Former DCS Budget Manager Says She’s Not Responsible for Financial Mess

She claims DCS superintendent kept spending millions, against her advice and in the face of mounting debt

The woman who used to manage the finances at Dallas County Schools is speaking out, saying she's not responsible for the financial crisis at the school bus agency.

Denise Hickman, who spoke exclusively to NBC 5 Investigates, was pushed out of DCS in November after she was accused of misusing taxpayer money to pay traffic tickets for school bus drivers who ran red lights.

She says she's not to blame for the ticket mess or budget crisis that now threatens to shut down the agency whose leaders admitted at a board meeting this week is in danger of running out of money.

Instead, Hickman points to DCS Superintendent Rick Sorrells, who she says kept spending millions, against her advice and in the face of mounting debt.

"No, I am not to blame for the financial problems at Dallas County Schools," said Hickman.

Hickman had a front-row seat to the early stages of the crisis that could bring down DCS, which serves as the bus contractor for the Aledo, Carrollton/Farmers Branch, Cedar Hill, Coppell, DeSoto, Dallas, Highland Park, Irving, Lancaster, Richardson, Weatherford and White Settlement independent school districts.

It's a situation Hickman never imagined when she arrived in 2007 to work in accounting.

Back then, she says the agency had millions in the bank and few financial worries.

"We had no debt. There was no debt in the 150 years that Dallas County Schools had been around, until the camera program," said Hickman.

In 2012, DCS began putting cameras on the buses in Dallas County to ticket drivers who run past the school bus stop arms.

But money from tickets did not come in as fast as expected. Drivers often didn't pay the citations, and some cities refused to pass local laws allowing DCS to write tickets.

Still, DCS bought cameras for each of the nearly 2,000 buses in the fleet.

"If Dallas County Schools had not done this camera program, Dallas County Schools would be fine financially," said Hickman.

Hickman says the problems intensified when Sorrells and the agency's board expanded the camera program outside Dallas County.

DCS would buy cameras and give them to school districts statewide for free in exchange for ticket revenue.

In 2015, Hickman was promoted to lead the business office and says she began asking more questions.

She made a visit to a warehouse at the DCS Kleberg Service Center where she says she became more concerned.

"I was amazed to see a room stacked to the ceiling full of cameras and I'm signing checks for new cameras," said Hickman.

Hickman says by October 2015, she warned Sorrells the agency was running out of money.

DCS was already transferring money from the agency's general fund to cover losses on the camera program.

"The stop-arm camera program is not supporting itself. It's being supported by taxpayer money," said Hickman.

But Hickman says Sorrells continued to push forward on more spending, including a $30 million order for new buses.

This week, DCS board members questioned Sorrells about why they were not given more information on the agency's debt before making that multimillion-dollar bus deal.

"In your opinion did we have enough information presented to us to make an informed decision?" asked DCS board member Gloria Levario.

"Looking back, no," Sorrells responded.

Sorrells said DCS could not cancel the bus contract or they might have faced a lawsuit from the bus vendor. As for why the board did not get more information on financial problems sooner, Sorrells implied Hickman kept information from him.

"We have determined that that person who did the budget previously held everything very tightly and closely to herself," Sorrells said during Tuesday's DCS board meeting.

Hickman denies that charge.

In November 2016, Hickman was demoted and later fired from the agency after NBC 5 Investigates reported DCS used more than $80,000 of taxpayer money to pay for traffic tickets for bus drivers who ran red lights.

Hickman says she only paid the tickets to avoid DCS having to pay late fees. She says it was the job of others to track down the drivers, discipline them and collect the money to repay DCS.

"I had nothing to do with the drivers not paying their tickets. I was not their supervisor," said Hickman.

Hickman hired attorney Steve Kardell who says DCS has already settled what he calls a whistleblower claim.

He says DCS reinstated Hickman and allowed her to retire.

"She is not a disgruntled ex-employee. In fact, all of her issues have been resolved satisfactorily," said Kardell.

Hickman says she's speaking out because DCS has continued to suggest she's responsible for the financial crisis.

She argues she was only paying the bills at the direction of the man in charge and was not the one who approved the deals.

"Dr. Sorrells is making those agreements. Dr. Sorrells is signing off on all of those contracts," said Hickman. "He would have to say why he decided to get into that debt knowing the amount of money the cameras were generating and knowing the amount of money the cameras weren't generating."

Sorrells did not respond to detailed questions NBC 5 Investigates sent him about Hickman's claims. Instead, a public relations firm hired by DCS sent a statement, saying, "Due to a non-disparagement agreement that binds both parties, as much as we would like to discuss the facts and questions in this situation, we just can't."

For months, Sorrells has declined to speak to NBC 5 Investigates on camera.

DCS released a copy of Hickman’s termination letter Thursday evening.

It says, Hickman "failed to perform her job duties," and there were "significant issues with her management of personnel and operations."

Hickman's attorney says he and his client believe those issues were manufactured to support a strategy to pin the problems on her.

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