In the spartan room that serves as Michael Stiles' office, the only hint of color is in the former principal's necktie--a busy pattern of black, white, and brown children dressed in rainbow hues, their hands interlocking like paper dolls on a blue silk background.
In contrast, the walls, bookshelves, and table around Stiles are all strikingly beige. There are no Xeroxed inspirational thoughts tacked to the walls, no trophies, no apple-shaped pencil cups--none of the sentimental knickknacks that most educators scatter about their offices.
In short, Stiles' space at the Nolan Estes Learning Center in South Oak Cliff conveys a sense of exile. And that is no accident.
The Dallas Independent School District banished the 42-year-old Stiles here last summer. Administrators assigned him a lofty-sounding title: instructional specialist for expelled elementary school youths. And over the past few months, he has designed a curriculum to help reshape the behavior of DISD's littlest troublemakers.
But Stiles is used to working with children, and only three have been sent his way all semester. "The program isn't real well-known yet," he says. "So I'm hoping it will pick up."
Working with kids is what Stiles says he likes to do best--what, by most accounts, he has done best for two decades. Yet there will be no children at his next stop in the DISD bureaucracy--a desk job in food services. Beginning this month, Stiles will be working with computers, bringing the school lunch program on-line. Stiles notes gamely that the pay in the post will be good, closer to the $60,271 he made annually in his principal's job. Besides, he says, it will remove him from the ugly game of DISD political dodge ball.
Sitting on one of those hard resin school-issue chairs, his black-loafered feet stretched out in front of him, Stiles has described his new job with all the passion of a TV test pattern. The man is tired. The pitch of his voice rises only when he starts to unravel the tangled saga that placed him in this academic Siberia.
At this time last year, Stiles, a 20-year veteran of DISD, was serving as principal of Oak Cliff's Sunset High, presiding over the resurgence of one of Dallas' most troubled schools.
That's when a small cadre of teachers, parents, and Oak Cliff community activists discovered that some 400 Sunset students were enrolled in nearly 1,300 sections of the Peer Assistance Leadership program. PAL is a state-approved elective that allows 11th and 12th graders a chance to tutor younger students, or to do volunteer work. Though students are supposed to be permitted to earn only one credit toward graduation, many Sunset kids were taking the "class" two and three times a day--a handful as many as six times daily. Most enrolled in PAL were grading papers and running errands for Sunset teachers. Still others were streaming off campus during the day. Dozens of students were getting perfect grades for doing nothing.
Led by a teacher with a record of stirring dissent in a past DISD job, the whistle blowers complained to Stiles and his superiors. Though Stiles and his bosses set in motion a plan to correct the problems, the whistle blowers then aired their grievance in the media--in particular, WFAA-Channel 8.
The station's report--in which Stiles' detractors charged that the principal knowingly misused the PAL program to inflate attendance figures and to boost the school's academic standing--produced an uproar. Though Stiles' bosses had known about the problem for weeks--and already accepted the principal's plan to correct it--the embarrassing public disclosure was met with a fresh, harsher response.
The week the TV report aired, DISD administrators suspended Stiles and his dean, Zulema Ortiz. They launched a formal investigation days later. When it was over, DISD Superintendent Chad Woolery demoted Stiles and Ortiz, slashed their pay, and banished them from Sunset. Neither may be considered for another school administration post for two years.
Robby Collins, the district's special assistant in charge of personnel, led the probe. "It was just a mess when I got there," he says. "It was two weeks of day-and-night work to get to the facts. This situation was unique, to say the least."
The media accounts made Stiles and Ortiz look, at worst, like academic scam artists--and, at best, like bumbling fools. Both declined at the time to defend themselves to reporters.
But testimony during the investigation, as well as its conclusions and recent interviews, reveal a far more complex picture. DISD records, for example, show that Stiles and dean Zulema Ortiz, in less than two years, had legitimately begun to turn around Sunset--long one of the district's lowest-performing schools.
After Stiles' first year, the school's abysmal performance ranking--25th among DISD's 27 secondary schools--had jumped to eighth place. The inventory measures such variables as test scores, numbers of graduates, dropout rates, college entrance exam takers, and enrollment in honors classes.
During that year, Sunset's dropout rate fell almost 3 percent; enrollment in honors courses climbed from 2 percent to 10 percent. And overall attendance in 1993-94 increased by one percent--at a school plagued by a history of truancy, a major accomplishment, worth an $8,000 attendance award from the state. "We put the money in our campus activity fund," says Stiles. "Every six weeks we bought Cokes and pizza for the students who had improved their attendance and grades."
