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Published in Print: July 12, 2000, as Rojas Offers To Quit; Dallas Board Fires Him

Rojas Offers To Quit; Dallas Board Fires Him

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Eleven months of contentious relations between Dallas Superintendent Waldemar "Bill" Rojas and the city's school board came to a head last week when the board voted to fire the embattled schools chief following a three-hour closed session.

In the 7-1 vote, the trustees invoked a "bad rapport" provision of Mr. Rojas' contract, which required him to make an effort to get along with the board. He will receive $90,000 in severance pay.

"Dr. Rojas is an extremely talented individual," board President Roxan Staff said in an interview shortly after the July 5 meeting. "It's a disappointment that the working relationship between Dr. Rojas and the board didn't work well."

But Dallas may not be through with the former San Francisco schools chief altogether. Mr. Rojas, who had offered to resign late last month, has said he plans to sue the board for what he considers the wrongful termination of his contract.

Mr. Rojas could not be reached for comment last week. But speaking from New York, where he was on vacation, he told The Dallas Morning News that his firing was "vindictive behavior by a group of micromanagers who have been so accustomed to having their way."

The board moved quickly to fill the leadership void by naming Associate Superintendent Robert Lee Payton, a former teacher, as the interim superintendent while a committee searches for a permanent replacement. Mr. Lee is a 35-year veteran of the 162,000-student system. He is expected to serve for up to four months.

Strained Relations

Last week's move had been widely expected in Dallas, which has a long history of rancor between the school board and top district administrators.

Relations between Mr. Rojas, had been strained almost since he arrived from San Francisco last August, after the Dallas board chose him as a replacement for Yvonne Gonzalez, who pleaded guilty in 1997 to charges of misusing district funds.

Mr. Rojas' problems began quickly. Within weeks, he was forced to apologize publicly for remarks that were perceived as insensitive by representatives of the city's American Indian community. Two board members also called for his resignation last year after he accused them of inappropriately trying to influence his decisions.

In a sign that rapport was improving, Mr. Rojas successfully lobbied the board in November to ratify a deal that will allow Edison Schools Inc., the for-profit school management company, to run six Dallas schools beginning this fall.

Last winter, however, trustees raised questions about his staffing policies and business and personal expenses. Efforts to repair the damage and to improve communications between Mr. Rojas and the board failed, and the superintendent offered to resign in a biting letter to the trustees last month.

"In this instance, the disruption and micromanagement will clearly continue to impede the progress necessary," he wrote in the letter. "The choices are simple: Either the board of education resigns, or the general superintendent resigns."

By last week, the question had become not whether the board would release Mr. Rojas, but when.

After years of turmoil in the district's leadership, many civic leaders in Dallas are calling for an end. Some business leaders are pushing the board to name a permanent replacement within 30 days, a deadline that is exceedingly short by normal standards.

"We need a superintendent who can walk the walk," said Ruth Houston, the past president of the Dallas Council of PTAs. "We need someone who will pull the community together and help us focus on children."

Vol. 19, Issue 42, Page 3

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