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One Fine Mess

On ordinary school days, Kerry Walls grips the wheel of his white squad car and patrols DISD's hundreds of campuses. But on a Sunday afternoon in October 1996, Walls landed a much loftier assignment. He stepped into his role as chauffeur and ferried a trio of highly distinguished passengers downtown to a huge party.

He dutifully held the doors as Dr. Yvonne Gonzalez, the district's newly appointed interim superintendent and a leading candidate for the permanent job; Bill Keever, the school board president; and Lynda McDow, another white trustee, piled into his Ford Crown Victoria. He drove them to City Hall, where the district was holding a $30,000 good-bye fete for departing superintendent Chad Woolery.

The party had loosened up the three revelers by the time they tumbled back into Walls' car for the ride home that evening.

The two women were particularly giddy. Peering into his rear-view mirror, Walls saw Gonzalez--sitting in the back beside McDow--hand the trustee a copy of a flyer that someone stuck on parked cars' windshields during the party. It read "Slam Dunk Gang: Round II," a sarcastic reference to the set of school board alliances that always seemed to pit the white and Hispanic trustees against the three black board members. Gonzalez told her fellow passengers that the flyers were undoubtedly meant to fuel hostility toward her--and probably came from followers of Kathlyn Gilliam, a black trustee.

"To hell with all of them," Gonzalez snapped, according to Walls. "We'll go to all of their funerals!"

McDow laughed mirthfully--and egged her on. "That's right, honey," said McDow, patting her fellow passenger's leg. "You're not going anywhere. You're going to be staying right here."

Walls, who is black, suddenly felt uneasy. To these women, he was invisible. Here they were, Walls remembers, so fascinated by their plot to install Gonzalez, a Latina who'd already helped foster divisions between the black and brown communities at DISD, as permanent superintendent, that the two forgot who was driving their car--and his likely sympathies.

Keever, Walls recalls, seemed a little more self-conscious. He glanced at Walls, then glanced back at the women, as if to call their attention to the presence of an interloper.

Walls felt more and more uncomfortable. Silently, staring straight ahead at the road, he pondered McDow's words. He quickly drew a conclusion about this latest search for a DISD superintendent.

The fix was in.

Today, a look at the backroom dealings that brought us the district's first Hispanic superintendent indicates that the selection process was, in fact, rigged in favor of Gonzalez.

Never mind that the district's black trustees have proffered this as a conspiracy theory from the very beginning. In DISD, even the most paranoid musings sometimes turn out to be true.

The question is why Gonzalez got the nod--and who supported her application for the position.

When Chad Woolery announced his resignation as superintendent in August 1996, the school board hired Linus Wright, himself a former DISD superintendent, to help find a replacement. But according to a startling memo that Wright wrote last month to the current board, he'd been asked to participate in what he characterizes as a sham search process.

Officially, the DISD board, led at the time by Bill Keever, told him to cast his net nationwide. But it seemed clear to Wright from the outset that Gonzalez, the internal candidate, was supposed to get the job.

"I had the impression from the beginning that the board had already made a decision, but wanted to go through the process to indicate to the public that a thorough search had been conducted," Wright wrote in the memo, dated October 13, 1997, which has not been made public till now.

Then, during the search process--to make the expected outcome abundantly clear--Wright was informed by two board members, whom he won't identify, and two powerful members of the white business community that Gonzalez must be on the final list of candidates presented to the board.

His research materials, however, indicate that Gonzalez was the least experienced among the five finalists. If he'd been asked to rate her--and he was explicitly told not to do so by the board--she'd probably have placed at or near the bottom of the list.

Wright refuses to name the outsiders who tried to influence the selection process.

"I'm not going there," he said in an interview last week.

Wright won't go there, but these days, with people eager to assess blame for the Gonzalez debacle, a lot of folks will.

And they point the finger at a man named John Scovell Jr.--and his posse of well-heeled allies in Dallas' business community.

Scovell's reputation for power and influence has undoubtedly been amplified by the Dallas public schools' latest series of crises. Nonetheless, district officials know that when you're talking about powerful outsiders meddling in DISD affairs, you're talking about Scovell and his supporters.  

With its white-friendly, pro-business agenda, this loosely allied group of business people is the unseen hand behind several district players.

Even when pressed, Wright won't say whether Scovell was one of the people who picked up the phone and offered his unsolicited advice that Gonzalez rank as one of the finalists. But Scovell made numerous other calls to trustees and district officials in support of the Hispanic superintendent and emerged early on as one of her staunchest backers.

(Scovell would not respond to repeated phone calls from the Dallas Observer requesting an interview.)

