Rojas Faces Key Vote in Dallas Over Edison

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Less than four months into his tenure as Dallas superintendent, Waldemar "Bill" Rojas has become embroiled in the sort of internecine struggles that have long plagued the 162,000-student district.

Last month, the board rejected the former San Francisco schools chief’s plan to hire Edison Schools Inc. to run as many as 11 Dallas schools. Now, his grip over the district’s management may hinge on whether he can reverse that 5-3 vote when the board meets this week.

There are other troubles, too. A board member asked Mr. Rojas to resign this month after a press briefing in which the schools chief allegedly ridiculed two board members.

Last week, a leading Latino activist threatened to disrupt board meetings if Mr. Rojas did not reach out more to minority groups.

The 54-year-old superintendent, who rarely backed down from a fight as the leader of the San Francisco schools from 1992 until his departure this year, is unrepentant.

"The school system has to decide if it wants the old business as usual or a new day and time in Dallas," Mr. Rojas said last week. "The old way gave them seven years of no progress."

The Dallas board will get another shot at showing the city where it stands on the new chief in a second vote on the Edison proposal, slated for Nov. 18.

The original plan called for the New York City-based school management company to invest $30 million in the project, and the district to pay Edison $50 million for salaries and other services under a five-year contract.

Dallas would provide transportation, food services, and security for the approximately 8,000 students in the schools.

Edison, formerly known as the Edison Project, currently manages 77 public schools serving 37,000 students.

Mr. Rojas lost the initial vote Oct. 28 after three board members expressed doubt that Edison could improve student performance.

In addition, Ruth Houston, the past president of the Dallas Council of ptas, said she didn’t understand why Mr. Rojas, who is paid $260,000 annually, and his new leadership cadre need more help. "You’re saying Mr. Rojas’ people are the best and brightest, so let’s get them to work on the problems of all our students in all of our schools," she said.

Mr. Rojas has little patience with such criticism. "If you can do something for 8,000 students," he said, "you do it."

Resignation Sought

The Edison vote wasn’t his only setback. At a press briefing following the vote, he started a furor by holding up empty tin cans and challenging two board members by name to raise the $30 million that Edison offered.

"That was perhaps the most childish, immature, degrading spectacle I’ve ever seen from a public official," said Hollis Brashear, one of the board members singled out. "Bill doesn’t know Dallas. Those kinds of antics don’t play here."

Lois Parrot, the other board member who was targeted, could not be reached for comment last week.

Mr. Rojas also publicly accused the two board members of trying to influence his hiring decisions in exchange for their favorable votes on the Edison proposal. Both members have denied the charge.

In response to his public statements, Ms. Parrot asked the board to seek Mr. Rojas’ resignation. Since then, the superintendent has apologized for the tin-can incident, and Ms. Parrot’s call for him to quit has received little support from other board members.

Mr. Rojas "feels frustration over board members’ getting into day-to-day operations, and he should," said school board President Roxan Staff, who voted in favor of the deal with Edison. "We knew he was passionate about what he wants for children. That’s OK with me."

Other troubles have surfaced in the superintendent’s relations with high-profile minority advisory groups set up several years ago as community liaisons. Mr. Rojas recently asked the leaders of the African-American and Latino panels to resign, saying they had meddled in hiring decisions. "These advisory panels are not there to determine personnel matters," he said last week. "Those who do that will not participate in those chairs."

But the two committee heads have refused to step down, and they question whether the superintendent has the authority to remove them.

Jesse Diaz, the vice president of that committee and a past school board candidate, said he initially supported Mr. Rojas.

"We were 100 percent supportive of him, but now we see how arrogant he is, and how insensitive he is to minorities," said Mr. Diaz, who is also the president of the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "Dr. Rojas has alienated himself."

A ‘Militant Stand’

Racial tension has long been part of the school landscape in Dallas. Black activists disrupted board meetings to protest the hiring of Yvonne Gonzalez, the district’s first Hispanic superintendent, in 1997. She resigned later that year and subsequently went to jail for misusing district money.

Mr. Rojas, who grew up in New York City and is of Puerto Rican descent, is not in touch with the concerns of Mexican-Americans, Mr. Diaz maintains.

"We are thinking about taking a militant stand and disrupting board meetings," Mr. Diaz said. "If he doesn’t listen to us, he gives us no choice."

Mr. Rojas touched another nerve this fall after the head of the advisory committee for Native Americans requested a written list of his expectations for the advisory groups. Rebecca Arnold, the panel’s head, told reporters that Mr. Rojas had said her request was ironic, "considering the history of America with treaties and the American Indians."

The superintendent later apologized, maintaining that there was no intention to offend, just a question of interpretation.

Hope Remains

The recent turmoil could reflect the necessary housekeeping and inadvertent miscues that come with a new relationship, some Dallas officials say. "I think we are moving on," Ms. Staff, the board president, said. "We are working with a new superintendent, and there is going to be some of this. That’s just part of it."

Other observers are more disturbed, but not altogether surprised, by the recent conflict. "People had hoped that the board and superintendent would get along," said Harley Hiscox, the president of the Alliance of Dallas Educators, the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "But they’ve never been able to get along. They fight, and have fought as long as I can remember."

Dianne Reed, the president of the Dallas Association of Texas Professional Educators, said the early consensus on Mr. Rojas was a ray of hope. "If Dr. Rojas goes about things differently, he could be a strong superintendent and bring peace to the board," she said. "But he’s lost a lot of respect with the community."

Then again, hopes for finding an absolute peace may be beyond any Dallas schools chief. As Mr. Diaz put it, "if Jesus Christ came along, I don’t know if he could do it."

Vol. 19, Issue 12, Page 5

Published in Print: November 17, 1999, as Rojas Faces Key Vote in Dallas Over Edison
Web Resources
  • Read more about the Edison Schools, formerly known as the Edison Project.
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