“We are in a very important period of history, and our decisions will affect the very future of this city,” said Fort Worth school trustee Juan Rangel, an 11-year veteran of the district’s educational wars. “Change is coming, and this board had better be ready for it.”
School district politics are part of what’s changing, he said. “It is not about racial politics, but economics. … The district simply cannot do things the way it did when it had plenty of money.”
For the moment, however, race is still sharing the stage in the Fort Worth school district, along with the budget crisis and continuing concerns over student achievement. Political infighting also remains in style in the boardroom and district offices.
Rangel and fellow trustees Ann Sutherland and Carlos Vasquez talked to Fort Worth Weekly about the issues facing the board. Trustee Tobi Jackson declined to be interviewed; no other trustees responded to requests for comment.
Fort Worth barely made it through this year’s $30 million budget shortfall, with help from what Rangel called “some strange moves,” such as the offer of $5,000 bonuses to entice veteran teachers to retire early.
Thanks in part to the economy and in part to severe state funding cuts, the school board will be back once again in the budget crosshairs for the 2012-13 school year, facing a $40 million shortfall, Rangel said, with no wiggle room left.
The citizens are not ready for a tax hike, he said, so it comes down to “redirecting the amount we have and [deciding] how we are going to change our policies to reflect the new economics.”
It will mean belt-tightening from the top to the bottom, Rangel said, including trimming the district’s top-heavy administration and making many other reductions — down to telling coaches to make baseballs last two or three years, not just one. “We’re going back to when we were kids, and we got one pencil to last the whole year. We used it ’til it was a stub,” he said with a laugh. “That’s the analogy for today’s economics.”
Rangel and others also believe the face of the board could change significantly following next year’s elections. Trustees from new single-member District 9 and two redrawn districts will likely be Latino, since all three districts have been drawn to reflect the district’s rapidly growing Hispanic population. (The district is now more than 60 percent Hispanic, with about 25 percent African-American residents and less than 15 percent white.) The changes could give Hispanics as many as four spots on the nine-member board.
Rangel said significant shifts in board dynamics are already happening, as reflected in the appointment of Deputy Superintendent Walter Dansby as interim superintendent, the first African-American to head the district. The board usually splits 6-3 on substantive votes, but Dansby’s appointment passed 8-1.
Dansby’s elevation “made huge, significant history,” Rangel said, but the impact of the moment was lessened by what he called the petty politics of some board members and a series of critical Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorials aimed at Sutherland, Vasquez, and himself.
Johnson announced her resignation abruptly in May, and tensions between her supporters and detractors have continued. During her tenure Johnson had strong support from the school board majority but also drew heated objections from Rangel, Sutherland, and Vasquez and, occasionally, from 28-year board veteran T.A. Sims.
Despite gains in academic achievement, her administration was marked by controversy, especially over the treatment of whistleblowers, spending on legal fees, and major problems with computer programs that affected everything from the issuance of paychecks to maintenance of student medical records.
Defenders of Johnson, such as long-time school volunteer Eddie Griffin, point out that the bar for passing the state’s tests keeps rising. Griffin said Johnson was an “exceptional leader” especially for minority students; when the board accepted her resignation, he said he was ending his volunteer work for the district.
After Johnson’s resignation, Vasquez, Sims, Sutherland, and Rangel asked board president Ray Dickerson to call a special meeting to name an interim superintendent; Dansby’s name had already been raised as the likeliest candidate. He had strong support from the local educational employees union and from a coalition of activists and ministers representing the city’s minority communities.
Dickerson refused to call the meeting, and Vasquez threatened to get legal help to force the board president to follow state law. Dickerson relented and set the meeting, but he and the board majority — including Judy Needham, Norm Robbins, Christene Moss, and Jackson — all failed to show up. With no quorum, the meeting was cancelled even though the auditorium was full of Dansby supporters. A week later, on June 7, Dickerson called another special meeting, and Dansby was appointed.
Dickerson told the Star-Telegram that he initially ignored the request for a special meeting because he believed the naming of an interim superintendent at that point was rushing things and that the board had time to do a more thorough search.
Vasquez said that Dickerson’s decision was contrary to state law. “The law is clear,” he said. “If four members request a special meeting, the board president is bound to call one.”
“It was all game playing,” Rangel said. “We cannot afford to play games. We must act for the benefit of the children, not ourselves.”
