By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Sinner or Saint
DISD's Marcell Archer is either the best or worst school principal ever Where to start? With the teachers and parents who say the principal is a "megalomaniac," a racist, "the anti-Christ"? Or with the teachers who went on the record--unlike many of those making disparaging remarks--who say the principal is a natural leader they'd follow anywhere, veteran teachers who call her the best principal they've ever had?
It's tough to know what to make of Marcell Archer, the principal of William J. Cabell Elementary School. Each story you hear is rebutted by another. Take the Cabell teacher who spoke to the Dallas Observer on conditions of anonymity, fearful of losing her job or facing Archer's wrath if she went public. This teacher says there's an Orwellian fear on campus that each word a teacher utters inevitably will make its way back to Archer. "She even said in one meeting, 'These walls have ears,'" the teacher says.
Now, listen to Deanne Paiva. Paiva teaches English as a second language to Cabell second-graders. In October, her peers on campus named her Teacher of the Year. "I feel that I have the pulse of the school," she says. "And a state of fear? Absolutely not...What has been presented to you is a product of gossip."
Really? Then what about the claims that 68 teachers and staff members left Pershing Elementary, Archer's old school, in her three-year tenure there? What about the grievance filed last year against Archer by six Pershing teachers? What about the nine teachers this year who've already asked to transfer from Cabell, according to a source at the school? Or the 15 more who may leave, according to the same source? (As of press time, the Observer has yet to receive a definitive count from the Dallas Independent School District on how many Pershing staffers left during Archer's reign. And the Observer awaits the findings from an open records request that would list how many Cabell teachers will transfer at year's end.)
None of the figures, nor the grievance, has merit, Archer says. "I'm trying to go the high road and not throw rocks at everybody."
She came to Dallas from Austin eight years ago with Mike Moses, who last year retired as DISD superintendent. While in Austin, Moses' wife, Debi, taught at the same school at which Archer was principal.
Parents and former teachers at Pershing say Archer came to the school four years ago and talked openly of her friendship with the Moseses.
"She bragged about spending the night over at Mike Moses' all the time," says Kaneda Foster, who taught for 36 years before retiring after one under Archer. "After the school year, my blood pressure was so high," she says. She went to the doctor "and he said, 'What's wrong?' and I said, 'I work for the anti-Christ.'" The doctor said to decrease her stress level.
"I think she's mentally ill," Foster says. "I really do. It's not normal to create this much havoc and relish in it."
The havoc, according to Foster, former PTA members at Pershing and 17 unsigned letters from Pershing teachers and staff mailed, in 2002, to DISD trustee Hollis Brashear, includes allegations of screaming at teachers and staff--sometimes behind closed doors, sometimes not; rummaging, alone, through a teacher's books and files looking for "something"; writing up teachers who don't say hello to Archer; and asking some teachers to relay back to Archer what others are saying about her.
And don't forget Willie McCree. McCree, a former janitor at Pershing and an African-American, filed a grievance against Archer because of alleged harassment and racist comments he claims Archer made. Carl Weisbrod, a Dallas attorney whose youngest son attended Pershing at the time, says he took up McCree's grievance.
"DISD dropped the grievance before it was made public in a hearing," he says. The school "agreed to transfer Willie after airing all the facts and believing all the things he said."
Archer says, "There was no grievance, and Mr. Weisbrod did not represent him in anything...No, there's nothing there."
Weisbrod says because of McCree's grievance, and another he handled dealing with Archer's former secretary, he and his wife, Jaime, having already put two children through Pershing, transferred their youngest to another school at the end of Archer's first year there.
"She destroyed that school," Jaime Weisbrod says.
Why didn't DISD act on its behalf?
Because of her friendship with the Moseses, the Weisbrods say. "She let everybody know from the beginning that she was beyond any sort of justice," Carl says.
Archer says, "There's no truth to that at all."
Yet 68 teachers and staff allegedly left Pershing during Archer's tenure. The figure comes from the Weisbrods and is supported by other PTA parents, Kaneda Foster and Aimee Bolender, the president of Alliance/AFT, the teachers union that represented the six Pershing teachers who last summer filed a grievance against Archer.
Archer says the figure's nowhere near accurate. She does admit people left, though she doesn't know how many. Still, she says, the dot-com bubble burst was hard on Dallas and the spouses of Pershing teachers who found new jobs in other cities. Other teachers had babies. Others went back for graduate degrees. After that, the number that left was "insignificant," Archer says, compared with transfer rates of other DISD schools.