DISD In the Hole
A greeting, passed along in a coffee shop:
"Hey, I haven't seen you in a long time."
"How are you?"
"Just like you—waiting to see if I'll still have a job."
A long silence followed by a laugh that sticks in the throat and sounds like a last gasp.
Those were two Dallas Independent School District teachers, only days ago. But they do not want their names used. No teacher interviewed for this story wanted his or her name used. They have all heard the stories, some have even lived them, and they are terrified: tales of principals telling teachers they're about to be out, courtesy a $84 million bungle down at DISD headquarters. Tales of warnings not to protest at 3700 Ross Ave. unless you want to wind up on a list—we're watching. Tales of administrators willfully misinterpreting teachers' comments just to create the perception of a problem.
The teachers' representatives at Alliance AFT and National Education Association-Dallas have promised them that this will not be allowed to happen. They were assured at last Thursday's meeting of the DISD trustees, at which the board voted to lay off 550 of the district's 11,595 teachers, that the firings will take place according to certification, evaluations and seniority, as per district policy.
The teachers do not believe it.
"There's still the perception of retaliation—the [reduction in force] is based on retaliation—'I'm going to get rid of who I like' instead of using evaluation and tenure," says one veteran of the district since the 1970s. "Do we feel like they're letting the wrong people go in the schools? Yes, we do...[and] the majority of the people in the buildings are so afraid for their jobs right now, they're afraid to talk to anybody. A few have volunteered to go down and picket and march and walk and rally, but comments have been made, 'I'm gonna send somebody down there to see who's there. Those are the ones I can get rid of.' Doesn't matter some of those just happen to be some of the better teachers in the building."
Several of these teachers have been through what the district calls a reduction in force—or RIF—before, in the early 1990s and then again five years ago. But never before has there been one this drastic: Beginning October 15, school administrators will begin telling contracted teachers they will be paid, with benefits, through January 16, but to get paid, the teachers must agree not to appeal their dismissals. Four hundred of those axed will be instructors in the so-called "core" classes—science, math, social studies and language arts teachers in a district in which math and sciences classes are already packed because of the scarcity of certified instructors.
Since news of what initially was called a $64 million budget shortfall broke on September 10, teachers have become part-time management consultants, poring over the district's bloated organizational chart, scouring the pages for higher-ups they consider inconsequential, incompetent. A month ago, two pages began circulating that contain the top 100 salaries within the district, whereupon several teachers discovered, among other things, a recently dismissed principal now making $100,000 as one of four assistant principals at another high school. District officials say those positions also are being targeted next week.
The teachers want answers: How did this happen? Who is responsible? Who will be accountable? They want Superintendent Michael Hinojosa out. But mostly, they want their jobs. That is why they are panicked. Angry. Disgusted. Betrayed. And, yes, even paranoid, but only because someone is out to get them.
"There is so much anger and frustration that this debacle is being carried out on their backs," says Rena Honea, second vice president of Alliance AFT. "They're not the ones responsible, but they're taking the heat to the extent they're losing their jobs and livelihood because of someone's incompetence."
Or, says one teacher, "What we've given to the district, and now they're saying, 'Shit on you...'"
When the board finally met to do the bloodletting at the end of last week, it did so in the comparative safety of a small meeting room with seats for only a few dozen onlookers. Several hundred teachers and parents who had come to district headquarters on Ross Avenue to witness the proceedings had to watch television monitors in the main board room across the hall. They sat in folding chairs facing a rank of unpopulated thrones on the board's grand but empty dais.
It was no accident the teachers and parents were shut out of the real meeting. Board member Ron Price had told a reporter the night before that the board would not meet in its own large meeting room because "we don't want to have to hear people calling us assholes."
When the reporter suggested conducting the meeting in the little room might be viewed by some as cowering, Price said, "Too bad."
The mood in the big room was angry and partisan, with loud cheers and applause for board members Lew Blackburn and Carla Ranger when they challenged Superintendent Hinojosa's justifications for the firings and jeers and taunts for Hinojosa and his top staff when they defended the cuts.
