By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Uh-oh. Have I been here before? It's the day before Halloween. I am at Dallas Independent School District headquarters, and I am already seeing ghosts.
One is in a real short skirt, and her name is Yvonne. The other one, Waldemar, is holding a tin cup and chortling insanely. They're both whirling around me, and I'm scared.
I think I'm seeing the Ghosts of School Scandals Past.
Yvonne Gonzalez, Our Lady of the Skirts, was superintendent of Dallas Schools from January until September 1997, before going to jail. Waldemar Rojas, who held a press conference with tin beggars' cups to mock his own employers on the school board, was superintendent from 1999 to 2000, at which time he was fired.
Toward the end of both regimes, school district headquarters saw major security crackdowns. I distinctly remember that in each instance the security guards at DISD headquarters got a lot more horsey about allowing people into the building.
So now the same syndrome is showing up again as school superintendent Michael Hinojosa comes under increasing fire for blowing his budget and firing hundreds of teachers.
Today I am in the hallway just inside the public entrance to 3700 Ross Ave., and a uniformed guard has just asked me for my driver's license so that she can give it to "The Raptor."
The Raptor? You got it. The Raptor. Phew. I just got a chill.
This is new. Brand-new. No one at DISD has ever given my driver's license to The Raptor before. The Raptor is a little gizmo on top of the guard desk with an image of a mean-looking dinosaur on one side.
She feeds my driver's license into the Raptor's mouth.
It disappears! The damn Raptor ate my driver's license! Now how am I gonna drive?
Oh, wait. Here it comes out the hind end of the Raptor. Yuck. She better wipe that thing off before she gives it back to me.
Now I can explain. Since that fateful morning, the day before Halloween when I had to let the Raptor eat my driver's license in order to gain entrance to school district headquarters, I have been doing some research. Raptor Technologies Inc. is a Houston company that provides school districts with a way to check driver's licenses to see if somebody is a registered sex offender.
The Raptor also compiles a database in Houston of names and driver's license data for every person who seeks to enter school premises. The idea, I am told, is to protect schools. The Dallas school district says Raptor units have been installed in about four schools but also at 3700 Ross.
Maybe you can make an argument for putting the units at schools, even though it seems to me there are major downside arguments against it. In a school district with a huge immigrant population, background checks at the schoolhouse door are going to keep a hell of a lot of parents away from the door, which is not a good thing.
But the one place where the system is totally weird is at school headquarters. I have spent a good deal of time at Dallas school headquarters over the years, and I truly believe the folks there are safe from sexual predation, unless there is some new kind of perversion I have never heard of where child molesters go after overweight, wrinkled people. You know, cute as I am, I sometimes wonder if I'm totally safe myself surrounded by all those DISD headquarters people.
Another thing bothers me: DISD headquarters security has started telling members of the public that they can't attend district press conferences. I have received several complaints about this. People show up hoping to hear first-hand what is said, and obviously some of these are folks who also want to give their side of the story to reporters.
They get there on time for a press conference, but even after they have given their driver's licenses to the Raptor, they aren't allowed to enter the room where the press conference is going on.
This bothers me on several levels. Members of the press are just members of the public. There is no legal distinction. If you invite us in, you're inviting in the public, because that's who and what we are—no more, no less. At a recent press conference, members of the public were told that they could not enter because they didn't have "press credentials." But blogger Allen Gwinn was allowed to go in, because supposedly he does.
Listen. Gwinn doesn't have press credentials, in the sense of having an official badge or hall pass. Neither do I. Nobody does in Dallas, because no police agency issues press credentials any more, because press credentials are bullshit. They don't mean jack. What we all have instead are press credentials that are either outright fake or of very thin legitimacy. I print my own. For years I carried a press pass that had my picture, the word, "PRESS," in large, capital letters, and then in very small print at the bottom the words, "Allowed to cross police lines and kill people, if necessary."
Worked like a charm.
Gwinn agrees with me. "I don't have 'government-issued credentials either," he told me, "and I have a big problem with government organizations arbitrarily deciding who is and isn't 'press.'"