DISD trumpeted such achievements--until the PAL scandal broke in the press.
Stiles, in his first public comments about the affair, freely acknowledges he screwed up. After all, he was the top man in a school where kids were allowed to get perfect grades for goofing off. The problem had been specifically brought to his attention on several occasions.
But the truth is that the PAL scandal wasn't the result of intentional fraud or deceit--just the messy product of a school faced with almost unmanageable overcrowding, inadequate staffing, internal miscommunication, and bitter schoolhouse politics.
Stiles' aging school, built for 1,600, was bursting at the seams. As the 1994-95 school year loomed, there were no guidance counselors to schedule 2,500 students for the coming semester, leaving the task to Stiles and Ortiz. And the teacher leading the charge on the PAL problem was in open revolt against the principal, charging him and the entire Sunset faculty with racism.
Stiles sits in his bare office today, recounting the chaos that crashed down around him in the summer of 1994. As he moves the story forward, the image of a drowning man comes to mind. "PAL was a big problem, and when we learned the extent of the problem, we took steps to fix it," he says. "I didn't hide anything. I didn't intend to defraud anybody. I took full responsibility for PAL. I still do.
"But what happened at Sunset was politics at its finest."
Stiles' personnel file is filled with excellent performance reviews. His faculty and students were crushed at his March 1995 ouster. "The kids loved these two people," says Collins, DISD's investigator. "Jesus Christ, I had people accost me about what happened to Mike and Zulema. The school's athletes nearly had an uprising over Zulema. She had worked tirelessly to help them get their grades up, and they just loved her."
Teachers and students at Sunset begged DISD officials to allow Stiles and Ortiz--by then already transferred--to hand out diplomas at the May 1995 commencement. The district said no. Still, Collins says he believes the faculty has come to understand that the "district's adjudication was tempered with a little mercy."
Stiles, in his first public comments on the case, doesn't quite see it that way. Last year's political showdown and its fallout have drained his interest in running another school.
"I have no desire to ever go back to school administration," Stiles says. He smiles. "When I talk about what happened, it's like a fairy tale."
Sunset High School, home of the Bisons, is three stories of cocoa-brown brick, with a wide and steep flight of concrete steps leading to its front entrance. Built in 1926, it's the kind of edifice that shows up as the classic school backdrop in the movies--whether the setting is 1945 or 1995.
Three generations have moved through the school. Its earliest graduates have seen their grandchildren, even great-grandchildren, graduate. In the first half of its life, Sunset was largely populated by Anglo students, most of whom fled to North Dallas and the suburbs as desegregation plans took hold in the neighborhood. But a love--a reverence, really--remains, and cuts across ethnic and racial lines. "There's a sense of history and pride in the school that you don't see anywhere else, except maybe in a few neighborhoods in East Dallas," says Mary Roberts, a DISD assistant superintendent. "The neighborhood and Sunset are one and the same. It's always been that way in Oak Cliff."
Enrollment at Sunset and other Oak Cliff schools climbs annually; this year the school is operating at 157 percent capacity. During class changes, the overcrowding can be seen, heard, and felt; masses of adolescents in baggy work pants and black nylon wind suits pack the narrow halls, the buzz of their conversations reaching the roar level in seconds. There are moments of human gridlock in which hallway traffic comes to a complete halt. The school has tried to cope with the space crunch by adding 16 portable classrooms, creating a sort of parking-lot trailer park.
Like most DISD high schools in ethnic neighborhoods, Sunset has lost the vast majority of its Anglo kids to private and district magnet schools, leaving its student population at 88 percent Hispanic. The three principals preceding Stiles were Hispanic; they came and went in a span of four years. So when Stiles, an Addison resident with salt-and-pepper hair and skin the color of cream, arrived in the summer of 1993, suspicion abounded.
"I had heard some Hispanic political organizers did not want me there. As soon as I could, I met with parents, student leaders, and faculty members," Stiles says. "There were 50 parents at the first meeting, and I listened to them. I worked with them all summer, and by the time school started, teachers, parents, and students received me with real open arms."
Stiles had spent his DISD career at elementary schools in low-income neighborhoods, as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal. The year before coming to Sunset, he worked as an assistant to DISD Area IV director Richard Marquez, an ambitious administrator who oversaw 19 Oak Cliff-area schools and answered to the superintendent.
