Pig in a poke

Stung by a recent rejection, thrilled by a rumor that someone attractive might like them, the Dallas school board leaped into the arms of San Francisco schools chief Bill Rojas without a wisp of investigation or information about his past.

If recruiting a new school superintendent were anything like romance, this particular chapter would come under the heading of "not safe sex."

Even board member Jose Plata, who takes credit for bringing Rojas to the attention of the board, admits now he suffered a minor panic attack a few days later when KXAS-Channel 5 reporter Brendan Higgins broke the story of Rojas' way-back problem with drunk-driving allegations.

"I got in contact with the people in San Francisco who had called me and told me he might be interested," Plata says, "and I was screaming at them, 'You didn't tell me about this!' But I was assured by them that this was the worst. We have seen the worst. I am steadfast and strong."

But is it the worst? Some much worse-seeming things--controversies over shady multimillion-dollar real estate transactions, fudged test scores, allegations that his personnel practices resemble the burning of villages--have been fully reported by the San Francisco media but are only slowly oozing out now in Dallas.

In the meantime, Bill Rojas has not yet been officially hired as Dallas superintendent because state law requires a 21-day cooling-off period before a contract can be signed. (Board president Hollis Brashear, in an interview with the San Francisco Examiner, called the 21-day delay a "quirky Texas law." Maybe it's quirky like the Texas law against deliberately discharging a firearm into your own foot.)

But even though he doesn't yet have a job here, Rojas also no longer has one in San Francisco. The board of education there rushed to launch a search for his replacement last week and also negotiated an end to his contract and a departure date. So what position is he in if the door is barred behind him in California and the door here never opens at the end of the 21 days?

"Maybe he can sue The Dallas Morning News," Dallas board member Lois Parrott says. (Parrott had missed Channel 5's story on the drunk-driving charge and thought the News broke it with its story a week later, the headline for which should have been, "Wasn't Drunk, Just Didn't Want to Blow in Tube.")

School superintendents in America sue school boards all the time for breach of contract. Of course, Rojas doesn't have a contract, so this would be the more romantic concept, breach of promise. Gerald Strick, an Arizona lawyer who represents a superintendent in a breach suit in Scottsdale, says breach of promise is enough, if you can prove it.

"If [Rojas] relied on the Dallas board's word to his detriment, then he can probably sue," he says.

How could this possibly have gotten worse than it already was? The following scenario emerges from accounts given by several people close to the process:

The board had more or less blown its immediate shot at getting Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson to take the job. After putting Jackson through 13 kinds of rigmarole designed to make sure no one would ever know they were talking to him--making him do an elaborate and expensive remote closed-circuit television interview with them, for example, even though he was about five minutes away from them by car--the board leaked his name to the Morning News the very same day.

"I know our search-firm guy didn't do it," Plata says, "and I don't think our lawyers did, so that leaves the nine of us."

Excellent math. It had to be one of the board members who gave Jackson to the News to torpedo him. The plan worked. Jackson's name was out and his candidacy was publicly controversial before there was time for the normal back-room political dealings.

Both Plata and Parrott confirmed stories from people near the board that several attractive candidates withdrew shortly after Jackson's name was leaked. Plata says one of the people who jilted them was a particular disappointment. "This was someone from a major urban district who would have been very exciting, but he called and said no."

The board was sad.
Who could it have been? Plata won't say. Parrott wouldn't say. But other sources confirmed that it was Rudy Crew, head of the New York schools, presently on thin ice with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The person who supposedly really wants Crew is San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who has been calling all over Dallas this week to talk up Rojas. So he can get rid of Rojas so he can get Crew? Who knows?

Plata says some "contacts" in San Francisco (he won't name them) called him and said that if the Dallas board played its cards right, it might have a shot at Bill Rojas.  

They were glad.
"Hollis' eyes just bugged out when I told him," Plata says. "He said, 'You mean he really might consider us?'"

The board immediately short-circuited its own selection process, told its search-firm guy to get in touch with Rojas, and then flew Rojas here for a full-blown interview with the board. The meeting took place on the night of Thursday, April 22, just two days after the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Rojas talked at length that night about his passion for metal-detectors and other school security measures.

The next day the board announced it was offering him the job. John Dodd, the lame-duck DISD board member, says Rojas told them that the only way he would even consider Dallas was if he were the only finalist.