For more than 15 years, Scovell, who manages real estate for oil man Ray Hunt, has played the role of coach and quarterback for the Dallas business crowd when it comes to DISD politics.

Although corporations pay some 70 percent of the district's taxes, most Dallas executives send their children to suburban or private schools. But Scovell, a Dallas native, has put his three sons into the same public schools that he attended and excelled in as a football star many years ago.

With his unusual combination of a personal stake in the district and deep ties to corporate Dallas--nothing is more corporate than Ray Hunt, son of legendary oil man H.L. Hunt--Scovell possesses an unparalleled ability to raise funds among his business friends for DISD trustees' election campaigns.

Executives all over the city defer to him when it comes to whom they'll support financially in school board races. "When it comes to school affairs, they look to John," says Harry Tanner, director of the Breakfast Group, a nonprofit, business-dominated organization founded to support local political candidates. "It doesn't really matter what other people say."

If Scovell casts his lot behind a candidate in the poorly financed, poorly attended school board races, his pick usually wins. His perceived influence has earned him the derisive label "the Great Puppeteer."

Former board president Rene Castilla, who received Scovell's backing, says the businessman "never tells you how to vote, but it's clear what he wants. He uses a lot of sports metaphors--go, team, go."

Scovell's mantra, Castilla adds, was "keep taxes low, keep taxes low, keep taxes low."

John Dodd, a rookie trustee who received financial support from Scovell, says the businessman pledged at the outset, "I'll never tell you how to vote." But since Dodd's election six months ago, he says, Scovell has called and met with him numerous times. Scovell made it clear how he felt about issues facing the board--so clear that the implications for voting were obvious. And while Dodd says he's occasionally resisted Scovell's opinions, the discussions continue today.

"We have had some heated debates," Dodd says. The trustee, a former mayor of Farmers Branch, has other political backers and sources of funds and says he feels comfortable that he'll never crater to Scovell's pressures. "They knew I'd never be their puppet," he says.

Nonetheless, Dodd is convinced that some of his fellow trustees tote the Scovell agenda. And he knows from experience that Scovell can, indeed, apply pressure.

Several weeks before Gonzalez pleaded guilty to an embezzlement charge--when it was already clear she'd misled the public several times, lying about the costs of her infamous $92,000 office renovation project--Scovell met with Dodd for breakfast and urged the trustee to "stand tall" behind the troubled superintendent.

The boundaries of Scovell's influence, however, aren't easy to trace. Elected by no one, and apparently accountable to no one, Scovell stays several layers removed from the district's rough-and-tumble politics, and isn't someone you'll see waving a placard or waiting in line to address the school board at public meetings.

Yet the sticky fingerprints of Scovell and his allies appear all over the district's affairs.

Indeed, two Scovell-supported board members, Keever and McDow, were in the DISD patrolman's squad car that evening en route to Woolery's party. (Neither Keever nor McDow returned phone calls from the Observer.)

According to the Breakfast Group's Tanner, Scovell hand-picked and solicited McDow, a medical transcriptionist from Seagoville, to run for the DISD board. Before getting elected, McDow's most elevated position in the schools--according to her resume--was serving as a volunteer piano accompanist. Keever, too, received financial support from Scovell, and when he was elected to the board, regularly consulted one of Scovell's closest allies, former board president Sandy Kress.

Although the faces on the board have changed since then, and the leadership has passed from Kress to Keever to current board president Kathleen Leos, Scovell has continued to influence trustees behind the scenes, contributing to some of the district's most troubling episodes.  

His handiwork has raised fundamental questions about the ability of Scovell--whose opinion of school district players remains so pivotal for the business community--to judge basic moral character.

Consider the man's track record in the last three years: Scovell deserves part of the blame for bringing Dan Peavy to a position of tremendous influence on the school board. Peavy is the former trustee who brought infamy to the district first with the release of his tape-recorded telephone conversations peppered with racial epithets and obscenities, then when he faced bribery charges--which he ultimately beat.

Scovell financially backed Peavy, took him under his wing, and introduced him to the insurance agent with whom he was charged in the 42-count federal bribery case.

Scovell was also a big backer of Keever, the inept former board president who seemed utterly lost in his attempts to quell DISD's brewing racial crisis. And perhaps Scovell's closest ally in recent years has been Kress, another former board president who was allegedly heard on the Peavy Tapes attempting to rig DISD committees so that none had a majority of black members.

In one way or another, Scovell has supported Gonzalez, now a felon; Peavy, a proven bigot; Keever, one of the weakest board presidents in recent years; and Kress, an incorrigible operator whose alleged conversations on the Peavy Tapes reveal a most cynical approach to racial politics.

