Follow the Money

Don't let accusations of overtime fraud by low-level employees distract you. The real money disappears from the Dallas Independent School District through sleazy contracts awarded by top administrators.

None of these situations necessarily reaches the level of criminality, but they clearly raise questions about the ethics and priorities of district administrators.

The fact that none of the district officials interviewed by the Observer perceives any problems with the deals reveals much about the culture of DISD, where deciding who gets to feed at the public trough appears to be more important than ensuring quality education for children. If janitors are stealing from the cookie jar, track 'em down. But what about administrators who are simply giving the cookie jar away?

An Observer examination of these four deals--just a fraction of the scores of business relationships DISD enters into every year--reveals ethical and appearance problems far more serious than whatever is likely to be unearthed by the superintendent's tipster hotline.

CHAD'S EXCELLENT VOYAGE

Chad Woolery caught almost everyone off guard last August when he abruptly resigned as DISD superintendent right before the school year was to begin, and before his contract expired. Woolery announced that he was leaving to join Voyager Expanded Learning, a start-up Dallas-based company that is trying to sell school districts its help in setting up after-school programs for kids.

A 28-year veteran of DISD, Woolery had grown up professionally in the district. He started as a swimming coach and classroom teacher at Hillcrest High School, and rose through the administration, becoming superintendent in 1993.

For Woolery, DISD was a family affair. His wife taught at a DISD school, and his son had worked summers as an intern for the outside law firm that represents the district.

But when he unveiled his plans to go to Voyager, Woolery seemed to be envisioning the promise beyond DISD. The move, he told The Dallas Morning News last August, "will allow me to serve more students and on a national horizon." (Woolery and other officials at Voyager did not return repeated phone calls from the Observer seeking comment for this story.)

One person who could not have been surprised by Woolery's announcement was Randy Best. Voyager is the 54-year-old Dallas entrepreneur's brainchild. Hatched more than two years ago, the idea is for the company to make money running after-school programs for public schools. Best, who made a pile of money selling cheerleading supplies to school systems, started the company with $3.5 million and 15 investors.

Even detractors have praised the company for running quality programs with high educational value. Instead of leaving at the end of the school day for empty houses--or being warehoused in daycare programs--kids in Voyager programs stay at school and participate in "learning adventures," studying space travel, free enterprise, and even beginning physics. Voyager pays public schoolteachers to work longer hours and staff the programs.

Shortly after he began rolling out his Voyager plans, Best also began cultivating a relationship with Woolery. The then-superintendent of the nation's eighth-largest school district became a good friend to Voyager.

A long trail of correspondence between Best and Woolery--obtained by the Observer under public records law--shows that during his final months on the public payroll, Woolery was already becoming quite close to his future employer.

On July 28, 1995, for instance, Best wrote a letter to thank Woolery for the time Woolery had spent speaking at Voyager's training sessions for teachers. "We were all moved and challenged by your message," Best wrote.

By March 1996, Best was relying on Woolery for references. "Pete has a lot of respect for you," Best wrote in a letter that month to Woolery. "Pete" referred to the superintendent of the Albuquerque school district. "I wanted to forewarn that he may call you for a reference," the letter continued.

By May 1996, Woolery had rolled up his sleeves and literally started working for Voyager. Never mind that he was still on DISD's payroll, receiving his $162,000 yearly salary and perks like a $1,200 membership at the Towers Club.

Letters show that Woolery reviewed a list of potential board members for a foundation Voyager intended to establish to administer scholarships. When he moved to Voyager two months later, Woolery would become president of that very foundation.

Then, sometime in late July 1996, only weeks before he announced his departure, Woolery had drafted and signed (but didn't date) a proposed $87,000 contract between Voyager and DISD.

The proposed pact called for Voyager to set up after-school programs in nine DISD schools. Under the terms Woolery set out, DISD would pay the company for the programs. The district would also provide the classroom space, custodial services, and utilities.

It was a better deal than what Voyager typically got from other districts buying the company's services. Usually, the company was paid no money by the school district, but made its profit by charging fees to program participants.

Woolery planned to present the contract to the school board for approval on August 13. But those plans went awry when the board learned about his plans to go to work for Voyager and cried foul.

Initially, concerns about the apparent conflict did not deter Woolery, who fought back by producing a letter from the school's outside counsel stating that no conflict existed under board policy.

"There is no evidence of a conflict of interest under board policy, as Mr. Woolery is, at this time, an employee solely of DISD and not Voyager. Until Mr. Woolery is an actual employee or has a pecuniary interest in Voyager, no actual conflict exists under policy," the lawyer wrote.

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