By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
OK, so they poured water on Waldemar Rojas. He melted. That's great. I don't know why they never think of these things until the end of the movie. Now everybody at Dallas school district headquarters is crossing their fingers, holding their breath, waiting for the odd winged creatures that came with him from San Francisco to fly away in a screeching horde.
But this is Dallas, not the movies, and, unfortunately, the exorcism of Witchy Bill from his post as Leader of our Children and even the departure of his scary creatures won't get us anywhere near back to Kansas. Rojas made a mess of coming here to clean up a mess created by the former superintendent who came here to clean up a mess, remember? Now we have archeological layers of mess. And the mess is still the real issue.
People are already talking about how we should just forget about any real outcome from the FBI fraud investigation at DISD. The Dallas Morning News ran a story recently that painted U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins as very pessimistic about ever getting anything serious on anybody at DISD. The same story made Dallas FBI Special Agent in Charge Danny Defenbaugh sound kind of pooped out and ready to throw in the towel. The article quoted a suit on the Citizens Council--that weird 1950s throwback private business group that still thinks it runs the city--as saying we need to get this whole thing behind us.
The Morning News followed the story with a lead editorial saying that it was gosh-darn bad news about the federal probe's tanking, but that "...corruption may be impossible to prove" and that "it is also possible former Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez exaggerated when she said tens of millions of dollars had been stolen from the public school system." The newspaper concluded: "If school officials hope to win voter approval for a major bond issue anytime soon, they need to start focusing on sound financial management."
What is this talk of a bond issue? You've got to be kidding. People on the Morning News editorial board and on the Citizens Council and the Chamber of Commerce and places like that just need to take those three words, "school bond issue," right out of their vocabularies. There's no way anybody's going to support a bond issue until there is some really convincing resolution of the corruption issue in the Dallas school system. Weird as Rojas may have been, nobody thinks he was the real problem. It's the board and the school headquarters staff.
I talked to Coggins. He was emphatic, and, I have to say, pretty convincing, in saying the impression given by the News' coverage and editorial was wrong and that the federal probe is robust and ongoing. He said federal investigators have winnowed many allegations that probably won't float, but there are "half a dozen to a dozen fairly serious things" on which his staff and the FBI are still pushing hard. "I'm going to pursue this thing whether the timing is good, bad, or indifferent," he said.
Coggins didn't say the News' reporter got him wrong. He said his quotes, accurately reflected in the body of the story, were intended to caution people that really suspicious circumstances and even outright bad behavior do not always a federal case make. His complaint was that the headline over the story ("DISD charges unlikely: But federal grand jury reviews some material") and the editorial that followed it may have given the impression that he was pulling away from DISD. He says he is not.
During the investigation and prosecution of former Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb, Coggins sure didn't look like a punch-puller. Why not believe him now?
It's true the agony of DISD has been before us all for what seems like a very long time, and maybe you can't blame the News' editorial board and the Citizens Council for wanting it to go away, to get fixed. The problem is, you can't get to the fixed part, and you definitely can't get to the bond issue part, without first doing something dramatic to dispel entrenched public mistrust.
Too much stuff is out there, known or suspected or rumored. The leads that have been provided to the FBI include much more than whispered suspicion. There is an awful lot of information in circulation right now that tends to paint DISD as a free-money factory.
According to voluminous files of DISD financial transactions that were provided to the FBI, and that I also have seen, this is how it worked for years and may still work at DISD headquarters: If you had asked the district how it paid money to vendors, it would have shown you a fairly detailed purchasing control system based on the required use of purchase orders and a review of those orders by its purchasing department. Purchase orders submitted by departments of the district were compared against the budget. If a department put in an order for computers, for example, and the purchasing department saw in the books that that department's budgeted amount for computers wouldn't cover the expense, the purchase was not authorized. Good system, eh?