By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
But the board members, given the situation, got cold feet. It didn't help that Voyager had already earned a reputation for aggressively cultivating public officials--and raising questions about conflicts of interest.
Just months earlier, the company had hired the then-superintendent of the Richardson Independent School District, Vernon Johnson. Teachers griped loudly that Johnson--much like Woolery--helped Voyager get business from RISD before he jumped to the Voyager payroll. It had also been reported that Mike Moses, the chairman of the Texas Education Agency, had stepped in to help Voyager avoid state regulation as a daycare provider. A Voyager investor had given money to the campaign of Governor George W. Bush, who had subsequently appointed Moses.
With those news stories floating about, then-DISD board president Bill Keever decided shortly before the August 13, 1996, meeting to pull the Voyager contract from the agenda.
The board never revisited the issue. The contract was dead.
But Voyager continued to offer individual DISD schools its programs. Although Voyager didn't get its $87,000 deal with DISD, it nevertheless established programs at 14 district schools.
If board members had concerns about giving Voyager money when Woolery was still with the district, they had no problem forking over after Woolery went on the Voyager payroll. In March of this year, the board approved another, much more expensive deal with Voyager, seemingly forgetting the questions raised less than 12 months earlier about the dangers of establishing--at Woolery's behest--fast, expensive contractual ties between Voyager and DISD.
At a March 18 meeting of the board's education committee, the administrative staff presented a proposal to offer Voyager a $504,000 contract--paid for with federal funds--to set up a summer enrichment program for some 4,000 bilingual students.
New superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez eagerly backed the idea. "I have real optimism about the Voyager program," Gonzalez says now. "I would have never supported it if I didn't."
Her support, she says, has "nothing to do with the people who are running Voyager." But Gonzalez's ties to Woolery are hardly negligible.
It was Woolery, after all, who hired his successor. Gonzalez had been superintendent of schools in Santa Fe, New Mexico, before coming to Dallas as Woolery's top aide. When she left Santa Fe, Gonzalez told a New Mexico newspaper that she never wanted the top job again. But she ate those words when Woolery quit. At first taking the top DISD position on a temporary basis last August, Gonzalez fought the objections of African-American board members and won the post permanently.
"People are overstating our relationship," Gonzalez says about her ties to Woolery. "We worked together only three months."
Even though Gonzalez--and most of the board--embraced the contract with Voyager, one board member did raise questions about awarding the company a contract without entertaining bids from rivals or discussing the option of continuing to run its own after-school programs. Board member Hollis Brashear wrote to Gonzalez after the superintendent's staff had presented the idea to the board's education committee at a March 18, 1997, meeting.
"I need further information before I can make an informed decision about this program," Brashear told Gonzalez.
But when the entire DISD board gathered two weeks later, the proposed Voyager contract was the very first item on the agenda. Only Brashear and fellow board member Yvonne Ewell voted against approving the contract.
Notably, Kathlyn Gilliam, the veteran board member who recently lost her seat in an upset in the May 3 election, voted in favor of giving Woolery's company the contract.
But then, Gilliam had gotten her share of favors from Woolery when he was at DISD. Senior DISD administrators recall that Gilliam called the former superintendent nearly every morning at 8:30 sharp to discuss the day's events. A review of correspondence between Gilliam and Woolery reveals that she regularly gave the superintendent advice on whom to hire for principal's jobs and when to address his attention to an employee's grievance.
"I have personally asked [your candidate] to send a letter of interest, along with a resume, for one of the eight new schools to open," Woolery wrote to Gilliam in January 1996, after she had recommended an individual to fill a principal post.
Gilliam says she does not remember the Voyager contract, and says she had no closer relationship with Woolery than previous superintendents. She disputes insider recollections that she frequently called Woolery.
Gonzalez still defends the Voyager contract and is untroubled by its propriety. After all, she says, "they have the summer to prove themselves." The summer, and $504,000 in taxpayer money.
First-grade teacher Linda Berk carries a weapon every day to her classroom at DISD's Obadiah Knight Elementary School. "The kids, they know it's in my purse," she says.
The 25-year veteran teacher is not talking about a handgun or a set of brass knuckles. Her weapon is a cellular phone. The children know, Berk says, that if they act out too much, their parents are just a quick phone call away.
Berk is one of the 4,500 DISD employees who have signed up for personal cellular phone service through the school district, qualifying her for a hefty discount from Southwestern Bell Mobile Systems.
Under a contract signed in April 1996, Southwestern Bell pledged to give DISD employees special discounted rates for their personal cellular phone use if school district administrators could corral at least 500 of them to sign up. More significantly, DISD agreed to become the phone company's collection agent, guaranteeing payment of the phone bills and collecting the money through payroll deductions.