Da thug

Waldemar Rojas and Becky Vestal, in better times

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.

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.

Both notes contain plaintive, almost pathetic pleas that Rojas take Parrott's phone calls. The second note contains the statement, "If you want my vote on your big project, you will have to call me and negotiate."

Nowhere is there even a faint suggestion that Parrott's vote for the "big project," presumably Edison, is tied to Vestal's promotion.

According to Becky Vestal, it was Rojas who called her hours before the Edison vote, brought up her promotion, and then asked for her help in getting Parrott's vote.

In several interviews and written statements last week, Vestal, a longtime DISD employee who trains administrators, told me the details of her conversations with Rojas. She said Rojas gave her an urgent summons on October 28 to leave her office in Oak Cliff and get to 3700 Ross as fast as possible in the final hours before the vote.

"His secretary called me about 2:30 p.m. and said, 'He wants you here in the office now,'" Vestal says.

When she arrived in Rojas' office, Vestal says, he made small talk and then began discussing a job promotion he had talked to her about several months earlier. Rojas said there were problems with the promotion.

"But he said, 'That's not to say something can't happen in the next few weeks.'"

Rojas, according to Vestal, said, "I need you to get to Lois and get her to vote my way on Edison."

Lois Parrott is blunt about what she thinks happened here. She thinks Rojas tried to buy a vote with a job promotion, failed, realized he could get in trouble, and rushed to U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins as a preemptive strike.

"A lady who worked for the district was called in and promised a promotion," Parrott says. "That's why Rojas went to Coggins, to cover for himself."

There is a long shadowy back-story here: Apparently Parrott and Vestal dined with Rojas several months ago. At that meeting, Parrott and Vestal say, Rojas promised to promote Vestal into a public relations position so she could work for Parrott and the rest of the board, putting out newsletters.

Why was Parrott messing around with a personnel decision? She says she did it because the job she wanted for Vestal was as staff to herself and other board members. "I'm drowning in work down there that I can't get done," Parrott told me.

Why do board members need a newsletter editor? I don't know. But the point is this: Vestal says she's willing to put her hand on the Bible and swear to her version of what was said in the October 28 meeting with Rojas.

In a telephone conversation last week and in a written statement to the Observer, Rojas told me that the Vestal-Parrott story is totally untrue. He called the story "a ludicrous and desperate measure," and he challenged Parrott to swear to it in court.

In the written statement, he also said this: "I met with Ms. [Becky] Vestal and explained to her that Dr. [Lois] Parrott was continuing to place enormous pressure for her to have an elevated position with additional salary for her vote on my big project. I told her to tell Dr. Parrott that she should back off and as I had expressed to Dr. Parrott on her weekend call to me to vote for the Edison Schools on its merit."

Parrott says there was no weekend call. But here is the bigger question: Why would the superintendent call in his own employee on an emergency basis hours before a critical board vote and order her to tell a board member to stop trying to sell him her vote? This is his employee. If she's messing around with board politics on a key issue, why doesn't he just fire her? Or reprimand her? Or ignore her? Why does he have to call her in and ask her to ask the board member -- whose calls he doesn't take anyway and whose vote he knows he doesn't have -- to stop oppressing him?

You do the math.

Some of Rojas' public behavior has become chillingly odd. After he lost the Edison vote, he called a press conference and showed reporters two tin cups with Parrott's and Brashear's names taped to them, suggesting they should go beg in the streets for money. And what could anyone say to that? Should some reporter at the press conference have asked very meekly, "Dr. Rojas, are you supposed to take some pills every day, and did you possibly forget this morning?"  

Maybe you chalk all of that up to politics, to Dallas school politics in particular. Obviously, it's not easy these days to feel sorry for members of the Dallas school board.

But these are unpaid volunteers, after all, who are actually trying to do what they believe is right. They have families and roots in the community. They care about the community, or they wouldn't be there. Brashear is an independent engineer. He bids for work. His livelihood is dependent on his reputation for personal integrity.

Parrott is a professor and a mother. Her own students and the kids at her kids' schools watch the TV news.

Criminal allegations aren't a political maneuver. They're really about life and death. In Brashear's case, even the suggestion that he might be under some kind of federal law enforcement scrutiny could damage his business and personal reputation forever.

Rojas is a political goon. If he thinks he can get away with tactics like this in Dallas, he must think people here are stupid and weak.

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