Out of the frying pan

The FBI case our new school superintendent is leaving behind him in San Francisco seems much juicier than anything so far in our own lackluster FBI school probe.

While Bill Rojas, Dallas' new school superintendent, and Bill Coleman, the chief financial officer Rojas is bringing with him from San Francisco, were in Dallas two weeks ago expressing shock over early findings of an FBI corruption probe of the school system, FBI agents in California were swooping down on offices the two men only recently had vacated in San Francisco.

On his first visit to Dallas, Coleman, hired here by Rojas at an annual salary of $175,000, called FBI evidence of apparent overpayments to Dallas school employees "egregious" and vowed to get busy setting things right. "There's a lot of fixing that needs to be done," he told reporters. "I look forward to the challenge."

But the things the Dallas FBI bureau has been able to come up with in more than a year of digging -- sloppy bookkeeping, a lackadaisical collections system -- are small potatoes so far in comparison with what their colleagues in the San Francisco bureau are working on.

In recent weeks, newspapers in San Francisco have reported that FBI agents "caromed around town, throwing down subpoenas on the doorsteps" of major municipal and regional agencies all over the city, including the San Francisco Unified School District, where the FBI apparently is looking at Rojas' dealings with a controversial community activist.

George Grotz, spokesman for the San Francisco Bureau of the FBI, declined to comment on reports that FBI agents had traveled from San Francisco to Dallas to question Rojas in the San Francisco case.

"To comment would compromise the integrity of the investigation," Grotz said.

Jon Dahlander, a spokesman for the Dallas Independent School District, says that he has spoken to Rojas and that Rojas had not spoken with the FBI about the San Francisco case.

The San Francisco school district is at the center of a number of investigations into alleged fiscal mismanagement. California state auditors said two weeks ago their early findings showed that Rojas and Coleman had improperly shifted money from retirement and insurance funds to cover deficit spending for teacher salaries. Coleman complained the auditors had released findings to the press before giving him a chance to respond and clear up misunderstandings.

The various San Francisco audits and investigations involve bits and pieces of different matters, but have a shared element in Charlie Walker, a community activist and trucking contractor with close ties to San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. Authorities appear to be looking at Walker's relationships with a number of local agencies, including the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, International Airport, Housing Authority, Redevelopment Agency, and school district.

Rojas' problems with Walker go back to 1996, when Walker was speaking for a group of parents in his area of the city who were angry over the discovery of asbestos in their neighborhood school. Even though Walker was not a licensed construction contractor, Rojas hired him to solve the problem by redeveloping nearby vacant land for a temporary school.

The first hitch in their plan was that the school district did not own the land and Rojas failed to secure use of the property from the owner. Walker proceeded to hire subcontractors to grade the land anyway, preparing it for the installation of temporary classrooms. Walker persisted even after the owner of the land sent him a cease and desist order.

In fact, Walker forged ahead obdurately for some time in an attempt to secure the school site through a kind of institutional squatter's rights, vacating the land only when the owner went to court and received an injunction. For these services, Walker presented the school district with a bill for $600,000.

Rojas told his board that Walker had worked on the land "without the express authorization of the district," but said he thought the board should pay him anyway. A month later Rojas changed his story, telling the board he had given Walker verbal authorization to continue working on the site. He said he hadn't revealed this detail earlier because he didn't want to give up leverage in his settlement negotiations with Walker.

Eventually, the San Francisco school board voted to give Walker $250,000. The check was about to be cut when a taxpayer group went to court and filed a lawsuit challenging the payment. Two years later, a judge agreed with the taxpayer group and ruled that giving the $250,000 to Walker would amount to an illegal gift of tax money.

Until two weeks ago, the taxpayers and the courts of San Francisco believed this outcome meant that Walker had not received any money from the San Francisco schools for his contracting adventure with Rojas. But on August 19, the SF Weekly revealed it had found at least one payment to Walker that apparently had slipped through the net -- a $12,000 check for "public relations" services paid to Walker during the time Rojas was negotiating the settlement of Walker's $600,000 claim. (The SF Weekly is owned by New Times Inc., which also owns the Dallas Observer.)

According to documents obtained by the SF Weekly, Rojas hired Walker at $400 a day for a period of one month, not to exceed a total of $12,000, to give Rojas public relations advice on his neighborhood. The entire $12,000 was paid to Walker on the first day of his new duties.

San Francisco school officials refused to comment to the SF Weekly on the $12,000 payment except for a statement from Coleman to the effect that paperwork supporting Walker's payment was "in the hands of a law enforcement agency." This statement from Coleman came during the period of caroming and subpoena-throwing by FBI agents in San Francisco.

The Observer attempted to reach Coleman through his offices here, but was informed by his staff that he had not yet moved into his Dallas offices but had already vacated his San Francisco offices, and that he could not be reached at either place or anywhere in between.

When he does arrive, Coleman will effectively replace Janice Davis, who has been the district's chief financial officer during the period of a recent major audit and the ongoing FBI corruption investigation.

In recent weeks, Rojas has been moving to consolidate his control of the Dallas district with his own team, many of whom are coming from San Francisco. Rojas has replaced Jon Dahlander, the district's chief spokesperson and media contact, with a former San Francisco television reporter who has been hired at a salary of $125,000. The new superintendent is also moving other new people into key administrative positions for a team start-up scheduled for this week. The people being replaced so far have all been told that they will still have jobs with the district and that their pay will not be cut.

Rojas' first proposed budget is $66.7 million larger than last year's budget. There has been no public discussion yet of a new tax rate.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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