School for Scandal

Principal Mike Stiles was turning Dallas' troubled Sunset High around - until a critical misjudgement threw him into a political snakepit

DISD trumpeted such achievements--until the PAL scandal broke in the press.
Stiles, in his first public comments about the affair, freely acknowledges he screwed up. After all, he was the top man in a school where kids were allowed to get perfect grades for goofing off. The problem had been specifically brought to his attention on several occasions.

But the truth is that the PAL scandal wasn't the result of intentional fraud or deceit--just the messy product of a school faced with almost unmanageable overcrowding, inadequate staffing, internal miscommunication, and bitter schoolhouse politics.

Stiles' aging school, built for 1,600, was bursting at the seams. As the 1994-95 school year loomed, there were no guidance counselors to schedule 2,500 students for the coming semester, leaving the task to Stiles and Ortiz. And the teacher leading the charge on the PAL problem was in open revolt against the principal, charging him and the entire Sunset faculty with racism.

Stiles sits in his bare office today, recounting the chaos that crashed down around him in the summer of 1994. As he moves the story forward, the image of a drowning man comes to mind. "PAL was a big problem, and when we learned the extent of the problem, we took steps to fix it," he says. "I didn't hide anything. I didn't intend to defraud anybody. I took full responsibility for PAL. I still do.

"But what happened at Sunset was politics at its finest."
Stiles' personnel file is filled with excellent performance reviews. His faculty and students were crushed at his March 1995 ouster. "The kids loved these two people," says Collins, DISD's investigator. "Jesus Christ, I had people accost me about what happened to Mike and Zulema. The school's athletes nearly had an uprising over Zulema. She had worked tirelessly to help them get their grades up, and they just loved her."

Teachers and students at Sunset begged DISD officials to allow Stiles and Ortiz--by then already transferred--to hand out diplomas at the May 1995 commencement. The district said no. Still, Collins says he believes the faculty has come to understand that the "district's adjudication was tempered with a little mercy."

Stiles, in his first public comments on the case, doesn't quite see it that way. Last year's political showdown and its fallout have drained his interest in running another school.

"I have no desire to ever go back to school administration," Stiles says. He smiles. "When I talk about what happened, it's like a fairy tale."

Sunset High School, home of the Bisons, is three stories of cocoa-brown brick, with a wide and steep flight of concrete steps leading to its front entrance. Built in 1926, it's the kind of edifice that shows up as the classic school backdrop in the movies--whether the setting is 1945 or 1995.

Three generations have moved through the school. Its earliest graduates have seen their grandchildren, even great-grandchildren, graduate. In the first half of its life, Sunset was largely populated by Anglo students, most of whom fled to North Dallas and the suburbs as desegregation plans took hold in the neighborhood. But a love--a reverence, really--remains, and cuts across ethnic and racial lines. "There's a sense of history and pride in the school that you don't see anywhere else, except maybe in a few neighborhoods in East Dallas," says Mary Roberts, a DISD assistant superintendent. "The neighborhood and Sunset are one and the same. It's always been that way in Oak Cliff."

Enrollment at Sunset and other Oak Cliff schools climbs annually; this year the school is operating at 157 percent capacity. During class changes, the overcrowding can be seen, heard, and felt; masses of adolescents in baggy work pants and black nylon wind suits pack the narrow halls, the buzz of their conversations reaching the roar level in seconds. There are moments of human gridlock in which hallway traffic comes to a complete halt. The school has tried to cope with the space crunch by adding 16 portable classrooms, creating a sort of parking-lot trailer park.

Like most DISD high schools in ethnic neighborhoods, Sunset has lost the vast majority of its Anglo kids to private and district magnet schools, leaving its student population at 88 percent Hispanic. The three principals preceding Stiles were Hispanic; they came and went in a span of four years. So when Stiles, an Addison resident with salt-and-pepper hair and skin the color of cream, arrived in the summer of 1993, suspicion abounded.

"I had heard some Hispanic political organizers did not want me there. As soon as I could, I met with parents, student leaders, and faculty members," Stiles says. "There were 50 parents at the first meeting, and I listened to them. I worked with them all summer, and by the time school started, teachers, parents, and students received me with real open arms."

Stiles had spent his DISD career at elementary schools in low-income neighborhoods, as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal. The year before coming to Sunset, he worked as an assistant to DISD Area IV director Richard Marquez, an ambitious administrator who oversaw 19 Oak Cliff-area schools and answered to the superintendent.

Marquez lobbied to get Stiles the principal job. But theirs was an association Stiles would come to regret.

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