By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Bruce Parrott remembers when his wife, Lois, discovered her hidden talent: a knack for grassroots politicking. Ten years ago, White Rock residents were outraged when the Dallas school board announced its plan to move a Montessori school from their neighborhood to North Dallas. While the Dallas Independent School District said the move would relieve overcrowding in area schools, the Parrotts saw a more sinister agenda. Because the loss of the more selective Montessori school would mean a new neighborhood school open to everyone, opponents believed North Dallasites would use the school to dump their apartment kids in the Parrotts' territory.
Back then, board member Dan Peavy represented the Parrotts' District 3, which stretches along the city's east side from north of White Rock Lake to south of Interstate 30. Peavy was up for re-election that year, but critics of the Montessori move labeled him weak on the issue (he eventually voted for the switch). So they decided to field a protest candidate. Because of his job duties as a landscaper, Bruce Parrott couldn't step up. "Why don't we just put Lois on the ballot?" someone asked.
Lois Parrott, a community college professor, wasn't the most outspoken voice against the Montessori shuffle. But she surprised friends by refusing to settle for placeholder status on the ballot. It wouldn't be the last time she based her politics on a conspiratorial worldview of unseen forces colluding to undermine District 3. Nevertheless, Parrott made a strong impression at candidates' debates and vowed to stand up for the neighborhood, focusing her campaign on the Montessori issue. "I think that put the bug in her," says proud husband Bruce, now production manager at Dallas Community Television.
Lois didn't topple Peavy in the 1991 race. But the run prepped her for an unexpected opportunity--and a win--in 1996, when Peavy resigned after being caught on tape making bigoted remarks about minorities.
Since then, Parrott has won re-election twice. She has gained a committed if small following for demanding fraud investigations during the tempestuous Yvonne Gonzalez era and for opposing former Superintendent Bill Rojas' bid to allow the private company Edison Schools to manage 11 public schools. (He eventually settled for seven.)
Her supporters see her as the Laura Miller of DISD: a maverick who isn't beholden to special interests and speaks her mind, blowing the whistle on wrongdoing. "She's a very principled person," says Charlie Mohrle, a mortgage banker and longtime Parrott backer. "I wish there were more people like her."
Daughter of a Dutch Reformed minister, Parrott describes her role in missionary terms. "I'm just an instrument to get education in Dallas where it's supposed to be," she says. "I want each child, no matter where they live in Dallas, to reach their potential. I'm for justice and equity and a system that works."
But an increasing number of critics say Parrott's whistleblower image is just that: an image. A more accurate description of Parrott's role on the famously riven school board, they say, is that of its most divisive force. The real Lois, they say, is conspiratorial, vindictive and downright loopy. "She's not Joan of Arc," says former trustee Jose Plata, who clashed with Parrott before leaving the board. "She's become a piece of furniture with no standing with her colleagues. She goes rabid when she loses on an issue. No one has ever written the truth about her."
Criticism of Parrott is heard more frequently these days now that she approaches a political reckoning. One of her most important quests, a year-old lawsuit to stop the Edison Schools program--she and four other plaintiffs claimed it violated the state constitution--was thrown out of court by a state district judge. If that weren't bad enough, her colleagues on the school board are now seeking to collect $183,000 in legal fees from Parrott and her allies, who filed the suit without a lawyer. In effect, they are turning their backs on one of their own. "Historically, we try to recoup legal expenses where we can," says fellow trustee and former board President Roxan Staff. "That's just trying to protect the taxpayer."
At the same time the board is going after Parrott for legal fees, a $1 million-plus slander lawsuit filed by former Superintendent Rojas against Parrott and fellow trustee Hollis Brashear is inching ahead in court. Rojas, fired by the school board after only 11 months in office, says Parrott made false statements that he believes cost him job interviews for superintendent's posts in New York City and Los Angeles. Although he had some baggage of his own long before coming to Dallas--Rojas twice had been cited for drunken driving--he says Parrott's allegations to the press that he improperly used his DISD credit card to buy alcohol smeared his reputation. The district later exonerated him of the charge.
He also blames Parrott for distributing an unsigned letter that called him a "Mafia Thug," claimed he had fathered an illegitimate son and identified him as a drunk. Parrott denies any link to the letter, which was handed out at a school board meeting. But trustee Staff, who says a legally blind elderly woman with close ties to Parrott gave her the letter last year, blames Parrott for its dissemination. "I doubted that Ms. [Dorothy] Ellsworth could produce such trash," Staff said in an e-mail to Rojas. Ellsworth insists she didn't include the "Thug" letter in a packet of newspaper articles about Rojas, and Parrott denies any knowledge of it. Still, the letter is another addition to a dossier of dubiously sourced material that has materialized from time to time when Parrott enters the fray.