"Change the channel."
That’s the advice high-paid Grand Prairie ISD Superintendent Susan Hull gave recently about news reports concerning her district’s leadership failings.
I’m not kidding.
Speaking at an education conference at Southern Methodist University in June, Hull said the following about working with her school board members:
"You may have seen me on the news lately. And if you have, change the channel. But that is a great example of what can happen with one very disruptive board member. So it’s a constant challenge…"
Grand Prairie ISD Superintendent Susan Hull told an education leadership conference organized by The Holdsworth Center in June that she has a disruptive board member whose questions lead to negative news reports. "Change the channel,." she told the gathering.
Attention GPISD taxpayers: DO NOT CHANGE THE CHANNEL.
On the contrary, let’s dial in.
The Watchdog attended a GPISD board meeting the other night, and in a bit, I’ll tell you what I saw – or more accurately didn’t see.
Team of Eight
Ongoing financial issues in Grand Prairie ISD are a perfect example of the failure of the Texas Team of Eight concept. That’s the state education rule that school boards must undergo at least three hours of team training each year to help them get along better.
The Team of Eight comprises seven board members found on most school boards plus the superintendent. The idea is that working together as one team will enhance the educational experience of the students.
Oh, if only that were true.
What you get instead in most school districts are a puppet master (the superintendent) and the puppets.
A dissident board member who raises too many issues, asks too many questions in public and dares to swim against the prevailing current is labeled a malcontent or as Hull put it, "one very disruptive board member."
Who is this disrupter?
If you visit the GPISD web page and look at the current board photograph, Steve Pryor is shown as president.
(Courtesy photo/GPISD website)
But he’s not president anymore.
Before his term expired, he was bounced from the top job in February after another board member complained that Pryor got an early draft of an investigative report on the district’s purchasing practices – but he didn’t share it.
Pryor has said he believes he was toppled as president because he wanted to make the full report public. Instead, a few months later, the district released only eight pages of what is said to be a 40-page report.
In the official photo, though, which someone forgot to update, Pryor is still listed as president.
In real life, he’s Public Enemy #1 in that board room.
A school board president who goes rogue (asks too many questions and seeks transparency) is extremely rare in Texas. Groupthink on school boards can overwhelm democratic notions.
If ever taxpayers needed "one very disruptive school board member" to disrupt and ask questions, it’s the folks who pay the bills in GPISD.
So many mystifying questions:
Why didn’t the Team of Eight catch an early clue that their chief financial officer was using an armored truck to steal $600,000 in cash from the district’s bank account? She’s now in prison on a 37-month sentence.
Why did the school board agree to pay Superintendent Hull a $402,000 annual salary this year plus a $150,000 bonus for investment purposes which she’ll receive at the end of the current school year — a total of $552,000.
By comparison, a journalist pal of mine in New York City points out in a tweet that "the NYC Schools Chancellor oversees a system of 950,000 students, 1,800 schools – and gets paid $353,000." (GPISD has almost 30,000 students on 40 campuses.)
The former home of Grand Prairie ISD Superintendent Susan Hull in Grand Prairie. The district bought the property for almost $700,000 and spent another $160,000 in renovations without getting board approval.. She recently moved out.
Why didn’t the board get a chance to approve $160,000 in renovations to the house, especially when the original renovation budget was only $80,000?
Why does the district need, on top of one of the highest-paid superintendents in the land, a dozen more deputy, assistant and area superintendents who earn between $160,000 and $220,000 a year?
Grand Prairie ISD superintendent Susan Hull speaks to students.
Why are annual raises for these top players so much higher than the smaller raises given to teachers each year?
And my latest question: Why is the district taking so long to clean up its purchasing mess?
That’s the question I came away with the other night after watching the board struggle to update its purchasing policy.
The Grand Prairie ISD school board met in a public workshop on Sept. 25, 2018 to try to upgrade its purchasing policy.
The final purchasing report – the edited version – was given to the full board in late May.
The other night, 123 days later, the board held a workshop to talk about an upgrade of its purchasing policies to ensure accountability and transparency.
That’s called slow walking towards a problem solution.
What’s the hang-up? The board is concerned, members said, that any spending policy it tries to adopt will confuse staff and make it difficult to purchase items, especially when they are needed right away.
Certainly, that’s a valid concern. The thing is, there are around 1,100 school districts in Texas. Since state law recommends that any purchase above $50,000 go to the board for approval, I’m sure most districts use computer software to track purchases in real time.
How does GPISD’s accounting department keep tabs?
The district keeps tracks of vendors closing in on the $50,000 mark using a hand-created spread sheet.
Hand-created? As opposed to using modern software that does this for you? Hey GPISD accounting department: 1988 is calling.
If I were on that school board, I would have rolled up my sleeves and hit this issue hard right away. Another four months – one third of a year – has passed, and the issue is still not resolved.
Considering that school taxes represent the majority of a homeowner’s property tax bill, and considering that property tax increases are a top issue across Texas, this slow walk to reform shows how dangerous groupthink can be in a Team of Eight.
(Dave Lieber/Staff photo)
Oops. I mean seven because there is "one very disruptive board member" who keeps drawing attention away from the good works of the students by trying to shine a light on the wasteful practices of the adult leaders.
So what’s the last thing GPISD taxpayers should do?
Ignore the superintendent’s advice.
Don’t change the channel.
More education stories by The Watchdog
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Watchdog Dave Lieber of The Dallas Morning News is the leader of Watchdog Nation, which shows Americans how to stand up for themselves and become super consumers.