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