The whole atmosphere at Ross Avenue smells of a certain end-times syndrome I believe we have seen before. Toward the end of the regimes of Rojas and Gonzalez, school headquarters went into different forms of security lockdown. You may or may not remember that Yvonne Gonzalez's people were sticking global tracking devices on each other's cars at the end to find out who among them was meeting with Miriam Rozen, the Dallas Observer reporter who was writing about them.
I wish I could have seen the maps they printed out of her travels. They must have looked like my wife's cat's hairballs. I couldn't keep track of Rozen when she was just walking around the office.
My memory of both cases, Gonzalez and Rojas, is that the Dallas Observer news boxes were banished from the school headquarters building for periods of time. I need to remember to check that detail next time I'm at 3700 Ross. I figure whenever they order the Observer boxes out of the building, the end cannot be far off.
It's all about paranoia. And paranoia comes before the fall.
I have been talking to people day-in and day-out about what needs to happen in order to fix the school district, and I'm beginning to get a good idea of the landscape. On the one hand, you have a lot of people who say nothing should happen.
Nothing? Are you kidding? The school district is on the verge of bankruptcy; it's still under threat of being seized by the state; they've fired, re-hired, transferred and re-transferred so many teachers that nobody even knows what room to go to. Who thinks nothing should be done?
Lots of people. The argument is stability. According to this logic, the whole problem is too many superintendents in too little time. We should have just picked one and stuck to our guns no matter what. Maybe Gonzalez could have continued to do the job by phone from her cell in the federal pokey, where she went as a result of Rozen's reporting. At least that would have given us stability.
The stability-worshippers tend to be people who work for Hinojosa—surprise, surprise—but also a lot of people in the business community. Their kids are all in private schools or the Park Cities. They can afford to be patient.
You also have the off-with-their-heads vote. These tend to be teachers, parents whose kids' teachers have been fired, appalled DISD graduates and people who don't believe the district's story about where the money went. The guillotine movement began as a call for Hinojosa's head, but by the end of last week it was expanding to include the head of Jack Lowe, president of the school board, and maybe some more heads.
After the October 30 board meeting, every local news broadcast carried footage of the entire school board skulking out of the chamber for an unscheduled "recess" while members of the audience shouted "Jack Lowe must go!" This was on the heels of a board vote to adopt an "ethics policy" designed to allow Lowe's construction company to continue doing millions of dollars' worth of board-approved contracting with the district.
People are just disgusted. You can't blame them.
But then you have the third constituency—the pox-on-all-houses vote. These are people deeply involved in public schools in their own neighborhoods who have found ways to make schools work at strictly local levels and who regard 3700 Ross as a pirate ship from whence no good can come, no matter what. Their goal is to hunker down, sequester what they can and wait for the pirates to pass out.
I'm on their side. Everything good that happens within DISD happens because of parents and faculty at the local school level. You could even draw parallels with our national predicament. The grand top-down schemes always seem to run us into the ditch. The people who really make the trains run on time are middle- and working-class strivers battling to get their own garbage picked up and their own kids into college.
On October 16, I wrote a column called "Band of Brothers-in-Law," suggesting that what we need is a citywide political action committee that can back candidates for school board seats. Since then I have talked to many thoughtful souls, deeply involved in school issues in Dallas for a long time, not many of whom agree with my idea.
For them, the notion of a single parent PAC for the city smacks of one-size-fits-all—the same syndrome they blame for many of the school district's past woes. Some really smart folks, speaking not-for-attribution because they don't want to burn bridges with each other, have said versions of the same thing to me: "Schutze, one-size-fits-all winds up being stupid and ham-fisted when the business community does it. The same thing will happen if parents try to do it."
But people do see a need for a more diverse and complex involvement, reflecting the diversity and complexity of our city. In this vision, several groups would take the field, raise money and campaign for or against board members—some of them arrayed around particular schools or groupings of schools, some of them around district-wide issues such as advanced placement, sports, music, whatever.
The point is to take all of the energy, intelligence and sheer indomitable determination of all those dads clubs, PTAs and booster groups and turn it into a force for good at the level of the school board. People have to do it. It has to happen.
In the short run? I'll tell you what. I think the appearance of the Raptor is a strong indication that the end is nigh for the current regime—not just the superintendent but a good chunk of the school board as well. I am scanning the heavens for an ultimate sign or portent.
Wait a minute. Wrong direction. I need to go check under my car.