School for Scandal

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

By July of 1994, Mata's oldest son, Eric, a Sunset senior, was enrolled in Parker's Project Excel. She frequently assisted Parker in and out of the classroom. One day, as she was sorting through the school's master schedule, helping search for potential Excel students, Mata stopped short. "We found these 1,400 placements of PAL. There isn't 1,400 of anything--not English I, not Algebra I. I was shocked."

Mata confronted Stiles about PAL at once. "He said that Ms. Ortiz had done the master schedule over the summer, and that everything was fine. He said he wouldn't change it. In fact, he defended it. I was upset, but I left it alone for a while. But I knew these kids were taking this course, and getting 100 for not even showing up.

"Everything I did over there I did for my kids," she says, describing her frequent clashes with Stiles. "After a while, the word was out at Sunset that 'she's a troublemaker, just trying to get information, so just close the doors.' It became a kind of game to keep me out."

Mary Ann Climer grew comparably upset. In separate letters, one in December 1994 to Marquez and one in January 1995 to his replacement, Mary Roberts, Climer complained of the bogus PAL classes.

In his deposition at the DISD investigation, Eric Walker, Sunset's English department chairman, called the PAL problem "an extraordinarily unfortunate result" of poor planning. But he also blamed the problems on the Project Excel teachers hired by Marquez, who "never operated for one moment as a member of the Sunset faculty.

"...I believe the intent of these individuals is malicious. It was a vendetta, first by the news media, Channel 8 in Dallas, and secondly by Rose Parker, against the administration and the faculty of Sunset High School."

Parker came to Sunset with experience in pitting school faculty and community members against each other. Exactly two years before the PAL scandal broke, she was involuntarily transferred to another high school from the arts magnet--the result, faculty members there say, of insubordination and a botched power grab.

"Ms. Parker led an effort to have a coup here, and she got much of the PTA to back her up," says a Washington teacher. "She was opposed to Dr. [Robert] Watkins being principal here. But he was smarter than she gave him credit for, and he managed to checkmate her."

Parker says Watkins forced her transfer because she reported him to the district for refusing to admit ESL and disabled students to the school. "I reported that violation of federal law, exactly as I was supposed to," she says.

Watkins refused to discuss Parker or her transfer. But records from Parker's district personnel file show that a DISD administrative hearing panel denied her appeal of the transfer on November 10, 1992. "Evidence presented in this hearing and testimony given by co-workers indicate that the principal had reason to believe that the teacher was insubordinate to authority and factious, thereby promoting dissension and disunity within the school organization," the panel wrote.

A DISD official familiar with the case says 50 of the 64 teachers at Washington signed a petition asking Parker to drop her appeal of the transfer. "She had a great reputation as a teacher when she was here, but the teachers asked her to stop her appeal because it was hurting the school," says a Washington teacher. "It got very bitter."

Parker was reassigned to the district's health professions magnet school for the next year, but stayed in touch with her closest ally from the upheaval at Washington--Mary Ann Climer.

The warehouse for Baldwin Family Music stands in a potholed alley on Clarendon Avenue, a few blocks south of the Dallas Zoo. Just beyond a room cluttered with cardboard boxes, owner Mary Ann Climer is at her desk, chatting on the phone. She waves me inside.

On the wall behind Climer, a faded photocopied quote from Indira Gandhi commands attention: "There are two kinds of people, those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group; there is less competition there."

When Climer, a large woman in a loose-knit T-shirt and blue jeans, discusses the PAL scandal, she stresses, "I will not get into personalities. I will not get into the emotion of this."

Yet minutes later, pressed to discuss her feelings about Stiles and Ortiz, she blurts: "Sure, I like them. I mean, how can you not like Peter Pan and Wendy? You've got Peter Pan running around the halls of Sunset, and Wendy looking out for the lost boys! But just because you like someone doesn't make them competent at their jobs."

Stiles' defense of his part in the PAL mess has never satisfied Climer. He says he relied on Ortiz's explanations--that students weren't receiving multiple credits, that not all were receiving 100s--because she was the teacher of record. He says he passed that information on to DISD Superintendent Chad Woolery, but acknowledges he could have done more: "I know now that my internal monitoring system should have gone off. I should have done a deeper investigation. But I acted completely honestly."

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