By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It was arguably the strangest school-year kickoff Dallas had ever seen.Forget all those bright-eyed, backpack-toting first graders bouncing onto their buses--that time-honored, Rockwellian image so dutifully trotted out by thousands of school districts nationwide was not quite what DISD superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez had in mind for the momentous launching of her first full school year.
What she had in mind was what she'd seen--and rather liked--several weeks earlier in an editorial page cartoon in The Dallas Morning News. In the cartoon, Gonzalez was pictured behind the wheel of a giant, snorting bulldozer, eagerly knocking down all questionable staff expenses. (The cartoon was a send-up of a much-ballyhooed internal investigation Gonzalez had launched into suspiciously high overtime payments to employees.)
Clearly enthralled with that take-charge, tough-girl image of herself, Gonzalez decided to bring her caricature to life. So on the morning of August 12, the day before the district's pupils returned to school, Gonzalez summoned her 18,000 employees to work. She then dispatched a fleet of charter buses to pick everyone up at their schools and offices and haul them to Reunion Arena. When everyone had taken their seats inside the cavernous hall, Gonzalez appeared before them, replete in her fantasy role--roaring onto the arena floor behind the wheel of a bulldozer.
It was sheer spectacle. In the shadow of a spray of flares that lit up the darkened arena floor, the tough-talking 44-year-old Hispanic educator gripped the wheel tightly, peered over her wire-rimmed glasses, and let it roll. Although she appeared nervous at one point about the chances of navigating the bulky machine through the arena's rear portal, any such trepidation was ultimately outweighed by an overwhelming sense of self-satisfaction.
Climbing down from the big yellow machine, a dazzling smile on her face, Gonzalez teasingly asked her audience: "Is this a little different than the convocations that you remember?"
Gonzalez and her full-time staff publicity hound, Robert Hinkle, had advertised the event as an unprecedented district-wide pep rally for teachers and administrators. Never before--the two Dallas Independent School District administrators boasted--had all of the teachers been brought together under one roof.
As for the bulldozer, Gonzalez and Hinkle had explained, that stunt was a visual metaphor showing how Gonzalez was dedicated to overcoming any obstacles thrown in her path to get the focus at DISD back on the students. (No similarly philosophical explanation was provided for the other highlight of the Reunion extravaganza--namely, the floor show put on by some of the district's black administrators, who danced and lip-synched the words to the song "Soul Man" while it blasted over the arena's sound system.)
Initially, the superintendent's big gimmick served its purpose. That evening, each local television station dutifully showed Gonzalez rumbling across the arena on her big yellow machine. The next morning, the Morning News positioned Gonzalez and her bulldozer on the front page of the paper--a lengthy story accompanied by a full-color photo.
When reporters raised the obvious questions about the costs of such an affair, Gonzalez and Hinkle downplayed their concerns. Rally expenses would run about $60,000, Hinkle briefed reporters, but the district would be getting private financial contributions as well as revenues from some booth rentals at the event to help pay for that. Anticipating just such questions from her bosses, Gonzalez had dispatched a memo to board members regarding such costs shortly before the event. "Work is underway with corporate sponsors to underwrite a portion of the expense," she wrote to trustees, "and I am hopeful this will defuse any concern on the part of the public."
Gonzalez got her wish--sure enough, the public hasn't shown much concern. And why should it? As represented by Hinkle, the event's price tag was relatively small. Add to that Gonzalez's comforting assurances of generous private assistance, and what the taxpayers reckon they got was a perfectly executed, perfectly adorable back-to-school bash hosted by the female John Wayne of urban superintendents.
On the other hand, the public doesn't know much either. As it turns out, the afterglow of this publicity coup was short-lived inside the halls of the DISD administration building on Ross Avenue. Within days of the pep rally, school board trustees, business community leaders, and district administrators were beginning to compare notes about troubling inconsistencies in the versions of events Gonzalez and Hinkle had spun for the media.
