Turmoil in the Fort Worth school district is nothing new. In the early 2000s, a concrete bidding scheme drained more than $15 million from the district’s coffers and sent two men to prison, including a district administrator — just one of the scandals that marred the tenure of Superintendent Thomas Tocco.
He openly carried on an affair with a married teacher whom 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; Tocco’s resignation would come years later. Known for his retaliatory actions against employees who dared to cross him, he was feared by many. Employee trust was at rock bottom.
The Melody Johnson era that followed was also roiled by scandal — though none of the scandals involved Johnson personally — ranging from the illegal activities at Arlington Heights High School to the forced resignation of some of her administrators. The district was left with three expensive whistleblower lawsuits and settled employee racial-discrimination lawsuits for undisclosed sums. Others who were fired won reinstatement when their firings were overturned by the Texas Education Agency.
One of Johnson’s most highly touted programs, the $6.7 million computer software system from Tyler Technologies, worked so poorly that some frustrated employees threatened to resign. When the district faced a $30 million budget shortfall, Johnson was forced to lay off employees. In the nearly six years she led the district, its academic ratings plummeted.
Long-simmering tension between Needham and Sutherland boiled over in December 2010, after Sutherland filed a protest with the Texas Railroad Commission to stop Chesapeake Energy from taking advantage of a loophole in the law that would have allowed it to drill for natural gas within a few hundred feet of an elementary school. In an e-mail, Needham called Sutherland a “crazy old fool of a woman.”
In February 2012, Rangel was elected as the Fort Worth district’s first Hispanic board president. On the same day invitations were sent out for a reception to celebrate that event, Rangel was voted out of the presidency in favor of T.A. Sims. Needham’s critics accused her of orchestrating the ouster.
In June of this year, the school board met to discuss a settlement proposal for former Arlington Heights vice principal- turned-whistleblower, Joe Palazzolo. When the board moved into executive session, the meeting was recorded and the recording subsequently posted on the district’s website. District officials claimed that both the recording and the posting were accidents.
Despite such ongoing upheavals, Dansby said he does not think the district, overall, is in any turmoil.
“There was some disagreement among some folks, but the district itself was not in turmoil,” he said. “I think things are going pretty well. I’m excited about how everyone is getting behind the bond program. I’m feeling OK about our scores and where we are academically right now, although we know we need improvement. We made great strides in our strategic planning. Our continuous- improvement model is really working well. Our network is doing a great job with instruction out in the field. Our ‘schools of choice’ program is growing. Our enrollment is up.
“We’ve got a lot to look forward to in Fort Worth ISD,” he said.
In June, on the Weekly’s website, Suther-land said that she regretted supporting Dansby for superintendent. Asked to clarify, she softened that statement.
“Running a big urban school district well is an impossible job, so one must be forgiving when things don’t go as well as one had hoped,” she said. “I am concerned that more is not being done to reform the heavy-handed control still being applied by representatives of the central office and the impact on our students’ learning.”
On Monday, Dansby said, in response to a question, that he feels the board is acting in the best interest of students. “Our board is pretty solid, and they do a great job working with Dr. Sutherland as well,” he said.
But during the interview with the Weekly, he became clearly agitated on the topic of Sutherland.
“She uses [media] to get whatever she wants to say out, whether it’s true or not,” he said, pointing out a factual error Sutherland made on her blog concerning the district’s contract status with the consultant group AECOM.
“She was wrong, she never looked up anything to see if there was a document there,” he said. “She just put it out there and destroyed the reputation of a company. She admitted it [at the subsequent board meeting], but nobody knows that. So anyone who read [the article about the subject] in the Star-Telegram doesn’t know the truth.
“We deal with these things every day,” he said. “I spend a lot of time cleaning up stuff.”
Sutherland acknowledged that she had made a “big mistake” regarding the consultant group. But she said it wasn’t because she had failed to look up the pertinent records and that Dansby knew that. “He misleads the reader by implying it is common for me to ‘make things up.’ This was an isolated mistake.”
Dansby was also visibly emotional about Sutherland’s initial rebuff of the bond program.
“You have a board member who publicly announced that she wasn’t going to support a bond program,” he said. “She changed her mind. The other board members have been on board since day one and said they would help with the bond program.
“I haven’t seen much discussion about the bond program from her, except when she said she wouldn’t support it,” he said.
One of Sutherland’s concerns was that there was not enough time for public review of the bond proposal. Dansby said he met with every trustee before the bond package went public, and Sutherland initially refused to meet with him.
“Every single board member with the exception of one had the opportunity to go through the entire bond proposal, prior to us going public,” he said. “And throughout the year, we talked about the possible bond program, and we knew this assessment was going on. It was part of our strategic planning in January to go for a bond program.”
“I can’t explain anything about her perception,” he said.
The superintendent said that, during the public discussion regarding Sutherland’s censure by the board, he did not speak in favor of the censure but only responded factually to questions put to him by trustees.
“I was not a part of that,” he said. “I was brought into that conversation by board members. Somebody said something to Dr. Sutherland, Dr. Sutherland said something to me.
“My answer was the truth, that I did feel attacked,” he said, referring to remarks made to him by Sutherland in an earlier phone conversation.
Sutherland acknowledged feeling politically isolated on the board, but the loss of her allies — and the censure by her colleagues — may have been more liberating than debilitating. According to those with whom she has worked, she’s still getting things done.
Jason Brown said that when he wanted some information on a number of issues, his board representative was unresponsive. He turned to Sutherland for advice, and she eventually got him the information he wanted.
“My experience on past issues in terms of getting things fixed at my son’s schools — she’s come through for us when our trustee wouldn’t,” he said. “As a parent, I have nothing but good things to say about her.”
Snoke said that he had requested some attendance information on students who were sent to alternative schools. He said his neighborhood was a stomping ground for truant students.
“Kids were walking into the front door and out of the back door, and no one was following up on this,” he said. “We asked for basic information on how many children were referred to alternative schools. Dansby said he would get that to us in short order … it never happened.”
Sutherland, he said, asked for the same information and eventually got it.
“It’s a breath of fresh air when you find someone who advocates on behalf of their constituency,” he said. “She was wonderful, she got us the attendance records. She had to jump through hoops to do it.
“We want people to be advocates for the constituency, not for the board,” he said.