Marquez lobbied to get Stiles the principal job. But theirs was an association Stiles would come to regret.
Stiles says that when he took over Sunset in the fall of 1993, Marquez--a former Sunset principal and beloved in its predominantly Hispanic neighborhood--never believed he would stay for long. "Richard really had another person in mind for the job, from outside the district. He wanted me there for a year, just long enough to put this person in place. And I was OK with that at first."
But Stiles warmed to his new job. And his first year, in which Sunset leapt in the district's performance rankings, made him confident he could make a difference. "After that first year, I really liked it," Stiles says. "Not only did I decide not to leave, but I was planning to stay for at least four years. I had a goal to see my freshman class graduate."
Zulema Ortiz came on board at Sunset with Stiles. She had spent 10 years in DISD in elementary and middle-school teaching and administration. She refused to discuss the PAL scandal or her tenure at Sunset with the Observer, but testimony from Collins' investigation shows she was highly liked.
"These two people--you'd be surprised what they did for those students," Sunset biology teacher Catherine Donaldson testified. "Ms. Ortiz went out of her way. I've never seen as many football players who love that lady. They have never hung around a dean like that before. She filled out SAT forms for the parents who couldn't. She did all of that on her own time, and those kids can vouch for her."
Marquez, now superintendent of the Harlandale School District in San Antonio, did not return phone calls from the Observer. Nor did he respond last spring to requests for his testimony at the DISD investigation.
Stiles says his decision to dig in at Sunset--"because what the school needed more than anything was consistency in leadership"--prompted Marquez to try to undermine his power as principal. The two frequently clashed on policy.
Two years before the PAL problem, Marquez had begun experimenting with his new-age education theories among his 19 Oak Cliff-area schools. And Sunset became his favorite petri dish.
High truancy and poor academic performance were constant problems. Yet Marquez directed his principals not to fail students, because, he said, an "F" crushes a struggling student socially and psychologically. More than a month into the 1992-93 school year, Marquez was advising principals not to fail kids who had yet to show up at school. That directive rattled officials at the district's central office, who said they had no knowledge of Marquez's directive. "This doesn't comply with what we ask to happen in our grading policy," then-deputy superintendent Chad Woolery told the Observer in October 1992. "We need to grade students on the work they do."
DISD's Collins says Marquez was set straight on the line of authority in such matters. But Marquez continued to pride himself on tinkering with the system.
Going into the 1993-94 school year, Marquez decided--this time with school board approval--to revamp the guidance counseling system at Sunset. Three of the five counselors, who handled student scheduling, were transferred. They were replaced with a psychologist and a social worker, who would see to the students' emotional needs, and a computer programmer. But, as the staff at Sunset soon found out, two counselors weren't enough to schedule 2,500 students.
Marquez's pilot program, in force only at Sunset, created a logistical nightmare. Counselors struggled to place students in the correct class, but many fell through the cracks.
Complicating the scheduling mess was the school's March 1993 switch from the traditional seven daily class periods to eight. The change was to accommodate the Texas Education Agency's mandate to require 22 credits for graduation.
But at Sunset, the faculty soon learned that, by their senior year, many students had already earned the required credits. Although the system allows them to graduate early, many chose to stay through their senior year out of sentiment: They wanted to graduate with their friends.
"It was tough to keep discipline over the ones who really didn't want to be there," Stiles says. "They registered for electives, but we were so crowded we didn't always have all the course offerings they wanted. And we didn't have the luxury of a study hall; there wasn't enough room. Study hall had been done away with a year earlier to make room for other classes."
So Stiles looked to the state-approved Peer Assistants Leadership course, in place at several DISD schools, to cope with the overload. Marquez, he says, approved the plan enthusiastically.
Stiles and Ortiz saw it as a godsend--a chance to keep seniors busy while giving them a chance to better their community. At least that was the idea. "Zulema [Ortiz] took on the goal of overseeing PAL," Stiles says. "The students were assigned to a teacher, who would give the grades and turn them in to Zulema."
The program was meant for juniors and seniors only. They were to receive only a single credit toward graduation. But it didn't work out that way.
It would later be discovered that some students earned credit for as many as four blocks of PAL. Evidence from DISD's investigation also showed that students seldom worked as tutors or mentors in the community; most worked as teachers' aides. Still others reported to no one, and simply left campus for the day. A number of sophomores were also enrolled in the program.
