By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Outside Franklin D. Roosevelt High School in East Oak Cliff, a concrete retaining wall is emblazoned with big red letters touting the slogan "Mighty Mustangs" and the credo "Pride, Respect and Responsibility." But the shabby condition of the '60s-era building, which sits a few blocks away from the Corinth Street Viaduct, mocks those words.
The three-story structure houses 800 students, most of whom are black, and has a boxy, brick-and-glass design harking back to the halcyon days of bad school architecture. But it remains mired in the past in other ways. The building has undergone few major repairs and insufficient maintenance since its construction in 1964, so students must endure leaky roofs, flaking baby-blue paint on the building's exterior, dirty restrooms, and other markers of decay.
Roosevelt's decrepit roof, part of which collapsed into the girls' locker room a few months ago, is the most glaring sign of neglect. Dallas school district officials have long promised to fix it, though at least 11 other schools and the administration building need similar repairs. In 1987, school officials made a halfhearted attempt to fix the roof at Roosevelt High. Contractors installed a flimsy urethane foam seal over the existing roof. Predictably, the seal didn't hold; the leaks soon reappeared.
Now, chunks of rotted foam blow off the roof on windy days. Children in classrooms on the top floor have a grim view of the building's deterioration: They look out classroom windows to see a fuzzy orange mold-like substance where the blistered gray coating has peeled off. Teachers report water leaking onto new computer equipment.
The long-term failure of district leaders to address such dire infrastructure needs has spurred members of Dallas' more than 100 active PTAs to become bona fide activists for their schools -- and not just stereotypical bake-sale moms and dads. More significant, they are learning to push collectively for much-needed changes at schools like Roosevelt.
While Superintendent Bill Rojas, who started in August, isn't to blame for the slow crumble of city schools over decades, officers with the Dallas Council of PTAs demand that he find a solution. So far, they believe Rojas is snubbing them, and their frustrations are nearing the boiling point. The main source of their pique: Unlike past superintendents, the new chief played hooky and missed most of their meetings.
"He [Rojas] is the invisible superintendent," says Marisela Vargas, treasurer of the Dallas Council of PTAs and PTA president at Moises Molina High School in West Oak Cliff. "If he's going to be in Dallas a long time, he needs to start appreciating the people from Dallas, Texas."
Yet there are signs that Rojas does pay heed to the PTAs. At Roosevelt, Major Morris Shepherd, commander of Roosevelt High's Junior ROTC unit since 1995, is looking forward to newly promised renovations for which he helped fight. Tired of walking past unsightly water damage in the building's lobby, he asked his students last fall to refurbish the entrance area, cultivate an adjoining garden, and build a trophy display case while district maintenance workers patched the lobby's soggy ceiling.
Then Shepherd conducted a study of the damage, concluding $665,000 was needed to properly mend the roof. "The whole objective is, when you walk in, you feel some pride," says Shepherd, a retired Army officer and gravelly voiced native of rural Grapeland in East Texas. "A roof that leaks for years says to the kids, 'I don't care.' You have to make it look like you want to educate people."
Community activists joined in. School PTA President Deborah Dangerfield, whose son attends Roosevelt, rallied support from across the city to demand repairs. The area's school board trustee, Se-Gwen Tyler, also sent a letter to Rojas urging a fix.
But there was no word from the higher-ups about the roof when on April 27, in an unusual display, 15 PTA leaders showed up at a school board meeting to protest deteriorating conditions. They were especially upset that trustees were scheduled to approve $143,000 in renovations for the district's human resources center while schools waited for long-overdue repairs.
"We've got a lot of schools that need major, major repairs," said William Robinson, president of the Dallas Council of PTAs and a community liaison officer at Comstock Middle School, who was first to address the nine board members and Rojas. "There's been years and years of neglect." Roosevelt High's Dangerfield spoke next. "Consider this a wake-up call," she said. "Hello, we need a roof." Representatives from Hillcrest, Carter, and Molina high schools followed Dangerfield, each citing their own litanies of plumbing, electrical, and facility woes. "There's a lot of deferred maintenance that needs to be addressed now and not put into a proposed bond issue," said Linda Callicut, Hillcrest High's PTA president.
Then the unexpected happened. After the last PTA parent spoke, a business-like Rojas informed the audience that funds for roof repairs at Roosevelt would be included in amendments to DISD's budget, scheduled for a vote that night -- and subsequently approved by trustees. The surprise announcement had Dangerfield elated. "I had prayed about it," she says, "and put it on a prayer list. I just knew God was going to bless us."
A prayer has been answered, but Dangerfield and other PTA parents aren't by any means satisfied. Rather, while commending Rojas for budgeting much-needed funds for Roosevelt, they're upset that regular communication with the San Francisco transplant has broken down. Unlike past superintendents, PTA leaders say, Rojas doesn't attend monthly meetings of the Dallas Council of PTAs and often neglects to send emissaries in his place, despite repeated invitations.
Likewise, Rojas -- and four trustees -- left the school board meeting last month before citizen "open mike" time. As unpaid volunteers devoting much time to improve schools, PTA leaders say they feel district leaders show them little respect. By not attending meetings, administrators "give us the message they don't care," says Molina High's Vargas.
Another PTA president cites a cultural gap between Dallas and the new superintendent, who apparently lacks the manners of a Southerner. "He is not gracious," says Kathy Glenn, president of Woodrow Wilson High's PTA. "He doesn't come across as 'I'm glad you're here.' It would be nice for him to recognize we're dealing with this every day, and for him to acknowledge, 'I hear you.'"
Loretta Simon, a spokeswoman for the district, responds that Rojas keeps a busy schedule and cannot attend every meeting. She says DISD personnel attend each district-wide PTA meeting, a claim parents dispute. "I know parents are important to him," Simon says of Rojas, who did not respond to a request for comment.
Detachment in DISD officialdom, however, occurs as the Dallas Council of PTAs evolves into a louder voice for change -- even though many parents, PTA leaders admit, still remain uninvolved in school affairs. "We have accomplished quite a lot," Glenn says, "because we have established this network of people fighting the same fights all over town."
At the same time, PTA leaders don't paint an entirely negative picture, and say that despite DISD's lackluster reputation, triumphs occur every day. For instance, Dangerfield points out that students can take several advanced placement classes, such as physics, English, and history, at Roosevelt, even if the building is dilapidated. And all of them say they want to give Rojas, who assumed his post last August, more time to prove himself.
"I want to give him a fair shake," says Earl Johnson, a Texas PTA officer and former PTA head at the science and engineering magnet school at Yvonne Ewell Townview Center. "He's still getting his feet on the ground."
PTA leaders also credit district maintenance staff with being helpful and responsive, but say they are understaffed and unable to handle the backlog. Leadership from Rojas, PTA officials say, is needed to make school repairs a higher priority within the budget. They want it now, rather than waiting for a billion-dollar bond referendum for school construction, which Rojas vows he will push for soon.
"We're not going away," Dangerfield says. "He needs to hear our concerns. They should always be at the top of his list, not only with maintenance but with academics."