Rangel and his colleagues said the district needed a new person at the helm quickly, since Johnson had made clear she needed to leave to be with her seriously ill mother in California. (Her salary continues through September, but Johnson effectively left the superintendent’s post as soon as Dansby was appointed.)
“There were too many issues on the table that were going to need a superintendent’s undivided attention, ” Rangel said, pointing to three contentious whistleblower lawsuits heading for trial, an upcoming decision on whether to keep the district’s flawed $4.9 million student information software program, and a decision on whether to hire a single law firm to help the district’s in-house lawyers, rather than spending millions of dollars on dozens of outside firms. The whistleblower lawsuits, filed by former Arlington Heights High School assistant principal Joe Palazzolo, education specialist Raul Duran, and executive analyst Aracely Chavez, have not been set for trial.
Rangel criticized the Star-Telegram for a series of editorials that he called “soap-opera journalism.” He said the editorials made Dansby’s race an issue, but not in a positive sense. One editorial asked, “Why in a school district [that is] 60 percent Hispanic is there a claim that it is time for an African-American superintendent?”
In another, the daily paper laid the blame for Johnson’s departure on Vasquez, Rangel, and Sutherland, saying they had “worked for months to oust” Johnson and to get their preferred successor appointed in a “charade orchestrated behind the scenes.”
None of the charges are true, the three said in separate interviews. “There has been no behind-the-scenes maneuvering,” Sutherland said. She said she supports Dansby because he has 37 years’ experience as an educator, including 16 years as a teacher; because his evaluations show he’s succeeded at each stage of his career here; and because of his historical knowledge of the district. “He is the right person for the job at this juncture,” he said.
A retired educator herself, Sutherland said her concerns with Johnson have been primarily over student achievement. She acknowledged that the achievement gap between white and minority students had begun to shrink, under Johnson. However, she also noted that the latest state-mandated achievement tests show that 22 of the district’s 114 schools are rated academically unacceptable. The board is going to have to address that issue, despite budget woes, she said.
Sutherland, Rangel, and Vasquez have had to face board critics such as Needham, who called Sutherland a “liar,” “a crazy old fool of a woman,” and the “worst board member in the state,” in e-mails that Needham made public, including copies sent to the Star-Telegram. Needham accused Sutherland of not being a “team player” when Sutherland protested a Chesapeake Energy request to drill for gas within 200 feet of an elementary school, despite district policy that bans any drilling closer than 1,200 feet.
Since May 2010, the daily has written 30 editorials implying dirty dealings and collusion by Sutherland, Rangel, and Vasquez, in particular in the awarding of a lucrative tax collection contract to the Austin-based law firm of Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson rather than to the local joint venture of Perdue, Brackett, Flores, Utt and Burns. Perdue had the contract for 17 years but lost it after the election of Sutherland and Jackson, both of whom voted with Rangel and Vasquez to hire Linebarger. Sims and Needham voted for Linebarger as well but faced no criticism from the daily paper.
The Star-Telegram’s criticism was aimed at the involvement of local Linebarger attorney Mario Perez, a long-time friend of Vasquez and Rangel. Perez donated less than $200 each to Sutherland’s and Jackson’s campaigns last year and acted as an advisor to them as well. Linebarger and Perdue attorneys made donations to Needham. None of the three recused themselves from the vote.
Even though the contract has long been signed, the newspaper raised the issue again on July 14, accusing the three trustees and Perez of “manipulat[ing] the process of awarding the district’s tax collection contract to Linebarger,” stating that phone records given to the paper by an anonymous source show that Perez was texting those trustees as well as Jackson during a “three month no-lobbying period” before the board voted on the contract. The no-lobbying language is part of the district’s standard request for proposals.
Perez acknowledged that he spoke frequently with Vasquez and the others prior to the vote. “I have nothing to apologize for,” he said. “I was exercising my free-speech rights as a citizen to petition my government and to answer questions when asked.”
A source close to the Perdue firm acknowledged that at least one member of that firm had also spoken to a trustee before the contract vote and said that, despite the board’s official policy, such contacts were not uncommon.
Sutherland said Linebarger’s collection record in other districts is far better than Perdue’s in Fort Worth. Based on Linebarger’s record elsewhere, she estimated that, had the firm gotten the contract three years ago, it might have brought in as much as $300,000 in extra tax revenues for the district.