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.

It would be easy to overlook the plain, black-and-white fliers stuffed haphazardly onto a display shelf at the headquarters of the Dallas Independent School District. "Are you aware of any wrongdoing?" the handbill asks. If so, tipsters are invited to call the superintendent's hot line, which will gladly accept anonymous reports of fraud or malfeasance by school district employees.

The solicitation is part of a campaign by new DISD superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez to root out improprieties, launched even as allegations of overtime fraud have engulfed the district and invited the attention of federal investigators.

Shortly after taking over the superintendent's job, Gonzalez instructed district auditors to check out rumors that some employees were padding their time sheets to earn extra overtime pay. That internal probe continues, but it has already produced unsettling news reports that the district--and taxpayers--may have been cheated out of millions of dollars through bogus overtime claims. Gonzalez has told auditors to review all employee time cards, starting with those of maintenance and custodial workers.

The revelations have in turn prompted U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins to launch his own investigation into any possible criminal misuse of the $60 million in federal funds that DISD receives each year.

In the few weeks since it was set up, the superintendent's tipster hot line has logged some 200 calls alleging all manner of abuses. So far, callers have reported allegations ranging from contractor kickbacks and expense account padding to rampant nepotism. Nearly every department in the district--which has 18,494 employees--has been fingered at least once.

Gonzalez has gone so far as to hire an outside attorney, Marcos Ronquillo, whom the district is paying to investigate the fraud tips. (Because of the racial strife that has torn DISD apart, and aware that many of the employees investigated may be black, Gonzalez says she wanted an outsider in charge of the probe. "I did not want people to accuse me of being on a witch hunt against African-Americans," Gonzalez says.)

"This is a big school district. It runs the gamut," Ronquillo says of the tips received so far. "We've heard just about everything, from a PTA president with her hand in the cookie jar to teachers abusing students."

So far, the horror stories that Gonzalez has dutifully announced to the media seem to focus on low-level workers--janitors and the like--who might be skimming money. Gonzalez is publicly positioning herself as a crusading reformer, bent on rooting out fraud and corruption throughout the district.

But however noble Gonzalez's endeavor, DISD's biggest problems aren't going to be addressed by unearthing petty crimes within the ranks of district workers.

If the district really wants to crack down on sleazy business practices--and restore some measure of public faith in the way it conducts its business--administrators would do well to start looking in their own offices.

And they could start with the tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money parceled out through contracts. The alleged overtime fraud looks like chump change compared to the money that is paid to the district's various vendors and contractors. And with a $993 million annual operating budget, DISD offers a tempting pool of cash for those chasing after business deals with the district.

An examination by the Dallas Observer of just some of the big-money deals at DISD indicates that the district routinely tolerates dubious expenditures and enters into questionable business arrangements that flunk the smell test.

There is, for instance, Gonzalez's predecessor as superintendent, Chad Woolery. The former superintendent spent his last months on the district payroll, at $162,000 a year, cultivating a relationship with a private company, Voyager Expanded Learning Inc. Woolery--who hired Gonzalez into the administration--then abruptly quit DISD and took a job at Voyager. This spring, Gonzalez awarded Woolery's new employer a $500,000 contract. No one else was invited to bid for the job.

Or consider the money DISD pays an outside law firm to perform legal work for the district. A few years ago, DISD agreed to increase the amount of money it pays the law firm of Schwartz & Eichelbaum by about $8,000 a month. The firm said it would use the money to hire an additional attorney to perform DISD-related work. The district is paying the $8,000, and the law firm did hire another attorney. But she spends much of her time working on matters for another school district.

And you might wonder why DISD has gotten into the business of collecting cellular phone bills for Southwestern Bell. A little more than a year ago, Robby Collins, the special assistant to the superintendent, negotiated a sweetheart deal with Bell for teachers and employees. DISD workers can sign up for personal Bell cellular service at discounted rates. The district makes it easy by deducting the phone bills from employee paychecks. DISD is now Bell's collection agency. It's a sweet deal for teachers, but may violate a state constitutional provision.

And then, of course, there is the messy battle that has erupted over which company will get to sell the district a new batch of social studies textbooks. School board member Yvonne Ewell tried to steer part of the lucrative book contract to McMillan/McGraw Hill. It probably didn't hurt that the wife of Ewell's former campaign manager is a consultant for the company. Another publisher has sued, and the district now has to wait for a court to address questions of propriety before students can get new social studies books.

