Feature: Wednesday, May 8, 2003
Underachieving at the Top

There are some worms in the apple of Fort Worth public schools.

By Ken Shimamoto

May 2001, the Texas comptroller came to Fort Worth to deliver a sobering message to Fort Worth school trustees, parents, and administrators: Their district, the third largest in Texas, had some serious problems, ranging from its organizational structure and staffing to a high dropout rate and a weak internal audit program.

The comptroller returned to Fort Worth twice after her initial report was published — once in June of 2002 and again in December — before the fiscal controls she recommended were finally put in place, and her March 2003 follow-up report emphasized the need for enforcement, not just paper procedures.

Since mid-2001, the FBI has been investigating irregularities in the district’s contracting system for construction projects, and in January 2003, the district got more bad news: Independent auditors Whitley Penn discovered construction overcharges totaling $4.8 million.

Bad news on dropout rates had come earlier. In 2000, the Texas education commissioner ordered ratings for 10 Fort Worth high schools changed from “acceptable” to “not rated due to data quality” because the district could not account for 1,600 students who left without enrolling in another school. Even state auditors were unable to find 600 of the students.

In April 2001, with great fanfare, the district rolled out an “Action Plan for Dropout Prevention,” but beyond a couple of big “feel-good” media events, there’s been little word on results. In 2002, state ratings for six high schools were lowered because students they’d placed in alternative schools for disciplinary reasons had dropped out and disappeared from the system. And Fort Worth’s dropout rate remains the worst among big Texas cities.

In June 2001, the school board agreed to extend Superintendent Thomas Tocco’s contract through December 2004, with graduated pay raises that would bring his salary to $314,213. Each year’s raise was dependent on the superintendent’s meeting performance goals set by the board.

In December 2002, with Tocco’s review still unfinished, the board nonetheless allowed the 2003 raise to go into effect. Trustees agreed to delay his review until they had discussed the Whitley Penn findings.

Five months later, the board has yet to set a date to discuss the auditor’s report or to complete Tocco’s review.

Each of these problems is serious. Together, they would seem to add up to a clanging fire alarm, a call for immediate attention. But is anyone listening?

Yes. In recent months, parents and taxpayers have grown increasingly vocal about their worries with the district. They see problems in their kids’ schools, read about mismanagement and financial irresponsibility, and hear threats to programs important to them.

“He’s done his best to cancel everything that doesn’t apply to [the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test],” said Arlington Heights High School parent Cheri Reynolds. “Our children aren’t machines to be programmed for a test.” Other parents told tales of middle-school students being drilled for the test during gym class or high-schoolers losing half their lunch periods to “TAAS advisories.”

For Rick Pokluda, father of a Paschal High School alumnus and another student about to graduate, “the biggest disappointment is that the board didn’t respond to the comptroller’s findings back in 2001. Some of the board members who were interviewed hadn’t even read the report.”

Given the city’s high tax rate, said Ava Bonilla, a vice president of the League of Neighborhood Associations, people in the community are “furious at the way the board has been using their money. They feel like they have no control over their schools.”

A petition drive to remove Tocco is under way, and a local conservative Hispanic group recently called for his resignation. “Tocco is out of line — he either intentionally or incompetently allowed mismanagement to steal from the taxpayers,” said Blake Woodard, an insurance agent, the son of a 1982 mayoral candidate, and father of two Tanglewood Elementary School students.

Parents aren’t the only ones concerned. Realtors are starting to worry about prospective homeowners not wanting to buy in Fort Worth and the impact that could have on ambitious plans for downtown development, capitalizing on the new corporate headquarters being built for RadioShack and Pier 1. The Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce’s vision includes convincing two or three other corporations to move their headquarters to Fort Worth.

“It very definitely is a problem,” said Benbrook-based realtor Pat Gray. Good schools are “the most important consideration for parents. A lot of people who are moving here for their work are being told not to buy in [the Fort Worth school district]. There’s an explosion of new construction in Aledo, Crowley, and Azle, and the decisions to build in those areas are partly based on school quality. The [bad] reputation is there, and Fort Worth hasn’t done that much to correct it.”

