It seems an eternity ago: On July 5, 2000, the Dallas school board's abrupt firing of short-lived Superintendent Bill Rojas again plunged the Dallas Independent School District into uncertainty and disorder that has only recently abated.
More than a year after his departure, however, records obtained by the Dallas Observer indicate an investigation Rojas initiated to examine alleged improper use of district resources by veteran school trustee Kathleen Leos was likely not continued by his successors. Specifically, records indicate Rebecca Sue Ennis, a former teacher and board assistant assigned to Leos, typed draft letters requesting funds, thanking advisers and detailing operations for Leos' small nonprofit Basic English Inc., an English instruction program that serves adult Hispanic immigrants.
Leos strongly denies asking her former board assistant to perform personal business at any time. "It's the first time I've heard about it," she says. "I'm going to look into it." After examining documents obtained by the Observer suggesting Leos' former board aide did personal work for her boss on DISD time, Leos said: "I've never seen those before." Ennis didn't return calls for comment.
Yet shortly before Rojas' ouster, district investigators seized Ennis' computer as possible evidence. The seizure occurred after a district official saw the alleged outside work on Ennis' computer screen and reported it, according to board secretary Suzanne Davidson, who heads the board services office. "We cannot do any work for trustees for outside business," Davidson says, citing the state education code's provision that trustees receive no compensation for their service. "We are just supposed to be doing district business."
Little is known about what happened next. The computer's current whereabouts are unknown. DISD thus far hasn't completed a request by the Observer to locate the computer and records. "As far as I know, it is locked up," Davidson says.
Whether Rojas' successor, acting Superintendent Robert Payton--on the job for roughly six months before current Superintendent Mike Moses took over--continued the investigation is also in question. Now retired after decades of DISD service, Payton could not be reached for comment despite several attempts. In addition, a DISD spokesman says Moses knew nothing of the allegations.
But a diskette obtained by the Observer from a highly placed DISD source strongly suggests Ennis did Leos' private business on DISD time. Three files on the diskette are letters on DISD letterhead. Two of them dated April 20, 2000, are solicitation letters to major philanthropic benefactors, including Susan Stahl, a Bank One community affairs vice president. "The organization has had phenomenal success since its inception in September 1992," the letter to Stahl read. "Any contributions...would be deeply appreciated."
The letters are all Microsoft Word documents. Clicking on Word's "Properties" feature shows a Word program licensed to "Dallas Public Schools" was used to create the letters. The missive concludes with the coda, "Respectfully, Kathleen Leos, President, Basic English Inc." But under that sign-off is the annotation "KL/rse," signifying Rebecca Sue Ennis typed the draft on Leos' behalf.
Additional documents on the diskette include a short letter (also on DISD letterhead) thanking a man named "Tom" for agreeing to co-chair "the Advisory Committee for Basic English Inc.," as well as two longer documents that detail the history, procedures and evaluations of the program.
Rebecca Ennis' résumé is also on the diskette. Under the heading "volunteer experience," Ennis reports she "generated support letters, created brochures, documented student progress and produced a grant proposal/PowerPoint presentation for the nonprofit family literacy program, Basic English Inc." Ennis now works in DISD's translation services department.
Manny Vasquez, DISD associate superintendent for internal security, hasn't yet returned calls for comment. But Eric Mountin, who heads the Dallas County District Attorney's public integrity section, says the matter was never brought to his attention. Normally, DISD investigates complaints and forwards strong cases to Dallas County officials for prosecution.
Mountin, an assistant district attorney, says, "If you can't put a dollar amount on it, you can't prove an offense...One of the things we have to look at is being realistic. We only have so many criminal courts; we only have so many criminal prosecutors. That's not a cop-out. That's reality."
Mountin's office investigates everything from embezzlement by public employees to election fraud, but he said some smaller transgressions are best handled internally via firings, loss of pay or other options.
Likewise, Mountin says evidence found on computer systems can be difficult to near impossible to validate. "If information is on a hard drive, that's compelling," he says. "But how do I prove Joe Defendant put it there?"
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Leos, who has served as a school trustee since 1995, says she has never used district personnel or resources for personal benefit. A resident of East Dallas, she directs Basic English Inc., a small, well-regarded nonprofit program that offers English instruction classes and child care mostly for Hispanic immigrants in the area and several other Dallas locations. It began in 1992 but formally incorporated in 1999.
During her seven years of service, Leos has been an outspoken advocate for Hispanic concerns, particularly increased Hispanic representation on the board, even though she is a non-Hispanic white originally from upstate New York. Her estranged husband is Hispanic.
She was board president during the tumultuous Yvonne Gonzalez era and was sued personally for defamation by former chief financial officer Matthew Harden, whom she accused of poor management and taking kickbacks. Citing escalating legal costs, DISD settled suits against Leos and the district for $600,000.
In 1999, after initially voting against Rojas' Edison Schools proposal, Leos cast the pivotal vote on a divided board in favor of DISD's seven-school contract with the publicly traded company that manages public schools.