By merely propping up these four people, Scovell must take some credit for DISD's tortured state of race relations today.

Which is ironic--because if Dallas' business interests want one thing in DISD, it's to preserve an atmosphere of relative calm among the district's white, black, and brown factions.

Even Harry Tanner, who represents a similar pro-business agenda, is seeking to distance himself from Scovell's work. Tanner explicitly credits Scovell and his allies for Gonzalez's rapid rise in Dallas.

Rick Finlan, a frequent DISD litigant, is more caustic in his assessment of Scovell. "We have suffered through the products of John Scovell's casting couch," he says.

It's hard to imagine a more white-bread background than John Scovell's. The father of three boys has lived on the same street in Preston Hollow for 23 years; his mother lives three houses down.

At 51, his thick head of hair has begun to gray, but Scovell retains most of the boyish good looks that must have made him popular when he starred as quarterback for Texas Tech, the university where he met his wife, a baton twirler, and helped take his team to the Cotton Bowl.

For Scovell, the Cotton Bowl was his destiny--so to speak. His father, Field Scovell, was known as Mr. Cotton Bowl. As director of the bowl, the elder Scovell selected the teams that competed in the game for four decades. His guidance transformed it into one of the region's premier sporting events. In recent years, the son, who serves as a member of the Cotton Bowl board, has seen the yearly event's prestige fall with the fortunes of the Southwest Conference.

After Texas Tech, Scovell went on to Harvard Business School and since 1972 has managed real estate for Ray Hunt, whose marquee property in downtown Dallas is the Hyatt Regency. As president of Woodbine Development Corp., Scovell has transformed oil man Hunt's dabbling in real estate into a major industry force.

But, since his oldest son started first grade 18 years ago, he's also carved out time to devote to school reform efforts. Scovell has served in several business-backed school reform movements, including the education committees of the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce and the Dallas Citizens Council. He and his wife contribute to candidates personally, but his influence---and perceived influence--has grown over the years because no other businessman seemed as interested in school board politics.

Scovell's knowledge of DISD affairs shone in a vacuum, and members of Dallas' white business community listened--almost blindly--when Scovell judged a candidate worthy of support.

"No one else gave a shit--or very much of a shit," says one man familiar with the corporate executives' contributions during the past 10 years.

Because of his access to deep pockets, Scovell, who has never been accused of doing anything illegal, nonetheless has been frequently subjected to the charge that he influences school-board votes. The criticisms, particularly those advanced by black former trustee Kathlyn Gilliam, reached a crescendo in the mid-'80s when Scovell presided over a task force that designed a $195.5 million bond program for DISD. In a 1992 interview, Scovell told the Observer that he'd "retired" from involving himself in DISD affairs because of his critics. "It got to where if I said the sun rose in the east, [Gilliam] would say it rose in the west. Quite frankly, I had become part of the problem," he said.  

But Scovell didn't back off. Indeed, 1992 was the same year that he and others started a new school reform initiative led by Sandy Kress, a former Dallas County Democratic Party chairman. At the time, Scovell told the Observer: "The business community's support for education is waning. They are interested in accountability; we've got to get the fat out of public education. This is, to me, our last hurrah."

If only DISD were so fortunate.

School reform definitely wasn't the focus in April 1996 when FBI agent Lewis Chapman telephoned John Scovell, wanting to pick his brains about Dan Peavy and Eugene Oliver.

The Observer has obtained a copy of the notes of the interview. It is a remarkable document, indicating not only how much influence Scovell wields in DISD, but how much he believes his contributions are necessary for the public good.

Scovell told the FBI he was "a strong advocate for public school systems." He said he'd "been involved in [DISD] politics for approximately 15 years and is currently involved with a group of other civic-minded people who attempt to support quality candidates for positions within DISD."

Scovell made clear what he thought about DISD's democratically elected officials: He viewed most of the trustees as wholly inadequate. He told the agent that he saw DISD "as a major corporation and indicated that he felt individuals in positions of responsibility should have a strong business background. Scovell observed that civic-minded citizens such as PTA members and other civic-group members routinely ran for elected positions within DISD. While he recognizes that many of these individuals have good intentions, most do not have, in his opinion, the business background to successfully manage an organization the size of DISD."

Through his behind-the-scenes activities, Scovell has proven more than happy to step up and help the more "business-challenged" trustees.

Former trustee Dan Peavy says that while he served on the board, Scovell never asked him to cast any particular vote, but never turned down the trustee when he sought advice. "I've always talked to John about a lot of things," Peavy says.