Somewhere toward the back of the room, a lone voice called out the same question every 20 minutes or so during the hours-long meeting: "Where did all the money go?"
That is the question.
Major elements of the story put forward by the school board and administration are simply false on their face—none more so than the repeated claim that the district's emergency is somehow sudden, a thing discovered only in the last three weeks and attributable to computer problems.
In making the huge budget shortfall public, board president Jack Lowe said, "We had three separate systems for tracking head count and payroll costs that didn't tie together."
The scenario Lowe and Hinojosa have asked the public to swallow is that a few weeks ago somebody finally thought to tie the computers together. When the systems were "reconciled," they coughed out a big red number—$64 million according to first reports, then maybe $84 million a week later, and finally a seemingly uncountable number that may be as high as a few hundred million.
Since the shortfall was first announced Lowe and Hinojosa have taken turns in board meetings holding their hands in the air as if to say, "Who knew?"
But they all knew. The staff knew at least as long ago as last February when an initial accounting report projected a shortfall of $48 million in the payroll budget. Board members concede they knew about the gap at least as long ago as March when the administration, prodded by an outside auditor, brought it to them.
By then the hole had grown to $52 million.
"It came up," school board member Leigh Ann Ellis told the Dallas Observer. "The auditor brought it up. But we were told, 'No, it will be OK,' that additional monies were coming in. Eric Anderson [DISD's recently departed chief operating officer] said we were in good standing."
Asked why she and other board members did not press for more information last spring, Ellis quoted Anderson as telling them, "'We'll cover it. Everything's fine.'" She says she and the rest of the board took him at his word. Anderson spoke to the Observer twice last week, both times to decline all comment.
The Observer obtained—not from Ellis—an unsigned internal DISD memorandum sent to board members April 18, 2008, after word of the March shortfall leaked and was reported in The Dallas Morning News. The implication of the memo is that Ellis is telling the truth: The administration did tell board members the $52 million deficit was not a deficit. The memo states:
"Contrary to a report earlier this week in the news media, the Dallas Independent School District is not facing a '$52 million budget deficit' for the current fiscal year ending in June.
"In fact, the district is expecting a surplus at the end of this fiscal year."
The memo goes on to say, "...the district has spent more money on teachers than initially projected, and, for that, there is no apology."
It assures board members that the district would collect $29 million in windfall money from the state and also pocket $30 million in savings on "professional and contracted services, supplies and materials, capital outlays and other operating expenses."
District spokesman Jon Dahlander told the Observer last week that the state windfall did come in before the end of the last fiscal year, but the projected savings did not. Dahlander's math should have reduced the $52 million deficit for last year to $23 million. But district officials repeatedly have placed last year's shortfall at $64 million.
None of it adds up.
It is true, at any rate, that Ellis and other board members were urged by staff not to worry about the little $52 million man behind the curtain. But in her telling of it Ellis omits an important detail.
The board last April was pushing a $1.35 billion bond issue in an upcoming May 10 election. The district already had delayed until after the election the overdue release of what everyone knew was going to be a scathing external audit report. Could it be that the board and district administrators wanted to suppress knowledge of the $52 million payroll budget shortfall until after the election?
Ellis says no. In fact, she says, she isn't sure the payroll deficit announced to the board last spring—explained as the result of a $3,000 miscalculation in average teacher salaries—is the same deficit now forcing the board to fire hundreds of teachers, now explained as the result of a $4,000 miscalculation in teacher salaries.
"It depends on how you're looking at it," she says. "It is kind of a funny coincidence."
The campaign in support of the 2008 DISD bond issue was unusual for its extreme reticence. There was no big media effort. Precious few yard signs appeared. In fact, if the intent was to keep the election on the down-low, it was a wild success. On May 10 an underwhelming 2 percent of registered voters cast ballots. The $1.35 billion bond issue carried the day by 54 percent to 46, meaning that 10,182 people committed the school district to record-setting debt.
And still the board was silent. "Even after the election, they weren't worried about [the $52 million]," says Dale Kaiser, president of the Dallas chapter of the National Education Association, a bargaining unit for teachers.
Until a few weeks ago. Then it was shock and awe.