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.

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.

CAR TALK

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.

The idea came from Robby Collins, special assistant to the DISD superintendent, after he saw a news story about how City of Dallas workers got price breaks on their car phones. Collins figured cheap cel phones would be a nice perk for DISD workers.

These days, if you call Collins' own voice mail, you will hear an unexpected announcement. "If you are calling concerning cellular phones," the taped announcement chimes, "please call..." and then recites another number.

Why is one of the district's top administrators hustling cel phone service? Collins started wearing a second hat as a sort of marketing manager for Southwestern Bell Mobile Systems, he says, because he was looking for a new benefit to give employees. Collins is not receiving any special consideration for his help running the program.

In years past, he says, the district rewarded its employees by selling them computers at discounted prices. But that program became obsolete, he says, when electronics wholesalers like Best Buy started selling computers so cheaply that the district's bulk purchase discounts couldn't beat the retailers. "We had kind of a void in our benefit package," Collins says.

Scrounging around for a replacement, the DISD administrator came up with the notion of cellular phone service. He asked telephone companies to offer competitive bids, and struck the deal with Southwestern Bell.

Under the terms of the contract, the telephone company is allowed to hold "phone fairs" twice a month in district buildings to sell DISD employees on the idea of discounted phone service. Typically, Collins says, the fairs are held at Skyline High School, which has a lunchroom large enough to accommodate the crowds.

The company sends DISD one master phone bill for all the employees who sign up for the plan. The district, in turn, gets the money back through payroll deductions. DISD goes further than just collecting the money. The school district also keeps track of each employee's phone use to make sure the employees aren't using more peak air time than the contract allows.

In return, Southwestern Bell charges DISD and its employees a flat rate of $35 a month--for 100 minutes of peak-time calls and unlimited calls on weekends. Should a subscriber want more time during the week, he or she can bump up to $69 a month for unlimited calls all the time.

The response to the plan has been overwhelming, Collins says. "I expected maybe one thousand," Collins says. Instead, there are 4,500 subscribers now, and more signing up every day.

Teachers love the service, Collins says. But the contract--not the only one of its kind in the state--has not pleased everyone. "It raises some issues," says Thomas Canby Jr., senior division chief of school financial audits at the Texas Education Agency.

One problem, Canby says, is that the school district could be left holding the bag if an employee's paychecks failed to cover telephone bills. The Texas constitution specifically bars the advancing of governmental funds--or credit--to individuals.

Collins adamantly insists the district will not wind up using tax money to pay personal cel phone bills. "We have no intention of paying the telephone bills of employees," he says.

The district is protected, he says, because teachers receive accrued salaries: Their pay is parceled out over the year to cover them during the summers when they aren't working but still need cash flow. When a teacher is terminated, the paychecks don't just stop. DISD still has time to deduct what it needs to cover any unpaid phone bills, Collins says.

Employees also aren't allowed to charge long-distance or toll calls to their accounts, he says; they must use their own credit cards or calling cards when dialing long distance.

But the contract language between DISD and Southwestern Bell is clear: "Guaranteed payment...through employee payroll deductions, of total DISD subscriber monthly charges."

While the deal is unquestionably popular among DISD employees, it raises questions about why DISD resources are being used to provide teachers cheap personal phone service. What do cellular phones really have to do with better educating the children? First-grade teacher Berk's idea of using the phone in the classroom seems a little farfetched. Berk says the phone also helps her contact her principal if she is caught in traffic on the way to work. But the cost of administering a cellular phone service for all DISD employees seems a high price for such a relatively limited benefit.

Still, DISD superintendent Gonzalez is no more concerned about the propriety of the phone contract than she is about the half-million-dollar contract with Voyager. "'I really don't see this as something that has dark implications," she says.

HOW MANY LAWYERS DOES IT TAKE...?

Compared to the gleaming glass, polished chrome, and wood found in the quarters of Dallas' more prestigious law firms, the offices of Schwartz & Eichelbaum can hardly be described as luxurious. In fact, they're downright dingy.