Linus Wright, a former DISD superintendent and a consultant who helped the board in previous searches for a leader, says prospective hires often make such demands. "Generally, boards turn down such applications," he says. Not the DISD board, which these days is looking more and more like a boy with a rented tux and his dad's Buick but still no date on prom night.

The board is paying the executive search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates Ltd. $35,000 plus expenses to help locate a superintendent. Dodd claims it's getting little for its money.

"They are overpaid and overworked," he says.
The firm also is helping hire superintendents in three large Maryland counties, including Prince George's, an urban district with many of the same requirements as DISD.

Dodd blames Bill Attea, the partner at Hazard, Young handling DISD matters, for the board's initial ignorance about Rojas' scuffles with the cops.

"He knew we were bringing down Rojas on Monday," says Dodd about Attea. "That gave him four days to do a preliminary search. All he had to do was check the Internet."

Attea says that Dodd "is not representing the facts correctly." Attea says his firm didn't do a preliminary background check on Rojas before the board announced his selection because the San Francisco administrator had never formally filed an application--which would have given the consultants permission to investigate his background. His firm has 40 consultants working on searches at any given time, Attea says, and it's capable of handling up to 40 such projects at a time. At the moment, his firm is actively looking for fewer than 15 top school administrators.

Attea doesn't want to get into a squabble with the DISD board. He notes that only one board member, Dodd, has publicly griped.

"I work for the board," Attea says. "I don't work for individual members." Although he concedes the search process for DISD has appeared bumbling at times, he believes overall that the panel deserves praise. "The finding of a good superintendent is a difficult task. I commend the board for moving ahead and trying to develop a consensus."

Dodd says the search firm, which he helped select, has failed to provide resumes for candidates before the board interviews them and hasn't brought the board any serious contenders for the job. "We came up with most of them ourselves," he says.

Dodd has asked Brashear to order Attea to develop an extensive background report on Rojas.

One of the intriguing questions left blowing around somewhere near the bottom of this mess is whether Lee Jackson was ever a viable possibility. Jackson has impeccable credentials at the county. His candidacy flamed out not because of anything he did but because someone on the board torched it.

Even at the worst of that particular mess, when the minority community was trashing Jackson, an intriguing detail of the dialogue was lost in the din. The people who were most critical of Jackson's candidacy--if one listened closely--were strangely flattering when they talked about Jackson personally. At a news conference on the steps of DISD headquarters, former board member Kathlyn Gilliam and a dozen other community leaders and spokespersons complained angrily about the way Jackson's name had come into play--they thought it was a high-handed attempt by the white oligarchy to circumvent the selection process--but they all took a moment to say something a little bit nice about Jackson.

"This isn't about Mr. Jackson himself, who seems to be a nice guy and seems to have done a good job over at the county," Gilliam said before the news conference. "It's about the arrogance of certain white leaders who still think they can force their own choices on the community."

But what if it wasn't a plot? What if it was the more likely thing, DISD-wise? A big screwed-up mess? Would that mean that Jackson's name could still re-emerge? Jackson says, "I can't think of anything I can say about any of this publicly that would be appropriate." The only thing he would say was that he had never campaigned for the job or asked anyone else to campaign for him.  

Parrott says, "I don't think anyone is out of the question at this point. There was nothing wrong with any of the candidates we talked to." She hinted that the board has talked to lots more people than those whose names have been made public, and that all of them, including Jackson, are theoretically still possibilities, assuming Rojas doesn't make it through the 21 days.

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who speaks to Jackson frequently, says he thought there might be a difference of opinion between Jackson and the board on the issue of school vouchers. "That might be a problem," Price says.

Another board member, who spoke on condition that he not be identified, says that Jackson could still be a possibility, but that apparently Jackson, like other candidates, has said the board would have to propose a fairly strong contract before he could consider it.

It's conceivable that many candidates, having watched Dallas school politics over the last couple of years, might insist on a strong no-throwing-to-the-dogs clause. A new superintendent with any brains will try to find a way to keep the board out of his or her hair as much as possible. The habit the new person will want to break first is the one where they all make nice at the meeting and then, while walking to their cars, whip out the cell phones and call in media napalm strikes on each other.

And they will definitely promise not to do that.
Plata remembers the moment right after they had finished talking to Jackson on the TV set. "We all sat there and looked at each other and agreed that when we left that room there had to be no word to anyone."

And the night was lighted by digital displays.

Dallas Observer staff writer Miriam Rozen provided additional reporting for this story.

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