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Scandal, Lawsuits Hound a Divided Dallas Board

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The conflict that for months swirled around former Dallas Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez has now shifted to the district's school board.

And a city that hoped for unity has once again come face to face with its longstanding racial and political divisions.

More than two weeks after letting the charismatic 45-year-old administrator go, following her agreement to plead guilty to a federal charge of misappropriating district funds, the board is struggling in a web of legal entanglements. Most stem from clashes between the former superintendent and district employees, particularly Matthew Harden Jr., who until recently was the chief financial officer.

And while the shock of Ms. Gonzalez's sudden fall has begun to wear off, questions about the first Hispanic woman to head the district linger. Many wonder how, after sweeping into the top job in the nation's 10th-largest school system on a wave of civic enthusiasm and ethnic pride, Ms. Gonzalez could throw her career away for six pieces of bedroom furniture.

"Personally, it's very difficult to understand that this could happen," said Minerva Rodriguez, the president of the Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "Every competence she needed to succeed, she had."

Ms. Gonzalez submitted her resignation last month after Mr. Harden filed a lawsuit accusing her of sexual harassment, invasion of privacy, and spitefully ruining the careers of competent employees. Mr. Harden also charged that she had used an investigation into school system corruption for her own personal and political ends.

On Oct. 7--six months after she launched that probe--Ms. Gonzalez agreed to plead guilty to using public money to buy a six-piece, $9,440 bedroom suite for her home, and the board accepted her resignation. ("In Plea Deal, Dallas Supt. Admits Theft," Oct. 15, 1997.)

Acting Superintendent James Hughey reassigned Mr. Harden three days later, placing him in charge of recommending improvements that will "restore financial integrity" to the management division he headed.

Lawsuits Galore

In the past two weeks, the board president, Kathleen Leos, has become the target of critics who are demanding her resignation as they earlier demanded Ms. Gonzalez's. And some board members have questioned what they call her close ties and loyalty to the former superintendent, accusing Ms. Leos of trying months ago to engineer the ouster of Mr. Harden, who is black, and more recently of attempting to isolate the three African-Americans on the nine-member board. Ms. Leos, who is white, denies the charges.

The latest flap came last week over lawyers hired to represent the district in lawsuits filed by Mr. Harden. In addition to suing Ms. Gonzalez, Mr. Harden has sued a security company and private investigators in connection with allegations that Ms. Gonzalez had him trailed and a tracking device placed on his car.

Three board members have said they believe Ms. Leos exceeded her authority in an agreement with the law firm setting out the scope of the lawyers' possible activities.

The situation is complicated by a countersuit filed by Ms. Gonzalez, accusing Mr. Harden of breach of contract when she tendered her resignation and he did not withdraw his lawsuit as she said he had agreed to do.

Other suits touching the board include two filed by the district's former chief of staff, who was demoted twice by Ms. Gonzalez, and another by a former clerical worker who says he was fired after blowing the whistle on alleged fraud.

Some board members fear that the legal requirements flowing from the lawsuits will hamstring the corruption investigation, which is continuing. The FBI and the U.S. attorney's office joined the investigation soon after it was launched by Ms. Gonzalez. So far, 13 former and current employees of the management division have been indicted for alleged overtime fraud, and the district is suing to recover more than $1 million allegedly misspent on roof repairs.

"We are just in a quagmire of legal entanglements," said a frustrated Jose Plata, the board's only Hispanic. "We have been totally distracted from our mission."

Why?

Meanwhile, the surprise over the bizarre twists of recent weeks has turned to speculation about the possible causes of Ms. Gonzalez's behavior and about whether she should have been named superintendent in the first place.

In Houston--where she was a principal and an assistant superintendent before being named chief of the 13,400-student Santa Fe, N. M., schools in 1994--former associates remember her as an effective administrator with a deft touch.

"She was able to work with people in a consensus mode, listen, and bring diverse opinions together," said Irene Kerr, the executive director of the Houston Association of School Administrators. "When it all started breaking out, I didn't believe a word of it because that's not the Yvonne I know."

But others in Dallas, including African-Americans who from the first questioned what they saw as the rush to name Ms. Gonzalez to the top job after she had been with the district for less than a year, point to signs of trouble that more research might have turned up.