Other current and former trustees say the businessman is more insistent than that. Richard Curry, a former trustee who received financial backing from Scovell allies and served on the board for nine years ending in 1990, told the Dallas Times Herald that Scovell made two visits to him, insisting that he vote to appeal the district's desegregation order. "I definitely felt put upon," Curry said.

At the time of the FBI agent's chat with Scovell, Peavy and Oliver were both under investigation for allegations of bribery. Federal prosecutors believed that Peavy had used his position on the school board to line his and insurance agent Oliver's pockets while negotiating contracts for the district. (The two were acquitted by a jury eight months later, in November 1996.)

Scovell told the FBI that not only did he know both men, but he "believed that he was responsible for their getting together."

Scovell had known Peavy for some 12 years. Initially, Scovell told the FBI agent, "he did not approve of [Dan Peavy]." Nor did he support Peavy in his first school board election. "[Scovell] could not provide any reason why he did not support Peavy other than Peavy did not meet his image of a well-trained, business-minded school board member," the FBI agent's report says.

One could easily imagine him making a bad first impression on a conservative businessman. An obese former opera singer and schoolteacher, Peavy has a penchant for extravagantly profane speech.

In September 1995, all of Dallas got a full dose of what Peavy uncensored could sound like. Peavy's neighbor, embroiled in an unrelated dispute with him, had illegally intercepted and taped the trustee's telephone conversations. Some of the resulting recordings were spliced together and mailed to other board members. The tapes captured Peavy in full rant--making absurdly vulgar, bigoted comments about black board members, among other offensive utterances. Shortly after a partial transcript of one tape was read aloud at a school board meeting, Peavy resigned.

Long before that episode, though, Peavy's garrulous ways had hindered him. He bombed out the first time he appeared before the Breakfast Group, which invites candidates for the school board and city council to speak before its members. Campaign donations follow for the chosen few.

Started in 1986 by Scovell's boss Ray Hunt and his lawyer John "Johnny" Johnson, the Breakfast Group was established to "discover and encourage responsible members of City Council and the school board," according to its mission statement.

With more than 100 members now, the organization represents Dallas' corporate elite. It costs $3,000 to join, and membership is only by invitation. Its overwhelmingly white, mostly male roster reads like a who's who of Dallas business: William Solomon, chairman and chief executive of Austin Industries; Lucy Billingsley, daughter of real estate developer Trammell Crow; and Mike Boone, founding partner of the law firm Haynes and Boone. Although his boss Ray Hunt and colleague Jim Oberwetter belong, Scovell is not a member of the Breakfast Group. He maintains close relationships with many of its members, however, including Solomon.  

Breakfast Group director Tanner insists that his organization does not seek to exclude people of other ethnic backgrounds. "We are not what people like to say," Tanner says.

As rather paltry evidence, Tanner points to the Breakfast Group's attempts to recruit Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, the city's best-known black elected official, as a member. He declined to join, Tanner says.

Meeting at either the posh Anatole or Crescent Hotels, Breakfast Group members get together often at election times, scheduling a session with each DISD or city council candidate who's willing to appear. After such sessions, the organization encourages its members to contribute individually to campaigns. The Breakfast Group also operates a PAC to which members contribute; some 70 percent of the group must agree on a candidate before a PAC contribution is made.

The money is significant. In 1990, the Breakfast Group contributed 82 percent of the contributions received by school board candidates Ed Grant and Rene Castilla. Both men were elected. By the time of the May 1997 school board elections, the group's spending had tapered off. But it still contributed some 35 percent of the total amount raised by the winners--John Dodd, Lois Parrott, Lynda McDow, and Ron Price.

When Peavy came before the Breakfast Group in the late '80s during his first bid for the school board, Tanner says, the event was historic because the candidate performed so badly. "Dan Peavy is the only candidate in the 11 years that we had to meet afterward and discuss how unqualified he was," Tanner says. In his first election, Peavy received no contributions from the business community.

"They knew I was independently minded," Peavy says, putting the most favorable cast on his initial rejection. At his bribery trial, Peavy testified: "The business community in Dallas was pretty scared of me and what I may say or what I might do."

With good reason, as the infamous Peavy Tapes would later reveal.
But even though he'd initially disapproved of Peavy--as did the rest of the business establishment--Scovell had a change of heart in the early '90s. Scovell's turnabout ended up granting the loud-mouthed trustee far more clout with other businessmen and the board.

In his telephone interview, Scovell told the FBI agent that once Peavy obtained the school board slot, "he displayed a certain business savvy and ability to negotiate which caused [Scovell] to reconsider his opinion of Peavy...Peavy quickly became the member of the school board to which other members deferred on business matters." Scovell believed this was "due to a combination of Peavy's business sense and general laziness of the other board members and lack of knowledge in how to handle business decisions," the FBI report says.

