Sinner or Saint

Mark Andresen

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."

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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.

As for the teachers' grievance, Bolender admits the teachers' claims were found to be unsubstantiated.

Archer transferred to Cabell Elementary this year. Six teachers who spoke to the Observer anonymously say what happened at Pershing is happening again. "I cannot imagine going back in the fall," one veteran teacher says. But five more say they can. One, Sarah Kathman, enjoyed Archer so much at Pershing she moved with her this year to Cabell. She says the problems at both schools are isolated to teachers who "collect paychecks." Deanne Paiva heard of Archer's reputation at Cabell and wondered what she was getting into, but she's found Archer to be nothing but "professional."

Jerri Smith is a 27-year teaching veteran in her first year at Cabell. She likes what Archer's done. She says if the same effort were put into teaching students as what's put into "spreading rumors," then the school would be the better for it. "It's unfair to the students. And that's who are hurt mostly," she says. --Paul Kix

Don't Call Us...
An interesting bit of technical lore from a city council campaign: Mechanical dialing machines can be calibrated to specific irritation levels. A company making calls for District 2 candidate Monica Barros-Greene irritated the heck out of East Dallas resident George Wruck Jr. by barraging his home phone with as many as 58 hang-up calls in a 24-hour period.

Reading from meticulous notes, Wruck, an engineer, told the Dallas Observer, "On April 4 we started getting calls. They started around 5:49 in evening, and they stopped at 8:16 in evening." The calls started again a few days later, a total of almost 80 in two days. Every time he answered, Wruck got the same thing: "Nothing. Dead silence."

He traced the calls to Market Central, a company in Charlotte, North Carolina, which informed him the calls were being made on behalf of candidate Greene in Dallas. Mike Trest of that company told the Observer the same thing his firm had told Wruck: The company's automatic dialing machines crank out way more calls than the company has agents to handle.

The machine dials, but when someone answers, no one at the dialing company talks. Trest said calls like the ones Wruck was receiving are "a fairly common event."

Trest says the client--in this case, the Monica Greene campaign--decides how often and how fast the machine should dial the same sucker back again.

Greene told the Observer she had no idea what Trest was talking about. "This is the first time I have heard of any complaints. Obviously we would not set up any type of system that would incorporate calling 80 times to the same number."

Wruck called Greene's opponent, Pauline Medrano, and requested an oversized yard sign for his lawn. --Jim Schutze

Family Reunion
With her three daughters, Angel Dixon had begun the arduous task of setting up her own nonprofit organization, Angels of Mercy Foundation, with the aim of helping "those who are less fortunate or who have fallen into a rut and need help getting through it." But it was difficult to get funding and difficult to go on without it. Dixon needed a reason to keep going. She got it when one of her daughters, Carla, picked up the March 24 issue of the Dallas Observer, looking for a job. While Carla was flipping through the paper, she happened across a familiar face staring back at her from that week's cover story, "A Place of Their Own," on the homeless situation in Dallas: Carl Dixon, her father and Angel's ex-husband, known on the street as "Sporty."

Carla sent me an e-mail, asking if I could please send her his address or maybe slip him her phone number. Angel sent me a message as well, further explaining the situation: "My kids are aware of the history with their father, but they still love him very much. We never ask anything from him only to get on his feet and take care of himself." They hadn't seen him in years, weren't even sure if he was still alive.  

I put the family in touch with Hal Samples, the local photographer and homeless activist who had introduced me to Sporty. That weekend, Samples took Angel's daughters (and the grandson Sporty had never met) to the camp near downtown where Sporty lives. It was an emotional reunion only slightly marred by the fact that it wasn't one of Sporty's better days. He'd been drinking a bit and looked thinner and more haggard than he had in the photo that appeared in the Observer.

"My youngest's initial contact with seeing her dad was not very good; she cried, and he didn't understand it," Angel says. "But it was good for them to touch base with him. Hopefully, if he is removed from the environment that keeps him down, it will finally make him move forward. He's a tough cookie." --Zac Crain

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