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In Dallas, Scandals and Threats Draw the Focus Away From Learning

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With the start of a new school year in Dallas, the district's top officials are hoping to put behind them a summer marked by the stuff of Hollywood thrillers--death threats, suspected phone tapping, accusations and counter-accusations.

At the center of the maelstrom is Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez and the investigation she launched last winter into alleged overtime fraud. ("7 Dallas Employees Suspended in Suspected Fraud," June 4, 1997.)

Ms. Gonzalez, who has come under fire from some black leaders who charge that the investigation has unfairly targeted African-American employees, said last month she could no longer brush aside threats to her safety. Her declaration came after a routine security sweep revealed that someone had tried to bug her office telephone and after the FBI warned of death threats.

"This has become a high-stakes situation," she wrote school board members in an Aug. 15 memo.

Yvonne Gonzalez

Ms. Gonzalez linked the dangers to jobs and lucrative contracts that the investigation may threaten. A federal probe spurred by the district's investigation resulted last month in the indictment of 13 current and former school system maintenance workers. They were accused of defrauding the district of more than $165,000 in overtime pay as part of two bogus-overtime schemes.

The U.S. attorney in Dallas, Paul Coggins, has said he expects more indictments from the investigation, which has widened to include purchasing contracts and shoddy roof repairs.

Office Work Questioned

Meanwhile, Ms. Gonzalez has admitted in response to media reports that a renovation of her office suite cost much more than the amount she named in March. Ms. Gonzalez said the $15,000 figure she gave then came from an estimate and she did not know until recently that the refurbishing had in fact cost $92,000. She could not be reached for comment last week.

Some black leaders have called publicly for the superintendent's dismissal or firing, most recently following the controversy over the office work. Ms. Gonzalez is the first Hispanic administrator to head the 155,000-student system.

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