Metropolis: Wednesday, March 27, 2003
In the Trenches against Tocco

A general is leading guerrilla warfare against Fort Worth schools leadership.


On the surface, Nathan Vail doesn’t seem like someone you’d expect to take an active interest in the management of the Fort Worth Independent School District. His own sons were grown long before he and his wife moved to Fort Worth 12 years ago. But over the past six months, the retired brigadier general has become a focal point for public outrage with schools Superintendent Thomas Tocco. As spokesperson for Citizens for Truth About Area Schools (he refers to the group as TAAS — same initials as Texas’ state-mandated testing system), he’s spearheading a drive to fire Tocco, in order “to restore fiscal responsibility to the FWISD administration.”

Since February, the group has been circulating a petition calling for the superintendent’s removal. Group members said they currently have 600 signatures, with dozens of copies of the petition in circulation. They hope to have 3,000 signatures by mid-April. Then, Vail said, they plan to appear before the board “with petition in hand and several hundred supporters.”

Their immediate goal is to oust Tocco or encourage the trustees to take advantage of a clause in the superintendent’s contract that would allow the board to demote him to a lesser position and cut his pay by 25 percent. In the long run, they hope to educate the public, influence the outcome of the 2004 school board election, and replace Lynne Manny as board president. “The culture [within the district] won’t change until the leadership changes,” Vail said.

The group consists of a brain trust of six, including former school board candidate Jeff Menges, who meet regularly to plan, plus 25 to 30 others who help distribute copies of the petition. Several are school employees or employees’ relatives who asked not to be named, fearing retribution by the administration. “There are copies of the petition circulating all over the city, in every trustee’s district,” said one group member.

In an interview at his Ridglea home, Vail said that Tocco “inherited a system with total accountability” in 1994. “Under his leadership, it’s evolved into a quagmire. He says he accepts full responsibility and is taking steps to rectify the situation. But can we really rely on the man who wrecked the system to fix it?” Tocco did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Vail’s group has similar doubts about board president Manny’s leadership. “The board is severely fragmented, and [Manny] has no idea how to achieve the cohesion that is needed to get the district back on track,” he said. When he spoke to her in January to express the group’s concerns, Vail said, Manny told him that, “The board is 100 percent behind the superintendent. He’s not going anywhere until you get five [trustees’] votes.” Vail admits the group is far from achieving that goal. “There are three board members I think are on our frequency and five I’m assured are not, including some who are vocally opposed [to Tocco],” he said.

Manny was dismissive of the group and its initiative, which she said would cost the district a lot of state dollars. Under the Texas Education Code, when a district makes severance payments to a superintendent, its state funding is reduced by the amount of the severance that exceeds one year’s salary and benefits. “These are ridiculous suggestions that I’m not willing to entertain,” she said. “[Tocco]’s the superintendent through December 2004.”

Regarding her own position on the board, Manny said, “I don’t get scared by people threatening me, and I’m not a quitter. [Vail] should run instead of hollering and yelling. The only place you make change is on the board.”

Vail entered the dialogue over mismanagement in the school district last October with a letter in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Tocco is obviously not equal to the task of managing a large, complex organization,” he wrote. “This is a serious and sobering violation of the public trust.” No sooner did the letter appear, he said, than he began hearing from similarly dissatisfied people across the district, including a number of current or former district employees and their relatives. Their message: “You don’t know how bad it really is.” The letter also got the attention of district administrators and trustees. In November, Vail met with deputy superintendent Pat Linares, chief financial officer Steve Fortenberry, and trustees Jesse Martinez and Judy Needham to express some of his concerns.

Board members started an evaluation of Tocco in December, but delayed it in order to take into consideration a January report by an external auditors that identified $4.8 million in construction overcharges on district projects. To date, they have not completed the superintendent’s review.

“The external auditors only looked at five of 21 major contracts,” said Vail. “If you extrapolate from their findings, there could be another $17 million to $18 million in overcharges that haven’t been identified.” The board had planned to review the audit findings when they met on March 18, but postponed the discussion because all the trustees were not present at the meeting. With trustee Juan Rangel recovering from a stroke he suffered last week, their discussion could be delayed even further.

Vail is equally vexed by trustees’ failure to respond promptly to the findings of a May 2001 audit of the district by State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. On March 18, Strayhorn said that earlier implementation of her recommendations could have prevented the overcharges identified by the audit. Vail said he was “astounded” that the board did not act sooner. Meanwhile, the superintendent received an automatic pay raise on Jan. 1. The trustees’ inaction, according to Vail, has given Tocco “a free pass.”

Vail said he started paying attention to school district management after noticing an increase in his property taxes. “I’m a taxpayer, and I’m upset my money is being wasted,” he said. “More importantly, monies that should be going to education are being siphoned off due to mismanagement.”

That critique is based partly on Vail’s own considerable experience in management. A retired U.S. Army brigadier general with 31 years of service, he served two tours in Vietnam and formerly directed the leadership studies department of the Army’s Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga. After retiring from the Army, he operated a management consulting firm and ran a division of General Dynamics.

In recent weeks, Vail has stepped up the campaign, trying to convince not only the school board but city council members and business leaders that school district mismanagement could affect the city’s overall image and economic health. He is undaunted by the general lack of response from city honchos.

“We’re not going away,” he said.

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