City officials and business leaders won’t talk about it yet, at least not on record. None would offer any comment about Fort Worth schools beyond platitudes and general statements of support. But they’re beginning to worry and to look fearfully to the east, where the malaise in the Dallas schools for years helped drive families and companies to the suburbs.

Last fall, Tocco predicted a $23 million budget shortfall that placed a range of programs in jeopardy. Next month the board will review departmental funding requests and decide where the axe will fall.

According to Beverly Fletcher, director of art programs for the district, the board has voted to protect funding for art and music programs — a major concern for many parents in a city that’s striving to reinvent itself as an arts mecca. The popular Outdoor Learning Center has been discontinued, but no decision has been made regarding the fate of the property. Other school districts are reportedly interested in taking over the center, which is leased from the Tarrant Regional Water District, if Fort Worth steps aside.

Other proposed budget cuts could drive up fifth-grade student-teacher ratios and increase class loads for high-school teachers, affecting their ability to sustain improvements in student achievement. And difficult decisions remain to be made regarding the future of outreach programs like HYPE, UMOJA, and Because We Care — all weapons in the district’s arsenal to combat a persistent dropout problem.

Changes to the state’s school-funding scheme are coming but may have to wait for a special legislative session. For now, at least, help from that quarter seems unlikely. To weather the coming storm, the district will need strong leadership. But from where?

Tanglewood parent Woodard is firm: “We need a complete change of school board, with some new blood that will closely oversee the superintendent, and a superintendent who respects the board.”

“The key word is accountability — to students and taxpayers,” said Paschal parent Pokluda. “Administrators can lose sight that they’re using the taxpayers’ money. Trust has been shattered. We must have accountability. The school system is the community’s calling card.”

All the news about the Fort Worth school district is not bad. Data from the state education agency’s Academic Excellence Indicator System, upon which the comptroller’s report is partly based, shows it still works — to some degree — in many ways.

Rates of taxing and spending reveal that Fort Worth has been fairly efficient compared to other large urban school systems. Per-pupil expenditures in Fort Worth are lower than both the state average and comparable districts’ outlays, a sign to the comptroller that the district is running a fairly lean operation, without excessive bureaucracy.

The district’s end-of-year fund balances have dropped to around 10 percent of total budgeted expenses, a range the comptroller considers optimal. Higher balances would be found in a district that’s overtaxing its residents or accumulating funds for some specific project, while lower balances might force a district to borrow money to meet operating expenses during the school year.

True, the city’s tax rate has been consistently higher than those of other large urban districts — around $1.64 per $100 of assessed valuation, compared to around $1.55 for Austin, Dallas, and Houston. But Fort Worth’s tax base is considerably smaller than those property-rich cities’ — $15 billion, compared to Austin’s $38 billion, Dallas’ $56 billion, and Houston’s $66 billion — so a dollar of tax rate produces far less revenue. With its greater tax burden, Fort Worth still relies on the state for 48 percent of its funding, compared to 28 percent for Houston, 16 percent for Dallas, and 4 percent for Austin.

And there are other indicators that suggest that the district’s good-credit balance is beginning to run low.

While Fort Worth students’ standardized test scores have risen, academic achievement levels within the district continue to lag behind the state average. About 15 percent of district students still fail the 10th-grade TAAS “exit” test. The state average is 10 percent; Austin, Dallas and Houston post even lower failure rates. While Fort Worth has trumpeted its dropout prevention initiatives, about 17 percent of its students — almost three times the state average and more than any of the “large urbans” — continue to quit school between grades 9 and 12.

In 2002, the Texas Education Agency rated 12 percent of Fort Worth schools “exemplary,” 39 percent “recognized,” and 3 percent “low performing.” That compares favorably with Dallas, which had the same percentage of “exemplary” schools, but only 18 percent “recognized” and 7 percent “low performing.” However, it pales next to Houston, where a whopping 23 percent of schools were rated “exemplary” and 40 percent “recognized,” with only 2 percent “low performing.” Even more impressive is the fact that the Houston district succeeded in narrowing the performance gap among races as well as raising overall achievement.

