By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Obtaining reliable numbers for the Reunion Arena event may ultimately prove as challenging as getting information about the superintendent's previous extravagance--the $92,000 office renovation that Gonzalez swore up and down for months had cost taxpayers only $12,000.
"Don't pick a fight; we are focused on kids," Gonzalez told her employees with the help of giant TV screens that August morning at Reunion.
It would seem, however, that only eight months into her tenure, it's the new superintendent who's gunning for the fight.
There are many people who would argue that Gonzalez's appointment as superintendent is one of the best things ever to happen to DISD.
By virtue of Gonzalez's background--she grew up in a Texas border town--and her ethnicity--Hispanic--she instantly succeeded in deep-sixing the power of the race card, which a small group of militant black leaders had been successfully playing for years against her Anglo predecessor Chad Woolery and the Anglo-dominated school board.
More astonishingly, when those same black leaders responded to their loss of power by verbally assaulting the new superintendent--bombarding her almost daily with threats, insults, and demands--Gonzalez refused to buckle. As a matter of fact, she never even flinched.
"Who is running this district?" former Dallas NAACP president Lee Alcorn once shouted at Gonzalez during a raucous school board meeting. "I am in charge of this district," Gonzalez fired back evenly. "I am the superintendent."
And for months now, the city schools have been better for it.
DISD has long been plagued by indecision and weakness at the top, and Gonzalez has been a welcome blast of fresh air. With tornado speed, she's launched a full set of school reforms, including the highly controversial move to demote some highly paid black administrators who had been promoted by her predecessors for political reasons.
This summer, Gonzalez mounted a full-blown war against payroll padding, encouraging federal prosecutors to join her crusade to rid the district of any semblance of sloth or stealth. She became an instant icon in the Hispanic community--that feisty out-of-towner who immediately managed to outshine every other Hispanic leader in town. She has given unprecedented hope to a hugely ignored, largely fragmented community. She has shown countless Hispanic children that it is possible to attain mainstream success without losing a drop of cultural heritage or sense of self.
But along with the tidal wave of breathtaking reforms--sweeping personnel changes, internal audits, an approach to governance that seems determined to leave no stone unturned whatever the consequences--has come a rash of arrogant, extravagant, and seemingly dishonest behavior by the new superintendent.
She may well be the toughest, most promising superintendent DISD has ever had, but she's clearly the most dangerous, too. She is melodramatic, self-impressed, and prone to exaggerate the facts of a situation if it suits her political agenda. She's a person who seems to believe that the Dallas schools are not simply her public charge, but her personal fiefdom. For someone who carps incessantly about employees wasting public funds--a claim that so far has proven hugely exaggerated, if the number of indictments is any indication--Gonzalez is extravagant when it comes to how she chooses to spend district money on herself and her image.
Worse, to hide her excesses, she has misrepresented some of her actions and adopted a siege mentality that has brought with it all manner of odd behavior. On her controversial office renovations, she greatly underestimated the cost of her purchases--then appears to have lied about what she knew and blamed others' ignorance and stupidity for the resulting mini-scandal.
Gonzalez played similar hide-and-seek games with the annual school budget in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she was superintendent before moving to Dallas in 1996 to serve as Woolery's deputy.
In Dallas, she has developed a habit of refusing to release public documents to both her bosses on the school board and the press. She made a big fuss last month in the media about her office and car being bugged and slapped with a tracking device. The warnings, as it turned out, were seriously over-hyped. All around her, there is paranoia--on the one hand, she seems constantly in search of fresh meat for her highly publicized ethics crusade; on the other, she's always looking over her shoulder, on the lookout for some new DISD turncoat who might be leaking damaging, albeit accurate, information about her liberal spending.
For this article, Gonzalez would not grant repeated requests for an interview.
So far, criticism of Gonzalez has been muted. In typical Dallas fashion, the city's political leaders want most ardently for Gonzalez's finger to stay right where it is, blocking up that dam of racial unrest. Consequently, they are unwilling to acknowledge her flaws, let alone offer some friendly advice that she clean up her act.
To many inside the district, however, glaring examples of exaggerations, obfuscations, and possible lies are piling up.
The most charitable view is that Gonzalez's repeated misstatements simply reflect carelessness.
In late July, she told reporters at a press conference that she would soon curtail the federal government's investigation of overtime fraud and corruption among DISD employees, which began after Gonzalez herself initiated an internal probe. But as Gonzalez--and anyone else who stayed awake in a high school civics class--knows, school superintendents do not order the FBI or U.S. Attorney's office to halt an investigation.