Behind the Cameras: The Fall of Dallas County Schools

In July, Dallas County Schools will be shut down forever. In November 2017 voters acted swiftly to close the 172-year-old agency after more than 100 reports from NBC 5 Investigates revealed corruption and staggering financial mismanagement that cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

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DCS officials signed risky contracts to outfit school buses in 12 local school districts with exterior cameras that would record drivers ignoring the bus’s safety “Stop” arm. The offenders would then be ticketed and the agency would profit. The plan, however, didn’t work.

The stories highlighted below reveal how money that was supposed to keep children safe wound up in the pockets of a public official and cost hundreds of people their jobs.

The Characters
Rick Sorrells, former DCS superintendent forced to retire in 2017 amidst questions about the finances at DCS. In April 2018, Sorrells pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud and admitted to receiving more than $3 million in bribes and kickbacks in exchange for entering into contracts for $70 million in school bus camera equipment. He’s expected to be sentenced in August.

Larry Duncan, former president of the DCS Board and a former Dallas City Council member. He stepped down from his position as president of board for Dallas County Schools on May 17, 2017 amid ongoing investigations into a multi-million budget gap, the agency’s controversial stop-arm camera program and a sale-leaseback land deal that will cost taxpayers millions.

Robert Leonard, CEO of Force Multiplier Solutions, a company that has collected tens of millions of dollars from DCS contracts related to a school bus safety camera program. Leonard’s company was founded in Louisiana and later moved its headquarters to Dallas. Despite guilty pleas from Swartwood and Sorrells, Leonard insists he’s done nothing wrong and blames DCS for mismanagement.

Slater Swartwood Sr., a Louisiana real estate consultant involved in a $25 million land deal at DCS. Robert Leonard has described Swartwood as his “real estate consultant for over 40 years.” Swartwood, of New Orleans, admitted to federal investigators he funneled millions of dollars in bribes to a top DCS official — money that the government says came from the camera company, which had millions of dollars in contracts with DCS.

The key players are now-former DCS Superintendent Rick Sorrells, now-former DCS board president Larry Duncan, Robert Leonard, the CEO of Force Multipier Solutions who supplied the cameras, and the man Leonard describes as his personal real estate consultant, Slater Swartwood Sr.

Nearly five years ago, while under the direction of Sorrells, DCS began spending millions on cameras that were to be installed inside and outside every bus in DCS’ fleet – including the stop-arm cameras mounted to the outside of the buses. The agency then used taxpayer money to launch a partnership with the camera provider to give the cameras to other districts for a cut of the ticket revenue.

Sorrells promised the program would make enough money to cover the cost of the cameras, but by 2014 DCS was already millions of dollars in debt and was borrowing from it’s own general fund to cover the losses on the program. DCS had trouble convincing other large cities to join the program and drivers weren’t paying their tickets. Still, in a 2014 interview, Sorrells made a bold promise.

Photo credit: NBC 5 News

NBC 5 Investigates did come back and by 2017 things were even worse. DCS had a $42 million budget shortfall and were in danger of being unable to pay their bills. The agency incurred layoffs and board members accused the superintendent of keeping them in the dark about the finances.

As Sorrells continued to dodge interview requests from NBC 5 Investigates, State Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) called for his resignation.

Days later, Sorrells was forced to step down. At about the same time, NBC 5 Investigates discovered records showing in 2015 the agency quietly sold off four bus lots in what’s called a sale-leaseback deal. The deal gave DCS about $25 million in quick cash, but ultimately saddled them (taxpayers) with $47 million in lease payments over the next 20 years.

Information Courtesy of By Scott Friedman Published at 4:05 AM CDT on Jun 16, 2018 | Updated at 4:29 PM CDT on Jun 16, 2018

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