City of ignorance

Don't expect racial tensions to cool in DISD as long as emotion trumps the truth

As soon as I arrived at DISD headquarters, I knew that something unusual, even historic, was taking place.

Outside, next to the tiny visitors' parking lot, some 150 Latinos were gathered around a man whose strained voice could barely be heard above shouts and loud talking. I couldn't see him or make out his words. But emotion swirled around us like a dust cloud. And when the crowd broke into a heavily accented chant of "Gon-za-lez! Gon-za-lez! Gon-za-lez!" I was enveloped in raw, resounding noise.

I retreated to the fringes as more Latinos streamed in and joined the gathering, having parked their cars along the streets as far as a half-mile away.

"Who are these people?" I asked myself. Apart from a few LULAC activists, including Jesse Diaz and Alfred Carrizales--fixtures at Dallas Independent School District board meetings--I had never seen these folks before.

There were women in housedresses, accompanied by small children. There were Hispanic schoolkids with book bags. Many bore signs and placards declaring support for DISD superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez, who'd resigned just the night before--and quite a few spelled her name incorrectly, Gonzales. Some men and women were dressed in soiled work clothes--the uniforms of cooks, laborers, and counter clerks. Others wore white-collar garb. Clearly, many had not had the opportunity to go home before arriving here on this Wednesday afternoon.

At one point, the crowd raised an impassioned chant of "Harden must go! Harden must go!" They were referring, of course, to DISD's black chief financial officer, Matthew Harden, whose accusations of sexual harassment against Gonzalez had led to the superintendent's startling decision to step down.

On the lawn beside Washington Street, where for months a puny, ragtag band of black activists had dogged the district by holding a series of increasingly absurd press conferences, more Hispanics were gathering for an impromptu rally. Some had brought lawn chairs. One guy was waving a large American flag. Little children zigged through the grass, playing tag.

Around the corner, on Ross Avenue, about two dozen women and children lined the sidewalk with Gonzalez placards--jumping up and down, waving, cheering, and screaming--eliciting sympathetic honks from many passing drivers.

At the peak of activity in the early evening--when the board of trustees was already several hours into a marathon closed-door meeting to consider Gonzalez's resignation--I estimated that 1,000 Latinos were demonstrating in and around the building. I thought back over the eight years I've been a reporter in Dallas, and concluded that I'd never seen so many Latinos gathered at a public meeting before. This was a genuine movement, a spontaneous outpouring.

And the message couldn't be more clear--this once-invisible group of people wasn't about to let go of DISD's first Hispanic superintendent. This was the one offense--beyond decrepit schools, a dearth of representation in DISD's upper management, and the paltry number of bilingual teachers--they wouldn't permit. To them, Gonzalez was a hero, a fearless reformer. She was the woman who single-handedly embraced the burdens of the district's 70,000 Hispanic schoolkids amidst an atmosphere of cynicism and corruption.

Never mind the mushrooming allegations against Gonzalez--that she'd sexually harassed Harden, then attached a tracking device to his car; lied about her costly office renovations project; and instituted a bully regime in which administrators were sacked from their jobs on the flimsiest evidence of impropriety.

Today she was a martyr. No matter what the facts.

I guess I expected too much from this city--this city of ignorance and absolutes.

It was unrealistic to hope for a little sophistication, a willingness to recognize that people--even, dare we say it aloud, blacks and Hispanics--are not all good or all bad.

Take Gonzalez--certainly a complicated personality, as the events of this year have proved.

I remember how, for a few fleeting months, we all thought she'd made some serious headway in resolving DISD's long-standing racial conflicts.

She'd boldly stood down the small group of black protesters who'd paralyzed the board of trustees under its inept former president, Bill Keever. She had exposed a most cynical charade--the myth that this group of loudmouths represented black Dallas as a whole. Gonzalez saw through that ruse immediately after her appointment as superintendent in January, exhibiting a cultural savvy and brand of courage that her white predecessor, Chad Woolery--and his black predecessor, Marvin Edwards--so obviously lacked.

Once she'd disposed of that annoyance, she got down to important business. For once, we had a superintendent with the nerve to tackle head-on the real issues in DISD: weak test scores, inept principals, corruption, waste, and the yawning needs of a rapidly growing, seriously neglected Hispanic student population.