Overall staffing levels within the Fort Worth district are generally on a par with state averages. Central administration staff has more than doubled since 1998, from 42 to 100, but still only accounts for 1 percent of the employee total. And 36 of those positions will be eliminated as part of planned budget cuts.

While teacher salaries in Fort Worth exceed the state average, they remain lower than those in Dallas and Houston. Fort Worth teachers average 10 years of experience, fewer than their counterparts in the other large urban districts. In a district with a 48 percent Hispanic student body, the vast majority of teachers — 63 percent — are Anglo; only 12 percent are Hispanic.

Fort Worth’s teacher turnover rate is 14 percent — lower than Austin, Dallas, and Houston’s — but higher in schools that are primarily minority. One middle-school parent reported that her child had 13 different teachers for his six classes this school year. Teachers say the new Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, which replaces the TAAS this fall, will eliminate cultural bias that existed in the old exam. But implementation of the TAKS is bound to bring new turbulence, as teachers scramble to learn how to “teach the test.”

While procurement policies and procedures have received more scrutiny, the claims of two former employees suggest that the district violates its own personnel policies and procedures, too. Richard Gwozdz coordinated instructional television operations for the district, and Tom Purcell coached high-school football. Both say they were fired without due process, and both have spent years trying to obtain recourse through the school administration and the courts.

Some insiders attribute the current board’s inertia to the relationship that evolved between Tocco and former board president Gary Manny — a fiefdom of two, where the reins of control and decision-making were tightly held at the very top of the district, a situation noted as a problem in the comptroller’s report.

A retired district executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that when Manny was first elected in 1986, he was a timid trustee who feared speaking in public and had difficulty getting Don Roberts, Tocco’s predecessor, to return his calls. The retired executive said that by the time Tocco arrived in 1994, Manny — with eight years on the board under his belt, including six as president — had blossomed into a “board of one” who set the group’s agenda and would present “pre-packaged submissions” that other trustees, deferring to his experience, would rubber-stamp. Tocco and Manny often decided issues without consulting the trustees.

The superintendent was no stranger to controversy. Tocco resigned from the top position in the Cobb County, Ga., schools after that state’s attorney ruled unconstitutional a four-year contract extension he received from a lame-duck school board. From there, Tocco went on to head the St. Charles Parish, La., school system after he had also accepted positions in Indiana and Michigan, forcing one district to re-open its search for a superintendent just weeks before classes started. In St. Charles Parish, he angered taxpayers by turning a $9 million surplus into a deficit over four years, resulting in a large tax increase.

Upon taking over the Fort Worth district, Tocco “did a marvelous job at reading the board members and giving them what they needed in exchange for their support,” said the former executive. “He’s a genius at co-opting people.” Within his own cabinet, the former administrator said, Tocco used intimidation and political favors to create a “quorum of silence” that stifled dissent and used the informal organization to circumvent rules that got in his way. The executive went on to charge that the district’s organizational structure, which the 2001 comptroller’s report said was “not logically aligned or grouped,” came about as a result of administrators currying favor with Tocco to get control of programs they wanted.

The long-term outcome was the erosion of checks and balances and the elimination of anyone who openly questioned the superintendent’s decisions. There was also a trickle-down effect: As Tocco intimidated his cabinet into silence, they did the same to their subordinates. “People were afraid to speak up,” said the former executive. “Those who did were told to get in line or get out.”

In 1996, a group of Morningside Middle School parents called for Tocco’s resignation after learning that he had promoted an assistant principal he’d been dating, unknown to the board or his wife, who was still living in Georgia (they are now divorced). More protests arose later that year when it was disclosed that Tocco had charged the district for $26,000 in travel expenses during his first two years as Fort Worth superintendent, while prohibiting teachers from traveling to conferences outside the district.

