Longform

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.

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen