Feature: Wednesday, May 5, 2004
‘THE DISTRICT HAS HAD ENOUGH SCANDAL.’
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Back to the Schoolhouse Future Part 1

Trustee candidates take Fort Worth to a brave new Tocco-less world.

By DAN McGRAW AND BETTY BRINK

en years ago, Thomas Tocco had just begun his reign as superintendent of Fort Worth public schools, partnering with school board president Gary Manny in a top-down, two-man management style that, board veterans say, kept most trustees ignorant or cowed, and naysayers outvoted on key issues. Over the next several years, while Fort Worth students’ scores on statewide tests rose, the school board ceded much of its power to Tocco and Manny. Few wanted to grab the steering wheel of a vehicle that seemed to be gaining speed, even when questions — always present — began to pile up about exactly where the district was headed.

In 2004, the tarp has blown off the rather smelly cargo in the Fort Worth school district pickup truck, the gas gauge is in the red, and a cop has pulled the whole load over to the curb. Concerns raised years ago by a state comptroller’s educational audit and internal financial auditors have caught up with the district. After a four-year FBI investigation, revelations of $10 million in fraud — and a $10 million deficit for the coming year, guilty pleas by a concrete contractor and maintenance supervisor, and deep cuts in district programs, Fort Worth schools still have more bad news to come. More indictments are possible. In the third-largest school district in the state, the dropout rate is a whopping 42 percent, even higher among Hispanic students, and still rising. A disproportionate number of black kids are still ending up in alternative schools. Millions of dollars have been spent on questionable real estate deals, including one that threatens to cost the district millions more in environmental clean-up outlays. A $400 million bond construction program is over budget and behind schedule — and more schools still are needed, for fast-growing areas on the city’s north, west, and south sides. Teacher morale is about as high as a pig’s eye, and many parents feel alienated and ignored. To make matters even worse, the Texas Legislature is in the midst of a major fight over how to reinvent school funding for the whole state.

It’s enough to take the yawn right out of the phrase “school board election.” In fact, for the first time in a decade, the Fort Worth school district is facing a potential power shift of major proportions. Gary Manny is dead, a victim of cancer in 2002; his widow, Lynne, who stepped into his shoes as president, stepped out of them this year. Tocco, disgraced in the eyes of many inside and outside the district offices, has been removed by the board from the superintendent’s post and will be out completely by the end of the year, albeit with a $500,000 send-off package. Six of the nine seats on the board are up for election on May 15, including the presidency, and all but one appear to be real races (incumbent T.A. Sims is unopposed in District 4). Incumbents’ departures mean that, at minimum, three trustees, including the president, will be new to the board. And a total of five Hispanics are running — what one Hispanic leader called “the beginning of a new era of political involvement” for the ethnic group that soon will make up a majority of Fort Worth ISD students.

The fiscal and legal crises, plus the power vacuum created by the absence of both Manny and Tocco, mean that some things must change in the school district offices. And yet, in what’s arguably the most important election since single-member districts changed the landscape 14 years ago, new faces and names won’t necessarily mean a new direction. Two of the strongest supporters of the Tocco regime — Jean McClung and Christene Moss — are not up for election this year. The board recently named as acting superintendent a close friend of Tocco’s, retired Fort Worth associate superintendent Joe Ross. And one of Tocco’s staunchest critics, District 8 Trustee Juan Rangel, faces a strong challenger in Vicki Bargas, running with support from downtown business interests. Bargas and Norm Robbins, in District 7, both work for Lockheed Martin — one of the area’s largest employers, with a major stake in the quality of the workers that Fort Worth schools turn out.

In a district whose top leaders for years tried to keep the lid on and the press, parents, and public out of the information loop, the best thing about the May 15 election may simply be that it has at least some people’s attention — downtown and business leaders, who are beginning to worry about the dimming rep of Fort Worth schools; Hispanic leaders, passionate about getting more Spanish-speakers into district ranks and keeping grassroots Hispanics on the board; parents, teachers, and taxpayers, whose frustrations have built to a teakettle whistle over the years; and black leaders like the Rev. Michael Bell, who has seen less than complete fulfillment of promises that Tocco and others made to him several years ago, about improving treatment of minority students in the classroom and sensitivity training for district employees.

“What’s going to happen now is that we are going to be looking at every candidate and check the background of each very closely,” said Bell, who in the past has fought the district with extended protests outside white-majority schools. “I think wise people will familiarize themselves with the struggle [for equality] in Fort Worth and will do the right thing.”

Despite the turmoil, however, campaigning has been low-key, almost non-existent in many races, with few yard signs out, and little in the way of candidate forums.

The lack of vigorous debate in such an important election could be disastrous if it leads to low voter turnout, as in past school board races, said retired Brig. Gen. Nathan Vail, one of Tocco’s most vocal critics. “If the next board becomes the tool of the superintendent, then this outrageous history is bound to repeat itself.”

One of the more popular guessing games in town right now is trying to figure out what the new majority on the board will look like once the dust has settled. Both Hispanics and blacks will keep at least two seats on the board, and Hispanics could increase their total to three, if Sarah Villareal were to win over her three opponents in District 6. “I think in this [election] we are beginning to see the fruition of years of work in the long struggle for equality here,” attorney Mario Perez said. Downtown interests reportedly are backing Bargas over Rangel in District 8, Camille Rodriguez in District 1, and Bill Koehler, a long-time Texas Christian University administrator who is running for the board presidency. Without Tocco as a lightning rod, it’s hard to see what alliances will develop.

But in all the races, most of the candidates contacted by Fort Worth Weekly deplored the closed-shop, top-down approach of the last several years and acknowledged the hefty problems facing the district. The district needs a new permanent superintendent, a major budget overhaul, and a way to address cultural diversity problems and teacher unrest, all while the board figures out how to retake responsibility for leadership and reshape an administration let loose from Tocco’s iron fist. The big difference between the school district and Iraq, in fact, may be the weaponry.

“One of the biggest issues we have going for us right now in this district is a lack of public trust,” said Chris Hatch, a self-employed financial planner and CPA running for the District 6 seat vacated by Jesse Martinez, who resigned in November. “On occasion, as a parent with children in schools, I’ve tried to understand various issues, but it was always difficult to find any kind of insight. I remember we had some issues at an elementary school, and the superintendent and the school board members didn’t seem to think it was necessary to investigate anything. That’s part of the reason why I am running.”

Hatch, 57, is one of the parents of children within the district trying to get on the board. Running against him are Jeff Menges, 38, a field representative for Springs Industries and father of a son in middle school, and Villareal. A coordinator of youth programs for a nonprofit community center, Villareal drew laughs at a candidates’ forum a few weeks ago when she cracked that as the only candidate “used to working with an organization that has no money,” she was the most qualified to help run the Fort Worth school district. Villareal, 49, who’s had two kids graduate from Paschal High School, doesn’t expect to win outright, but hopes to make it to a runoff.

Menges, who ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2000, agrees with Hatch that the school district needs to open up more in order to clean up some of its problems.

“Basically, the school board gave Thomas Tocco the keys to the car,” Menges said. “No one on the school board bothered to check where he was driving or what he was doing. The school board members lost their voice in many ways. The reality is that the school board members decided not to ask questions.

“As school board members, we have to get the keys back from the superintendent and keep the new administrator from driving alone,” he said. “From where I look at this district, we have some problems we have to deal with. Some of the statewide test scores have improved, but everything else has slipped through the superintendent’s hands. We have just about a billion dollars in expenses and a bond program, and we must have the ability to have the confidence from our voters and parents of our kids. We also need to work hard to let the people of our district know what we are doing” — the opposite of what frequently happened under Tocco.

Several school board members said Tocco instructed them not to discuss their actions with the media. The superintendent “would urge school board members to be careful with everything we said in the media, especially in things that would have some priority that might help by being discussed,” said Rangel, a four-year board veteran. “But the problem we got into was always looking like we were hiding from something by not responding” to parents and others. “We really need to retool or revamp our whole public image,” he said. “We need a superintendent who understands that working in a partnership with the news media is an important part of the job. It’s not about being friends with the news media, but we need to do a much better job of being responsible for inquiries, of getting out our views on subjects to the people of Fort Worth. I was very perturbed that Tocco tried very hard to keep us all silent, and that some of the school board members supported him in doing that.”

The race between the 56-year-old Rangel, chairman of the nonprofit United Hispanic Council, and Bargas, 50, an administrative assistant at Lockheed Martin, could be a key to the direction the board will take after May 15. Mario Perez and several other local Hispanic leaders said Bargas’ support from downtown interests is an indication that, despite the fact that Hispanics will soon make up 40 percent of the city’s population, the Anglo power brokers still don’t get it. Bargas has been endorsed by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the United Educator’s Association, the city’s largest teacher organization. Ryan Place realtor Joan Kline, who also handles most real estate transactions for the school district, and former school board member Molly Lasater have put their names, influence, and money behind her campaign. John Roach, former CEO of RadioShack/Tandy is reported to be backing Bargas as well, according to Vail, who has talked frequently with Roach about various candidates. Thus far, however, Roach’s name has not appeared on Bargas’ campaign financial reports.