Some say the superintendent went out of his way to undermine or destroy programs (such as the Outdoor Learning Center) that didn’t originate on his watch. One indignant parent said, “He put a principal who’d been a gym teacher with alternative certification in charge of the Applied Learning Academy,” a program designed to relate classroom learning to workplace requirements. “Then the ALA was moved [to its current location on Camp Bowie Boulevard] before the facility was ready.”

Last month, Tocco responded to disclosures that maintenance personnel were moonlighting for construction contractors on school time by proposing an across-the-board ban on outside employment for district employees, which would be a huge financial blow to many teachers and other professional staffers. He also asked the board to appeal a federal judge’s ruling that reinstated a Dunbar High School student whose punishment for reciting a rap song containing a threat to a classmate was changed three times, the last time without due process. The grounds for the appeal? The judge’s ruling undermined his “administrative authority.”

Even before trustee Juan Rangel suffered a stroke in March, temporarily silencing one of its strongest dissenting voices, the Fort Worth school board appeared unhealthy. In the year since Gary Manny’s death in March 2002, the board has been struggling to recover from the loss of his leadership and to reinvent itself as a decision-making body that isn’t dominated by two forceful personalities. During this time, it’s often appeared divided and indecisive, with many votes split along racial lines.

“As with any leadership change, there are people jockeying for position, and their voting patterns might not be as predictable,” said the Rev. Michael Bell, a longtime advocate of quality education for minority students. “The board is jelling, but there’s a lot of freewheeling going on.”

The board consists of three Hispanics, two blacks, and four whites, a proportion at odds with the district’s mix of 48 percent Hispanic, 30 percent African-American, and 20 percent white students. After Manny’s widow Lynne defeated T.A. Sims in a September run-off election for the unexpired portion of her husband’s term, the board spent five months debating a proposal that would have changed its composition and the manner in which its president is elected.

Minority members wanted to increase the number of districts and have the president elected by the trustees, rather than voters. Fort Worth is the only school district in Texas where voters choose their board president directly. Some white community members say they voted for Lynne Manny mainly because they knew she favored maintaining the status quo on that issue.

At a February board meeting, a succession of speakers from the black community denounced “the downtown white power elite” and decried the board’s “playing the race card” in its selection of a president. One speaker called Lynne Manny “a Betty Crocker housewife,” and trustees and speakers took turns accusing each other of rudeness.

When the board defeated the measure by a 5-4 vote, Fort Worth’s State Rep. Glenn Lewis introduced the same proposal as a bill in the Texas Legislature, with the intent of wresting control of the district from the “downtown Anglo establishment.” The bill passed the House on April 7 and currently awaits consideration by the Senate education committee.

Trustee Elaine Klos said the current board’s apparent lack of cohesion is actually a sign that its members are better informed on issues than they were during Gary Manny’s presidency. She acknowledged that, today, “there’s less trust in the administration.” Klos said that when she first joined the board in 1996, it was difficult to get detailed information from Manny or the administration on issues under discussion. “If you asked, you could get information, after some delays,” she said. “But you don’t know what you don’t know.” She said the current trustees agree that an orientation program is needed for newly elected members, “so they’ll know what questions to ask.”

But while trustees are having an easier time getting information, that’s not always the case for ordinary community members. “The board has become very detached from its constituents,” said one parent. Board meetings usually start at 5:30 p.m., a time when most people are still feeding their families or on the way home from their jobs. While the board’s practice of posting meeting agendas on a bulletin board in the central office complies with the letter of the state’s Open Meetings Law, many citizens are unable to visit the office during business hours. Agendas are usually posted on the district’s web site only after the meetings have already taken place.

Bell is guardedly optimistic, though. “After several years of active protest, there seems to be a greater willingness [by the board and administration] to listen and respond to concerns from the African-American and Hispanic communities,” he said.

The school dropout problem remains the Fort Worth district’s Achilles heel. The state education agency’s figures show the Fort Worth district’s 2000-2001 dropout rate at 2.8 percent — down from 4.3 percent two years earlier, but still around twice the rate for the “peer districts” (Austin, Dallas, El Paso, and Houston) compared in the comptroller’s report.