Though Stiles didn't know it, the state permits seniors who already have accumulated enough graduation credits to obtain a waiver to leave campus early each day--essentially what they were doing under the PAL program. Some 250 of the 400 PAL students at Sunset were seniors, and many had already met their graduation requirements. At Sunset, however, no one had obtained such waivers--and the waivers certainly wouldn't have allowed anyone to receive a perfect grade for leaving campus.
The mess can be partly attributed to some rather murky guidelines. The Texas Education Agency, for instance, says only juniors and seniors can take a PAL course. But the 1994-95 DISD General Information Bulletin describes PAL as open to grades 10 through 12.
More than a dozen teachers who testified at the PAL investigation made it clear they didn't really understand how PAL was meant to work. They thought it was indeed a teacher assistant program. "Ms. Ortiz gave this to us, something that talks about Peer Assistant protocol," biology teacher Donaldson said in her deposition. "...To us, 'peer assistant' simply meant teacher assistant..."
The PAL investigation shows Ortiz was overwhelmed with scheduling problems.
By June 1994, the two remaining counselors, bitter and overworked, had quit. "They'd had enough. They were reassigned in the district," says DISD's Robby Collins. "So Mike [Stiles] and Zulema [Ortiz] were hand-scheduling everyone until they could find replacements.
"When Zulema was picking the course code for PAL, the testimony shows she truly thought she was choosing a teacher assistant course. She picked the wrong course number and assigned it to those kids."
In her deposition, Ortiz admits frantically scheduling students into multiple PAL sections to place them somewhere--but planned to go back and fix the problem later. "Call it part ignorance, part just being overwhelmed with not enough support staff to rely on," she told Collins. "I felt, 'let's just get them in there and then let's correct--let's delete duplicate courses later.'"
DISD reassigned Ortiz this fall to a teaching post at Stonewall Jackson Elementary School in East Dallas.
Stiles finally did locate two counselors--just days before the 1994-95 year began. One came from Wilmer-Hutchins ISD and the other had retired 10 years earlier from Richardson ISD. Because neither knew much about DISD policy, Collins says, they were in no position to correct Ortiz's mistake.
Sunset's leaders were living a nightmare, born of their own sloppiness, a woefully crowded school, and political wrangling.
But it would not be left to Stiles to call his mistakes as he saw them--or to correct them. Rose Parker and her supporters would not allow him that luxury.
"Have you got about a week?" Rose Parker asks over the phone when I call her for an interview. "Because that's how long it will take to get a full understanding of what was going on at Sunset High School. I have a pile of documents a foot high to show how that school is denying students access to education."
Parker, a 44-year-old Anglo, taught for two years at Sunset. With nearly 21 years experience in DISD, she has taught elementary-school and high-school history, social studies, and journalism. Proud of her academic pedigree, she notes that she has 12 hours of training in gifted and talented education. "I have a bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degree. Except I didn't finish my dissertation," Parker offers, early in our meeting at a Greenville Avenue restaurant. We are sitting at a massive oak table with claw feet that could easily accommodate six people. Parker's documents are spread over half of it.
When we agreed over the phone to meet, she described herself this way: "I have short dark hair, and I'm fatter than I want to be." Parker is indeed ample--though fat overstates it--and dressed in a gauzy, gray-blue tunic and pants. Her hair is spikey, and shagged on the back of her neck. Each ear is studded with four diamond posts, with brass and silver drop earrings dangling from the lobes. It is a measure of her relationship with her peers that, at Sunset, according to English honors teacher Clarence Johnson, "We often referred to her as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark."
Parker shuffles through the papers before us and produces DISD's official school performance ranking for 1993-94. It shows Sunset's rise, among 27 DISD high schools, from 25th place to eighth. Stiles is especially proud of the ranking.
But now Parker is madly jotting her own numbers, arrows, and big question marks all over the document, hoping to show that the district's assessment is all wrong. She digs out another paper that shows Sunset's graduation rate in 1993 and 1994 to be the lowest since 1970. Asked its source, she smiles obliquely and says: "I just got it. It's confidential."
Parker, it turns out, has a knack for compiling documents and keeping records on those with whom she disagrees. DISD files contain copies of a half-dozen of her letters to Stiles, Ortiz, and district officials concerning PAL and assorted other grievances. And she provided me with her own handful of memos as well, documenting several run-ins she had with Stiles.