What corporate campaign? What generous sponsors? And where in the world did an anemic figure like $60,000 come from? The people who sat at Gonzalez's knee counting the taxpayers' money knew better: forgetting for a moment the cost of chartered buses and countless security officers and a big-city arena rental, teacher pay alone for that one day cost almost one million dollars, according to one DISD financial administrator who is still rolling his eyes over his boss' cost projections.
To make matters worse, there apparently are no corporate angels--or if there are, the typically loquacious superintendent isn't saying.
Although board members are supposed to approve all charitable gifts of more than $25,000, they have seen no corporate contributions for this event to date. And when the Dallas Observer asked the superintendent for proof of any smaller gifts, none was forthcoming. When pressed, Hinkle insists that tens of thousands of dollars have rolled in--yet the only contribution he can actually document is a Dallas construction company check for $330, which covered the bulldozer rental.
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.
Newly elected trustee John Dodd was outraged by the flub. "I watched the 10 o' clock news and got on my telephone immediately," Dodd says. "I wanted a letter written to the FBI apologizing. The whole issue is integrity, and the FBI is not going to be told what to do."
But other misstatements Gonzalez made at the same press conference don't seem at all accidental.
A day earlier, the Dallas Observer had reported that the superintendent's lavish renovations on her office suite had cost at least $50,000 more than she'd previously informed reporters and trustees. When documents detailing the expenditures were leaked to the Observer, Gonzalez claimed she'd never been told about the higher costs.
Gonzalez even corralled chief financial officer Matthew Harden into the press conference, where he stood behind her, somber and ashen-faced, as she pleaded ignorance about the cost overruns. "Desperate people do desperate things, but I have more faith in people to figure out what's going on here," Gonzalez had written in a statement released before the conference. "The fact is that the public can expect many more attempts to discredit me and my administration."
Harden, looking grim, spoke briefly. He concurred that the superintendent had not been advised of the extra costs. The renovations, in fact, were only supposed to cost $12,000--the figure Gonzalez had originally supplied to the media.
Just this week, however, Harden filed an affidavit in connection with black administrator Shirley Ison-Newsome's lawsuit against district administrators that tells an entirely different story.
"Shortly after Gonzalez became superintendent of the district, she ordered the renovation and refurbishment of her offices," Harden wrote. "Several meetings were held in which the cost of these renovations was discussed. I was present at those meetings. During those meetings, Gonzalez was informed of the ongoing costs and approved these expenditures. Those costs quickly rose to $63,000. They have subsequently risen to over $90,000.
"As the costs grew, so did the media attention, which included making public records requests," the affidavit continues. "The press made numerous inquiries into the actual cost of the renovations. I spoke with Gonzalez about these inquiries and personally observed their effect on her. Gonzalez was upset about the inquiries and concerned that they were casting her in a bad light."
Harden is willing to state under oath that his boss, the woman who the city hopes will clean up the quagmire of DISD, lied.
"...Gonzalez told the press she was not aware of any renovation costs over $12,000," Harden writes. "That statement was false. I was at meetings in which she was specifically made aware of and approved the costs of renovation."
Early on in her tenure as superintendent, Gonzalez had shown a flair for missing major details about financial matters. She told the board of trustees that her 13 cabinet members would foot their own transportation bills for a February 1996 retreat she planned to hold at the Santa Fe home of Charles Miller, a wealthy Houston investor. But weeks later, DISD documents show, the cabinet members submitted reimbursement forms for their airline tickets. It seems the taxpayers would pay for the $260 round-trip flights after all.
Call that an honest mistake, borne of inexperience. But on other occasions, Gonzalez's overstatements have risked considerable damage to people's reputations. After initiating her district-wide probe into fraud allegations, Gonzalez adopted the rhetoric of the righteous crusader--speaking often about massive contract kickbacks and widespread bid-rigging among district vendors. But so far, federal prosecutors have uncovered only small acts of malfeasance, certainly not the "millions of dollars in fraud" that the superintendent glibly forecasted. On August 6, U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins' office indicted 16 individuals, mostly custodians, who allegedly accepted $160,000 for services to the district that were never rendered.
