After the Love Is Gone

Posted: May 18, 2001 12:00 AM
As Former San Francisco schools chief Bill Rojas left City Hall Tuesday -- he had just finished testifying before a committee looking into the school district's sorry and fraud-ridden finances -- he greeted San Francisco school board member Dan Kelly. Kelly would not return the banter. He castigated Rojas, telling him that Rojas was good when he worked with the whole board, but when he started working with only pet board members, "that's when things got bad." These are bitter days for Kelly and school board president Jill Wynns. Kelly and Wynns got wise to Rojas and his free-spending ways before he left the district. They tried to stop the types of practices that the FBI and the city attorney now are investigating. The two even came before The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board in 1999 to take on Rojas for buying a $7.8 million building the school district didn't need. Now, after all those joyless fights, Kelly and Wynns get hauled before the headline-hungry Supervisor Leland Yee, himself a former school board member, to explain the school district's money woes. (His rationale: the city gives the district $3 million annually.) Yee even had the cheek to suggest that they do some soul-searching. Get that supe a mirror. He, along with Kelly, Wynns and the rest of the board, voted unanimously to make Rojas superintendent in 1992. They shrugged off Rojas' two drunken-driving arrests -- the most recent in 1990 -- and three drivers' license revocations. They ignored critics of his management style. Dupes, they figured they could handle him. Kelly crowed that Rojas was "a sterling, exciting candidate." Yee lauded his "ability to carry forth as an educational leader." Rojas promised "creative funding mechanisms." On that, auditors agree, he delivered. What were they thinking? As a district teacher once told me, Rojas is "the biggest four-flusher of them all." (In poker, he'd bet as if he had five cards of the same suit, when he only had four.) To know Rojas for five minutes is to recognize a slick operator who will say anything. This week, for example, he told The Chronicle that S.F. Unified is having money problems because "No one knows how they are giving a 15 percent raise to teachers and an 8 percent raise to administrators who are already making $90, 000." That was choice coming from the once highest-paid school superintendent in the country. (Dallas paid him $260,000 a year, and then paid him $90,000 in severance pay when they fired him.) Ditto his contention that the district's money woes began after he left, considering that he left the district begging for $12.7 million in emergency aid. So why did the board hire him? "He was famous across the country," Kelly explained. "People loved him everywhere." No, he was a smooth talker. He told board members what they wanted to hear. He made them look good when he announced tougher graduation requirements in 1997. Board members bragged that they would get more from students, especially minority kids, because they were demanding more. As if that was all it took. Last year, no surprise, the board had to rescind the rules after they failed to lay the groundwork to prepare all students for college-prep math and science. The board didn't grouse when Rojas bought the trendy new-new math series MathLand, which was big on multicultural group exercises and small on computation. They didn't stop him from punishing schools that disciplined too many students who brought weapons on campus. When he engaged in educational malpractice, they loved him. They only balked when they didn't like what he was doing with the district checkbook -- including when he signed up the Edison Project to run a charter school. Giving students math-lite was acceptable. A for-profit charter school was not. Oh, the irony. There stood the avenging Wynns, indignant that audits show that the district spent bond money on operating expenses, which is illegal. And when she's not indignant about Rojas, she's indignant about Edison. The district is so ill managed that auditors can't figure out where all the money went. Yet, parents are supposed to trust the "Oops-we're-sorry" school board with their kids and their money.