Rojas To Leave S.F. District for Top Dallas Job

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The Dallas school board has offered its top job to Waldemar "Bill" Rojas, the peppery San Francisco superintendent whose efforts to resuscitate failing schools have attracted national attention.

The often-divided Dallas board voted unanimously in favor of Mr. Rojas late on April 22, the same day its nine members interviewed him for the first time. They plan to make him a formal offer later this month, after a state-required waiting period for background checks is up. The 54-year-old administrator has indicated that he'll take the job.

"It's a very terrific opportunity," Mr. Rojas said last week, noting that most of Dallas' 160,000 students are Hispanic or African-American, the two groups he has primarily served during most of his 31 years in education.

In Dallas, Mr. Rojas would be stepping into a troubled district whose governance and administration have been marred by divisive politics and corruption.

He is to replace James Hughey, a veteran Dallas administrator who took over as interim superintendent 18 months ago after then-Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez left office in the midst of a scandal. Ms. Gonzalez, the first Hispanic to head the district, was later convicted of misusing district money to buy furniture for her bedroom and her office. ("Scandal, Lawsuits Hound a Divided Dallas Board," Oct. 29, 1997.)

Tiresome Politics

Mr. Rojas's planned move comes after several months of controversy in the 62,000-student San Francisco district, much of it centered around the superintendent. Two state lawmakers had accused the outspoken administrator of reckless fiscal management, and a $7.7 million building bought by the district in November became something of an embarrassment when its financing and plans for its use proved incomplete.

Even six years of rising test scores--a record that has brought Mr. Rojas national recognition--came in for questioning. But in an interview last week, Mr. Rojas, who took over the San Francisco schools seven years ago, portrayed the troubles as the usual rough-and-tumble of urban politics and stressed that Dallas was the challenge he had been looking for.

But the superintendent acknowledged that he had grown weary of California politics.

The district has been lobbying the legislature this year for some $18 million in additional aid that Mr. Rojas said rightfully belongs to the San Francisco schools.

"Adults are really benefiting from the [booming] economy," he said, "but the recession is still going on in how this state funds its kids. I haven't been able to change that."

Mr. Rojas added that he was especially pleased to be stepping into the Dallas job now. "I don't like the fact that the last Latino superintendent ended up in a position of demise," he said. "It was time for some of us to step in and do something about that."

Mr. Rojas' parents were born in Puerto Rico. He was born and grew up in the South Bronx neighborhood of New York City.

School officials in Dallas have said Mr. Rojas could be paid a salary and benefits worth up to $275,000 annually. In San Francisco he earns $185,000 a year plus a 5 percent annuity.

'A Match'

His pending appointment comes after a nationwide search begun by the Dallas board in January. That search produced several candidates, but board members could not agree on any.

Dallas board members pointed to Mr. Rojas' experience as an administrator and his record in San Francisco, where he is credited with raising the school-completion rate, increasing graduation requirements, lengthening the school day, and lowering class sizes. "He has the experience and the track record; it really was the match," Dallas board member Kathleen Leos said.

Ms. Leos and board member Lois Parrott said they were not much disturbed by criticism of Mr. Rojas' leadership style by some in San Francisco--including two board members and the head of the teachers' union. He has been called an autocratic, top-down manager.

The board members said that criticism was to be expected in the wake of tough decisions, such as the ones Mr. Rojas made when he dismissed the staffs of nearly a dozen schools in a process known as reconstitution.

Ready for 'Stability'

An official of Dallas' largest teachers union agreed, joining a chorus of school and community leaders hopeful about Mr. Rojas' coming tenure.

"We're ready for some stability and some vision," said Aimee Bolender, a vice president of the Alliance of Dallas Educators/AFT, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "We think the incoming superintendent has that potential. It's like finally having a parent at home."

Ms. Bolender said she was also relatively unperturbed by press reports last week noting that Mr. Rojas had twice been arrested on charges of drunken driving, in 1984 and 1990. Mr. Rojas has maintained he was not drunk on either occasion--though he said he erred in not taking a breath-analysis test in 1984--and said he does not have a drinking problem. Charges in the second incident were dismissed after he completed an alcohol-rehabilitation program.

But Dallas board members said district lawyers would be looking closely into the incidents during the next two weeks. By law, the board cannot formally offer Mr. Rojas the job before May 13, the end of a 21-day period set aside for background checks.

In San Francisco, board members said that they planned to name an interim leader this week, and that they expected Mr. Rojas to leave by no later than the end of July. The board there plans to look at candidates within the district as well as nationally, according to local news accounts.

Mayor Willie Brown has already urged the board to interview New York City Schools Chancellor Rudolph F. Crew. A spokeswoman for the chancellor said last week that Mr. Crew didn't want the job, though he was flattered by the interest, according to press reports.

Vol. 18, Issue 34, Page 3

Published in Print: May 5, 1999, as Rojas To Leave S.F. District for Top Dallas Job
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