Earlier in the summer, when WFAA-Channel 8 first aired a story about the Jerico Group, a black-owned furniture supplier that supposedly overcharged DISD for products, Gonzalez encouraged the suspicions without even bothering to fully investigate the facts. She told The Dallas Morning News the day after the Channel 8 report that she was "exploring the possibility of impropriety." Within weeks, however, Jerico owner RC Clack had written a persuasive account of why the news story had been unfair. His prices may have been higher than others, but he had clearly followed DISD policies in setting them. Gonzalez apologized to him privately but never bothered to redress the issue publicly.
Clack could not be reached for comment.
It's not as if Gonzalez doesn't care about her public image. In the volatile world of DISD, where--as one of her supporters says--public-relations "bombs go off in her office every day," the superintendent obsesses over publicity and spends a tremendous amount of energy and resources trying to make hers favorable.
In the budget she recently brought for approval to the board of trustees, for instance, Gonzalez bumped up the funds going to Robert Hinkle's communications division--which also handles internal matters such as school video services--by a whopping 177 percent over the previous year. Under her budget, his department gets a $6.2 million annual allotment; a staff of 50, up from 39 last year; and newly refurbished offices.
Perhaps in response to all of the embarrassing revelations about her financial gaffes--and a spate of leaked documents--Gonzalez has changed who handles the job of releasing DISD documents to the press three times in the last three months. At first, she channeled requests to the district's in-house lawyers. Then she had the press office handle them. Now she is paying outside lawyer Marcos Ronquillo, who negotiated her contract and is overseeing the internal fraud investigation, to do the job.
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.
Robert Payton, associate superintendent for schools and accountability, is the only high-level black administrator to back Gonzalez publicly. He has been rewarded with a 22 percent raise--bringing him to a $110,000 salary. His son, who handles real estate transactions for the district, has also been promoted. (Payton could not be reached for comment.)
Gonzalez's penchant for spending has made unlikely allies out of board members who want to maintain checks and balances on her just-pull-out-the-public's-pocketbook attitude. "In fiscal responsibility and soundness, we have stuck together," says one of the three black trustees. By "we," the trustee is talking about a group that now often includes white board member Dodd--a fiscal and social conservative--and Lois Parrott.
On several key votes, the black trustees have been joined by some of their white colleagues in attempts to stop Gonzalez from dishing out cash. Dodd joined the black board members when they put a halt last month to Gonzalez-backed plans to buy a church in order to absorb some of the district's space shortages.
The black trustees were joined by whites again when they pushed to limit her plan to give $500,000 to new auditors who would overhaul DISD's financial systems, even though Gonzalez didn't know what the auditors' bill would actually be. The six trustees took $200,000 of those funds and earmarked them instead for a deferred maintenance account that would go to physically improving classrooms, board member Hollis Brashear says.
Even though Gonzalez, in her oft-repeated statements about rampant fraud, has complained about nepotism within the district, her protestations ring hollow because of her own husband's well-paid position within DISD. Chris Lyle, who never moved to Santa Fe when his wife was superintendent there because he couldn't find a job as an accountant, now works for the district as a specialist in safety and security--at a salary of $42,000. Gonzalez, who earns roughly $190,000 in salary and benefits, negotiated the deal for her husband when she came to Dallas as a deputy superintendent in 1996, according to district administrators.
Since Gonzalez took the district's top office, neither she nor her husband have taken measures to prevent the possible conflicts of interest caused by having her as his boss.
When reached on the phone for this story, Lyle, who keeps an extremely low profile in DISD, deferred to his wife's policy of having all calls routed through the press office, and declined to talk.
"Dr. G," as DISD employees who are close to Gonzalez affectionately call her, shares none of the gruff manners of her publicity chief Robert Hinkle. The childless, middle-aged superintendent projects a relaxed, surprisingly cozy personality. She is never stiff. Neither is her wardrobe; she favors brightly colored lipsticks and neon-colored, short-skirted suits.