Downtown leaders “are so disconnected from the real world of the Hispanic communities that they think if they find a Latino who can speak in complete sentences and dress well, they’ve got their candidate.” Perez said.

Alberto Govea, head of LULAC District 21, Juan Perez; former head of the United Hispanic Council, who won the redistricting case in 1996 that created District 8 as the second single-member district aimed at Hispanics; and Alonzo Aguilar, president of the Worth Heights Neighborhood Association, all told the Weekly that a few phone calls would have shown downtown leaders that Bargas does not have the support or trust of most of the Hispanic community.

“The district has had enough scandal,” Aguilar said. “It doesn’t need more.”

Two years ago, Govea took over the presidency of LULAC’s multi-county District 21 from Bargas. The LULAC constitution, he said, requires an outgoing president to turn over all the financial records to the new president. “I never got any records from Bargas. She never answered my letters asking for an accounting of the money.” Govea said he had to open a new bank account and start from a zero balance. Because LULAC is a nonprofit, he said, the accounting for money has to be stringent. But there were no records of the district’s membership dues, no records of the money raised at a fundraiser while Bargas was president, and no records of how any of the money might have been spent, he said.

A state LULAC investigation of the affair is still open, Govea said, “but so far, she has not responded to them, either. No one knows where the money is.” And no one knows how much money is involved, he said.

In the late 1990s, Juan Perez was treasurer of LULAC’s Council 601, a neighborhood-level group, when Bargas was in charge of it. Money was missing there, too, Perez said, but he could never get an accounting from Bargas as to where it was being spent. He resigned “in disgust.”

Aguilar, recent past president of the Worth Heights Neighborhood Association, a nonprofit based in District 8 that depends on dues from its members and funds from National Night Out, said that when Bargas was president of that group, she kept no meaningful records of funds coming in or going out. “We would get something scribbled on little scraps of paper once in a while,” he said, “but nothing that made any accounting sense.”

These are small organizations with very little money, the Hispanic leaders pointed out. “If someone is not going to be careful with these funds,” Govea said, “I would be very concerned if she had responsibility for a school district’s budget.”

Bargas did not return repeated calls seeking comment for this story.

Mary Guerrero’s concerns with Bargas are very different. “Seeing Vicki Bargas signs pop up in my neighborhood was like a slap in the face,” the longtime O.D. Wyatt High School cafeteria worker said. But it was also a wake-up call.

Mary said that she has finally found the courage to leave her husband of 35 years, Joe Guerrero, owner of a popular barbershop in Sundance Square and a long-time LULAC organizer. Mary Guerrero, their daughter Rachel Razo, and others allege that, for more than a decade, Bargas and Joe Guerrero have been in a relationship that’s an open secret in the Worth Heights neighborhood and in local Hispanic organizations. “They are seen together all the time, in restaurants, at meetings, at out-of-town LULAC conventions,” Mary Guerrero said. This time, “My kids told me ‘Mother, you can’t be silent any longer.’ ”

In the Hispanic community, the questions about that relationship seem to carry as much weight as the questions over Bargas’ financial stewardship.

Rangel, probably Tocco’s most outspoken critic on the board, sees plenty of work for the new board, including improving the district’s ability to help new Hispanic students. “Once we a get a superintendent, we need to really look at where we are going to aim our efforts,” he said. “There are only a couple of librarians among 72 in the entire district who speak some form of Spanish. There are only a couple diagnosticians who speak some Spanish and can test our children. It is not that we need all kids to speak Spanish, but we do need some of the people working in the district to have some ability to work with kids who are learning English.”

On the North Side, another Hispanic incumbent and Hispanic challenger are vying for the District 1 seat. There, the issues are less about downtown support and more about past support for Tocco’s policies — including the importance of standardized test scores. Incumbent Rose Herrera has praised Tocco for raising test scores of the district’s minority students. Her challenger, Dr. Camille Rodriguez, thinks those alleged advances are little more than smoke and mirrors. And whereas Herrera has had downtown support in the past, this year it’s going to Rodriguez, a 36-year-old podiatrist.

“Children must learn overall, from a well-rounded curriculum, not just how to pass the questions on a state-written test” Rodriguez said. Under Tocco, the emphasis on “teaching to the TAAS” didn’t leave teachers any flexibility to teach creatively, especially to kids who don’t learn under traditional teaching methods, she said. “I think this is why so many of our kids are dropping out. Their needs are not being met because teachers are under so much pressure to get these students ready to pass tests.”