But another individual also probably played into Scovell's about-face: Sandy Kress.

A partner with the prestigious Dallas firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, Kress had long been a close ally of Scovell on school board matters. In 1992, Kress and Scovell joined forces to launch a citywide reform effort for the schools, known as the Committee for Excellence in Education. On that effort, Kress and Scovell were joined by longtime Hispanic activist and lawyer Adelfa Callejo, who later become Yvonne Gonzalez's mentor and never-say-die supporter. (Kress did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.)

The group collected money to support the candidacies of men and women who signed on to a lengthy set of reforms, which included decentralizing the administration of schools and making individual schools accountable for the performances of their students. These reforms had been proposed by Kress and Bob Weiss, an old friend and director of the philanthropic Meadows Foundation.

Not surprisingly, one of the candidates that the committee supported was Kress himself. A former Dallas County Democratic Party chairman and one-time congressional candidate, Kress, who won his seat, possessed much broader political experience than most board members and certainly more than Peavy. As a lawyer for a top-flight downtown firm, Kress distinguished himself from the usual PTA parent seeking a place on the board. He capitalized on that distinction--seeking support from the business community on the premise that DISD needed leaders with his sophistication and political clout.  

On the board, however, Kress apparently saw something useful about the rougher-edged Peavy. Soon, Kress and Peavy forged a close alliance. Former trustees who served with Peavy say he did Kress' dirty work, a characterization that Peavy doesn't dispute. "Sandy was a controlling, manipulating type of person," says Peavy, who would later sue Kress and DISD for the playing of the race tape. "I felt included in the process, though, because I was one of the chosen ones."

In addition to Peavy, Scovell had also developed a relationship with another man, Eugene Oliver, who had a background that would make most corporate executives squeamish. In 1973, Oliver had been convicted on charges of serving as an accessory to murder. On appeal, the conviction was overturned, and there's no evidence that Scovell even knew about it.

But according to the FBI agent's report, Scovell, who'd become a friend of Oliver, introduced him to Peavy in the summer of 1993--and didn't hesitate to assure the trustee that Oliver had his approval.

Scovell stressed to the FBI agent that he didn't know anything about the business that Peavy and Oliver, an insurance agent, later did together. He told the FBI in April 1996 "that he hopes they have done nothing wrong or illegal."

Federal prosecutors concluded, of course, that Peavy had indeed done something illegal. At a trial that ended in late 1996, prosecutors alleged that Peavy took kickbacks from Oliver, who had submitted insurance contracts to the DISD board for approval. Even if he hadn't gotten kickbacks, it appeared to be a conflict of interest that Peavy, a board member, was directly negotiating contracts for the district.

The Peavy episode played out poorly for Scovell in several ways. The infamous Peavy Tapes, on which Kress is allegedly heard, probably contributed to Kress' resignation from the school board in May 1996. Before Kress quit, he took flak from black leaders for failing to show enough concern about Peavy's bigoted ramblings.

Then in January 1997, in a development first reported in the Observer, U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins announced he'd turn over the Peavy Tapes to the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice. The Observer reported that four individuals who'd listened to the tapes heard Kress and Peavy speaking at length about ways to limit the influence of black board members.

Even though Scovell's one-two punch of Kress and Peavy dissolved in the controversy over the tapes, he was undeterred in his efforts to influence the district. For that matter, so was Kress.

Bill Keever, the Scovell-supported trustee who became the next board president, has admitted that he consulted Kress on a daily basis.

Even now, Robby Collins, a DISD deputy superintendent, says that Kress, who has since moved to Austin, calls him and nearly 20 other DISD officials just about every day. "He is an information hound," Collins says. "He wants to know what's going on."

A few months after Kress left the board, Chad Woolery announced his decision to quit the superintendent's post before his contract expired and accept a job in the private sector. The news surprised most people.

But several trustees may have forced Woolery's hand.
Kathleen Leos, Lynda McDow, Roxan Staff, and Jose Plata, all of whom received financial support from Scovell and his allies, cooperated along with another trustee, Lois Parrott, in an effort to get rid of Woolery, according to testimony by Bill Keever, who was board president at the time.

In a deposition taken earlier this month, Keever testified that Leos, the current board president, spearheaded the effort. Leos, whose district was heavily Hispanic and who had devoted herself to helping those communities, wanted the spot open so that Gonzalez, who'd arrived in April 1996 from Santa Fe to serve as deputy superintendent, could step into the breach, putting a Hispanic at the helm, Keever said.

