In the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s long list of superintendents who have served the Fort Worth schools, published in today’s paper, one name was curiously left out: Joe Ross.
Ross, a long-time district administrator and former teacher, served honorably for 14 months between the 2004 resignation of Thomas Tocco and the 2005 hiring of Melody Johnson who resigned yesterday. Leaving Ross out is inexcusable for a newspaper of record. The genial Ross, much like President Gerald Ford, took over a district demoralized and racked by scandal following the forced resignation of the controversial Tocco. Ross, like Ford, brought a sense of honesty and stability back to employees, students and taxpayers alike. Under Tocco, a concrete bidding scheme that drained more than $15 million from the district’s coffers and sent two men to prison, one an administrator, the other a contractor, was just the worst of the scandals the district had faced during Tocco’s tenure. He came to the district a married man who never brought his wife to Fort Worth. He openly carried on an affair with a married teacher who he allowed to be promoted to a principal’s post over more experienced applicants without telling his board of their relationship. When that scandal broke, his lover was forced to resign; his resignation would come years later. Tocco, known for his retaliatory actions against employees who dared to question him, disagree with his decisions, or blow the whistle on suspected illegalities such as the bidding scheme, was loathed and feared by many. Employee trust was at rock bottom.
Ross, a happily married man whose life had never been touched by scandal, established a stringent new set of ethics policies and set up an anonymous “hot line” for employees to use who suspected wrongdoing. He got rid of an expensive and highly controversial curriculum program that Tocco had bought from an old friend in New Orleans, saving the district millions, and he established an open-door policy for his office that made him accessible to his employees and the press as well, a dramatic change from the thin-skinned Tocco, who avoided the press at all costs.
Ross spoke to the Cleburne Times-Review last year about that period in his life. “The school board wanted me to keep the ship going and try to restore integrity. … I told everybody, ‘We have to realize we’re going to be watched, and whatever we do has to be above board.’ We wrote some policies about ethics. We brought in the attorney general’s office to talk about our responsibilities with open records. We had one lady whose only job was to deal with the press and open records requests. We had 96 open records requests when I reported for duty. We had everybody sign a document saying they would cooperate.” When he was faced with his own budget crisis, he told the paper, “We didn’t fire anybody, but we got a lot of people to calculate their retirement and then decide to retire. We made some hard decisions, but we made them humanely.”
Gradually, over the 14 or so months that Ross headed the district, a sense of trust and well-being returned. Tocco ruled by threatening and denigrating his teachers and principals, Ross governed by showing them respect.
His name should not be left off of the long list of superintendents who oversaw this district — only a few of which were as honorable as Joe Ross.