Metropolis: Wednesday, April 25, 2002
Fresh air or empty wind?

School trustee candidates divide clearly on status quo versus change.


“It’s time to put the public back in public schools.” — Debby Stein.

“We’re doing a good job, there’s no need for change.”— Jean McClung

Those two disparate views pretty much define the issues in the Fort Worth school district’s May 4 election. In all three races, the choices seem to be clear. Happy with the status quo? Vote for one of three incumbents who for the most part march in step with Superintendent Tom Tocco. Unhappy? There are five challengers to choose from who aren’t shy about calling Tocco a loose cannon who has brought scandal and increased dissension to the district, aided by trustees who challengers say are out of touch with parents, students, and employees.

“Parents should be treated like prized customers, but we are ignored too often by this board,” said Connie Terrazas, who is running against McClung in District 2. Terrazas, a Care Team employee with American Airlines, spent three weeks assigned to the Pentagon to help victims’ families after Sept. 11. She was a secretary in the school district for 17 years; her two children are recent FWISD graduates.

Jeff Menges has a son in sixth grade and is marketing director for Schumacker & Co.; he’s challenging Jesse Martinez in District 6, as is Morris Drumm, director of Pinnacle charter school. Drumm could not be reached for comment.

“There’s a huge communication gap,” Menges said, “created by a board that’s lifted itself to a lofty level.”

Stein and Richard Gwodz are running against Judy Needham for the District 5 spot. Stein, a community volunteer, has two sons in FWISD schools. She says it’s time for more parents of current students to be on the board. (Only one member, Juan Rangel, still has a child in school in the district, although most board members’ children are FWISD graduates.)

“Who better than parents to make policy for the schools?” Stein said. “We are there every day; we know what is needed to make the Fort Worth schools the best they can be.” Needham, who has raised $21,000 for her campaign, did not return phone calls or e-mails from Fort Worth Weekly. (The only other candidate who has raised enough money to be required to report it under state law is Jeff Menges, with $800 in contributions.)

Gwodz, a musician and former district employee, is running, he said, “to prevent other employees from suffering from what happened to me.” Gwodz said he was wrongfully fired three years ago from his job in the media department and was denied a due-process appeal before the board. Board members have consistently denied his claims of unfair treatment.

McClung, a 12-year board member, said it might be tough for incumbents to retain their seats “because there’s no other election, and that always means low voter turnout.” So far, she said, her campaign has consisted of putting out a few signs and talking to community groups.

Stein, Terrazas, and Menges, who are mounting the most aggressive challenger campaigns, said they hope the election will be tough on incumbents — but for reasons more substantive than turnout.

All three cite a litany of deep-seated district problems that Stein said shows a “pattern of disregard for the law.” They said the board has closed its collective eyes to the gravity of scandals such as the ongoing FBI investigation of the district’s construction bidding process, underreporting of dropout rates, and questionable management practices cited by the state comptroller’s office following a detailed audit of the district.

“And those are just the big ones,” Stein said.

Stein, in her second race for a board position (she lost a bid two years ago to replace the late Gary Manny as board president), also points to systemic problems that injure students’ chances to learn, such as teachers unskilled in the subjects they teach — “Spanish teachers are teaching world history, arts teachers are teaching sociology. ... This isn’t fair to the children or the teachers.”

Menges is running, he said, because Martinez “doesn’t listen to his constituents.” Martinez, he said, won’t return parents’ calls and ignores them if they come before the board. (Martinez didn’t return calls or e-mails from Fort Worth Weekly.) Menges also chided incumbents for their initial dismissal of the FBI investigation as unimportant. “That’s not leadership,” he said.

For Terrazas, the big issue is the dropout rate and a $400 million building program that doesn’t include any new high schools. “What are they thinking ... that there won’t be any need because of all the dropouts?” she asked.

“The dropout rate is too high,” she said, but worse, “it’s not being reported accurately by the district.” Terrazas said the rate is as high as 50 percent in some high schools but that the district’s formula puts it at 2.2 percent. The class of 2000, she said, graduated 3,291 students, although 6,539 entered the district’s high schools three years earlier. “Where are those other 3,000-plus students? We don’t know.”

Giving kids or parents tickets for truancy won’t get them back in school, she said. “We need to start looking at those with the most potential to drop out, mostly Hispanic and black students in the early elementary grades, and find out how we’re failing them,” she said. “We need to bring in new ideas ... and help them where they need help.”

McClung says the district’s approach isn’t “all punitive,” citing the fact that the municipal court judge who hears truancy cases often brings in social workers to help the “fringe kids who can go either way.” Plus, she said, there’s a proposal before the board for a program to get dropouts back in school

Terrazas, Stein, and Menges all refer to State Comptroller Carole Rylander’s May 2001 audit report as a major reason to turn out incumbent board members. That report has yet to be addressed by the full board, McClung said, “but we’re looking at it a little bit at a time.”

The most egregious unaddressed issue, the challengers said, is the district’s refusal to allow the Fort Worth Health Department to inspect its cafeteria kitchens for health and safety violations, a clear violation of federal law, according to Rylander.

“Would any parent take their child into [a restaurant] if they thought it was barring health inspectors from its kitchens?” Menges said. “No. But we’re endangering our children day in and day out by sending them to eat at public schools that are doing just that.”

McClung, the only incumbent who responded to Fort Worth Weekly’s request for an interview, blamed the lack of inspections on the city health department. “The city’s not doing its job,” she said. “If it’s in their ordinance, then they ought to come in and do it.” City health officials have said they cannot go into the public schools because the administration has refused to give them access.

McClung isn’t worried about health problems. “We hire the best people to run the cafeterias. They know what they’re doing.” She said there have been no outbreaks of food poisoning in the district traced to dirty kitchens.

“So, do we have to wait for our kids to get seriously ill,” Menges asked, “before we do something to prevent it?”

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