"...Kathleen [Leos] had lost confidence in Chad's ability to effectively run the district. I'm not so sure that was shared by other board members as strong as it was by Kathleen...she wanted to pursue pretty aggressively a change in leadership," Keever testified. "I think they felt they would be more effective in furthering [their] agenda through Dr. Gonzalez than they would through Chad."

Keever went to Woolery and warned the superintendent that board members wanted him out. Keever told Woolery about a memo Leos had circulated voicing concerns about the superintendent's ability to lead the district. Woolery seemed resigned to go, according to Keever, and admitted he already had an offer from a private company.

(Woolery, however, says he never talked to Keever about the memo--and doesn't think board members were trying to oust him. Leos, for her part, refuses to comment on whether she led an attempt to oust Woolery, citing pending litigation.)  

"I think he chose not to fight a fight and took his opportunity," Keever testified.

Woolery's resignation announcement triggered the search for a new superintendent.

The board tapped Linus Wright and his firm, Ray & Berndtson, to conduct the search.

Wright had reservations about accepting the assignment, because he suspected it might be rigged. "I told Mr. Keever [the board president] that I did not want any part of it," Wright states in his recent memo to the school board.

Wright encountered a similar situation the last time--when Woolery, the inside candidate, got the job as superintendent. During his time in the top job, Woolery acquired a reputation for appeasing the more militant black leaders such as Kathlyn Gilliam. Two days before Wright was scheduled to present candidates to the board, Ed Grant and Dan Peavy--two Scovell-backed board members--jumped the gun and told the Morning News that Woolery was their man.

Wright had uneasy feelings about the selection process that led to Woolery's appointment. But Keever wouldn't take no for an answer.

"He insisted that I be involved and made concessions which made the process palatable," Wright wrote in his memo. "However, I told him before I would agree to accept the assignment that I wanted a letter signed by the president of the Board that the Board was serious about conducting a legitimate search and would give every candidate, both internal and external, quality consideration. I told Mr. Keever that the DISD Board had a reputation throughout the country of not conducting an open and above-board search and that it would be difficult to get outstanding candidates to apply."

Despite his expressed concerns, Wright says that the board went right on and stacked the process in favor of Gonzalez. Two trustees instructed him not to rank the candidates or make a recommendation. Without any merit-based assessment, the board was free to select Gonzalez--the least-experienced candidate--and the only one with a hint of problems among her references.

Among the list of references' comments concerning Gonzalez that the search firm provided to the board was this: "Fired the business manager who was strong in the community. New people are not welcome in New Mexico; part of her problem was just being new. She gets A+ for trying to change the system but people were not ready for change."

It wasn't just board members, of course, who tried to tilt the process. Wright told the Observer last week that he "got several calls from several people in the community telling me to make sure Gonzalez was on the list."

If Scovell wasn't among those beating the drum for Gonzalez, it would be surprising. The deputy superintendent ended up in DISD with the help of Scovell's allies.

Throughout much of her career as an administrator in Houston and Santa Fe, Gonzalez counted on the support and assistance of Charles Miller, a Houston-based investment advisor.

Miller--according to two high-ranking DISD administrators--told Scovell's buddy Kress about Gonzalez and urged him to find her a spot in the Dallas schools. Kress later encouraged Woolery to hire Gonzalez as a deputy.

Woolery, in an interview with the Observer, downplayed Kress' influence on the hire, and claimed he found Gonzalez himself. "When Sandy found out about [her hiring]," he liked it," Woolery says.

In January 1997, Gonzalez landed the top job as superintendent. In her short-lived heyday, people competed to wine and dine her. Scovell and his wife, Diane, were among the dozens of high-profile couples who attended dinners where Gonzalez starred as guest of honor.

If anyone was confused about where Scovell stood on the new superintendent, they need only have witnessed a February gathering at the Fairmont Hotel.

In the swanky downtown hotel, Gonzalez delivered a rousing speech to a ballroom packed full of breakfasting business leaders. Afterward, some 400 of the city's highest-ranking corporate executives rose from their scrambled eggs and bacon and gave Gonzalez a standing ovation. They stood in line to hug and congratulate the new shimmering light on the Dallas political scene.

Gonzalez had already demonstrated that she could figuratively thumb her nose at the district's black protesters, thereby endearing herself to the business community.

At the Fairmont fete, sponsored by Frito-Lay and the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce, Gonzalez intentionally omitted any mention of the protesters in her speech. "This was a call to action," Gonzalez told reporters. "It was a call for the business community to join hands with us on a very solid front to move this district forward. We are going to succeed despite a handful of people who want to disrupt meetings for a political agenda rather than education."  

Not only did the crowd applaud Gonzalez, but some business executives recorded their supportive sentiments on a videotaped message played on big screens in the ballroom.