A small, shabby sign of etched plastic on an unassuming door timidly announces the firm's location. Inside, the secretary and attorneys work in cramped rooms with little light. The law library doubles as conference room.

But, as they say, appearances can be deceiving.
The firm of Schwartz & Eichelbaum is paid a lot of money--well over a half-million dollars a year--to handle legal matters for DISD. In the past 10 years, the firm's contract has been renewed and revised at least four times. Each time, Dennis Eichelbaum and Leonard Schwartz have managed to negotiate a richer deal for their firm. Under their current contract, the firm is paid $54,000 a month in taxpayer money.

For that sum, the private lawyers are available to consult with school board members, to review and revise all DISD policies, and to represent the district in court and administrative hearings. (Specifically excluded from the contract are two biggies: tax matters and workers compensation cases.)

Schwartz & Eichelbaum also agreed to keep two lawyers officing full-time on DISD premises. The contract allows those two attorneys to devote only de minimis (Latin for "trifling") time to work other than DISD's.

Yet Bertha Bailey-Whatley, one of the attorneys supposedly assigned to DISD, has substantial responsibilities providing legal services to the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District. She has an office at Wilmer-Hutchins, and when you call that district and ask for the lawyer, the operator sends the call to Bailey-Whatley's extension.

Jerry Brown, the superintendent at Wilmer-Hutchins, says that Bailey-Whatley regularly works at least half-time for his district. The Wilmer-Hutchins district pays Schwartz & Eichelbaum roughly $120,000 a year for providing the services.

There's certainly nothing wrong with Bailey-Whatley working at Wilmer-Hutchins. The problem is that in 1993, Leonard Schwartz told the DISD board that his firm needed about $8,000 more a month so he could hire another attorney--Bailey-Whatley--to work on DISD matters.

Schwartz told the school board back then that the district's legal workload was growing, primarily because of persistent litigation filed by DISD gadflies Rick Finlan and Don Venable.

"This case needs someone full time," Schwartz told board members. Schwartz also maintained that it would be far more expensive for the district to hire another law firm to handle the Finlan-Venable litigation.

The board was persuaded, and agreed to increase Schwartz & Eichelbaum's contract by about $8,000 a month to accommodate an additional lawyer.

Since then, however, the school district has indeed hired another outside firm to pursue the Finlan-Venable litigation, paying it some $750,000 in fees last year, according to Eichelbaum. But DISD is still paying Schwartz & Eichelbaum the $8,000 a month that it requested specifically to deal with the Finlan-Venable litigation.

While there is no indication that the law firm isn't earning its keep, the situation raises troubling questions about whether the school board keeps track of how it is spending taxpayer money.

Eichelbaum argues that DISD is still getting its money's worth. "It may sound like a lot of money," he says. "But it's a good deal."

Specifically, Eichelbaum says, Bailey-Whatley can perform the equivalent of two jobs because she works a lot more than 40 hours a week. Bailey-Whatley is at DISD a majority of her time, he says, although that argument doesn't match the observations of Wilmer-Hutchins' superintendent.

The issue boils down to the difference between what the firm promised the district and the service DISD is actually receiving. When it approved the increase in Schwartz & Eichelbaum's contract, the DISD board was told it was paying for a full-time lawyer. Why is that lawyer also working part-time for another school district?

Eichelbaum's explanation? "I guess the question is, What do you call full time?" he says.

JUGGLING THE BOOKS

The elementary school students of DISD need new social studies books, and the district is ready to buy about 78,000 of them. But a messy lawsuit is holding up the process, borne of an alleged conflict of interest involving school board member Yvonne Ewell.

Ewell has been accused of having ulterior motives when she stepped in to divert part of the $2.4 million social studies book contract to publishing powerhouse McMillan/McGraw Hill. It seems that Ewell's former campaign manager, Robert Price, is married to a McMillan consultant.

Another book company--Harcourt Brace--is suing to block the deal. Before Ewell interfered, DISD's own textbook selection process had determined that Harcourt Brace should receive the contract.

Harcourt Brace has now obtained a temporary injunction blocking DISD from buying McMillan's books. Harcourt is arguing that the district violated it own policies by allowing Ewell to steer business to McMillan.

