Da thug

Rojas proves he'll slap around board members to get what he wants -- an Edison deal

In the three months Waldemar Rojas has been superintendent of schools in Dallas, two things have become plain: The only goal he cares about is delivering a fat contract to Edison Schools, Inc., and he'll resort to any level of political thuggery to make the Edison deal happen no matter whose legs he has to break.

He's a thug.

On October 28, the school board voted 5-3 to turn down a Rojas deal that would have paid $50 million a year for five years to Edison, a private for-profit company, to run as many as 11 DISD schools.

Waldemar Rojas and Becky Vestal, in better times
Waldemar Rojas and Becky Vestal, in better times

Slobodan Rojas stormed out of that board meeting with his minions in tow, and a few days later he told reporters he had gone to visit a federal judge and the U.S. attorney to discuss possible criminal and/or ethical violations involving two board members, Hollis Brashear and Lois Parrott.

In Parrott's case, Rojas used the word "bribery." Where Brashear was concerned, he talked about "micromanaging." Brashear found out later that Rojas had not mentioned him to Coggins. But Brashear said Rojas' public remarks had nonetheless created the impression that he and Parrott "had done something either unethical or criminal."

When you get to the bottom of the story, it's Rojas himself who comes across as the hood.

Rojas had complained that Brashear's micromanaging messed up the Edison deal. Brashear, in fact, was bringing to the board some extremely damaging information about Edison Schools. The most damning came from the first Edison school in Texas, Washington Elementary in Sherman, now in its fifth year under Edison management. Brashear had taken it upon himself to call Lorie Shanklin, director of elementary instruction in Sherman, to ask her how Sherman's Edison school was doing.

At Brashear's urging, I called Shanklin too, last week. She told me the same things she had told him: that Edison sold the deal to Sherman and then "disappeared for three years," allowing the school to crumble, leaving it to struggle along without resources, proper staff, even books.

"This year there were no math books until mid-October," she said, "and we opened the school in August."

Edison sells itself on the claim that its program is extremely high-tech and makes space-age use of computers. But Shanklin says the Edison school in Sherman has the oldest, worst computers in the Sherman district.

"The technology Edison is sending out is the same stuff they were putting out five years ago, so it's all obsolete."

Bottom line: Under Edison, TAAS scores at Washington plummeted and continued to drop over a four-year period, while scores at the non-Edison elementary schools in Sherman steadily improved.

In 1998, alarmed that Washington was in danger of being labeled a "low-performing" school by the state, the Sherman Independent School District sent its own people to the school on an emergency basis to teach the Edison teachers how to teach. The next round of TAAS scores at Washington showed a healthy surge. But this year Sherman has pulled back its resources to see whether the Edison people can keep the momentum going on their own.

They can't.

Shanklin says this year's third- and fourth-grade TAAS scores, to be released soon to the public, will show a significant slump already starting at Washington.

By press time, Edison Schools Inc., in New York, had not responded to the Dallas Observer's request for comment on Washington Elementary. Shanklin says the performance of Edison at Washington hasn't just been bad: It's been heartbreaking, because it involves kids. "This is a small community, and one day these children will all be students at Sherman High School, so we can't turn away from them. It's been really gut-wrenching to watch."

Brashear relayed this kind of information to the board. He also pointed out that a national study of Edison, being carried out by a major university and expected to be the definitive analysis, should be out in a few months. Why would Dallas rush now to commit $50 million a year to Edison, increasing Edison's national gross revenues by almost 40 percent, if Dallas could wait just a few months and find out for sure whether Edison is any good?

Obviously, the responsible members of the board listened to Brashear, not Rojas. And for this, the superintendent went to the media and put out the word that Brashear, a professional with a business to run in this city, may be in trouble with federal authorities.

That's not politics. That's hood stuff.

The business with Lois Parrott is murkier but has an even worse stench coming off it. Rojas showed reporters a couple of handwritten notes Parrott had sent him. He claimed they showed that she was trying to sell him her vote on Edison in exchange for a promotion for a friend of Parrott's who works for the school district.

First of all, the notes don't show what Rojas claims they show. One of them, dated October 13, deals with a DISD employee, Becky Vestal, whom Parrott wanted Rojas to move into the administrative staff to do public relations work for the board. A second note, dated three days later, deals with funding for band instruments.

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