Beverly Friedman, who served as press spokeswoman when Gonzalez served as superintendent for the school district in Santa Fe, says her staff sometimes worried about the superintendent's choice of wardrobe and even considered advising her to tone it down. But they ultimately kept mum, Friedman says, assuming that their boss' attire had more to do with her culture and "bubbly" personality.
Gonzalez certainly is unreserved. When this reporter met her for an interview late last spring, Gonzalez chatted as if we were long-lost girlfriends. Instead of sitting behind her desk, she pulled two chairs together in front of it so we could talk.
She referred to herself in jest as "a little Mexican girl," a fair caricature given her roots. Gonzalez was born in Brownsville and grew up in Laredo. She escaped from the economically depressed border town through education--the only one of four daughters in her family to finish college.
"Dr. Gonzalez is a young administrator to have achieved all that she has academically, educationally, and professionally," Ray and Berndston, a search firm, wrote in the recommendation it sent to DISD board members when it presented Gonzalez, along with five other top finalists, for the superintendent's job last year.
In 1975, Gonzalez graduated from St. Mary's University in San Antonio with a bachelor of arts degree in political history and science. She went on to get a master's in secondary education from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches in 1978. She taught high school for one year and then began her climb in administrative offices, starting as assistant principal in San Antonio in 1979. She had finally been in a head principal's post for one year when, in 1987, she joined the faculty at Texas A&M as an assistant professor while she worked on her doctoral degree.
Afterward, she taught at Old Dominion University in Virginia, the home state of Chris Lyle, her second husband. In 1989, Gonzalez returned to Texas public schools as a principal in Houston. By 1994, she had risen to associate superintendent in the Houston system. The next year, she served for one month as interim superintendent before getting the top job in Santa Fe.
"She gets an A+ for trying to change the system, but people were not ready for change," the search firm wrote to DISD trustees about Gonzalez's Santa Fe experience.
But by the time she had left Santa Fe, Gonzalez had established a pattern of generating big, flashy staff expansion plans and lots of self-serving publicity. "She did have a flair for attracting attention," Friedman says. But she also exhibited the same troubling tendency she's revealed in Dallas for omitting significant financial details and misrepresenting matters to the press.
Santa Fe presented a much smaller stage for Gonzalez to perform on. The school district has 12,000 students and a $48 million operating budget, compared to DISD's 155,000 students and budget of nearly $1 billion.
So when Gonzalez added eight administrators in Santa Fe, established a public relations office for the first time, and gave her staff raises, veteran teachers complained that she was empire-building and not looking out for the children's interests. "The flap was that she expanded the administration," Friedman recalls.
Perhaps to mollify those teachers, Gonzalez hiked their salaries as well. The teachers were scheduled to receive a 5 percent raise, but Gonzalez increased that to 6 percent. The problem, says Peter Garcia, a former chief financial officer in Santa Fe whom Gonzalez hired, was that Gonzalez had no idea where the money for that 1 percent raise would come from. She didn't seem to be concerned about that even when he advised her of it, Garcia says. "Maybe she already knew she would be looking for a job somewhere else," he says.
When Gonzalez hired him, Garcia says, she told him that she didn't have much of a financial background, so she would have to rely on his. "But she didn't," Garcia says.
Less than three months after she left to come to Dallas, the Santa Fe school board got wind of Gonzalez's financial recklessness. They learned from her successor that Gonzalez had busted the budget by some $800,000--a significant sum in that district.
When a Santa Fe New Mexican reporter contacted Gonzalez in Dallas and asked why the board hadn't known about the shortfall, Gonzalez countered with tactics that are strikingly similar to the approach she adopted when her office renovation figures were leaked here: She blamed her subordinates.
"I guess if the board is saying they didn't get information from me, then they're probably right," Gonzalez told the newspaper reporter. "But that's only because I didn't have information I could give to them because I couldn't get it from Pete [Garcia]."
With Gonzalez gone, the board only had Garcia to bear the blame for the overspending. The board suspended him and ultimately opted not to renew his contract. But Garcia insists today that he gave Gonzalez not one but two briefing reports that showed her the possibility of a shortfall. "I gave her a scenario that there could be a budget shortage," says Garcia, who now works for the City of Santa Fe.