Spliced between scenes of children playing basketball and attending class, John Scovell appeared. He sat in front of an aerial map of Dallas.

"We are fortunate, unlike a lot of other urban areas," Scovell told viewers, "because our business community does care."

Today, some wish Scovell's business community hadn't cared quite so much.

Kathleen Leos was among the trustees who voted for Gonzalez's appointment as top superintendent. By her background and disposition, she seems an unlikely handmaiden for Scovell's political interests.

But she's already landed herself in controversy because of her alliances, past and present.

Leos, who isn't Latina but has a long history of working for the Hispanic communities at the grassroots level, walked in lockstep with Gonzalez before she pleaded guilty to an embezzlement charge last month. And Leos' day job--working at a nonprofit--is funded by the Meadows Foundation, where Bob Weiss, the ally and friend of Scovell and Kress, serves as director.

On her way to an interview with an Observer reporter last week, Leos suddenly pulled over to the side of the road and jumped out of her sky-blue Ford Explorer.

"That is my house," Leos said, pointing to a modest, yellow prairie home in the heart of a largely Hispanic neighborhood, not far from DISD headquarters. "I just wanted you to see it. I meant it when I said these were my stomping grounds."

She paused for a moment, laughed, and waved her arms in mock despair. "What do they want? Do they want this?" she said, pointing again at her home. "Or my Ford Explorer with more than 100,000 miles?"

"They" refers to DISD chief financial officer Matthew Harden and his lawyers, who subpoenaed Bill Keever to testify about Leos' role in the alleged ousting of Woolery and the installation of Gonzalez.

Earlier this month, Harden filed suit against Leos, trustee Jose Plata, and DISD administrator Robert Hinkle, alleging that the three had slandered him, conspired against him, and invaded his privacy.

With his suit, Harden alleges that Leos manipulated the selection process to make Gonzalez superintendent.

In many ways, of course, Harden, a black DISD veteran of 20 years, was responsible for Gonzalez's downfall. In July, he leaked to the Observer financial documents revealing Gonzalez's overspending on office renovations. The invoices leaked by Harden included ones for the $16,000 in bedroom furniture that became the basis of the federal embezzlement charge, although Harden hadn't noticed anything suspicious because Gonzalez had arranged for the documents to be intentionally misleading.

In September, after Harden discovered that Gonzalez had ordered a tracking device put on his personal car, the administrator filed a lawsuit against Gonzalez, claiming she'd begun a slanderous campaign to force him out of the district. He dropped the suit after Gonzalez pleaded guilty to embezzlement.

Since then, he's turned his sights on Leos--who he believes assisted Gonzalez in the conspiracy against him.

Harden's lawyer, Bill Brewer, known for his aggressive tactics, has stated his client's claim against Leos in typically histrionic prose, complete with veiled references to Scovell and his allies: "Leos sought Board membership because she viewed it as a gateway to the economically and politically connected. Greedy for political and civic standing, Leos has become both predator and prey--taking a lead position on the attack of Mr. Harden's career while sometimes cowering to the 'vested interests' to which she is beholden. Doublespeak is her forte. DISD was to be her stepping stone, as were the heads of anyone who stood in her way...It was because of her support, influence, and misuse of her own position, that Gonzalez was able to create the Gestapo-like environment which has gripped the district since January 1997."

For a woman who holds the top position on the board of the nation's 10th-largest school district and shares oversight for a nearly $1 billion budget, Leos does have a somewhat cowering posture. In personality, she's the polar opposite of Gonzalez and plainly dislikes confrontation. For months, as the Harden-Gonzalez episode unfolded, she avoided talking to the media at length, despite her role as board leader.

For her interview with the Observer last week, she insisted that questions stick to the subject of her community work, not board politics. When school politics arose as a topic, she left the room and summoned her boss, Robert Berger--as if she needed protection--rather than refuse to answer the questions on her own.

A slim reed of a woman, Leos has a quiet, elegant presence. When repeating some of the nasty utterances heard in DISD's recent political battles, she'll often use her fingers to indicate quote marks, thereby distinguishing herself from the ugliness.  

Her own personal life has had its ups and downs. A graduate of George Washington University, Leos has married twice and borne five children. In the late '80s, her oldest child was permanently disabled in a severe car accident. The 20-year-old son now lives in California. But for several years, Leos spent her time in hospitals trying to get the best care for her firstborn.

In 1991, as she tried to pick up the pieces after the accident, her second husband, a Mexican immigrant who fathered four of her children, abandoned her. Leos says she has not heard from him or received any financial support in five years. She still holds out hope, surprisingly, that he might call.

