Executive sweet

DISD Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez spent a lot more on her new office than taxpayers were told

When Dallas schools superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez started remodeling her office suite at the district's downtown headquarters this spring, she justified the expense by pointing to her predecessors. Chad Woolery, whom Gonzalez succeeded as superintendent, had added wallpaper. And his predecessor, Marvin Edwards, had turned a closet into a toilet.

But Gonzalez's renovations turned out to be a bit more extensive--and expensive--than taxpayers were initially told.

Now, six months after Gonzalez lowered the ceilings, added new wallpaper, erected a glass brick wall, and installed a glass door, the full cost of the renovations is finally coming to light.

It's also becoming clear why DISD has spent the last six months stonewalling reporters who have been asking for a full accounting of the office rehab job.

A half-dozen contractors' vans clogged the administration building parking lot during the project, even usurping spaces reserved for school board members. Gonzalez insisted that the changes--necessary for security reasons--were costing only $12,000.

But Gonzalez was apparently using some form of new math when she tallied the numbers. Documents obtained by the Dallas Observer this week show that the tab was actually $62,000.

According to DISD invoices and accounting documents, spiffing up Gonzalez's office suite cost $32,000 in labor and nearly $30,000 in materials.

The work--performed before Gonzalez launched her much-publicized investigation into overtime fraud by district employees--required substantial amounts of overtime by district workers. Carpenters sprucing up her suite logged 23 1/2 hours of overtime, and painters hanging new wallpaper accounted for another 18 hours of overtime.

The $12,000 figure Gonzalez cited for the board--and taxpayers--accounts for only the money spent to fix Gonzalez's office in the most literal sense--the physical area immediately around her desk. It did not include improvements like a new work area for her assistants, a foyer, and a conference room.

Technically, only $12,000 was spent on Gonzalez's office, but the $62,000 figure truly captures what was spent on her office suite.

DISD spin doctors apparently realized how dubious taxpayers might be of the distinction, because they have tried for six months not to answer questions about the project's true costs.

The Observer and several other news organizations requested a full accounting of the project months ago, seeking the documents under state open records laws. But while the district complied with other open records requests filed since then, Gonzalez and her aides have steadfastly refused to release the office renovation numbers.

Remarkably, after the Observer obtained the documents through another source, Jon Dahlander, the public relations specialist at DISD, suddenly announced that he had received copies of the long-missing documents and was ready to release them.

"You're never gonna believe this," Dahlander told the Observer. A notebook full of related documents arrived on his desk less than 30 minutes after the Observer called to ask about the $62,000, and Dahlander said he was prepared to release them to the press.

Gonzalez's past statements about the office renovation appear particularly disingenuous considering her recent demotion of a top district administrator who was accused of going overboard in renovating another office.

In June, Gonzalez approved the demotion of Shirley Ison-Newsome, a former area superintendent, to the position of principal at Carter High School.

Gonzalez busted Ison-Newsome down after learning that Ison-Newsome had ordered that an additional bathroom be built near her office, at a reported cost of $6,000.

At the time of the demotion, Robby Collins, special assistant to the superintendent, told reporters that Ison-Newsome was disciplined because the bathroom was never properly authorized. Ison-Newsome has since filed suit in state district court, claiming that what she dubbed "pottygate" was really a retaliatory move by Gonzalez and her aides to even the score over a grievance Ison-Newsome had filed.

The irony of the juxtaposition between Gonzalez's disingenuous behavior and Ison-Newsome's demotion is not lost on Bill Brewer, the attorney handling Ison-Newsome's lawsuit against the district.

"Gonzalez is more than the proverbial woman in the glass house. She's quite a hypocrite," says Brewer, a partner at Bickel & Brewer.

But Gonzalez is offering no apologies.
The superintendent declined to discuss the $62,000 tab with the Observer in a telephone interview, but did produce a written statement. "I am not going to apologize for making my office more secure," the statement read. "When we set out to remodel the Superintendent's Suite, we had three objectives. We wanted to create a private office out of existing space for assistants to be able to work without interruptions, a secure area for the staff who work in the office, and we wanted to set a tone of high expectations for all visitors to the administration building. I think we have accomplished all three...

"Certainly, if you were to look at the offices of other executives within the city, both public and private, you would find in almost every instance a more secure environment.

"It also should be noted that I brought in my own furniture to outfit most of my personal office."

The superintendent also pointed out that her aggressive efforts to root out fraud and corruption at the district have made her a potential target for complaints by disgruntled employees.

"It should come as no surprise that suddenly six months after the renovation began--and in the middle of a major investigation--that questions about the renovation would be raised," she wrote.

"Desperate people do desperate things, but I have more faith in people to figure out what's going on here. The fact is that the public can expect many more attempts to discredit me and my administration.

 
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