Ironically, Parker--like Stiles--came to Sunset with a nudge from Richard Marquez, who hand-picked her in the summer of 1993 for a program known as "Project Excel." The program was meant to identify Sunset students--preferably as freshmen--who had been enrolled in English as a Second Language courses and who were improving academically. Parker and three other teachers would supervise the students and teach them for most of the day. The goal was to put them on a college track.
Without consulting Stiles, Marquez decided to house Project Excel in a separate building across the street from the school. Stiles says Marquez also ordered him to give Parker unbridled access to every student's records--access other faculty members were denied. By its second year, Excel had 125 students.
"It was something they had never done before," Parker says. "At Sunset, the teachers always patted the Hispanic and African-American students on the head and said, 'You poor little things. You're behind. We need to do you a favor.' But the favor is always to stick them in remedial classes. The favor is never to challenge them.
"So they gave these kids remedial reading. They denied them textbooks and gave them something called 'hands-on' geography where they studied maps and globes. All dummy courses."
Parker, several Sunset teachers say, helped herself to the best students from their classes, in many cases kids who were already taking established honors classes. She did so without the customary authorization from Stiles. With high-achieving students a rare commodity at Sunset, their teachers did not cotton to giving them up.
"Just pure pettiness," Parker says of her co-workers' reactions. "Some of those teachers got real ticky. But I got maybe 15 out of the 125 from their classes. These children were at risk for dropping out. Many of their parents didn't speak English. Many of their families had never had a high-school graduate. We saved a lot of kids."
Though Stiles and Sunset teachers dispute her characterizations, Parker's personnel reviews on file at DISD show outstanding performance, especially in her teaching methods. Even Stiles acknowledges her ability in the classroom. "If Rose Parker kept to educating students, she could be a very good teacher. But she was so distracted with trying to achieve things for herself that it undermined her relationship with the entire school."
At Sunset, Parker rarely attended faculty meetings, a move other teachers perceived as arrogant. Her memos to Stiles and Ortiz were often shrill, whining about the "unforgivable" physical settings and the "framework of total harassment by the faculty and dean at Sunset" in which she had to work. In one memo to Ortiz following a clash over student transfers into Project Excel, Parker wrote, "Hopefully, even if you continue to attempt to derail the only hope these children have of receiving a college prep program, they will be cognizant enough to find the appropriate forum for their problems. After all, they have just studied 14th Amendment guarantees of equal access."
The memos usually came after Stiles denied Parker's requests for special programs and extra money for Project Excel. "Right away I would get a call from Richard Marquez, telling me to give her what she wanted," Stiles says. When Parker requested $2,000 for a special arts program for her students, Stiles said no. Later, he says, he learned the money came out of his budget anyway, without his signature but authorized by Marquez. (Parker says she dug up this money herself, from community grants.)
From Stiles' perspective, the trouble with Parker's methods was that 134 other teachers at the school had for years been denied more rudimentary items--like classroom space. "I had 37 floating teachers that year, people who had no room to call their own. They were carting piles of books around, sharing space with other teachers. Giving one teacher everything she asks, for what--100 or so students--seemed a little impossible by comparison."
Parker's tight relationship with Marquez developed with the help of Mary Ann Climer, a longtime Oak Cliff activist, who introduced them. Although they live in Oak Cliff's upscale Kessler Park neighborhood, well within Sunset's boundaries, Climer's three children attended the Booker T. Washington Magnet High School for the Performing Arts--widely considered one of the district's plum schools. And Climer's children were students of Rose Parker, who taught at the arts magnet from 1984 through August 1992.
For years, Climer has sat on various committees of Sunset parents and neighbors. Many teachers there know her, and value her ability to get things done. Climer takes credit--and Stiles applauds her--for greasing the wheels at DISD and getting seven new portable classrooms at Sunset last year.
But many faculty members view her as a busybody. "As my daddy in Oklahoma would say, Mary Ann Climer don't have no dog in that fight," says Sunset teacher Johnson. "Yet she's up here demanding and posturing and generally making it worse for people who are already working in a difficult situation."
Climer scoffs at such appraisals: "I guess your opinion of me depends on whether I'm reporting you for academic fraud or getting your school new portables.
"I live in the neighborhood, and those are my neighbors' kids. You know, I'm sitting here being an advocate for these Sunset parents, many of them don't even speak English, and I get criticized for it. These parents don't know how to work the system."
