Pig in a poke

The DISD board doesn't do its homework before offering San Franciscan Bill Rojas the top job

Stung by a recent rejection, thrilled by a rumor that someone attractive might like them, the Dallas school board leaped into the arms of San Francisco schools chief Bill Rojas without a wisp of investigation or information about his past.

If recruiting a new school superintendent were anything like romance, this particular chapter would come under the heading of "not safe sex."

Even board member Jose Plata, who takes credit for bringing Rojas to the attention of the board, admits now he suffered a minor panic attack a few days later when KXAS-Channel 5 reporter Brendan Higgins broke the story of Rojas' way-back problem with drunk-driving allegations.

"I got in contact with the people in San Francisco who had called me and told me he might be interested," Plata says, "and I was screaming at them, 'You didn't tell me about this!' But I was assured by them that this was the worst. We have seen the worst. I am steadfast and strong."

But is it the worst? Some much worse-seeming things--controversies over shady multimillion-dollar real estate transactions, fudged test scores, allegations that his personnel practices resemble the burning of villages--have been fully reported by the San Francisco media but are only slowly oozing out now in Dallas.

In the meantime, Bill Rojas has not yet been officially hired as Dallas superintendent because state law requires a 21-day cooling-off period before a contract can be signed. (Board president Hollis Brashear, in an interview with the San Francisco Examiner, called the 21-day delay a "quirky Texas law." Maybe it's quirky like the Texas law against deliberately discharging a firearm into your own foot.)

But even though he doesn't yet have a job here, Rojas also no longer has one in San Francisco. The board of education there rushed to launch a search for his replacement last week and also negotiated an end to his contract and a departure date. So what position is he in if the door is barred behind him in California and the door here never opens at the end of the 21 days?

"Maybe he can sue The Dallas Morning News," Dallas board member Lois Parrott says. (Parrott had missed Channel 5's story on the drunk-driving charge and thought the News broke it with its story a week later, the headline for which should have been, "Wasn't Drunk, Just Didn't Want to Blow in Tube.")

School superintendents in America sue school boards all the time for breach of contract. Of course, Rojas doesn't have a contract, so this would be the more romantic concept, breach of promise. Gerald Strick, an Arizona lawyer who represents a superintendent in a breach suit in Scottsdale, says breach of promise is enough, if you can prove it.

"If [Rojas] relied on the Dallas board's word to his detriment, then he can probably sue," he says.

How could this possibly have gotten worse than it already was? The following scenario emerges from accounts given by several people close to the process:

The board had more or less blown its immediate shot at getting Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson to take the job. After putting Jackson through 13 kinds of rigmarole designed to make sure no one would ever know they were talking to him--making him do an elaborate and expensive remote closed-circuit television interview with them, for example, even though he was about five minutes away from them by car--the board leaked his name to the Morning News the very same day.

"I know our search-firm guy didn't do it," Plata says, "and I don't think our lawyers did, so that leaves the nine of us."

Excellent math. It had to be one of the board members who gave Jackson to the News to torpedo him. The plan worked. Jackson's name was out and his candidacy was publicly controversial before there was time for the normal back-room political dealings.

Both Plata and Parrott confirmed stories from people near the board that several attractive candidates withdrew shortly after Jackson's name was leaked. Plata says one of the people who jilted them was a particular disappointment. "This was someone from a major urban district who would have been very exciting, but he called and said no."

The board was sad.
Who could it have been? Plata won't say. Parrott wouldn't say. But other sources confirmed that it was Rudy Crew, head of the New York schools, presently on thin ice with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The person who supposedly really wants Crew is San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who has been calling all over Dallas this week to talk up Rojas. So he can get rid of Rojas so he can get Crew? Who knows?

Plata says some "contacts" in San Francisco (he won't name them) called him and said that if the Dallas board played its cards right, it might have a shot at Bill Rojas.

They were glad.
"Hollis' eyes just bugged out when I told him," Plata says. "He said, 'You mean he really might consider us?'"

The board immediately short-circuited its own selection process, told its search-firm guy to get in touch with Rojas, and then flew Rojas here for a full-blown interview with the board. The meeting took place on the night of Thursday, April 22, just two days after the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Rojas talked at length that night about his passion for metal-detectors and other school security measures.

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