The textbook tussle is a classic example of the DISD culture. Most outsiders can see that there is at least an appearance of conflict in Ewell's efforts to award a contract to McMillan. But Ewell absolutely denies the existence of a conflict, and sounds offended that anyone is even questioning her about it.

"I don't have a conflict of interest," she says. "Bob Price was my campaign manager. Bob doesn't owe me anything. I don't owe McMillan [anything]. The McMillan book was by far the better [book]. But I don't need to tell you my preference, because that is not the issue."

That is exactly the issue, say Harcourt Brace lawyers. In its lawsuit, the company argues that Ewell should have been required to abstain from voting on the book contract, and should not have been involved in any decisions regarding McMillan. "Had she abstained, the board would have reached a different decision regarding the selection of a...social studies textbook," the company's petition argues.

School board policy states that, as a general rule, board members who are uncertain about a potential conflict should seek a ruling from the district's lawyers. Outside DISD counsel Dennis Eichelbaum says he never received any such request from Ewell. But Eichelbaum says he believes there is no conflict because Price was Ewell's campaign manager in 1995, a full two years before the textbook decision.

"It's almost like saying, 'Well, you were my paper boy once,'" he says. "The campaign was long ago."

But the long-ago campaign is central to questions arising from the recent dispute. It dates back to early March, when the district's central textbook committee presented trustees with its recommendations for new textbooks for languages, science, social studies, physical education, fine arts, and multilingual-multicultural disciplines.

At the March meeting, the trustees accepted all of the panel's recommendations on which books to purchase--except those for social studies and multilingual-multicultural disciplines. Ewell seconded a motion by board member Jose Plata that split those areas off from the rest of the book list.

Ewell says she was concerned about the multicultural content of the social studies books from Harcourt Brace that the committee had recommended.

The book list was sent back to the central textbook committee with instructions that it bring back another recommendation. But the textbook committee decided to resubmit its original list, endorsing the Harcourt books. Dr. Janet Skinner, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction and chair of the committee, says the group felt strongly that its recommendations were correct.

Teachers and administrators from all affected schools had a chance to review and vote on the books, Skinner explains. Additionally, anyone else interested could have reviewed the books and discussed them at several meetings that were held throughout the district late last year. The books selected by the committee were the ones that the teachers wanted, she says.

But Ewell contends that the committee and teachers were all wrong. So she stepped in and moved to have at least part of the social studies book contract awarded to McMillan.

Ewell says she hasn't championed McMillan books but clearly both her former campaign manager and his wife have. Robert and Charmaine Price are both members of the African-American Advisory Committee, which makes suggestions on issues to board members. Robert Price, in fact, is president of that committee, which decided to endorse the books published by Price's wife's employer. While Charmaine Price did not participate in any of the discussions or voting on the recommendation, Robert Price did. Robert Price, though, says he didn't vote and "didn't encourage or influence anybody how to vote."

He did, however, present the committee's recommendation to the school board at a special meeting on the textbook issue April 17. It was at this meeting that Ewell presented a resolution that called for splitting the social studies textbook buy among four companies, including Harcourt Brace and McMillan/McGraw-Hill. The resolution passed 4-3, with board president Bill Keever abstaining from the vote and board member Roxan Staff listening to the meeting via phone.

Price has been involved in all of Ewell's school board runs. He proudly points out that he was the one who encouraged her to run in the first place. He has a genuine affection for Ewell. But that affection, he says, does not extend to influencing her.

"She looked at the books and made up her own mind," he says.
Charmaine Price was recruited as a per diem consultant for McMillan/McGraw-Hill in November, shortly after she completed her stint as a member of the state textbook selection committee. As a per diem consultant, she assists company representatives in their presentations to schools throughout the district. She too spoke on behalf of the McMillan/McGraw-Hill books at the April 17 meeting.

Ewell says that calls of conflict are hiding the real issue--race. She says that because she is black and that the people "who made this decision were black and brown," she is now being challenged and questioned. Never mind the fact that the teachers who selected the books were from all races, or that the central textbook adoption committee was evenly divided among the district's three major racial groups.

"The white majority is accustomed to having its way about everything," she says.

But couldn't her relationship with the Prices give the appearance of a conflict? Shouldn't she have checked? No, Ewell says. "The appearance is their [her critics'] prerogative," she says.

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