Maureen Peters, vice president of the Dallas Alliance AFT, remembers discussing the shortfall with district administrators last spring and being promised that certain savings in other areas were going to cover the hole. One morning last week Peters sat behind a tidy desk in the Oak Cliff offices of the AFT and tried to reconstruct the story of the missing $52 million.
"The message from the administration was that they had money available for certain items that would cover the cost of the $52 million," she says. "And then what we hear now is that the money they thought would cover the cost was already spent, but for some reason they didn't know it was already spent. There were already expenses 'in the pipeline' that they were somehow unaware of. And they are blaming one computer not talking to another computer."
Peters, silent for a long moment and staring down at papers on her desk, looks up finally and says, "But that makes no sense to me."
She shakes her head in dismay. "Why wouldn't someone who's head of the finances not know that we've got X amount of obligations that we've committed ourselves to, signed contracts or whatever the case may be, and this money is going to come due during this period of time from this budget? That's the part that I don't understand."
At least part of the answer to Peters' perplexing question is found in an examination of school district budgets over the last several years. Especially since Hinojosa became superintendent in 2005 and under the current board, the school district has never come close to making its original budget and in fact vastly overspends even its so-called "revised budgets."
The difference is that for two years the district has gotten lucky at the end of each year and received a windfall in state and local tax money that it hadn't expected. In fact, whenever the district gets lucky at the end of the year, it claims to have a "fund balance," as if it had been saving money all along. But nothing could be further from the truth.
For the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2007, for example, the district blew its original budget by $74 million. Every year, the district revises its budget as it goes along, always upward because it is trying to make the budget look more like what's actually getting spent.
But it blew even its revised 2007 budget by $24 million. Not to worry, however: State and local revenues came in $51 million higher than DISD had planned on.
So they were Las Vegas geniuses. They rolled the dice and won.
None of this information can be deduced, by the way, from the financial disclosures that DISD makes to its constituents on its own Web pages. Those reports are "summaries" with precious few comparative numbers and lots of color photos of pretty kids. The numbers the Observer looked at came from the Texas Education Agency.
But even the TEA budgets for DISD only deepen the mystery. Lowe and Hinojosa are insisting that last year's and this year's shortfalls are entirely a matter of teacher compensation. But last year's TEA version of DISD's budget shows only a $5 million shortfall for instruction (teachers) and $24 million in a variety of other areas, including $14 million for running and maintaining buildings, $3.5 million in curriculum and staff development, and $2 million for new buildings not covered by bond money.
But the most powerful refutation of the school board and superintendent came last week not from Austin and not from experts but from Woodrow Wilson High School. Two weeks ago Woodrow principal Ruth Vail, believing she was acting on instructions from 3700 Ross Ave., convened an informal group of parents and teachers to work on ways to reduce Woodrow's budget without cutting teachers.
Dallas architect Norman Alston, a Woodrow parent and member of the school's parent advisory committee, described the process as a painful but earnest attempt to avoid firing teachers. Alston said years of trying to improve performance and test scores have convinced parents that good teachers in core areas are the answer. "We have pretty much all concluded at Woodrow that the teachers, especially the ones teaching so-called 'core' subjects, are the key."
Therefore the ad hoc Woodrow budget-scrubbing committee suggested measures especially hurtful to some of the school's most loyal alumni supporters, including members of the committee, such as cuts to athletic staff and extracurricular activities.
Woodrow is like all of the bright spots in DISD—the great elementary schools in North Dallas, the elementary and middle schools in southern Dallas where kids test through the roof, the magnets, the learning centers, all of the jewels that gleam deep beneath the district's messy façade. They all succeed almost entirely on the backs of school faculty and devoted parents, in spite of what sometimes seem like Ross Avenue's best efforts to pull them down.
In the end, the Woodrow plan succeeded—at least on paper. The committee came up with enough survivable cuts to the budget to eliminate or at least greatly reduce the number of teachers who would have to be canned to reduce school expenditures by the mandated 10 percent.
The reaction of the school board and administration was dismissive, bordering on derisive. When board member Ron Price told the board about the Woodrow exercise two weeks ago, Hinojosa admitted he knew about it, but he told the board he had instructed Woodrow to keep its ideas to itself.
