By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Yvonne Gonzalez, whose short tenure as superintendent of Dallas schools has been a whirlwind of press conferences, spent much of last week insisting she had no idea that recent renovations to her office suite cost taxpayers $62,000.
Gonzalez called a press conference, of course, to protest her ignorance after the Dallas Observer obtained documents showing that the costs of sprucing up the executive office suite were significantly higher than the $12,000 figure Gonzalez had provided the school board and curious reporters.
The hefty price tag--and the appearance that Gonzalez may have misled taxpayers--triggered a flurry of activity, with local NAACP chapter leader Lee Alcorn calling for Gonzalez's resignation, and leaders of a teachers organization rising to her defense.
A press spokesman for the district concedes that the whole incident "has been embarrassing," and that Gonzalez is now trying to put it behind her.
But there's more.
Additional documents obtained by the Observer show that even the $62,000 figure is too low--the cost of spiffing up the superintendent's digs rises to roughly $90,000 if you add in all the new furniture that was purchased.
And, despite her protestations, internal district memos show that Gonzalez most likely did know that she was spending a lot more than $12,000 on the project.
Most telling is a letter that Gonzalez sent to a district field supervisor in February thanking him for all the hard work district employees put in on the renovation project.
The missive suggests that Gonzalez knew workers were putting in extra-long hours--including weekends--to finish the renovation project quickly, and that she herself had asked for a speedy completion. Presumably, the superintendent would be aware that district employees were drawing overtime pay for the work.
"Please accept my warmest thanks for your supervision of changes made in the Office of the General Superintendent," Gonzalez wrote in the February 19 memo to Carlos Landin, a field supervisor responsible for overseeing the renovation work. "The unobtrusive and efficient way in which you directed the work that was done, [sic] was exemplary. I appreciate, too, the many hours you dedicated during the week and on the weekend to finish the work I requested in a very short period of time."
At the time the letter was written, DISD work orders show, maintenance crews had racked up a bunch of expensive overtime fixing up the office. One work order, for example, shows that carpentry work required a crew of eight employees who clocked some 125 hours of overtime--costing $5,141--in January.
Another work order indicates that, during the same period, six maintenance employees logged almost 50 hours in overtime--at a cost of roughly $900--installing carpet for the superintendent and her secretaries. A third work order indicates 10 maintenance employees accumulated about $1,600 in overtime pay completing electrical work. For both the carpet and electrical installations, the work orders show, crews did the work almost entirely on overtime pay--working only a few hours at regular pay.
Even after Gonzalez sent her thank-you letter, district employees continued to rack up overtime pay on the project.
The overtime costs are included in the $62,000 figure--which is presumably a full accounting of what it cost to refurbish the offices. But that tally ignores the almost $30,000 that was spent on new furniture and office equipment.
According to DISD documents obtained by the Observer, Gonzalez personally authorized buying a $976 love seat, a $524 computer desk, $985 worth of floor mats, $535 in keyboard trays, and a $119 printer wagon. Those weren't even the big ticket items.
Ted Almaguer, an administrator in the finance department, authorized purchases including a nearly $8,000 custom-made wall cabinet and $11,000 in work stations for personnel in Gonzalez's reception area. An administrator who asked not to be named told the Observer that Almaguer might have signed off on the purchase orders, but Gonzalez made the decisions to buy the furniture.
As the tab was growing for the renovation job, internal district documents show, there was an attempt by administrators to conceal its full cost from pesky reporters and, ultimately, taxpayers.
Numerous news organizations including the Observer spent months asking for a full accounting of the renovation project under state open records laws.
Internal computer e-mail messages obtained by the Observer show that some effort was made to prevent public release of the $62,000 figure.
On May 9, Tommi Shedden, a former assistant to the superintendent in charge of open records, dispatched an electronic message to Gina Bradford in the accounting department. It said in part: "We have been trying to get information on expenses in Dr. Gonzalez's office...please advise on the hold-up. We are giving Channel 5 reason to believe we have something to hide."
Three days later, Bradford responded by making it clear that the superintendent's office was contributing to the delay in releasing the information. "Perhaps if you had forwarded the request in a more timely manner rather than 12 days later you would not be concerned with the idea that Channel 5 would believe something was being hidden," Bradford messaged Shedden.
At any rate, Bradford's message to Shedden said, the documents were ready. "You may pick up this request from my secretary," Bradford wrote.
Shedden apparently did pick up the documents, because by that afternoon Dennis Eichelbaum, a DISD attorney whose contract was recently terminated by the board, weighed in on the issue.