"Some of the things would have been apparent if we had gone to Santa Fe," said board member Yvonne Ewell, who, along with the two other blacks on the panel at the time, boycotted the vote that gave Ms. Gonzalez the superintendency.

Poor budget projections left the Santa Fe schools $830,000 in the red in 1996, the year Ms. Gonzalez departed for Dallas, where she served as deputy and interim superintendent until being named superintendent last January.

Before leaving New Mexico, Ms. Gonzalez accused the Santa Fe system's finance officer of failing to keep her informed, a view he has disputed. In hindsight, her declaration seems an eerie preview of her assertion this past summer that the cost of renovating her office suite in Dallas ballooned from $12,000 to more than $90,000 without her knowledge.

Linda Rodriguez, the president of the National Education Association-Santa Fe, said she was "very surprised" to learn of Ms. Gonzalez's downfall. At the same time, she said, her own impression was that the former superintendent was better at selling herself, especially to the wider community, than at dealing with students or teachers.

Restoring Calm

Despite the turmoil among the board members who came together quickly to appoint him acting superintendent in late September, veteran Dallas administrator James Hughey has brought a measure of calm to the 158,000-student district.

In addition to reassigning Mr. Harden, whose battle with Ms. Gonzalez came to stand for the rift between blacks and Hispanics in the city, Mr. Hughey recently shifted former Communications Director Robert Hinkle, a member of Ms. Gonzalez's inner circle, to a new job at the district's environmental center. He has also reinstated 13 citizen-advisory panels that the former superintendent put on hold last spring.

Mr. Hughey's own future remains uncertain. With the school board lurching through choppy legal waters, it has not decided whether it wants to seek an interim leader--possibly someone with a business background--before looking for a permanent one.

This much seems sure: When the board is ready for a permanent superintendent, finding the right person won't be easy. In large measure, experts say, that's because the job is fraught with politics in a city that has undergone decades of demographic upheaval. ("Dallas Board Is Buffeted by Racial Unrest," Feb. 26, 1997.)

The move to desegregate the Dallas schools roughly coincided with a flood of middle-class residents, mostly white, leaving for the suburbs. The exodus helped alter district enrollment from about four-fifths white in the 1970s to 12 percent white, 42 percent black, and 44 percent Hispanic today. During the years that blacks formed the largest racial group in the schools, they never won a majority on the board.

"Now that chance is beginning to recede," as the Hispanic population swells, said Royce Hanson, a professor of political economy at the University of Texas at Dallas who studies urban issues. "And that tends to exacerbate the tensions independent of the kind of disaster we've seen in the last few months."

Elected school board members don't necessarily have the time, the support, or the political skills to successfully challenge the status quo, Mr. Hanson and others argue. "Instead of them managing the system, they are managed by the superintendent," who in turn may not last long enough to make a positive difference, Mr. Hanson said.

"The problems that the district faces are not short-term problems," he added. "It's going to require a sustained policy as well as managerial effort to make the changes that are needed."

The Good News

Many supporters of the school system don't deny that a long-term effort is needed to clean up the district's business practices, but they are quick to point out that there's more to the story.

"Here's the good news: the schools are doing fine," Ms. Leos, the board president, said. "The test scores are rising."

The district has two faces, agreed a former board president, Sandy Kress. "One face is the significant improvement we've seen for youngsters in performance, and the other is the racial issues and the governance issues."

Mr. Kress, who helped craft a school accountability plan for Dallas in the early 1990s, noted that test scores have risen every year since the mid-1970s, with the exception of the period 1989-1991. Gaps between whites and minority students have also narrowed during that time, he said, though minority students still lag behind.

"If people are reading about Yvonne Gonzalez and think that the Dallas schools are at the bottom, that's simply wrong," said George Farkus, the director of the Center for Education and Social Policy at the University of Texas at Dallas.

John Scovell, the president of a Dallas-based real estate company, and the parent of a district student, acknowledged that the system has been through "a hurricane." But, he said, "we're fortunate it occurred now and not five years ago. We're five years into our educational reform, and those roots are now deep."

Mr. Kress, however, sounded a warning. "I think [the reforms] will be sustained for a period longer," he said. "But if this sort of chaotic condition continues for months and months, they won't be safe."

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