Woolery's mammoth

When it came to spending, Dallas' former superintendent always thought big

"You hire people you trust," he says, "and you just hope they do a good job. But if the staff is committed to hiding money, they can do it."

And, rest assured, they do. While there no doubt are endless Woolery money-squandering stories around, my favorite is one that does not involve a whole lot of money. Just a whole lot of gall.

Representative Helen Giddings had been the Texas House sponsor of some largely symbolic legislation that lifted trade sanctions against South Africa. After the bill passed in 1995, Giddings organized a large Texas delegation--politicians, business people, and academics--to visit the country in September.

At one of the many speeches she made about the upcoming mission, Giddings remembers, there were some DISD people in attendance. She didn't think anything about it--until her office got a call from the superintendent's office.

"I don't know who made the call, because I wasn't there, but my staff seems to recall that it was Chad Woolery," Giddings says. "Whoever it was said, 'What if the DISD sends two kids on your trade mission?' I said that would be wonderful."

Since Woolery refused to be interviewed about this a few months ago when I stumbled upon a bunch of documents relating to the trip, we'll never know what motivated the Dallas superintendent to use district money to send two teen-agers from Townview to South Africa--but we can make an educated guess.

"You know, it's very smart politically for us to send a couple of kids on a trip with two state legislators," says one long-time DISD employee who is close to Woolery. "We ask for a lot of favors down in Austin, and this is the kind of thing that's very easy to do and promotes a lot of goodwill--not to mention good publicity for Townview."

I wish I could say that school officials had some lofty goals for their two travelers, Jameelah Sabir and Allan Clark, but a memo I unearthed at Townview proves otherwise. "Jameelah Sabir is a member of the Travel and Tourism Cluster and will have an opportunity to travel internationally, compare and contrast time changes, modes of transportation, and accommodations," the business magnet's principal, Yolanda Cruz, wrote in an August 25, 1995 memo to her boss. "She will also visit with travel agents in South Africa, and learn their techniques in booking accommodations, reserving rent-a-cars, and providing tours."

Cruz wrote something equally ambitious about Clark, who was "a business student" wanting to meet "business leaders."

The students were accompanied on the trip by school guidance counselor Ruby Hodges--a protege of Ora Lee Watson, who gave Hodges the perk without consulting principal Cruz, who had wanted to send one of her teachers on the trip.

When the trip was announced, it was generally assumed around Townview that somebody other than the school was paying for it. After all, thousands of kids throughout DISD were constantly hard up for money for school trips--they sold chocolate, washed cars, and held craft fairs to get to much less exotic places.

In fact, when a sophomore journalism student at Townview first interviewed school officials about the trip, she was led to believe that the trip costs were being covered by some entity outside the school. "We were left with the impression that this was a sponsored trip--perhaps corporately sponsored--and that it wouldn't cost the school or the students anything," says the girl's journalism teacher, Sandy Hall-Chiles, who edited the girl's story, which was never published because--and the juxtaposition is sweet here--the school couldn't produce a student newspaper at the time because Townview's $7.5-million computer system wasn't functional.

Of course, there was no corporate sponsor. In fact, it's pretty clear that no one ever even tried to get the $10,085 trip privately funded. I remember, when I first came across some internal documents about the trip, I asked Ora Lee Watson's boss, assistant superintendent Leon Hayes, if the trip was paid for by the taxpayers. He practically choked on the telephone. "We didn't really discuss it," Hayes said, referring to his boss, Woolery. "I assumed that would be taken care of at another level--inside the district or not." All that Hayes knew, he said, was that the money hadn't come out of Townview's budget.

When I asked Ruby Hodges where the money had come from to send her to South Africa, she threw her hands up in exasperation. "I don't know, I just took the check," she fumed. "I didn't bother to see who wrote it."

When I appealed to Woolery's secretary, Jackie Hill, to pinpoint the source of the funds for me, she flat-out refused to do so. And Woolery's communications guru, Robert Hinkle, politely listened to all my questions about the trip and then never answered any of them.

Finally, I found an honest man--DISD controller Robert Cramer, who knows where all of Woolery's fiscal bodies are buried, I'm sure. In a matter of hours, he produced the actual checks for me that DISD had cut for the trip.

On September 7, 1995, DISD wrote a check for $8,835 to the travel agency that booked air fare and lodging for Hodges and the two kids. On the same day, Hodges was cut a separate check for $1,250--$750 for food and $500 for "incidentals." The $500 was supposed to be returned if it didn't have to be used.

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