The Santa Fe school board members might have heard Garcia with a more sympathetic ear if they had known that months later, Gonzalez would point the finger at her financial staff in Dallas when overspending came back to bite her again.
In Dallas, of course, Gonzalez is still the boss. So at the July 30 press conference she held to quell the controversy about her costly renovations, Matthew Harden dutifully told reporters that his boss had not been informed about the high costs. Less than an hour before the conference, Gonzalez informed Harden that she was leading a press conference and expected him to attend and back her story. Harden, a Tyler native and the son of migrant workers, came to DISD 20 years ago as a young graduate of the University of Texas and has never worked anywhere else professionally. He reluctantly agreed.
For now, Harden still has his job. But his claim that the information he released was false will surely put a chink in the Gonzalez-Hinkle publicity armor.
When asked about the office renovations earlier this week, Hinkle insisted Gonzalez didn't engage in any kind of cover-up. And Hinkle, unaware of Harden's affidavit in the Shirley Ison-Newsome lawsuit, hastened to remind a reporter that Harden backed Gonzalez at the press conference.
What he doesn't elaborate on is the aborted attempt to force Harden to resign. It came--perhaps not coincidentally--the week after Gonzalez and Hinkle planted a story in the media about concerns regarding the superintendent's safety.
Three days after the Reunion Arena rally featuring the bulldozer, Gonzalez was back on the tube again on August 15, this time in the lead story on WFAA-Channel 8's newscast and, the next day, on the front page of The Dallas Morning News.
For this press event, the superintendent adopted a worried look. She and Hinkle had selected reporters they apparently viewed as friendly at those two news organizations--Brett Shipp at Channel 8, Nora Lopez at the News. Gonzalez huddled with the reporters in her office late Friday afternoon, promising to give them an exclusive.
The purported scoop was something that would excite any reporter: Gonzalez claimed the superintendent's office just might be bugged.
"We believe that it is possible," said an outside contractor hired to conduct regular sweeps for bugs in the DISD administrative offices in the News.
Martin Brown, a subcontractor who did the actual search of the phone, later told the Observer that he had found possible evidence of tampering among the wiring on Gonzalez's phone. Someone appeared to have done a shoddy soldering job on the telephone's circuit board, and that, coupled with loose wiring, gave rise to suspicions. "It was like a footprint--someone could have run by there" in an attempt to bug the phone, Brown said.
This was no smoking gun--not even close. But Gonzalez conveyed no doubts that unscrupulous people were scuttling about inside the administration building, installing listening devices and plotting her demise. "There are obviously people who want me out of the superintendency, and they will stop at nothing to make this happen," she told the News. "...This is about millions of dollars in kickbacks, bid rigging, and everything else under the sun."
In her memo to the board about the matter, written that same day, Gonzalez maintained the shrill tone. "Here-to-fore [sic] I have ignored precautionary warnings from law enforcement and staff; however [sic] the discovery this week of an attempted wiretap in my office lead [sic] me to believe that I [should] no longer do so," she wrote. "This has become a high-stakes situation. As the investigations continue and reports start to emerge, I encourage Board Members to be cautious and watchful concerning your own personal situations as well."
The bugging device wasn't her only concern, Gonzalez told the reporters. She had received death threats. Dallas police chief Ben Click had come over to advise her that she move to a gated community patrolled by security guards "at the insistence of the FBI and DPD," Gonzalez told board members in the memo.
Hinkle fed reporters additional material for the under-siege angle. Mysterious tracking devices had been found on five senior staff members' cars this year, he claimed. Hinkle didn't name the staffers. But he was almost certainly aware that the reporters had heard--as had many people in DISD--that Matthew Harden had found such a tracking device beneath the bumper of his car that very week and reported it to police.
Gonzalez and Hinkle were on a publicity roll. First they'd held the public in rapt attention while Gonzalez steered a bulldozer into Reunion Arena, metaphorically squashing her many foes. Now they portrayed her as under fire from cowardly enemies within. Who wouldn't sympathize with a reformer who had to wage war amidst such unethical and possibly illegal conduct?
