The Fort Worth school district and the Rev. Kyev Tatum are blaming each other for a gutted summer work program that left 100 teens and young adults shortchanged by a total of about $60,000, with nobody stepping forward to foot the bill.
Tatum said the children are innocent victims caught in an ongoing political struggle among himself, administrators, and school board members. Supporting former Arlington Heights assistant principal Joe Palazzolo in his whistleblower lawsuit against the school district is one of many instances where Tatum has battled the school district over the years.
School officials said Tatum had no approval to go forward with the Good Hands Crew work program, and yet he enlisted 100 youngsters between the ages of 15 and 25 to work alongside custodians in 17 schools across the district for about $8 an hour. The group logged more than 7,000 hours during 15 days of work in July. They cleaned inside buildings and maintained the landscaping.
“I loved it; it’s work I can do,” said Roderick Allen, 22, of Fort Worth.
Allen graduated from high school in 2010 but has landed only one job since then, as a cashier at a football stadium. He’s spent much of his time “running the streets,” he said.
“I was doing the Good Hands Crew to stay out of trouble,” he said.
He’s owed $480 for 15 days spent helping custodians to clean schools, and that’s not counting the week in training, he said.
In May, Allen and Tatum visited with Superintendent Walter Dansby at district headquarters to discuss the program.
“I was there when Mr. Dansby said he would support us,” Allen said. “That’s why I stayed in the program. He said if we needed anything, he would help us with it. When he got cut, it seemed like all the dominoes fell down.”
Dansby resigned — some say he was forced out — on June 9 and will officially retire in January. His departure left Tatum overseeing a program for which he had no written contract and no funding.
“They’re using technicalities, trying to say they don’t have anything in writing to have us move forward with the program,” Tatum said. “We’re not working for free. Slavery is over.”
Spokesman Clint Bond said the district isn’t hiding behind technicalities.
“Mr. Tatum is grasping at straws,” he said. “We contacted [Dansby], and he adamantly denies that any verbal approval was given, and even if there were, this would require a written contract.”
Tatum gave backup for his claim that school officials have long known about his program and been supportive.
He started the program last year with about 15 students doing summer custodial work at Trimble Tech High School, where Tatum works as a consultant and coordinator of the Brilliant Bulldog Center youth program. Most of the Good Hands workers are students of color from low-income households.
A year ago, a picture of Tatum, Dansby, and members of the first Good Hands Crew was posted on the district’s website under the heading “The Fort Worth ISD has partnered with Urban Public LLC and Harmony Missionary Baptist Church to sponsor The Good Hands Crew.”
The article said the program helps young adults “gain the proper tools and training needed to become productive citizens,” and credited Tatum with founding it as “an alternative to the criminal juvenile justice system.”
Last year, the district provided $20,000 in funding for the Good Hands Crew, Tatum said. The district prefers programs that focus on more than one school, and he expanded the program, he said, to include more campuses. He said officials allowed him to use the district letterhead for information sent to students and parents.
In May, Dansby asked school officials to analyze the program. They expressed concern about safety and liability issues involved with minors using equipment such as lawnmowers and buffing machines.
That response smacks of a double standard to Tatum.
“They let these babies play football, hit their heads every day and break their necks … and they say, ‘Atta boy, atta boy,’ but if we want to teach them work ethic and pride, it’s a liability,” Tatum said.
Regarding football, Bond said the district is “prepared to mitigate that risk.”
On May 27, the district e-mailed Tatum saying funding was unavailable for the program. He responded on June 2, writing, “Wow, how do we fund it?”
He received a response a few weeks later, reminding him that the program had no funding. But Tatum kept recruiting youngsters, saying Dansby approved of the program and would find funding.
“It was never any attempt on our part to do this … by ourselves,” Tatum said. “The district was involved all along — the principals, the counselors, the schools, the custodians, the parents.”
Think about it, he said: How could he get principals at 17 schools to allow 100 students to come work with custodians without the approval of district leaders?
“We are looking into that,” Bond said, “and we don’t have the answers yet to say how those kids got on campus,” he said. “But the fact remains, he was advised not to do it, and he did it.”
Tatum and dozens of parents showed up at district headquarters last week, and Tatum accused school officials of racism, citing what he sees as a long history of treating poor minorities differently than more affluent white students.
Interim Superintendent Pat Linares said the school board would discuss the unpaid workers in a future meeting.
In addition to $60,000 owed to the kids, Tatum said he’s owed $10,000 for managing the program.
Some teachers at Trimble Tech became agitated after Dansby allowed Tatum to begin overseeing the Brilliant Bulldog Center three years ago. They became angrier when an empty room was turned into a large office for him.
A teacher wrote an anonymous letter to Fort Worth Weekly describing an alleged quid pro quo –– Dansby supposedly created the Trimble Tech job in exchange for Tatum muting his criticisms, particularly in regard to the Palozzolo case.
Tatum denied that and said Dansby’s resignation opened the door for district officials to go after Tatum.
“It’s all political,” he said. “They declared war on Kyev Tatum, and they’ve declared war on poor people.”
Jennifer Garcia, 16, spent a week in training and two weeks working with custodial crews at several schools; by her math, she’s owed about $700. She’ll be a junior at Trimble Tech High School this fall and planned to use the money for “school clothes and materials,” she said.
Garcia is a diminutive 4-foot-9 but worked with the heavy floor-buffing machines like the ones that school officials were worried about. She also helped custodians move desks and chairs, wipe the walls, and clean windows and floors.
She attended the meeting at district headquarters and listened to district officials explain how Tatum had recruited people into the Good Hands Crew without approval or promise of funding.
Garcia refused to place blame for the lack of pay but said somebody needs to make things right.
“It was hard work for 15 days,” she said. “If we don’t get paid, I don’t think that’s fair.”
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, in an editorial on July 30, said Tatum should pay the money that’s owed and apologize to the workers and the district.
“Apologize for what?” Tatum responded on his Facebook page. “Pay us our money!”