When Gonzalez announced all at once the promotions, demotions, and reassignments of dozens of principals and administrators--clearing out decades of deadwood--I silently cheered her on. This woman had guts. She'd busted down blacks, whites, and Hispanics alike, and she could have cared less about each and every feeble attempt to ascribe a racial motive to her actions.

It seemed during those hopeful months that the Dallas public schools were entering a new era of sanity.

I presumed, of course, that the woman was squeaky-clean herself. She wouldn't dare rack up this body count if she were hiding some unsavory secrets of her own.

I guess it was around June or July when another version of the story began trickling back to the Dallas Observer. After several months of reporting by staff writer Miriam Rozen, the Observer published a September 11 cover story ("See Yvonne run from the truth") that revealed another, far less flattering side of the charismatic superintendent. This was no martyr in the making. Here was a woman who'd stared down the opposition only to succumb to a siege mentality herself. Now she was lashing out with increasing ferocity against her enemies--both real and imagined--employing some of the same dirty tactics she'd accused them of using against her.

Who can forget her dramatic pronouncement that unknown persons appeared to have bugged her phone--which she saw as proof that her enemies were out to destroy her?

The truth about that statement, however, goes beyond irony--in fact, when I heard what was really going on, I began to suspect that our superintendent had gone plumb crazy.

It's now alleged in court records that Gonzalez was the one playing silly spy games, attaching a surveillance device to the personal car of Harden, a 19-year DISD veteran who, at least until then, had enjoyed a spotless reputation within the district. Gonzalez suspected that Harden was leaking information to the Observer (see Miriam Rozen's full report in this issue, "Hunter or prey?").

What was Gonzalez so afraid of? We don't know for certain, and the superintendent is no longer talking. But we do know that she and one of her flunkies, DISD publicity chief and major blowhard Robert Hinkle, had dispensed a pretty impressive series of misrepresentations, overstatements, and outright lies during Gonzalez's short tenure. From office renovations to staff salaries to the costs of her extravagant back-to-school pep rally, Gonzalez clearly couldn't be trusted with facts.

Which put a rather serious crimp in her savior status.

The local opportunists--and we have more than our fair share around here--love that taste of blood.

With hundreds of Hispanics gathering for the board meeting on the afternoon of September 17, trustee Jose Plata saw fit to distribute to the crowd, in Spanish and English, an inflammatory declaration of support for Gonzalez. Unfortunately for him, it resulted in him sounding like a self-serving boob--in two languages.

"...Because of her efforts to bring spending under control, she has been attacked relentlessly in the press by character assassins who want her to stop the internal investigation she started months ago," Plata wrote in the English version. "Dr. Gonzalez was finally pushed to the brink...

"As the Latino member of the school board," he continued, "I am not willing to stand by and let outside forces run off the only school superintendent in the history of this district who has had the courage to make the hard decisions and the willingness to fight corruption...as far as I am concerned, she has done nothing wrong."

I know an election year is coming up, but this statement is shamelessly disingenuous and irresponsible, not to mention idiotic--in light of the district's racial tensions. One can only guess that Plata is trying to win some of the respect that has so far eluded him in Dallas' Latino communities.

Plata, however, wasn't the only one who seized the opportunity to draw attention to himself last Wednesday night.

When I walked into the jam-packed auditorium, where most board meetings are held, I observed quite a pageant of strutting and posing among district hangers-on--as well as a fine array of cheap, double-breasted suits.

There was DISD litigant Don Venable, talking very loudly next to the two rows of press seats about all the important stuff he's done. There was Dallas businessman Michael Gonzalez, ceaselessly striding about the front of the room with his cell phone. And there was John Wiley Price, sporting a truly ridiculous Bugsy-style hat, sitting in the back of the room flanked by a couple of his Warrior sidekicks.

Ultimately, even their smug voices were overwhelmed by the shouts of people who actually have a stake in the district's affairs--the hundreds of Hispanic parents and schoolkids who'd pushed through the doors and crammed into every available seat.

Around 9 p.m.--five hours into the board's closed-door meeting, with four hours still to go--a couple of people, ornery and bored, yanked up the blinds on the auditorium windows. Visible outside were more than 100 Latino demonstrators, who now pressed up against the windows, thrusting an American flag and pro-Gonzalez placards into view.

Their chants of "Gon-za-lez! Gon-za-lez!" caught on inside the auditorium, prompting a cacophonous soup of foot-stomping, chair-banging, hand-clapping, and children's squeals.

