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DISD Parents Unite and Take Back Your Schools From the Money Guys.

School superintendent Michael Hinojosa may get too much advice from the business community, not too little.
Brandon Thibodeaux

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.

If you want a staggering example of what's wrong here, look at the absolutely heinous outcome of the school board's current effort at "ethics reform." It seems certain the board this week will approve a "reform" measure that bends around in 20 absurd contortions, all to carve out a hideous special exception for board president Jack Lowe. Lowe's company, T.D. Industries, does many millions of dollars worth of work for the school system in every bond program.

If the board itself can't keep its own fingers out of the bond money, and if it can't stand up for even a second to the people who just finished pushing it into financial ruin, then I suppose we can understand why Hinojosa didn't show a lot of resolve, either.

None of that lets Hinojosa off the hook. None of it lets the school board off the hook. All of them, the board and the administrators alike, behave like organ-grinder monkeys scrambling over the cobblestones, grubbing up the ha'pennies that the construction industry throws before them. These are the stewards of a multibillion-dollar kingdom, owned by us, the citizens and taxpayers, devoted to the lives of our cherished children. What a bitter, bitter prospect for the future these people offer us.

Imagine, if for only half a second, that instead of being dominated by the school construction magnates, the school system were closely watched by people who actually have kids in the system. Take the events of the last 10 months and think how differently things might have gone.

Let's say we go back to the beginning of the year. The school district, for some reason, is dragging its feet on an external audit that everyone already knows will be harshly critical of its financial practices. The audit is long overdue, and the administration is full of strange excuses. Then in March, a huge hole looms in the budget for teacher salaries—a disastrous $52 million shortfall that Hinojosa and board members now admit they knew about but ignored last March.

Now, against this backdrop, a troupe of construction company owners and other long-fingered seekers comes along telling the district that it must hurry up with a record-setting $1.35 billion borrowing to finance school construction, in spite of the fact that the district's student population appears to be declining.

If you were a parent—or not a parent but a taxpayer, or merely a responsible citizen—would you not have said, "Oh, no, we don't want to rush out and commit to such a huge loan until we see the audit. And we especially don't want to stick the taxpayers for more bricks and mortar until we know how much more we will have to stick them for teachers and books"?

It doesn't matter what you call the stick—operating funds, capital funds, whatever. There is only so much stick that a taxpayer can take. Our pockets are finite. So if it were up to us, we wouldn't push through one kind of stick until we knew how big the other stick was going to be.

Who, in fact, would push huge borrowing at such a point? Who would shout, "Borrow! Borrow! As much as you can! As fast as you can!"

Only somebody in the construction business. Certainly not a parent. Certainly not a responsible citizen.

If this all sounds dismal and hopeless, then it's because we're forgetting the most important element in the story.

Us.

We live in the world's oldest constitutional democracy. It's a free country. We are endowed with political liberty that our forefathers and foremothers purchased for us with blood. It's crazy for us to sit back, watch the current debacle in the public schools unfold, and not see that it's up to us to go in and fix it.

Not John Scovell.

Let me give you an example. In 2005 in response to the increasing intrusion of sharply ideological interest groups into education issues in Texas, the Texas Parent PAC was formed—a political action committee designed to empower parents at the polls. The Parent PAC has been phenomenally successful in helping first-time legislative candidates defeat entrenched incumbents, with more than a dozen such victories under its belt.

 

The Texas Parent PAC has gone up against the deep pockets of ultra-conservative, anti-public education ideologues such as Dr. James R. Leininger, the San Antonio hospital bed magnate who has poured millions of his own dollars into a personal campaign to promote school vouchers. And the Parent PAC has won.

According to its by-laws and publicly stated principles, the Parent PAC is non-partisan. Republicans and Democrats alike have benefited from its endorsements and financial support. It's not about party. It's about putting parents at the tables of power.

The Parent PAC does get involved in voter registration drives, but so far it has not taken positions in school board elections.

But why couldn't the thousands of intensely committed parents already in DISD put together something of this same nature—a money-raising organization that could support candidates for the school board and provide some kind of alternative to the bond money guys?

It's up to us to seize our power as citizens and wield it like a mighty sword. Tell you what. If we even look like we might put our hands to that sword, you're going to see a whole lot of heads ducking in this town


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