When Parker and Climer met again one year later at Sunset, they wasted no time in adding Leticia Mata to their ranks. Mata is clearly not one of those helpless parents Climer describes. She had learned how to work the system through her work since 1991 in Dallas Area Interfaith, the grass-roots social activism group made up largely of urban, minority churchgoers.
By July of 1994, Mata's oldest son, Eric, a Sunset senior, was enrolled in Parker's Project Excel. She frequently assisted Parker in and out of the classroom. One day, as she was sorting through the school's master schedule, helping search for potential Excel students, Mata stopped short. "We found these 1,400 placements of PAL. There isn't 1,400 of anything--not English I, not Algebra I. I was shocked."
Mata confronted Stiles about PAL at once. "He said that Ms. Ortiz had done the master schedule over the summer, and that everything was fine. He said he wouldn't change it. In fact, he defended it. I was upset, but I left it alone for a while. But I knew these kids were taking this course, and getting 100 for not even showing up.
"Everything I did over there I did for my kids," she says, describing her frequent clashes with Stiles. "After a while, the word was out at Sunset that 'she's a troublemaker, just trying to get information, so just close the doors.' It became a kind of game to keep me out."
Mary Ann Climer grew comparably upset. In separate letters, one in December 1994 to Marquez and one in January 1995 to his replacement, Mary Roberts, Climer complained of the bogus PAL classes.
In his deposition at the DISD investigation, Eric Walker, Sunset's English department chairman, called the PAL problem "an extraordinarily unfortunate result" of poor planning. But he also blamed the problems on the Project Excel teachers hired by Marquez, who "never operated for one moment as a member of the Sunset faculty.
"...I believe the intent of these individuals is malicious. It was a vendetta, first by the news media, Channel 8 in Dallas, and secondly by Rose Parker, against the administration and the faculty of Sunset High School."
Parker came to Sunset with experience in pitting school faculty and community members against each other. Exactly two years before the PAL scandal broke, she was involuntarily transferred to another high school from the arts magnet--the result, faculty members there say, of insubordination and a botched power grab.
"Ms. Parker led an effort to have a coup here, and she got much of the PTA to back her up," says a Washington teacher. "She was opposed to Dr. [Robert] Watkins being principal here. But he was smarter than she gave him credit for, and he managed to checkmate her."
Parker says Watkins forced her transfer because she reported him to the district for refusing to admit ESL and disabled students to the school. "I reported that violation of federal law, exactly as I was supposed to," she says.
Watkins refused to discuss Parker or her transfer. But records from Parker's district personnel file show that a DISD administrative hearing panel denied her appeal of the transfer on November 10, 1992. "Evidence presented in this hearing and testimony given by co-workers indicate that the principal had reason to believe that the teacher was insubordinate to authority and factious, thereby promoting dissension and disunity within the school organization," the panel wrote.
A DISD official familiar with the case says 50 of the 64 teachers at Washington signed a petition asking Parker to drop her appeal of the transfer. "She had a great reputation as a teacher when she was here, but the teachers asked her to stop her appeal because it was hurting the school," says a Washington teacher. "It got very bitter."
Parker was reassigned to the district's health professions magnet school for the next year, but stayed in touch with her closest ally from the upheaval at Washington--Mary Ann Climer.
The warehouse for Baldwin Family Music stands in a potholed alley on Clarendon Avenue, a few blocks south of the Dallas Zoo. Just beyond a room cluttered with cardboard boxes, owner Mary Ann Climer is at her desk, chatting on the phone. She waves me inside.
On the wall behind Climer, a faded photocopied quote from Indira Gandhi commands attention: "There are two kinds of people, those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group; there is less competition there."
When Climer, a large woman in a loose-knit T-shirt and blue jeans, discusses the PAL scandal, she stresses, "I will not get into personalities. I will not get into the emotion of this."
Yet minutes later, pressed to discuss her feelings about Stiles and Ortiz, she blurts: "Sure, I like them. I mean, how can you not like Peter Pan and Wendy? You've got Peter Pan running around the halls of Sunset, and Wendy looking out for the lost boys! But just because you like someone doesn't make them competent at their jobs."
Stiles' defense of his part in the PAL mess has never satisfied Climer. He says he relied on Ortiz's explanations--that students weren't receiving multiple credits, that not all were receiving 100s--because she was the teacher of record. He says he passed that information on to DISD Superintendent Chad Woolery, but acknowledges he could have done more: "I know now that my internal monitoring system should have gone off. I should have done a deeper investigation. But I acted completely honestly."
