They Walk by Night
I hear that scary drum roll starting. That means the people down at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Dallas Independent School District must be all loaded up and spit-curled, top hats buffed, fresh coat of paste wax on the cannon, just about ready to shoot another superintendent at us.
Look, we really do need to crawl out from under the bleachers, peek through our fingers for a terrifying split second, and try to decide what kind of person we hope to see coming at us. We're a big city. We should have higher expectations than, "Please don't hurt us."
Whoever it's going to be, the big question is the same: Can he or she survive the first day? In fact, if we think a little about what the new superintendent will face coming in, we may get a better idea what kind of person we need.
For one thing, all of the old devils are still lurking in the details of the DISD organizational chart. Nobody ever really leaves DISD, or, if they do, they all come back in a hail of bad pennies.
How far into the past do you want to go? Rosita Apodaca, for example, left the district back in the mid-1990s. You remember Superintendent Chad Woolery, the one who left to go to work for a company that wanted to do major business with the district? While he was with the circus, he passed over Apodaca for a job that news accounts said would have made her "the school district's highest-ranking Hispanic." Soon after that, she left.
Obviously you remember Superintendent Waldemar Rojas, the one who was recently cashiered. While he was in the center ring, he resurrected Apodaca from exile to head the district's special education department. Sources both inside and outside that department, speaking to me on background, have described Apodaca's return as, "She's baaaack! (And she's really mad at us.)"
For a year Apodaca waged a bureaucratic war of annihilation on her own department, evicting people from their offices, stripping whole cadres of their duties, shipping people to cubbyholes all over town. Finally, with the ranks of the district's professional diagnosticians decimated, with all of the student history files dumped in inaccessible storage rooms, state officials grew concerned that the special education department may have lost the ability to meet minimum federal and state requirements under the law.
Last February, the Texas Education Agency sent a special monitor to Dallas to assess just how badly Apodaca had bombed out the department. I will share some of the monitor's reports with you in a moment. But first, my point is that Apodaca is not gone.
Soon after his appointment, Acting Superintendent Robert Payton ($190,000 a year) did put her on full-time administrative leave (at $178,288 a year). I tried to call her. The phone company's recording says that her number has been "temporarily disconnected." People in the public information office at DISD told me they had "no idea" how to reach her.
But rest assured: She is on the payroll, and she may well be there with arms out-stretched for a big warm hug when the new super appears. How do I know that? Because nobody at DISD ever really goes away, and eventually everybody returns like Lazarus. Lazarus, Ph.D., as a matter of fact.
You remember Yvonne Gonzalez, right, the superintendent who was sent to the pokey for buying Chinese furniture with school district funds? She's no longer at DISD, obviously, but her husband is: Chris Lyle is on the payroll at $47,547 a year plus $1,404 in annual car allowance, as an investigator for the district.
Gonzalez's public relations man, Robert Hinkle, who some people thought helped make Gonzalez what she is, works for DISD as a "specialist IV for Area 9" (p.r. guy), garnering an annual salary of $77,668 plus $1,404 in car allowance.
Hinkle's successor, Jon Dahlander, who shepherded Interim Superintendent Jim Hughey (collecting $98,877 a year) through his brief tenure, is buried in the stack but surviving as "special events coordinator," at an annual pay of $110,000 plus $3,228 for car.
I'm sure you remember Shirley Ison-Newsome of potty-gate fame. As the Dallas Observer was reporting all of the really bad stuff about former Superintendent Gonzalez and her Chinese furniture fetish, Gonzalez's top people spread the word that the truly bad and terrible person at DISD was Ison-Newsome, because, according to the Gonzalezites, Ison-Newsome had redone her school district office suite with two toilets instead of one.
Ison-Newsome is at DISD, making $110,000 plus $2,877 a year as superintendent of Area 2. I don't know why she shouldn't be. She proved that the whole potty-gate deal was a sham to deflect attention from Chinese furniture-gate. But ponder this: Ison-Newsome is suing Hinkle, Dahlander, and some other folks over their roles in potty-gate, and that case is before the Texas Supreme Court.