A single mother, Leos has taken on a series of child-related jobs, staying in the largely Hispanic neighborhood where she lives, to support herself and her children, who range from elementary to high school age.

Leos has immersed herself in Dallas' Hispanic community. As a former Latin student, she picked up Spanish easily when she moved to Dallas in the early '80s and worked in a restaurant with mostly Hispanic customers and employees. "It took about six months," she says.

When Leos walks in the door of the church rented by her nonprofit employer, she conducts all her conversations in Spanish. The three-day-a-week program Leos directs is aimed at teaching Hispanic parents of school-age children to use English. From noon to three on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, some 130 immigrants, mostly women, come to study English. Caregivers watch their children. Leos supervises six people who watch the parents' children; four teachers; and one monitor; and oversees an $80,000 budget, which includes her salary.

The program was Leos' brainchild. She conceived of it in the early '90s, when she thought about the plight of non-English-speaking parents coping with their kids' schoolwork. "Homework comes home in English--duh," she says, laughing at the simplicity of her idea.

The program needed funding to get off the ground. At first it started with a little money--$2,500 from a women's group. At that time, only 30 parents were enrolled, and Leos worked as a volunteer. She still had a full-time job as daycare director for the program's parent agency, Dallas Services for Children.

It wasn't until 1996--immediately after Leos got on the school board with the backing of Scovell and his allies--that the program landed big-time corporate support from executives with close ties to Scovell and his school reform efforts.

This year, the Meadows Foundation, where Weiss, who wrote the reforms that Scovell and Kress championed in the early '90's, is director, agreed to fund the program.

Robert Berger, director of Dallas Services for Children and Leos' boss, insists that no link exists between Leos' school board work and the program's funding. The theory is "unfounded," he says. "The one who arranged for the grant was me," he says. He says he approached Weiss, a close friend, for this year's funding.

But the job allows Leos, a single mother on a limited budget, the time and money to pursue her work as an unpaid school board trustee. She only conducts the program three days a week, at three hours a pop. She says she spends the rest of her time on preparation tasks, but the job clearly has built-in flexibility.

Is the board president beholden to Weiss, a Scovell ally, for her livelihood?

Leos says no.
Her critics, however, base their attitudes on Leos' steadfast support for Gonzalez. Her crime, in their eyes, was offering undying support to a misguided woman who brought the district much harm.

"If Dr. Gonzalez was to murder someone, it would have been for just cause [in Leos' eyes]," trustee Ron Price stated in a deposition for the Harden lawsuit.

In his suit, Harden contends that Leos participated in the cover-up of the tracking device put on his car. The recent deposition of Freda Jinks, Gonzalez's former assistant, supports Harden's theory.

"[Leos] was not only aware of and condoned what was going on but she actually participated in it," Harden's suit states.

Given Leos' agenda for DISD's growing Hispanic population, it makes sense that she stood as a solid Gonzalez supporter at first--with or without the business community. The Dallas schools were getting browner, not blacker. Perhaps Leos and Gonzalez figured they could ride the wave of demographic changes and increase their political influence, while at the same time helping a truly neglected community.

As the DISD board prepares to embark on another superintendent selection process, a question arises: Given the meddlesome history of Scovell and his allies, and Leos' apparent links to them, can we expect a fair process?  

All told, the Gonzalez appointment left Dallas with a sullied reputation among potential applicants, according to search consultant Linus Wright.

After all, the board leadership appeared to have stacked the process in favor of a relatively inexperienced insider who pleaded guilty to a felony less than a year after her appointment.

At Gonzalez's arraignment last month, the scene was much different from the one she'd seen when she stood in the ballroom full of powerful businessmen at the Fairmont Hotel. There was nothing glamorous about the crowd in the packed federal courtroom. Even her nemeses--John Wiley Price and suspended Dallas NAACP president Lee Alcorn--had shown up for her moment of shame.

Gonzalez wore all black. Her face looked splotchy and puffy, as if she'd been crying. When she walked out of the courtroom after entering her plea, she looked straight ahead. Asked for a comment by a reporter, she stared back angrily, her mouth clenched. Her attorney, a few steps behind, said, "She will not be making any comments to the press today."

The bailiffs and Gonzalez's driver arranged for her to exit the building through a back door, avoiding the long line of cameras in the courthouse lobby.

It was a disgraceful end for the former darling of Dallas' business community.

"The DISD Board, by its action, has established a national reputation among potential superintendent candidates that it is not serious about selecting the best-qualified candidate and, therefore, for them to become a member of the pool of candidates may only discredit themselves and possibly jeopardize their positions with their present board," Wright wrote soon afterward in his memo.

It is a particularly troubling thesis as DISD looks for its next messiah.


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