Behind oversized square glasses, Climer's eyes roll. A sneer creeps over her face. "Oh, please. All the lies, the excuses. He knew. This was academic fraud, pure and simple," she says.
By December 1994, Stiles says, Parker, Mata, and Climer were barraging him with phone calls, memos, and letters. And he acknowledges he was trying to avoid them. By then, records show, the district had intervened. PAL was about to be cleaned up.
But the shelling continued. "I'd say a full third of my time as principal was being consumed by requests and confrontations with this small group of people," Stiles says. "Toward the end, it was every day. When they didn't get what they wanted, they immediately went to Marquez, and copied memos to the district, even the federal government. The problem I always had was that everything was being done for Rose Parker and Project Excel, and not the rest of the school, which needed so much."
By the time school broke for the holidays in December 1994, Mary Roberts had replaced Marquez. In a series of meetings she held over the school break with Stiles and Ortiz, the program was rewritten to list the majority of students as teacher aides. In a letter detailing the changes, and copied to Climer, Roberts wrote that just four of the 400 students would remain as legitimate peer assistants, in tutoring positions. Multiple credits for PAL were to be discontinued beginning with the coming semester.
But even with the district's intervention--which the noisy activists had sought for months--Rose Parker and her followers were not satisfied.
On December 29, 1994, Rose Parker filed a five-page complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, accusing Sunset High and DISD of nine civil rights violations.
Her rambling letter blankets every difference she ever had with the Stiles' administration--PAL, remedial reading classes, a textbook shortage, truancy problems, and a lack of adequate honors courses--as examples of discrimination against the heavily Hispanic student body. "I have been told this case will have major ramifications for civil rights in the DISD," Parker declares. "The PAL scandal? That was just the tip of the iceberg."
From Washington, D.C., education department spokesman Roger Murphey will not discuss Parker's complaint, because it is "open and under investigation." But he acknowledges the case is proceeding in the standard way; DISD has provided the department "with a massive amount of data so far" concerning Sunset's operations. The next step will be an on-site investigation.
But the possibility of a federal investigation apparently pales in comparison to the probe that really mattered--by Channel 8.
Reporter Valeri Williams was a logical outlet for dirt about Stiles and Sunset. Just weeks earlier, the principal had humiliated her during a probe of allegedly lax security at the school. His security officers had nabbed Williams' undercover operative, a 21-year-old Channel 8 employee carrying a hidden camera inside the school and trying to pass himself off as a student. Stiles had confiscated the station's videotape and camera equipment, and had his security officers toss Williams out of the building when she too vigorously protested his refusal to immediately return them.
But this time, Williams hit the mark. She broke the PAL scandal in early March, with the help of private student transcripts that someone had leaked to her. That week, DISD suspended Stiles and Ortiz. Collins began his investigation on March 10.
Collins insists that the superintendent had directed him in February to check into the PAL allegations, and Williams' story had no bearing on the outcome of the district's sudden shift to a formal investigation. "Superintendent Woolery called me in Austin [where Collins was wearing his DISD legislative lobbyist hat] prior to that report and said the issues had been laid out for him. He said there had been significant errors made in the scheduling of these kids. After I got back from Austin, he wanted me to go in and investigate."
The state Legislature ran through May. But when the Channel 8 story ran in early March, Collins soon found himself on a quick trip home. "All of a sudden, boom. It hit the media, and everything blew up," he says. Collins concedes the phone calls and letters flooded in--"from the community, teachers, the other media. But the one thing this district learned a long time ago is you move ahead on these things. You can't make legal decisions based on what happens during sweeps week.
"I conducted the investigation in the lair of publicity, that's true. But I know I really did not base my decisions on any news story."
The stack of evidence Collins collected last spring is three feet high. From that mass, he issued a 14-page report, including recommendations to demote Stiles and Ortiz, to audit student records, and to impose tighter controls on access to student transcripts. In addition, the PAL program was discontinued at Sunset this year. Other schools still offer the course. Assistant Superintendant Mary Roberts says she hopes PAL will eventually "revive" itself at Sunset.
Ortiz, paid $42,742, took a cut to $33,745 in her demotion; Stiles' $60,271 pay was slashed by $15,000. It was humane punishment, Collins says, in the face of slaps he took for not coming down harder.
