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In Plea Deal, Dallas Supt. Admits Theft

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The plea agreement that brought a sudden end last week to Yvonne Gonzalez's stormy tenure as head of the Dallas public schools left school board members, already reeling from two months of soap opera allegations, with a host of new and difficult decisions.

Ms. Gonzalez admitted last week--just six months after she launched a racially charged investigation into school system corruption--that she had illegally used public funds to buy furniture for her home. The school board promptly let her go.

U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins said the 45-year-old administrator had agreed to plead guilty to a federal charge that in January, three weeks after she was named superintendent, she used $9,440 of the district's money to buy a six-piece bedroom suite. The money was not authorized, nor did Ms. Gonzalez intend to pay it back, Mr. Coggins said in a statement.

In exchange for pleading guilty to a single felony count of intentional misapplication of funds, Ms. Gonzalez will not be prosecuted on charges that she obstructed the investigation that led to her admission, prosecutors said. She faces a maximum of 10 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000. She was scheduled to enter a plea Oct. 15.

Gordon Conway

The announcement shocked the city and its nine-member school board, and harried board members said late last week that it was unclear whether they would be able to focus attention on the superintendent's job right away.

"We've got so many legal problems," said board member Yvonne Ewell. "I don't even know how we can even talk about that," she added, until other matters are cleared away.

Nor was it plain whether the board would stick with the veteran Dallas administrator it named acting superintendent last month or begin a search for someone to fill an interim post.

"The board needs to come together again to decide on a process for what happens next," said board President Kathleen Leos.

Gordon Conway

Following Mr. Coggins' announcement on Oct. 7, the board agreed to accept Ms. Gonzalez's resignation, which she had offered Sept. 16 after a top district administrator filed a lawsuit against her.

Neither Ms. Gonzalez nor her lawyer, Knox Fitzpatrick, could be reached for comment last week.

Racial Tensions

The surprising revelations last week were the latest twist in a saga that has convulsed the 158,000-student school system.

Ms. Gonzalez had submitted her resignation last month amid turmoil over the lawsuit filed against her by Matthew Harden Jr., the district's chief financial officer. In the suit filed Aug. 8, Mr. Harden, who is black, accused Ms. Gonzalez, who is Hispanic, of sexual harassment, invasion of privacy, and spiteful management. He made public three suggestive notes the superintendent allegedly wrote him.

Ms. Gonzalez denied any wrongdoing, saying the suit was meant to deflect attention from her corruption investigation, which focused on Mr. Harden's division. His lawyer could not be reached for comment last week.

On Sept. 17, the school board voted to suspend Ms. Gonzalez with pay rather than immediately accept her resignation. ("Dallas Board Tables Gonzalez's Resignation," Sept. 24, 1997.)

Since her arrival in January from Santa Fe, N.M., where she was superintendent, Ms. Gonzalez's tenure in Dallas had become embroiled in the racial tension that has plagued the district in recent years. Several black leaders charged that African-Americans had been unfairly targeted by the superintendent's investigation.

In August, a federal probe spurred by that investigation resulted in the indictment of 13 former and current employees for overtime fraud, as well as civil lawsuits by the district to recover more than $1 million allegedly misspent on roof repairs.

Renovation Questioned

School board members vowed last week to press on with those investigations.

Also in August, Ms. Gonzalez was forced to admit that the renovation of her office suite in district headquarters cost several times the $12,000 figure she had originally made public. Last month, accusations surfaced that she had:

  • Lied about the renovation costs;
  • Misdirected money into a special fund for a back-to-school pep rally; and
  • Used district money to hire a private detective to trail Mr. Harden and then asked staff members to mask the expenditure.

Meanwhile, the school board was beset by protest rallies organized by Hispanic leaders in support of Ms. Gonzalez and by renewed calls from some African-American leaders for her removal.

Ms. Gonzalez's departure in disgrace from the top job in the nation's 10th-largest school system is a particularly bitter pill for many in the city's growing Hispanic community.

"She raised hopes, and now she's gone," said Glenn Linden, a historian of the Dallas schools and a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "It leaves a lot of raw emotion, like a bad divorce."

The turmoil also had its effect on Dallas' 215 schools and 10,000 teachers, said Roy Kemble, the president of the Classroom Teachers of Dallas, the city's National Education Association affiliate. "There is a fracturing of the team all the way down because of this."

'A Difficult Job'

Education experts said last week that it will be tough to find the right person for the Dallas job. The superintendency of a big-city school system "is a difficult job with a short life-span in the best of circumstances," said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools in Washington. "But Dallas has an extra hurdle in their need to have someone who can broker ... a deeper conversation" among three groups--Hispanics, blacks, and whites.

But Ms. Leos, the board president, played down the notion that the job will be tough to fill. She said business and education leaders have advised her that the panel hire an interim superintendent from outside the district while searching for a replacement.

But other board members, including Lois Parrott and Ms. Ewell, said they would prefer leaving the interim job in the hands of James Hughey, the veteran district administrator who was tapped last month as the acting superintendent.

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