By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"No, I didn't bring any money back," Hodges snapped at me. "It was very expensive over there."
So where exactly had the money come from--the Exotic Travel Fund? No. According to Cramer, the money had come out of the office supply account of the district's general operating fund--the better to keep those exotic travel trips hidden so nobody counts them all up. "It should be travel," Cramer said. "We're moving it now."
And who ordered that it come out of the office supply account?
"Chad Woolery," Cramer told me.
The whole idea of spending taxpayer money to send two little kids to South Africa really made Townview teachers ill. At the time of the trip, Townview's super-duper technology system had not worked since the day the school opened. There weren't even enough copiers--or copy paper--in the building for the teachers to prepare lessons for their kids during the first week of school. In fact, there were teachers who actually ran over to Kinko's and spent their own money on copies; some ran up some pretty serious tabs.
When I was grilling Ms. Hodges about the number of trinkets she'd purchased with my $500, one floor above us Townview's band teacher was pulling his hair out because he couldn't get $1,300 to buy sheet music for his kids. And there was not one mirror in the school nurse's office--which served 2,173 students--because the former one had fallen off the wall and shattered months earlier, and no one would replace it. "They say they don't have the money," the nurse told me, shrugging.
"We don't have shit out here," one disgusted teacher told me, after I explained to her that a cool $10,085 had been spent to cozy up to some state officials. "We were given $250 apiece to spend on supplies for the year, and most of us used it up long ago."
Actually, the South Africa trip cost a lot more than that--exactly twice that amount. And this is where the story gets really good.
Townview's big claim to fame--besides its impossibly enormous scale--was that it was supposed to be technologically advanced beyond anything that DISD, or any school district anywhere for that matter, had ever attempted. The school's $7.5-million technology system was touted as a Star Wars affair that would forever replace pens and pencils, creating a 21st-century learning experience.
Well, after all the hype, principal Watson probably thought that it would be a snap to make a quick video link-up between Townview and South Africa during her students' gold-plated trip--thus sharing the trip with the rest of the students. So she sent a memo to her bosses downtown, asking for permission to do just that.
The memo back is enlightening. "You have requested the capability of making a video conference call to two of your students in Johannesburg, South Africa, on September 30, 1995," wrote Dr. Ted Almaguer, DISD operations executive. "Accomplishing this task will require the installation of additional equipment on the telephone switch at Townview and the ordering of a video conferencing telephone circuit."
What did that cost? A cool $10,583, according to the September 1 memo from Almaguer. And was DISD management horrified at the idea of spending that kind of money on what amounted to a publicity stunt? "The Management Division desires to support this project," Almaguer concluded.
According to the memo, Townview would have to pay the cost of the AT&T video conferencing telephone circuit--an outrageous $1,223.86 a month--plus the $100 to set up the call to Johannesburg and the $2,000 it would cost to set up a broadcast room over there for the big event. But if Townview would sport that $3,323.86 expense--and we're graciously including only one month's circuit expense here--Woolery was happy to chip in another $7,259 for the hardware to get the deal done.
Well, the Big Video Link-up happened amid much fanfare--wow, wasn't Townview's technology fabulous--but what people didn't realize is that Townview's $7.5-million technology system was a complete dud. In fact, the $10,000 South Africa call--which consisted of a 30-minute video "chat" between the kids over there and the kids back here--was about the only technology that was working at the school at the time.
A private company called Westech had been hired at a cost of $382,360 to get the Townview technology empire up and running by the start of the school. It never happened. On August 18, the day before school started, principal Watson was pleading with her superiors to do something--specifically she wanted them to start charging Westech $500 a day for not having the computer system up and running by August 7 as required by its contract with DISD. The penalties never happened, either.
"We are desperate!!!" read one memo I found in the Townview files dated September 25, 1995--five days before the big South Africa video call. The memo was written by business magnet principal Cruz to Townview's in-house computer expert. "In Room 294, seven computers out of 29 work and in Room 295, only nine computers out of 29 work. Our curriculum revolves around the computers. The students are getting further and further behind. The teachers are at their wits' end and so are the students. Parents keep calling me wanting to know when we are going to get the machines up and running."