School daze

Federal investigators, an outside counsel, and an internal auditor are all conducting parallel probes into allegations of misconduct and overtime fraud at the Dallas Independent School District, so it's no surprise that the long corridors of the district's creaky old administration building literally reek of fear. "You can see the nervous looks on people's faces," says Robert Hinkle, the district's director of communications.

It surely doesn't help that administrative staff members stepping out of their cars in the morning invariably must hustle past televisions news vans and eager reporters staking out the Ross Avenue building, awaiting the next announcement of a federal subpoena or suspended DISD honcho.

Inside the three-story stone edifice, paranoia rules. Last week, for instance, one high-level administrator was convinced that someone had sneaked into his office and deleted a whole set of computer files--including files that had a bearing on the investigations. Another administrator, when talking to a reporter, turned up the volume on a nearby television to foil any electronic bugs that might be lurking about the office. Some administrators have taken to placing phone calls from their cellular phones even when they are sitting at their desks, because, they say, they know an internal tracking system that logs calls going out of the building has been turned on.

"Everybody is kind of looking at each other over their shoulders," concedes DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander. "Nobody knows what's next."

The adrenaline started flowing on May 14, when DISD superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez--who has vowed to help prosecutors root out fraud--announced at a press conference that she was placing four senior administrators on indefinite leaves of absence with pay. Marcos Ronquillo, the outside counsel Gonzalez has brought in to investigate fraud allegations, stood beside Gonzalez at the press conference. Ronquillo said the four administrators were placed on leave because they face allegations of misconduct.

The subsequent newspaper and television news reports of those forced departures left the impression that the four administrators all faced allegations related to the overtime-fraud charges. But the suspensions actually reflect a widening of the probes into alleged irregularities at the district.

Two high-level DISD administrators confirmed this week that there are allegations beyond overtime fraud involved in the suspensions.

According to the two administrators, who did not want to be identified, Leo Adams, a specialist in Central Services, was put on leave because he allegedly allowed a subordinate to erroneously approve overtime hours. Contacted at home, Adams declined to comment on the allegations.

David Strobel, the director of maintenance, faces allegations from three subordinates that he authorized them to work overtime hours on a Saturday when the work could have been completed during the week. Strobel could not be reached for comment.

Athletics director Robert Thomas, the sources say, is suspended while investigators check out allegations that he had soft drinks and other products paid for by DISD delivered to his house. A woman who answered the telephone at Thomas' house said he was not available, but she said the district has not provided Thomas with specific written allegations against him.

And Michael Henderson, the assistant superintendent for facilities support, faces allegations that he impeded the overtime investigations. According to the same two sources, Henderson allegedly told his underling, Stan Armstrong, not to give internal DISD auditors documents they had requested. Henderson allegedly told Armstrong that he would lose his job in maintenance services if he turned over the documents.

The day after Henderson was placed on leave, he quit his job at DISD, insisting he had done nothing wrong. He told reporters he was tired of the scrutiny and tension. Meanwhile, the subordinate whom Henderson supposedly threatened signed a notarized letter stating that his boss had never done that. "At no time did I tell [internal auditors] that Mr. Henderson said he would terminate or fire me if I did not follow his directives," Armstrong wrote.

In an interview, Henderson maintained that he is being unfairly targeted in the investigation. "Why is my area being singled out?" Henderson asked in a telephone interview from his home. "I'm getting no answers." Henderson said he quit because being placed on leave "put a cloud of suspicion over my head."

DISD documents obtained by the Dallas Observer under open records laws--and from administration sources--show that, indeed, the district has been shelling out huge overtime pay in all of its departments, not just the areas supervised by Henderson.

Between August 1996 and April 1997, DISD support staff--those eligible for time-and-a-half wages for extra hours worked--earned some $2.2 million in overtime pay, compared to about $9.3 million in regular pay.

The statistics appear to partially support Henderson's claim that his department is being targeted for scrutiny. Specifically, the numbers show that some of the highest rates of overtime on a per employee basis occur not among workers in Henderson's central maintenance department, but among workers at specific schools.

At Preston Hollow Elementary, for instance, building supervisor Robert Ricks earned some $14,000 in overtime pay, compared to roughly $16,000 in regular pay--one of the highest rates in the district.

But Phil Jackson, the principal of Preston Hollow who approved much of that overtime, says he has not been questioned by the internal or external auditors.

"You're the first to mention it to me," Jackson said. The auditors have asked for all his payroll sheets from last year, Jackson said, but not specific time cards.

Jackson says he approved the overtime for a variety of reasons. If the school had a program scheduled on a Saturday, Jackson says, he needed Ricks to stay and keep track of things in accordance with district policy. Others times, the worker would fill in for absent staff members when a substitute was not available, Jackson says.

Ricks confirms that most of the overtime he worked was at the request of his principal. "I was just working when it was needed," Ricks said. Occasionally, Ricks said, the central DISD maintenance office would send a fax requesting that he work overtime on some building matter. But the bulk of the overtime stemmed from the principal's needs.

Other departments besides Henderson's have paid high rates of overtime. The testing and evaluation department, for instance, has one data specialist, Terence Harp, who clocked nearly $9,000 in overtime in addition to his $12,000 in regular pay this school year. Napoleon Mitchell, executive director of testing and evaluation at DISD, approved Harp's overtime hours. Mitchell said the pay was for work Harp did to produce some 2 million copies of tests for all DISD students in the third to ninth grades. The department has since hired additional staff members, Mitchell said.

The internal auditors have made inquiries about the high overtime, Mitchell said, and requested records. But neither Mitchell nor any of the half-dozen other supervisors whose departments had high rates of overtime have been put on leaves of absence.

The DISD statistics show that Henderson's maintenance services departments actually had a lower overtime rate per employee than the district as a whole.

Outside counsel Ronquillo concedes that his investigators have not always been able to follow a systematic approach in their probe. "We're reacting and responding to external law enforcement," he says.

But that takes it full circle, because federal prosecutors say they are responding to news reports about overtime generated by internal district reports. With the investigators chasing each other's tails, it's no wonder DISD employees are feeling anxious.

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen