School for Scandal

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

Behind oversized square glasses, Climer's eyes roll. A sneer creeps over her face. "Oh, please. All the lies, the excuses. He knew. This was academic fraud, pure and simple," she says.

By December 1994, Stiles says, Parker, Mata, and Climer were barraging him with phone calls, memos, and letters. And he acknowledges he was trying to avoid them. By then, records show, the district had intervened. PAL was about to be cleaned up.

But the shelling continued. "I'd say a full third of my time as principal was being consumed by requests and confrontations with this small group of people," Stiles says. "Toward the end, it was every day. When they didn't get what they wanted, they immediately went to Marquez, and copied memos to the district, even the federal government. The problem I always had was that everything was being done for Rose Parker and Project Excel, and not the rest of the school, which needed so much."

By the time school broke for the holidays in December 1994, Mary Roberts had replaced Marquez. In a series of meetings she held over the school break with Stiles and Ortiz, the program was rewritten to list the majority of students as teacher aides. In a letter detailing the changes, and copied to Climer, Roberts wrote that just four of the 400 students would remain as legitimate peer assistants, in tutoring positions. Multiple credits for PAL were to be discontinued beginning with the coming semester.

But even with the district's intervention--which the noisy activists had sought for months--Rose Parker and her followers were not satisfied.

On December 29, 1994, Rose Parker filed a five-page complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, accusing Sunset High and DISD of nine civil rights violations.

Her rambling letter blankets every difference she ever had with the Stiles' administration--PAL, remedial reading classes, a textbook shortage, truancy problems, and a lack of adequate honors courses--as examples of discrimination against the heavily Hispanic student body. "I have been told this case will have major ramifications for civil rights in the DISD," Parker declares. "The PAL scandal? That was just the tip of the iceberg."

From Washington, D.C., education department spokesman Roger Murphey will not discuss Parker's complaint, because it is "open and under investigation." But he acknowledges the case is proceeding in the standard way; DISD has provided the department "with a massive amount of data so far" concerning Sunset's operations. The next step will be an on-site investigation.

But the possibility of a federal investigation apparently pales in comparison to the probe that really mattered--by Channel 8.

Reporter Valeri Williams was a logical outlet for dirt about Stiles and Sunset. Just weeks earlier, the principal had humiliated her during a probe of allegedly lax security at the school. His security officers had nabbed Williams' undercover operative, a 21-year-old Channel 8 employee carrying a hidden camera inside the school and trying to pass himself off as a student. Stiles had confiscated the station's videotape and camera equipment, and had his security officers toss Williams out of the building when she too vigorously protested his refusal to immediately return them.

But this time, Williams hit the mark. She broke the PAL scandal in early March, with the help of private student transcripts that someone had leaked to her. That week, DISD suspended Stiles and Ortiz. Collins began his investigation on March 10.

Collins insists that the superintendent had directed him in February to check into the PAL allegations, and Williams' story had no bearing on the outcome of the district's sudden shift to a formal investigation. "Superintendent Woolery called me in Austin [where Collins was wearing his DISD legislative lobbyist hat] prior to that report and said the issues had been laid out for him. He said there had been significant errors made in the scheduling of these kids. After I got back from Austin, he wanted me to go in and investigate."

The state Legislature ran through May. But when the Channel 8 story ran in early March, Collins soon found himself on a quick trip home. "All of a sudden, boom. It hit the media, and everything blew up," he says. Collins concedes the phone calls and letters flooded in--"from the community, teachers, the other media. But the one thing this district learned a long time ago is you move ahead on these things. You can't make legal decisions based on what happens during sweeps week.

"I conducted the investigation in the lair of publicity, that's true. But I know I really did not base my decisions on any news story."

The stack of evidence Collins collected last spring is three feet high. From that mass, he issued a 14-page report, including recommendations to demote Stiles and Ortiz, to audit student records, and to impose tighter controls on access to student transcripts. In addition, the PAL program was discontinued at Sunset this year. Other schools still offer the course. Assistant Superintendant Mary Roberts says she hopes PAL will eventually "revive" itself at Sunset.

Ortiz, paid $42,742, took a cut to $33,745 in her demotion; Stiles' $60,271 pay was slashed by $15,000. It was humane punishment, Collins says, in the face of slaps he took for not coming down harder.

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