School for Scandal

What does the school board scandal say about Dallas?

December 1997By Comments

This autumn, Dallas endured one of the most bizarre scandals in its history, one that would have made for great slapstick comedy if it had not been so pathetic. Yvonne Gonzalez, the 44-year-old superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District, was accused of sending the district’s chief financial officer sexually suggestive greeting cards, whispering lewd comments in his ear at meetings, and—in a fit of jealousy—using DISD funds to hire a private investigator to follow him to see if he was meeting other women. Meanwhile, the U.S. attorney’s office discovered that Gonzalez had stolen $16,000 of the district’s funds so she could buy furni-ture for her home and office. Dallas residents were flabbergasted. Why would the superintendent of the nation’s tenth-largest school district, someone who earned nearly $200,000 a year, throw away her career to purchase, among other things, a really tacky Oriental credenza?

What few residents asked—or wanted to ask—was an even more disturbing question: How could someone so incompetent and corrupt ever get appointed head of the DISD in the first place? With more than two hundred schools, 155,000 students, and a budget of nearly $1 billion, the DISD has become a source of deep frustration for anyone who has genuinely cared about the city’s future. Though it’s not surprising that Dallas, like almost every urban area in the country, has a school system plagued by weak test scores, high dropout rates, and overworked teachers, the utter vacuum of educational leadership is disheartening. School administrators and the Dallas school board are locked in an eternal struggle over power, patronage, and money. DISD leaders seem unwilling to put into place the financial controls necessary to ensure that taxpayer dollars get into the classrooms. A special counsel who investigated DISD practices recently concluded that more than $10 million had been paid to private vendors for shoddy, incomplete, or overpriced work. In a city that has long prided itself on its business acumen and can-do attitude, the DISD administrative operation is a disgrace.

What’s more, the elected members of the Dallas school board almost never take the time to debate educational innovation and excellence. Instead, they’re so caught up in racial politics that they barely reach a consensus on anything. Because about 100,000 white students have fled DISD schools since the mid-seventies for either the suburbs or private schools, the district’s breakdown is now 47 percent Hispanic, 41 percent black, and 10 percent white. But whites still hold five places on the nine-member school board mainly because voter turnout for DISD elections is mostly white. Some whites argue that they deserve those places on the board because they pay the largest portion of property taxes that fund the DISD. But the city’s most outspoken black activists, including the New Black Panthers, regularly disrupt school board meetings with shrill speeches attacking white board members and insisting that more black administrators and principals are needed to lead black kids. When the school board recently announced that a new administrator had been hired, one black activist shouted, “If he’s not African American, we’re definitely opposed!” Representatives from Hispanic organizations also come to board meetings and demand more Hispanic administrators and principals. Such an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion has polarized the board, which has three black members and one Hispanic in addition to the five whites.

It was precisely because of that racial polarization that Yvonne Gonzalez was chosen to be superintendent—even though she did not have a particularly impressive track record as an administrator. When she was the superintendent of the Santa Fe school district, Gonzalez once exceeded her yearly budget by more than $800,000. But the five white DISD board members and the one Hispanic member decided she had two advantages going for her. She would be the district’s first Hispanic superintendent, which would appease the Hispanic community. And she promised to stand up to the district’s most strident black protesters. As one school insider later said, “The city’s white-establishment board members just wanted Gonzalez to get the district’s racial controversies off the front page of the newspaper. They basically didn’t care what kind of other reforms she had to offer.” She had exactly the opposite effect. The board’s black members boycotted the January meeting in which Gonzalez was elected because the white and the Hispanic board members didn’t even take the time to visit the home districts of the black finalists for superintendent. Then Gonzalez was accused of ordering $92,000 in renovations for her office, although she told the press that the bill was only $12,000. She hinted that certain black administrators were after her, but she was clearly her own worst enemy. In August, after throwing a $60,000 back-to-school pep rally at Reunion Arena for DISD teachers and employees—she came roaring onto the arena floor driving a bulldozer to symbolize her desire to clear the way for better education for DISD children—she said corporate sponsors were going to cover the cost. But a reporter for the Dallas Observer was able to find only one documented contribution for the rally: a check for $330 to cover the bulldozer rental. Then, in mid-September, the district’s chief financial officer, Matthew Harden, who is black, filed a lawsuit accusing Gonzalez, who is married, of sexually harassing him. He also alleged that Gonzalez had lied about her office renovations and said she had tried to oust all “disloyal” DISD administrative employees. “African Americans felt the brunt of Gonzalez’s ire,” he said.

What took place next was Dallas’ very own Bonfire of the Vanities, an outsized urban drama in which blacks, Hispanics, and whites were at one another’s throats. Saying that the blacks were attempting to besmirch the superintendent because of her skin color, contingents of Hispanics marched around the DISD administration building, chanting “Viva Gonzalez!” Blacks gathered for counterdemonstrations, chanting “No justice! No peace!” Several hundred students from one high school walked out of their classes and marched toward DISD headquarters to support Gonzalez. Not to be outdone, a black Baptist church held a rally, attended by seven hundred people, to support Harden. Finally, at a September 16 press conference, Gonzalez offered her resignation, tearfully insisting that she had done nothing wrong. Most of the white and the Hispanic school board members saw her as a martyr and voted to table her request. The board president, who is white, went so far as to attempt to get Harden to resign—which led to more demonstrations and recriminations. School officials and board members traded so many allegations of spying and wiretapping that Dallasites might have thought they were in East Berlin.

And just when you thought the madness had reached its apex, Gonzalez’s own administrative assistant told the FBI that she had prepared phony invoices to hide her boss’s furniture purchases. Caught red-handed, Gonzalez quickly confessed, pleaded guilty to a single federal charge of misapplication of funds (she will be sentenced early next year), and then disappeared from public view, refusing to offer any explanation about why she would fall on her own sword. “It [the corruption] is something that’s been done for a long time in this district,” one white board member, Lynda McDow, told the Dallas Morning News. “It seems to be the disease that plagues DISD.”

It’s astonishing, of course, that the disease continues to go untreated. There is still no concerted effort to ferret out fraud or mismanagement in the district and to streamline its top-heavy administrative staff. The city’s business and community leaders—men and women of different races who have proven to be enormously capable of pushing through such massive projects as a mass transportation system—have turned tail and run from the DISD. Nor do everyday voters seem to care what happens. The turnout for a school board election is now so minuscule—a candidate can get elected from a single district with fewer than a thousand votes—that the DISDgets board members with little educational experience, some of whom might be good-hearted but a few of whom are complete buffoons. (One long-standing school board member who is white resigned in 1995 after he was heard in a taped telephone conversation using vicious epithets to describe minorities.)

It’s tempting to say that the school board members should forget their racial differences and get on with their work, but they won’t. The present situation is hopeless, so something has to change. Chicago has successfully put its schools in the hands of the mayor, who then appoints the district’s board and management team. If the people don’t like the way the schools are run, they can vote the mayor out. But that doesn’t seem possible in Dallas, since the district extends beyond the city boundaries and thus outside the authority of the mayor. Perhaps it is time for the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to step in and monitor the DISD. If necessary, it could take over the DISD itself, as it has done with smaller troubled districts. Of course, the TEA couldn’t run the Dallas schools permanently, but maybe its intervention would become a cooling-off period. The TEA could even prevent another round of political infighting by choosing the next DISD superintendent—someone who would not be tied to one interest group or another. Such changes may sound extreme, but without them the city’s bonfire will burn out of control.

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