Hunter or prey?

Matthew Harden tells the story about his dark days in DISD

Militant black activists picked up the trustees' protest and turned it into a flat-out racial battle.

Unlike Gonzalez, Harden had never worked anywhere but DISD since college. As a freshly minted graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, Harden began working for the district in 1972 as an accountant. He moved up steadily through the ranks, acquiring more responsibilities with each new superintendent's arrival.

In his complaint, Harden admits that he and Gonzalez became close. He says in his suit that he "quickly became a staunch Gonzalez supporter and was excited about what he perceived as efforts to solidify the polarized factions that had been pulling DISD apart." The feelings were mutual, he claims in his suit. "Not only did Gonzalez welcome his support, but she soon made him a central member of her inner circle," Harden's complaint states. "She arranged for them to begin working closely together, often alone, and often after hours. The two developed a close professional and personal relationship."

Just how far that personal relationship progressed, Harden refuses to say publicly.

The two administrators did have some common ground. Neither grew up in a wealthy family, yet both had succeeded in obtaining a higher education against the odds.

Gonzalez had grown up in Laredo. In an interview this spring, Gonzalez, who has not returned phone calls from the Observer since it published stories questioning the costs of her office renovations,

referred to herself in jest as "a little Mexican girl." She said she'd escaped her economically depressed border town through education. The only one of four daughters to finish college, Gonzalez eventually earned a doctoral degree in education from Texas A&M.

Harden, too, was the only one of his parents' eight children to earn a bachelor's degree. Born and raised in Tyler, Harden grew up poor. He recalls starting his primary grades not in September with the other children, but in January when his family trekked home from West Texas--where the whole clan picked cotton to supplement their incomes for the rest of the year. When Harden's third-grade teacher insisted that he start school on time, his mother, who also worked, finally put a stop to the family's work as migrant laborers.

Coming up in Tyler in the late '50s and early '60s, Harden remembers segregation as a fact of life. He recalls vividly the first time he took a long-distance school field trip, traveling by bus to Washington, D.C. Although Harden and his fellow students would see the usual sights--grandiose monuments, museums, and the nation's capitol--it was the sight of an interracial couple strolling together that sent Harden and his classmates climbing over themselves to peer out the bus window. "We couldn't believe it," he recalls.

About his own interracial relationship with Gonzalez, Harden offers only the information contained in his complaint. He stresses, however, that by January 1997, when Gonzalez was appointed as superintendent, he had told her that he didn't want their personal relationship to continue. "I made it clear she needed to stop the advances," Harden says.

But--according to Harden's lawsuit--the superintendent wouldn't back off. As recently as last month, Harden alleges, Gonzalez told him that "she loved him" and that "she was jealous of other women around him and that, although she was married, she wanted to marry him."

As a divorced father of two, Harden could have entered into an intimate relationship with Gonzalez if he'd so desired.

But as the married superintendent of one of the nation's largest school districts, Gonzalez clearly would have been on treacherous ground if she'd courted such a link with Harden. According to her contract with the DISD board, she must not violate the community's moral code--although that "code" isn't spelled out. Questions of adultery aside, she would also risk raising troubling issues about the propriety of a boss dating a subordinate at the same time she was conducting a far-ranging investigation into corruption among district employees.

The consensual aspect of Harden's relationship with Gonzalez will undoubtedly muddy the waters if a court ever considers his allegations that Gonzalez sexually harassed him. Given the evidence that Gonzalez tracked his personal car and eventually tried to fire him, Harden's lawyers could argue that while the two once shared a romantic relationship of some sort, she retaliated against him once he rejected her advances.

It was already dusk on a hot mid-August evening when Matthew Harden, Jr. stopped at the Blockbuster video store in DeSoto on his way home from work. The night before, he'd watched Turbulence, an action thriller starring Ray Liotta.

"It was about a group of unsavory characters who take over an airplane," Harden recalled as he sat in his lawyer's office--wondering if perhaps the same thing wasn't happening at DISD. Harden seemed a little surprised that he could still remember the plot, given all that's transpired in the month since he popped the movie into his VCR. Then again, his own life resembles a cheesy thriller these days.

Or perhaps he recalls it so clearly because it was on that same evening at the Blockbuster store that Harden uncovered a piece of disturbing evidence that would ultimately convince him to wage an open, high-stakes battle against the DISD superintendent.

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