By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
She and Hinkle, who meet several times a day, attempt to keep a tight hold on who talks to the press. All DISD employees are advised to check with the press office before speaking to reporters. When the Observer contacted top DISD auditor Wesley Owens for this story, he was willing to grant an interview--but Gonzalez's office nixed the plan, saying she didn't want to deal with the Observer. Gonzalez herself has been unwilling to talk to the Observer ever since it published stories about her actual office renovation costs.
It is Hinkle who personally assumes responsibility for dealing with the press on sensitive stories. A quick-tempered man who helped handle public relations for the Kuwaiti government during the Gulf War before Gonzalez's predecessor, Chad Woolery, hired him two years ago, Hinkle doesn't bother with subtleties. He's Gonzalez's staunchest loyalist, and he'll do what he has to do to flush out her enemies and put a self-serving spin on news about the superintendent.
When the News ran an uncharacteristically critical story about the possible existence of more documents showing that Gonzalez knew all along about the high costs of her office renovations, Hinkle became livid. He says he was upset that the News reporter, Alexei Barrionuevo, who had gotten the tip for the story from trustee Dodd late that evening, hadn't reached Gonzalez for comment before going to print. Dallas Morning News sources, however, say Gonzalez was given plenty of opportunities to tell her side of the story. The August 14 story reported that Dodd had requested diagrams and all memos related to the renovations. Soon afterward, he spotted the documents he was seeking on Matthew Harden's desk. Dodd told the News reporter that the documents showed Gonzalez had been in a meeting where a relatively modest $12,000 renovation plan was rejected.
Harden, however, told Dodd he needed to get Gonzalez's approval before he could obtain copies of the public documents. Dodd still has not received them.
The day after the story ran, Hinkle collared the News reporter in the hallway of the administration building and screamed at him. Still not appeased, Hinkle then ushered Barrionuevo's colleague, News reporter Nora Lopez, into his office and began berating her as well. At one point, his anger turned physical--he kicked a chair. Lopez felt so put upon, she asked Hinkle if he wanted to just hit her instead. The News reporters reportedly considered asking their editors to file a formal complaint with the district about Hinkle's behavior.
Hinkle, for his part, admits to yelling at the reporters. "I was expressing some extreme displeasure with a story," he says. "I may have gone a little overboard."
Neither Barrionuevo nor Lopez would comment publicly about the incident.
Despite her seeming attempts to control information--as well as the people around her--Gonzalez has won some powerful and enthusiastic fans.
"I think she is intelligent and dedicated," says Kathleen Leos, the DISD board president and one of Gonzalez's closest allies. "She never takes the focus away from education."
Gonzalez has out-of-town supporters as well. "You need a strong leader like Yvonne," says Charles Miller, who hosted Gonzalez's cabinet in his home. Miller, who maintains business contacts in Dallas and serves on a state education board, has known Gonzalez since she was in Houston. "If you give her a chance, you'll get positive reform," he says. When asked about Gonzalez's office renovations brouhaha, Miller, echoing the sentiments of board supporters such as Leos and Roxan Staff, shifts the blame back to the press. "The whole thing is a 'gotcha' attitude," he says. "Why don't you focus on the kids?"
Indeed, no one who cares about civic progress and racial harmony would wish failure upon the superintendent. DISD needs a leader with the guts to tackle head-on the longstanding racial tensions within the district. It could use a relentless reformer who will overhaul the district, cutting out the waste, the whiners, and those who seek to divert attention away from the daily needs of 155,000 schoolkids.
But Gonzalez's actions as superintendent so far--apart from her public-relations mishaps and bad math--raise a deeper issue: Is she a reformer, or, as the teachers in one of her former school districts charged, an empire builder?
In this year's proposed budget, she offered teachers only a modest salary increase. Under that plan, a teacher with 18 years of experience would get a 6.6 percent raise--or $2,390. Ultimately, trustees coaxed more out of her, giving a teacher at the same level an increase of 8.7 percent, or $3,190.
Behind the scenes, however, Gonzalez has handed out liberal raises to several administrators who are in a position to help her tremendously. Paul Lilly, one of the investigators on the internal probe, for instance, received a whopping salary increase this past year--from $24,000 to $42,000, according to documents obtained by the Observer. (Lilly concedes that the jump was steep, but says he went from a job title that didn't require a college degree to one that did.)
In the research and evaluation division--whose staff is charged with calculating and compiling crucial reports about the district's test scores, the kind of information that can make or break a superintendent--Gonzalez has been more than generous. Out of 34 professionals in that department, 16 have received raises of more than 10 percent this year. One staff member went from a $52,000 salary to $72,000, according to DISD financial documents.