"We went back to them," Hinojosa told the board, "and we said, 'Look, you did your exercise, your 10 percent cut. Keep it in your pocket.'"
Instead, Hinojosa said, the administration informed Woodrow that 3700 Ross was going to cover the deficit by firing teachers—everywhere.
Board president Lowe seemed almost amused by the Woodrow effort. "Do campuses even have budgets?" he asked. When a staff member said they did, Lowe asked if the budgets add up to what the schools really spend. He concluded by saying that the district's headquarters' budgets seem to be fairly useless and that he thought it would be a mistake, therefore, to rely on budgeting efforts from the boondocks.
His logic was understandable but a bitter pill for Woodrow parents and faculty. They gathered a week later in their school auditorium for a showdown with their board member, Price.
An angry mother told Price, "If something catastrophic happened at 3700 Ross, I don't know, 9-11, you know what? Monday morning, school would open up; the teachers would be standing at their doors; the kids would come in, and school would continue. They don't seem to understand that teachers and students are not a necessary evil, but that's how we are being treated."
In the voices of some parents that night there was great anger. But in others there was an even more disturbing tone of exhaustion and defeat.
Price put blame for the current crisis on the rest of the board. "I serve on a weak board," he told the crowd. "It's a nucleus of four who just won't go against the administration. Now I'm all 100 percent behind supporting the administration, but there's times when you have to challenge the administration."
It's a point of view shared by former board members who were well-known for asking tough questions of the district's managers. One day last week former board president Lois Parrott, defeated by Leigh Ann Ellis in 2006, pulled volumes of school district budgeting documents from dusty boxes in her East Dallas home and showed a reporter the sticky notes still flagging page after page.
"You see, I asked them about all this stuff," she said. "Each one of these notes is something I made them explain to me. And they hated it. They said I was micromanaging, but I was trying to be responsible."
Parrott's voice broke, and tears welled in her eyes. "This is just so terrible, what's going on down there now. This couldn't have happened before. We wouldn't have let them get away with it."
Former board president Kathlyn Gilliam remembers challenging superintendents and their top administrators on budget detail. "But I don't think that that was micromanaging," she says. "That was just being responsible as elected officials."
Gilliam, who was on the board through long and bitter desegregation battles, calls the current crisis "the worst I have ever seen.
"I am just regretting it, because when I talk to different people here in the community and my friends, you know, a lot of people are just turned off by this. And they are talking about going on and getting their kids in private schools and just getting away from the public schools. And that really troubles me."
At one point during the Woodrow Wilson meeting, after the television cameras had departed, Price told the crowd that he had wept during a recent closed executive session of the board. "I'm angry about the situation, and just the thought of firing people hurts me, because I can imagine being on the other side of that phone call or being on the other side of that pink slip or getting that call to the principal's office. I was angry because more people didn't feel that pain. It didn't mean nothing to them."
At that point in his story, Price paused and cried again in front of the Woodrow audience.
The audience was quiet. But later a mother in the crowd said to him, "I have heard you say time and again tonight that you ask the same questions we are asking, and you don't get any answers.Now I want to hold you accountable.
"I have yet to know what all the questions are, and I feel like you know this area so much better than I do. If they are not answering you, where do we get the answers?"
Price was quiet.
"I have three kids in the system," she said. "Sometimes it just starts to wear you out."
Parents and teachers in the crowd looked away, looked down, looked up at the ceiling. It's a reaction familiar to anybody who's been through the mill at DISD as a parent, a teacher or student. Everybody felt for the woman. But DISD is always exhausting. You never give up.
The following day, the board voted to fire teachers. Under the plan, Woodrow will lose 11 of its 67 full-time faculty, a loss of 16 percent, many in core subject areas. Board president Lowe voted for the reduction in force, along with trustees Ellis, Edwin Flores, Jerome Garza and Adam Medrano. Voting against the cutbacks were trustees Lew Blackburn and Carla Ranger.
Price abstained. The Observer wasn't able to reach him later for an explanation. The only provision in the Texas government code for abstentions from voting by a school board member is for cases of conflict of interest.