She’s worried about the district’s overall 42 percent dropout rate, and the even higher rates among Hispanic kids. “I’ve heard a lot of talk from the board and Tocco about this, but there’s been no action — nothing.”

Rose Herrera, who has represented the largely Hispanic district since 1992, is one of those who praise Tocco’s success in raising test scores. She didn’t return calls for this story, but in the past she has consistently praised the ex-superintendent for raising the educational standards of the district and has said he should not have been fired for the corruption that occurred in the district’s maintenance department during his tenure.

In an interview over coffee and Krispy Kremes, Rodriguez laid out her reasons for jumping into the race. “I was encouraged to [run] by people in the district who are very upset by all the corruption,” she said. “But they are upset about things that directly affect their children, truancy issues and such things as a school playground where the weeds are taller than the kids.”

Rodriguez is a newcomer to politics but not to the part of the school district that she wants to represent as its trustee, a sprawling zone that encompasses most of the far North Side, including the Stockyards and Diamond Hill. She also has support and funding from John Roach, she said, and the endorsement of the Star-Telegram.

Rodriguez, who is single, grew up on the North Side; her grandparents were born in Mexico. In 1986, she was in the first Dunbar Magnet School’s graduating class. She received a full scholarship to Prairie View A&M University and from there went to graduate school and on to medical school in New York City. After graduation in 2000, she came home to hang out her podiatrist shingle in the neighborhood where she grew up. “I have been in school half of my life, and the Fort Worth schools served me well,” she said. “I’d like to see if we can’t get some of the best of those years back into today’s schools.”

Rodriguez was appalled when she read that the schools’ budget this coming year will be short by $10 million — the same amount stolen in the maintenance scam. “Was that just a coincidence?”

But it’s more immediate things in her district that she wants to tackle, she said, such as reforming the truancy office. In one case the office failed to notify a mother in her district that her son had been late to class 15 times. “The first she heard of it was when she got a letter that he was suspended for three days,” Rodriguez said. “This mom has to work and the boy just hung around the house alone. What good did that do anyone? We must be flexible and find ways to differentiate between tardiness and truancy.”

Over in Diamond Hill, parents are upset because the Ivan Rodriguez Little League baseball park, built in 1998 on school district property with a donation of $500,000 by the Texas Rangers and “Pudge” Rodriguez, has been neglected for years by the school district’s maintenance department. When the park was dedicated, Rodriguez (no kin to Pudge) said, the schools promised to keep the grass cut. “When I came home in 2000, I thought it was an abandoned field,” she said. “The grass was knee-high, the bleachers were turned over on their sides. It was completely run down.” Since she raised the issue in some neighborhood meetings, Rodriguez said, the maintenance department has mowed the grass and the bleachers have been repaired.

Associate Superintendent Walter Dansby told Fort Worth Weekly that he was “researching the schools’ contract” with the Little League association, but that whatever he found, he would continue to keep the field mowed and “in good repair.”

In the long run, one of the more significant results of the corruption in the Fort Worth school district may be that it got a general’s dander up. When, amid the scandals, the school board voted pay raises for Tocco while cutting funds to several academic programs, retired Brig. Gen. Nathan Vail was so outraged that he and Debby Stein and a handful of other angry constituents formed Truth About Area Schools. The new group set about trying to get Tocco fired. When the board refused to fire the superintendent outright, TAAS moved its focus to influencing the board election.

“Tocco, as the CEO, should have been fired and his golden parachute dismantled” as soon as the enormity of the scandal became known, Vail said. “The buck stopped at his desk and at the feet of those who hired him and kept him. That’s why this election is so important.”

“That money was stolen in broad daylight,” in a scheme “so transparent that someone with even a rudimentary understanding of the district’s bidding policies should have caught it,” said parent and two-time board candidate Stein. “That is the real scandal, that Tocco missed it.” A new board, Stein said, must bring the superintendent’s salary, as well as his power level, back down.

TAAS has endorsed Bill Koehler for board president, Rodriguez in District 1, Rangel in District 8, and Menges in District 6. In District 7, which covers the far West Side and Benbrook, TAAS is endorsing Sara Koulen. Her opponent Norm Robbins has the backing of the Star-Telegram and outgoing trustee Elaine Klos. The third candidate, environmental inspector David Jensen, 55, did not return reporters’ calls.

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