Woolery's mammoth

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

It was one of those classic DISD moments.
The Dallas Independent School District board was poised to adopt a $772-million annual budget. In it, the district's teachers weren't going to get an across-the-board raise, but the administrators who had made that decision had enjoyed whopping raises of up to 24 percent the year before. Then there was the superintendent, Chad Woolery. He was leading the charge to cut the raises, but he had just tendered his resignation. He was going to work for an education company that currently did business with the district--he had, in fact, just recommended an increase in the company's contract.

This was the scene at last Thursday night's meeting when 100 angry teachers showed up to raise a little hell about this. As if things weren't bad enough, security officers were dispatched midmeeting to drag a kindergarten teacher from the lectern because she wouldn't shut up when her two-minute speaking limit expired.

"I was in the middle of my speech, and I wasn't going to let them stop me," Maria de la Garza, a Bonham Elementary School teacher told me later, breathlessly recalling her firsthand experience with management. "So I yelled out, 'I'm not finished! Let me finish!' And all the people in the audience stood up and started chanting, 'Let her finish! Let her finish!' and so they let me finish."

Well, I have no sympathy for the teachers. After all, where do these people think they work? Haven't they been reading the newspapers this past year? Don't they know how to finesse the system? I mean, it doesn't take an education degree to figure out that if they want to be treated fairly, they need to do the only thing that works: They need to hire Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price to come down to the administration building and practically threaten to burn it down.

After all, it worked beautifully for Ora Lee Watson, the former Townview High School principal who did such a lousy job opening DISD's jewel school last year that, thanks to agent Price, she was promoted to a cushy post downtown. She not only retained her $83,862-a-year job, she was given a nice new office and a staff. We can only hope that she has figured out what to do with herself during the workday seeing as how her position did not exist before the superintendent dreamed it up one day while lying on the John Wiley Price medieval rack.

Let's cut to the chase here: Chad Woolery's bounteous spending habits in the few short years he was superintendent--a job for which the bloated Woolery was paid a bloated $194,174 a year to perform--is his great legacy in public education.

Woolery's generosity with other people's money is the No.1 reason that district taxpayers are getting their first tax hike in four years--3 percent, or $36 a year on a $100,000 home--but getting no teacher raises to speak of and no more money for aftercare programs.

No one will ever know for sure how much money was wasted under Woolery's watch.

This was a man who was absolutely incapable of firing anybody but equally committed to promoting and hiring people if it served any perceived short-term political purpose. Woolery was famous for dispatching beheaded veteran employees--the ones with enormous salaries--to a backwater administration building, formerly Davy Crockett Elementary School in East Dallas. Today, there is virtually an entire shadow government stationed out at "the Crockett graveyard," as it is not-so-affectionately called.

But Woolery's transgressions were far worse than that. He defied spending orders given to him by his board--the most notable being the 4-percent raises the board ordered for all district employees in 1995. Woolery went way beyond that for 19 of his top administrators, whose raises averaged 9 percent. The board never would have known about the raises had Larry Bleiberg at The Dallas Morning News not dug the information out of people's personnel files and written a story about it.

"Chad Woolery is the Ronald Reagan of the Dallas public schools," one board member told me disgustedly. "Spend and spend and spend, and someone will pay for it later."

When it all caught up with Woolery--and he was facing a tax hike to cover the hemorrhaging--he panicked. He held tight to the budget, then jumped ship, taking a job with a DISD contractor, Voyager Expanded Learning, with which he was currently negotiating--all of which made him look like a whore, which is not a noble way to end a long public service career. The gravest injustice is that he withheld the budget from board members until their backs were up against the wall and the schools were about to open unfunded unless they rubber-stamped the doo-doo they were handed.

(Doo-doo No.1: Woolery was proud of the fact that he could avert an even bigger tax hike by cutting 85 administrative jobs. Sure, he may be cutting the jobs, but the people are still milling around the building, waiting for their reassignments--and they'll get them.)

Only God--besides Woolery--knows what's really in the DISD budget the board just adopted. "Running this district is like trying to catch a waterfall in a Dixie cup," says board president Bill Keever. "You can't be everywhere, and every time you move to tackle a problem, you find there's another problem over here somewhere. And the budget is an example of that. The budget is so complex, and there are so many line items in it, that there's no way to get your arms around it.

"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.

Oh, sure.
"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."

Or how about this memo, written three months later, from the physical sciences department chair to principal Watson: "Currently, if I want anything done on a computer, I must take it home to work on and then bring it back to school."

Westech's biggest job was to integrate 646 Macintosh computers with 394 Compaq computers--computers with two completely different operating systems that DISD officials had purchased for the school. By the end of the school year--one that will be remembered as being a complete technological disaster--school officials decided that the two could not be integrated. So most of the Macintosh computers were ripped out and shipped off to some other DISD school--some other fiscal black hole--and more Compaqs were ordered.

We are not advised as to the status of Townview's 21st-century computer-video system this year. And we do not care. What we care about is disproving the commonly held belief that the DISD board, rife as it is with filthy, self-serving politics, is the cause of DISD's imminent demise. We beg to differ.

"I think Jameelah learned a lot," her mother told me last week when I called to catch up on the South Africa experience. "I don't think she thought she would go somewhere and a child would be in a school and not have a book or a paper to write on."

Oh, I don't know. Try Dallas in a year or two.

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