"It was just your standard chicken lunch," recalls Rosemarie Allen, who was, at the time, one of three associate superintendents in the Dallas school district.
Yet the meal was part of a pricey gathering arranged by DISD administrators at the Cityplace Conference Center last August for around 300 people, mostly the district's special-education experts -- those who help teach and assess 15,000 schoolchildren with learning, cognitive, and physical disabilities and speech and language disorders. The event, which cost the district more than $8,200, was scheduled in part to lift the crowd's spirits.
But in hindsight, the meal represented a last supper of sorts. In the weeks that followed the gathering, Bill Rojas, the new DISD superintendent, stripped many of those in attendance of their previous responsibilities.
Those high up the special-ed ladder have been moved out of their offices and received obscure assignments. They assume they are waiting until Rojas declines to renew their contracts next year. Allen, for instance, is no longer an associate superintendent, but has been appointed executive director of magnet-school evaluations, an area Rojas reportedly wants to de-emphasize. Others further down the pecking order no longer know how they are supposed to be spending their time now that Rojas has given their tasks to other departments.
Even during the Cityplace event, administrators of Special Education Services knew they were headed for a bumpy ride. Allen and other department heads had originally scheduled the meeting to buoy the troops and prepare them for an audit scheduled by the Texas Education Agency. The state watchdog agency for local school districts had scheduled a one-week review of DISD programs in February 2000, and some special-education administrators believe they were being targeted.
Before the regulators arrived, Allen says, she wanted to make certain that her department had made the necessary preparations so it could give the TEA auditors the proper documentation on all special-needs students. She also wanted her central staff and school administrators to pave the way for the conferences that the TEA intended to conduct for the first time ever with parents of these children.
Planning ahead, Allen scheduled the Cityplace gathering in August so the group would have six months to get their house in order. But shortly before the gathering, Rojas pulled the rug out from under the bureaucrats.
In a letter sent six days before the event, Rojas' newly appointed deputy superintendent Rosita Apodaca asked the TEA to move the February reviews at least four months ahead of schedule.
"This year has begun with a sense of urgency and commitment,'' the letter states. "Led by a new administration, our intent is to systematically improve all aspects of the District...To that end, Dr. Waldemar [Bill] Rojas, General Superintendent, has asked and we request your consideration regarding the timing of the reviews. As the process is designed to provide feedback for improvement, our best interests would be served by rescheduling the review for September or October -- in other words, as soon as possible. The District is embarking on an incredibly difficult task of improving one of the largest school systems in the country.''
At the same time, Apodaca told Allen to halt all preparations for the TEA audit. She forbade the administrators from conducting programs to prepare for the audit at the Cityplace lunch, Allen says. Neither Rojas nor Apodaca returned phone calls from the Dallas Observer.
Four employees within Special Education Services, who asked that their names not be used, say that they believe Rojas and Apodaca deliberately requested the accelerated time schedule so TEA would catch their department unprepared. TEA would come in and find the department chaotic and disorganized, their theory goes, and the resulting bad reviews would give Rojas the justification he needs to fire them.
Others, however, believe Rojas was trying to prevent bureaucrats from spending time doctoring files in preparation for the TEA rather than educating students.
One longtime middle manager in Special Education Services at first was suspicious of Rojas' intentions, but has revised her opinion. She now says, "There are so many things not in those files. In this time frame, they can't possibly manufacture the things that are missing. What's missing are all kinds of procedural things that are very important to tracking a kid."
For their part, TEA regulators agreed to abide by Rojas' request. This week, its auditors began a five-day visit to the Dallas schools with a stated focus on special and bilingual education. But TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliff says that most districts, particularly large ones like Dallas, invest some staff time and energy in getting ready for a visit from the state regulators. "It's definitely something schools tend to prepare for. These are not surprise audits. There are records that have to be gone over. The larger the district, the more time they need to prepare."
Whatever Rojas' motivation -- whether to keep educators focused on students or to set them up for dismissal -- the superintendent has created a panic situation as TEA auditors arrived at DISD. According to one special-education manager, "Adults are running around like chickens with their heads cut off.''