On closer inspection, however, Gonzalez and Hinkle seem to have manipulated the news about the superintendent's security woes for ulterior--if not entirely clear--purposes.
A week after Hinkle fed the news about the trackers to selected reporters, his assistant, DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander, conceded to the Observer that the warnings about tracking devices--other than Harden's--really amounted to nothing more than suspicions that tracking devices had been planted. And very flimsy suspicions, at that. Specifically, Hinkle had found a dry spot on his car after a rainstorm where a tracking device might have been. Gonzalez had uncovered similarly vague evidence on her car a few months earlier.
Yes, the district was in a tizzy because suspicious dry spots had been discovered on a few staffers' cars.
Furthermore, a Dallas police detective who is familiar with the chief's discussions with the superintendent insists that no one from his department had advised Gonzalez to change residences. Officially, police spokesman Ed Spencer says the department will not comment on the security advice given to Gonzalez.
It's unclear why the superintendent chose to hype her own security concerns at a time when the district's chief financial officer had discovered and reported an actual tracking device on his car. Harden first asked police in DeSoto, where he lives, to investigate who might have installed the small device. When the department indicated it didn't possess the expertise to handle such an investigation, Harden turned to Dallas police.
Detective Terry Martin oversaw the probe. "We did recover a tracking device," Martin says. "We conducted a preliminary investigation to determine if there were any violations of criminal code. But no evidence was found to base the filing of criminal charges."
Dallas police had determined that Paul Beasley Associates, a local private-eye agency, had given the device to whoever put it on Harden's car. (Beasley Associates would not reveal to the Observer the identity of its client.) A tracking device works much like a cellular phone. It emits a unique signal, allowing one to identify and follow it.
The cops couldn't go any further, however, because simply placing a tracking device on a car is not illegal.
Without no avenue for relief from the criminal courts, Harden turned to the civil courts. He hired Bill Brewer, the name partner in the Dallas firm of Bickel and Brewer, to uncover the origins of the tracking device. Brewer, not coincidentally, also represents Ison-Newsome, the district's former chief of staff whom Gonzalez demoted to principal. Ison-Newsome has named Gonzalez, Hinkle, Dahlander, and special assistant Robby Collins in a lawsuit alleging that the group slandered her when they told reporters she had not followed district rules while adding bathrooms to her office building. The defendants have declined to comment on the suit.
Harden filed a suit that is much narrower in scope against the employee at the private eye agency who subleased the tracking device from its manufacturer, Teletrack. Brewer says he is seeking immediate discovery to determine who stuck the gadget on Harden's car.
The week after Gonzalez shared her security concerns with the media, the superintendent fronted the effort to get Harden to resign.
When word leaked to some trustees and Dallas business community members that Harden, who refused to resign, was feeling threatened by Gonzalez and her allies, they rallied to his support.
"There had been a concern that he was not as well-regarded as we had hoped," says Erle Nye, chairman of the Texas Utilities Company and a former member of the superintendent's advisory board. "A number of folks who have known him over the years wanted Gonzalez to know that he had done a good job."
Trustee Yvonne Ewell says, "I heard a rumor that she was pressing him." Ewell left voice mail messages alerting all of the trustees about her concerns. "[Gonzalez] was very put out with me for doing that," Ewell says. "But I was concerned."
The campaign by outsiders to protect the district's chief financial officer succeeded. Gonzalez no longer is talking to Harden about quitting.
For his part, Harden has declined to comment in detail on efforts to fire him. "I feel I have the support of the board that I have been assigned to look out for the best interests of the district," he says.
Three trustees, however, speculate that the superintendent may have intentionally hyped her security concerns to overshadow any scrutiny about who put the tracking device on Harden's car. That such doubts exist at all indicates that Gonzalez is no longer granted the automatic benefit of the doubt by her board, as she was in the harmonious few months after the May school board elections.
"Although I opposed her appointment, I have tried to be as supportive as I can," trustee Ewell says. "But it doesn't look good.