A contributor to the inaccurate reporting that has plagued Fort Worth is Texas’ method for counting school dropouts, which relies on a confusing and cumbersome system of “leaver codes” to indicate the reasons for a student’s leaving school. Worse, the state’s method doesn’t count several categories of departing students that are considered dropouts by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Last summer, the federal government denied dropout reduction funds to all applying Texas districts because their data didn’t conform to federal standards. In January, the state comptroller recommended that Texas adopt the federal standards for counting dropouts.

The federal standard relies on “longitudinal completion” or graduation rates, based on the number of students who start ninth grade and go on to graduate from high school, to determine dropout percentages. Starting in 2004, the state’s public school accountability system will use longitudinal high school completion as its measure of dropout rates. By the new standard, the high-school dropout rate for Fort Worth’s graduating classes of 1999 through 2001 was consistent at around 17 percent — more than twice the state average, and 5 to 10 percentage points higher than any of the peer districts except Houston.

In January 2000, the Fort Worth school district inaugurated the Comprehensive Truancy Intervention Program in cooperation with the city, Tarrant County, and various social service agencies. Parents of students with five or more unexcused absences were required to attend Monday night truancy meetings at Billingsley Field House where an assistant district attorney reminded them of the state’s school attendance laws (under which both truant students and their parents can be charged with Class C misdemeanors), and social service agencies offered assistance. After April 2001, further absences were referred to the city’s new truancy court. The result: attendance increases of 1.8 percent in high schools, 1 percent in middle schools, and .6 percent in elementary schools.

In August 2001, TCU chancellor Michael Ferrari was tapped to head a blue-ribbon commission to implement a citywide “stay-in-school” campaign. The campaign included a number of initiatives. Computer labs in all 13 high schools and the alternative schools now allow students to make up missed credits they need to graduate. Success High School offers night classes for students who cannot attend classes during the day because they have jobs or children. But the school was redesignated from an alternative school to a regular one after its own dropout problems caused six other schools to have their ratings lowered.

Since studies showed the presence of a caring adult was a key factor in influencing students to stay in school, district officials decided to focus dropout prevention efforts in this area. Fort Worth received a grant of $183,000 a year for three years from the U.S. Department of Education to fund a mentoring program for middle-school students. Over 30 organizations agreed to provide mentors.

But some in the minority communities maintain that mentoring alone is not enough without heightened cultural sensitivity among teachers. “You can’t teach people from a culture you can’t understand,” said Rickie Clark, CEO of DA Village Comprehensive Youth Development Center in Stop Six. “Hip-hop culture is starting to permeate our society, yet teachers look at students who wear baggy pants and assume they’re not smart.”

Activist leader Bell concurred. “There are still problems as far as teachers not being able to distinguish between troubled kids and others because of cultural differences.” Bell believes that this inability accounts for a disproportionate number of African-American students being referred to alternative schools. Without sensitivity to cultural issues, he said, the district’s dropout prevention efforts are like “a band-aid on cancer.”

The district did not respond to requests from the Fort Worth Weekly for current information on the effectiveness of its anti-truancy and mentoring programs.

What will it take to restore public trust in the Fort Worth school district? In a word, leadership — of a kind strong enough to communicate openly, to forge a consensus among the races, and to face up to Tocco and the problems that are worrying parents, teachers, and others.

Help from the city could be on the way. Mayor-elect Mike Moncrief has said he wants a closer relationship between the city council and the school board — a connection that was strained under Kay Granger and hands-off under Kenneth Barr.

With four of the eight trustee seats — those of trustees Rose Herrera, Sims, Klos, and Rangel — as well as the presidency up for grabs, the 2004 school board election will be key. In the 2002 run-off election, only 10,000 out of 239,000 registered voters bothered to show up. Tocco’s contract expires in December 2004. It remains to be seen whether the chorus of voices speaking out against the current administration will translate talk into action.

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