Put yourself in the shoes of the new superintendent: Do you really want to stand in front of a crowd like this and talk about team spirit? Sis-boom-bah?
Of course, the former superintendent who really filled the place with cronies was Rojas. He paid them all so lavishly that none of them will ever leave unless at gunpoint. They are a virtual Army of the Undead.
We have legal aces Joe Symkowick and Emily Den, for example, recruited with great fanfare to straighten out the district legally. Both have been knocked down several pegs from their original posts, but both are hanging in there at their original salaries of $173,090 plus $3,288 in car allowance for Symkowick and $150,000 plus $3,288 for Den.
Tomas Roman is the guy Rojas brought from San Francisco to be his public relations man. Do I have to say another word?
But is he gone? Nah. He's here, amassing $151,330 plus $3,288 a year as a public relations man for the district's environmental center in Seagoville.
I kid you not. Tomas Roman is in the house.
Then we have Mr. and Mrs. Never-left-never-gonna, the Coleman/Bodricks, whom Rojas hired from San Francisco as a two-fer. William Coleman, busted down a few levels since Rojas departed, continues to make the $175,000 plus $3,288 a year Rojas originally paid him. His wife, Deborah Bodrick, is collecting her $121,330 plus $3,288 a year as "early childhood executive director." Total annual household take: $302,906.
Would you leave?
Everybody works for DISD. City council member Leo Chaney makes $58,447 a year as a "communications specialist III," which means, "city council member." Rene Martinez, the former restaurateur and park board member, is socking away $55,443 a year as a "leadership and operations specialist IV." I used to eat in his restaurant all the time. I wonder if I could at least be a leadership and operations specialist II?
But, I know: You want to know what difference any of this makes. So what if the place has more cronies and politicos in it than a stocked farm pond has fat bass? How does that affect the new superintendent's job? Well, let's revisit the sterling performance of Doctor Apodaca.
The TEA special monitor sent here last February had orders to look specifically at the way DISD deals with special-needs students ages 22 or younger who live in "residential care facilities" (RCFs), which can be anything from group foster homes to jail. Last February, the monitor asked the special ed department for a list of all the RCFs in Dallas.
No can do. No list. DISD doesn't have one.
Every month or so since then, the monitor, Cindy Michaels, has met with the top special ed brass at DISD and asked for the list. In April, DISD gave the monitor a list of 147 RCFs. But Michaels investigated the list and found that 25 percent of the facilities on the list actually were the same facility being listed twice or even three times under different names. Of the 118 remaining, some were not in the school district, several were closed, some were not RCFs, and many were listed by name only without address or phone.
When Michaels confronted them, the DISD special ed staff objected that they did not believe it was within her authority to investigate what they had told her. A higher-ranking TEA official who was at the meeting assured the DISD people that the monitor was authorized to verify what they told her and that, in fact, "verification of information is a TEA expectation."
To which you and I might want to add, "Verification of information, interestingly enough, also happens to be an expectation in the real world."
(I try never to get inside their heads, because I'm afraid I might not get out.)
By the way, a complete list has yet to be produced. All those people who think it would be a great idea to get the TEA to assign a monitor to the school board should look closely at this situation. Talk about ineffectual. Every month she tells them, "I still need a list of RCFs, and you still need to hire diagnosticians, and you still need to locate the students' files so that you can meet legal requirements for monitoring each student's care and progress."
The reports provide clear evidence that the special ed department has been doing virtually nothing to find and serve these intensely needy kids while it thumbs its nose at state and federal requirements and at the monitor.
This is one department. Take this situation, multiply it by every year of chaos and totally wacko non-management that the school district has suffered, apply that quotient to the whole place, and you have a decent picture of what the new superintendent is looking at when he or she comes out of the cannon.
OK, let's go back under the bleachers. Anybody asks me what my position is on the school district, I'm telling them "fetal."
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.