from May or Garza or from school board President Lois Parrott. What I heard them saying was that you show your concern for the kids by getting a really good prenup for them.

This is a delicate moment. We cross our fingers. We hope the board gets it right.

I also need to point out something else that is germane. DISD, thank goodness, is not the one that got Wilmer-Hutchins "in trouble" in the first place. The DNA tests will bear me out: The responsible party in this uncomfortable situation is the Texas Education Agency.

The TEA has known about and been involved in the mess at Wilmer-Hutchins for more than 20 years. The TEA's piddling attempts at resolving the mess are a big part of what brings everybody to the current ugly prospect. The TEA is not in a position morally or politically to wag its bony finger at Dallas if Dallas balks at the deal.

In fact, the TEA cannot legally make Dallas do anything this year. Next year presumably it could order Dallas to marry W-H. But the law does not allow the education commissioner to make Dallas do squat right now.

So guess what the education commissioner's worst nightmare must be: If Dallas says no, then the TEA will have to marry Wilmer-Hutchins. I don't know about you, but I'd throw rice at that one.

On the other hand, the trust fund. It'd be kind of nice to reel that one in, eh? Look, all I care about is the kids. And that they will be provided for. Well provided.

So, this is the moment in the romance when we do the hard-ball negotiations. What we need right now is for everybody to stay calm. Everybody hold his and her mouth just right. Assuming our school board does a good job and comes up with a sweet little lovable prenup, then we'll order the floral arrangements and the preacher and the accordion and so on.

If it's a bad one? What if we have to fix Wilmer's buildings, the trust fund's already been spent and now the FBI wants to talk to us, too? In that case, we go very quietly to our room. We pack. Then we change our names and slip off to Ohio at midnight.

It'll be our little post-nuptial agreement: the papoose vamoose.

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