By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The Dallas school system is in the ditch financially. No question. But stepping up to save the day, we have a volunteer group of Dallas business executives—guys like John Scovell, John Ware, Pedro Aguirre and Joe Alcantar—who are going to come down to school headquarters and help watch over the money.
Am I crazy? Or is this crazy?
Look, I don't know Joe Alcantar, but I know people who do know him. They speak well of him. I'm sure he's a fine gentleman. But is it worth mentioning that he's a founder of Pegasus Projects, which was hired by the school district to oversee the entire $1.3 billion 2002 school bond construction project?
Pedro Aguirre is a respected man in the community and a successful entrepreneur. But one of his entrepreneurial activities is building high schools for the Dallas Independent School System through his company, Aguirre Rodden.
John Ware is the former Dallas city manager who negotiated the deal for the American Airlines Center arena. It was a deal most onlookers thought was unfavorable to Ware's employer, the city, and fantastically favorable to the guy on the other side of the table, businessman and Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks.
Immediately after closing that deal, Ware left City Hall and went to work for Hicks. Now, bankrolled by Hicks, Ware is an investor in many companies including one that sells library software to public schools. I'm looking for my comfort level here.
And John Scovell. Well, what can we say? Scovell's involvement in DISD goes way back and includes many stints as a member or head of the advocacy groups, under various names, that have campaigned for passage of past bond issues. Since 2002 he has been a member of the school district's bond advisory committee.
His past credits also include helping bring Yvonne Gonzalez here as school superintendent. Ms. Gonzalez departed that post, you will remember, to serve out a sentence in the federal pokey for corruption.
After that particular debacle, former Dallas superintendent Linus Wright, the headhunter who had brought Gonzalez here, admitted he had been stepped on hard by certain business leaders, whom he would not name, to put Gonzalez at the top of his list of candidates for the job in spite of qualifications that didn't seem to justify such prominence.
Did I mention that Wright is one of the people Scovell wants to bring in with him now to help look over the henhouse at 3700 Ross Avenue? Apparently if there were bruised feelings after L'Affaire Yvonne, everything has been patched up by now. I notice that Wright is writing articles for an outfit called "The Legacy Center for Public Policy," a local think tank committed to pushing the Trinity River Project and to supporting the ideas of "Dallas Achieves," another private group interested in helping run the Dallas school system.
The current financial crisis of the schools, by the way, can be tied directly to a number of initiatives pushed by Dallas Achieves, as school superintendent Michael Hinojosa himself observed, more or less as an excuse, and I have written about ("DISD's Budget Shortfall: Hinojosa's One-Man Gaffe," September 25, 2008).
Dallas Achieves is closely associated with the wholesale hiring of new teachers above and beyond the teacher-student ratios set by the school board, apparently carried out by school administrators without authorization from the board. Also apparently without money.
When school board members first started noticing huge shortfalls in the payroll seven months ago, school system administrators—riding tall in the saddle with sharp spurs because of all the backup from Dallas Achieves and the business community—fired off a memo to the pesky trustees telling them, "... the district has spent more money on teachers than initially projected, and, for that, there is no apology." The Observer has a copy of the memo, which does not contain the name of its author.
In the genre of screw-you memos, it's not a bad little effort—a bunch of hired bean-counters sending a note to the elected representatives who are legal stewards of the citizens' interest, telling them, yeah, there's a big hole coming in the budget, and "for that, there is no apology."
Pacman Jones couldn't have said it better.
Did I mention that several of the other foxy business gentlemen interested in helping watch over the egg-supply at school headquarters are associated with Dallas Achieves?
Don't let me give the impression that school board trustees are lambs led to slaughter. Many of the same names—people who make money from public works projects—march through their campaign contribution lists like tin soldiers: Aguirre and Alcantar are frequent contributors, along with William Solomon of Austin Industries; Henry C. Beck III of Beck Group Construction; Arcilia Acosta, CEO of Carcon Industries and Construction; and Ron Steinhart, a director of the huge cement company TXI and many other stalwarts of the public works industry. Solomon, Beck and Acosta are not among the business foxes who have volunteered to come down and watch the poultry.
Look, I'm not saying these men should not support the schools. But there are three things I definitely do want to say: 1) Too many of these guys have overweening interests in the school bond construction campaigns; 2) they have a damned lousy track record of success for their manipulation so far (Yvonne Gonzalez, Waldemar Rojas and the current meltdown, for example); and 3) there are plenty of other people around town (including maybe a couple of women) who could come at this from a far less compromised perspective.