In calling for the vote to fire teachers, Lowe lavished praise on the administration and board. "We discovered a pretty big problem here three and a half weeks ago," he said. "I think we made a lot of progress. It sharpened all our eyes up to the need to get our costs in line.
"I appreciate you. I know we will continue. This is not the end in the process. This is a step in the process."
A young teacher muttered under her breath, "Why don't you just shut up?"
"The process" is a tidy way of describing the ugly course of removing 550 teachers from a district struggling fitfully to improve academically. Grinding meat is a process. So is loading straws onto a camel's back. For the hardy parents who have ignored the allure of suburban districts and private schools and stuck with DISD, the latest disaster to hit the district could be the final straw.
On a cool, late September evening, 20 fathers of children attending Everette Lee DeGolyer Elementary gathered over barbecue and beer, with urgent business to attend to. There was work to be done on the school's entry in the W.T. White Homecoming Parade, which takes place this weekend. Booths must be assembled for the Halloween carnival. A menu must be planned for the Teacher Appreciation Dinner in November.
It does not take long before the discussion takes an inevitable turn. Word has circulated that two of the school's teachers have been let go, before the board of trustees even approved the reduction in force. They were not yet under contract, and the superintendent ordered their dismissal. One father says he's heard rumors of another teacher soon to be let go—his kid's teacher, matter of fact.
Several of these dads spend most of their days, every day, on campus. Clint Fain, who owns an air-conditioning business, spends the morning helping the kindergartners in carpool, then moves to the cafeteria or wherever else he is needed; a stranger would be forgiven for mistaking him for the school's principal. Danny Hurley, a freelance photographer and college professor, runs the crosswalk when he is not tending to the organic garden, his pet project. "The help is needed there," Hurley says, "and I have the flexible hours. It boils down to doing the right thing—taking care of the kids—because there aren't enough bodies, and there isn't enough money."
The Dads Club, as well as the school's very active PTA, is essential to the school's very existence: Through a spring fund-raiser, it pays for everything from textbooks to buses for field trips; one father, who owns a print shop, donated a copier machine and paper, as the school simply does not have the money to spend on such essentials. One father, whose child transferred to DeGolyer from Sudie Williams Elementary near Love Field, is appalled by the lack of basics. "At Sudie Williams, the kids came home with DISD-issued laptops; they had so much federal grant money they didn't know what to do with it," he says.
At Thomas C. Marsh Middle School, of which DeGolyer is one of five feeder schools, an eight-parent committee was formed in January in order to get the district to pay attention to the most basic needs—among them repairing leaks inside and outside of the 48-year-old campus, which looks as though it hasn't been touched since its opening in February 1960. And Marsh, like DeGolyer, has had trouble getting the district to provide textbooks—the basics remain, even in North Dallas schools, just out of reach.
"We as parents feel like we shouldn't be doing this," says Susie McMinn, who was among those who founded the parents' organization earlier this year as her kids transitioned from DeGolyer to Marsh. "We spend a lot of time at a lot of meetings. At Marsh we meet. At DeGolyer they fund-raise. And at most of the schools in the district, we don't have that kind of family support." That is why, she says, the entire district suffers at a time like this: Teachers are too afraid to speak out, while parents are not organized enough to get the district to listen.
"Teachers are always afraid of retaliation, but we want the community to know how much we believe in the school and how much we care as parents about the teachers, students and community," McMinn says. "We're rebuilding. This school is a good place for our children to be, and we're as sad as anyone about the layoffs and budget problems, but none of us are bailing. We're committed to making it work."
But parents like McMinn are hard to come by in the district. Indeed, says Pam Meyercord, the former two-term president of the Dallas Council of PTAs, it is estimated that only one-third of the district's 227 schools have PTAs—a figure the district disputes, without offering up an alternative.
Meyercord, who recently wrote a letter to The Dallas Morning News advocating the break-up of the district, is parental involvement personified: She was PTA president at Benjamin Franklin Middle School and Hillcrest High School, where her daughters went to school; one of her daughters went on to become a teacher; and she has grandchildren still in the district. She also serves as secretary for Austin-based Texas Parent Political Action Committee, a nonpartisan organization that supports candidates for the state Board of Education, and she has served on the steering committees for the last three DISD bond elections.