A Dallas Morning News editorial, for example, blasted the district for not firing them both. "This was no senior class prank; this was academic fraud," the editorial roared.
But Collins considered the school's accomplishments under Stiles and Ortiz in meting out his penalty. "They had done a great deal for that school. They were extremely admired people."
In Collins' mind, the only question remaining about the PAL scandal is who leaked the student transcripts to the press. "I am deeply troubled about it," he says. "It is a violation of state and federal privacy statutes, and it is the only unanswered element of the investigation. No one has ever taken responsibility for it."
In his report, Collins emphasizes that Parker and the teachers in Project Excel were the only Sunset faculty with authorized access to transcripts. Parker denies she gave out the records. But she says Collins accused her by name to Sunset faculty members and by innuendo in his report.
Mary Ann Climer and Leticia Mata also say they do not know the source of the leak. But "in my mind," says Mata, "that person is a hero."
Skeptical that the upheaval has truly changed Sunset, Mata pulled her 16-year-old daughter, Olivia, out this year. The girl is now attending North Dallas' private Greenhill School. Says Mata: "I had to do the right thing for my child."
Rose Parker quit her job shortly after the PAL investigation. "I couldn't work in that atmosphere and pursue legal action," she says.
She spends much of her time these days refining her federal civil rights complaint and pursuing a libel lawsuit that she filed on July 20 against DISD Superintendent Chad Woolery, Collins, Roberts, Stiles, and teacher Clarence Johnson. She claims that Collins, in his investigative role, defamed her reputation among the Sunset faculty and jeopardized her career potential by accusing her of illegally leaking the student transcripts to Channel 8. Parker and co-plaintiffs Dean Webb and David DeCocq--who taught briefly with her in the Excel program--are seeking $1 million in actual damages and $25 million in exemplary damages.
While denying that she leaked transcripts, Parker did appear on-camera during Williams' report--and clearly had contact with the reporter during the gestation of the Channel 8 inquiry. DISD trustee Jose Plata, who represents Sunset High in District 7, says he attended a February community meeting on truancy at Sunset, held in Rose Parker's Project Excel building. Parker and Mata were there. So was Channel 8's Williams, taking notes. "She said she was doing a story on truancy," recalls Mata. "And then she did her wonderful story on PALs."
Asked if her history suggests she has a problem with accepting authority, Rose Parker gasps.
"Do you mean do I have trouble accepting fraud? When you put down bogus grades for students, that is fraud. I don't know what world you're living in. I mean, what reality are you living in? What happened at this school I've never heard of happening anywhere."
Oscar Rodriguez, a veteran principal from North Dallas High School, was transferred to Sunset this fall. Painfully aware of the PAL scandal, and the political clashes that fostered it, he has been polishing his role as clean-up guy. It keeps him very busy.
He won't speak of Stiles. Or of PAL. Or of Parker and Marquez. "I can only tell you about 1995-96. That's my focus," he says. "And shit, I've got more than enough work to do." Adds DISD assistant superintendent Roberts, in handing out ground rules about who could be interviewed at the school: "We are really trying to downplay publicity about Sunset this year."
English department chairman Walker, who has spent his 10-year teaching career at Sunset, was an eloquent ally of Stiles during the district's investigation. The faculty, he says, has picked up and moved on. But he still stings from the accusations by Parker and her allies that Sunset's teachers are an uncaring, racist lot. "I reject the notion of a few zealots that what we do here is below standard, even damaging to the students...The complaints are completely meaningless. I believe that from the bottom of my heart."
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Last week, Michael Stiles was clearing off his desk at the Estes Center, packing up the photos of his wife and three kids and a few other possessions for the move to DISD's food services warehouse.
This time around, there will be no children spilling from the building at 3:15 p.m. each weekday, gathering on the lawn and laughing. No girls and boys flirting with each other as they wait for their bus. No after-school traffic jams on Jefferson Avenue, with the deafening beat of stereo bass thumping out of open car windows. In better days, Stiles could view all of this as he mingled with the students and think that, yes, on most days, this school is working.
"I was blown away by what happened last year, but I'm going to be fine," he says. "I'm in touch with Zulema Ortiz and several teachers at the school. I've gone to several football games this year. The kids still come up and hug me. And we talk and catch up on what's going on. When I see the kids, it doesn't seem like much has changed.
"That's a great feeling. And it makes me realize that I was real lucky to have been there--even for two years.