It was hard not to get swept up in the pro-Gonzalez sentiment--hard to push away feelings of sympathy for a superintendent who had so clearly won this crowd's unreserved, heartfelt support.

It was actually a relief to see Hispanics finally flexing some muscle in the district--an entirely appropriate and necessary phenomenon, seeing as how 45 percent of the district's kids are Latino. Quite frankly, anything that draws the spotlight away from the increasingly irrelevant, morally clapped-out John Wiley Price can only be a positive development for DISD.

But I also fear the demands of a community whose leaders seem blinded to their beloved superintendent's flaws and missteps.

Because the truth is that Yvonne Gonzalez is not worthy of anybody's support.

When the board of trustees emerged at 1 a.m. to convey their decision not to accept Gonzalez's resignation--with the three black board members casting dissenting votes--I figured the stage was set for a dangerous misunderstanding.

After all, this city prefers ignorance to information. We view people as living emblems of race or ethnicity, not as individuals. We cannot conceive of the three black trustees as individuals with distinct views and visions and capacities for judgment. Instead, they are seen as a single bloc with a single motivation--race. Their race.

I know now why black trustee Ron Price was discouraged enough to consider resigning from the position he'd only held since May. Though he announced this week that he'd hang in there after all, he might have come to a different conclusion if he'd sat and read several of Dallas' Spanish-language newspapers.

As trustee Yvonne Ewell said to me this week, "The discourse is at a very low level."

Yes it is. Gonzalez's sudden demise was explained this way in El Heraldo News on September 19--in a story, translated here into English, headlined "Espontanea manifestacion en favor de Gonzalez": "The [Gonzalez] investigations resulted in accusations against primarily African-Americans; therefore, African-American leaders John Wiley Price, Lee Alcorn of the NAACP, Robert Williams of the New Black Panther Party, and the three African-American trustees--Hollys [sic] Brashear, Yvonne Ewell, and Ron Price--began an aggressive criticism campaign and demonstrations against Dr. Yvonne Gonzalez. This resulted in an uncontrollable situation."

I read that particular snippet to Ron Price, a former DISD youth worker. "That's an outright lie!" he snapped back.

The more diplomatic Ewell--a 10-year board veteran who worked 30 years as an educator in DISD, rising to the post of associate superintendent--wasn't too pleased about being lumped together with black militants Alcorn and Price. Although she had voted against Gonzalez's appointment as superintendent, she and the other black trustees deny any role in an "aggressive criticism campaign" against her.

Sadly, these racial misperceptions are echoed in other Spanish-language papers. Said El Extra in its September 18 lead news story, "Renuncio Yvonne Gonzalez": "After the resignation of Gonzalez, board member Ron Price said that this was not a racial question--that it is not a battle of the races. However, history shows that since Dr. Yvonne Gonzalez took office, there have been constant allegations from the African-American DISD board members against her..."

What allegations? Ewell asked me. "I didn't do anything but support Yvonne Gonzalez, publicly and privately," she said. "I try as hard as I can to keep my moral antennae straight--it's very easy to get confused. But why would I want the first woman and the first Hispanic superintendent to fail?"

Harden also gets tossed in with the district cranks in the September 19 issue of La Voz, which quotes a Hispanic activist as follows: "We are all here to protest and support Dr. Gonzalez, but we have made no attack against black leaders, who are the cause of these problems--mainly [Matthew] Harden. Where I come from (Mexico), people never do this, and if he has the capacity to do this, it is because he is a cobarde"--a coward.

(To its credit, Dallas' oldest Spanish-language newspaper, El Sol de Texas, printed a brief--but much more even-handed and factual--account of Gonzalez's resignation in its September 18 edition.)

"All of this stuff seems so ill-conceived," Ewell commented. "It's all race, race, race. And race is a part of it--just because blacks and Hispanics are involved. But people seem to see everything through that glass darkly."

The worst part of the Gonzalez debacle is the realization that we can't expect those familiar racial tensions to subside any time soon. There are at least two things playing havoc with the truth here: the poor quality of the "news" that's being circulated as fact in Dallas' Latino communities, and the romantic view of Yvonne Gonzalez as the personification of an entire culture.

Someone with credibility and courage--someone like the superintendent we thought we had--must stand and declare that this latest, sordid chapter in DISD history isn't a matter or race or ethnicity. It's a question of character, plain and simple.

Something that the children of DISD deserve to see in their future leader. Whomever that may be.

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