She's been involved long enough to remember a time when the district paid attention to parents—but that was several superintendents ago, back when Marvin Edwards was in charge in the late 1980s and early '90s. No superintendent since then has met with the Dallas Council of PTAs. Two years ago the organization dissolved entirely after it was revealed, many years after the fact, that on Christmas Eve 1997, the president of the council, Walter Lewis Price, had stolen women's thongs and bras from the Neiman Marcus in NorthPark Center, a crime to which he pleaded guilty. The fall was inevitable, and the revelation served as a knock-out punch.
But on September 29, Meyercord tried to bring together the few PTA presidents left in the district, only to discover that most of the schools were using teachers or principals to fill the position of PTA president. And many PTA members from around the district who showed up spoke little or no English, while others lacked the "leadership ability to stand in front of a group, regardless of language." She could not believe what had become of a once-mighty coalition.
"The district hasn't listened to the parents for a long time, which is why the PTA council fell apart," she says. "Marvin Edwards supported every council meeting. He came to the PTA council board meetings. Once he left, we haven't had a superintendent attend any of the PTA meetings. There's been no partnership, and when the superintendent's not interested, the parents go, 'I'm not interested either.' But it's also a generational thing: Your mother and I were for our kids and everyone else's kids. That's not the next generation's attitude. They don't feel that same calling. It's more, 'What's best for my child?' I talk to people and they say, 'My kid is special.' Well, look, every kid is special."
The engaged parents of DISD students now regard themselves as brave survivors of a broken promise, warriors left to fend for their children after the district betrayed them with bad math and lousy leadership. Many of them are DISD graduates, as a matter of fact, who looked forward to sending their kids to public school—only to have it buckle yet again under the weight of incompetence and neglect. Which is why many of them have fled to the private schools or to the suburbs.
"I'm not ready to pull the trigger," says DeGolyer mother and 1983 Woodrow grad Amy Hunt, who was PTA president last year. But her husband has broached the subject of moving to the suburbs. It's not an uncommon conversation in DISD households: Is it time to split? "I kind of think they're on the right track, and I'm not sure I'm ready to say, 'You screwed up one time too many,'" Hunt says. But she will freely admit, when it comes to DISD, she's more than "a little forgiving" and would only consider bailing should something "catastrophic" happen. She laughs. "And something will."
"We are...driving out the middle class," Meyercord says. "The only people who can live in Dallas are the very poor, who are dependent on public schools, or the wealthy, who can afford private schools. Is that the city we want? No. We need everybody, and we've driven out the middle class to Richardson, Garland, Plano, DeSoto or Carrollton-Farmers Branch, which has a wonderful superintendent. And why not? When you were in school, there were enough of us who banded together to make it work. But I see the attrition now. And parents have not gotten the respect they deserve to make this work."
A heart-rending coda to the entire bleak drama came from the lips of a woman at the Woodrow meeting who spoke as both teacher and parent: She told Price she was not convinced the administration was taking the same sharp knife to its own operations at 3700 Ross Ave. that it was willing to wield on the schools.
"When I was hired at DISD, I was hired as a substitute," she said. "And then I was hired permanently. I went through two hiring processes. Anybody that knows me heard me say there's money flying out the window. Two hiring processes, two separate departments right next door to each other. That's money thrown away that could have been spent on my children."
But even those concerns, she said, were not the crux of the matter for her. "I am a parent of a Stonewall Jackson Elementary student, a J.L. Long Middle School student, and I work at DISD. My No. 1 concern is the education of my children. At what point does that play into it?"
She told Price the same thing some parents all over Dallas have been muttering for weeks. Speaking the night before the vote to fire teachers, she said she was on the verge of yanking her kids. "I'm ready, if this happens, to leave the district. I am that concerned for my children, because I know what position we'll be in. I'm in the schools, and I know how it will affect them. That's the concern of the parents. Co-workers? Yes, I am very concerned about that situation. But education is my No. 1 concern."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.