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A Revolving Door For Dallas Superintendents

DISD Superintendent Mike Miles

Superintendent Mike Miles has just started his second school year in Dallas, and already board members are talking about whether he should stay or go.  

The story has a familiar ring to those who’ve watched the district churn through superintendents, and experts say the succession of short-timers is surely taking a toll on education.

  When Mike Miles became Dallas’ education chief in April of last year, he was following in a line of superintendents who didn’t stick around very long.

His predecessor Michael Hinojosa stayed six years, twice the average tenure for an urban superintendent.

But the rest of the rotating cast dating back to the early 1990’s lasted for an average of just two years.

Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), says that’s not long enough to put an effective program in place.

“It’s going to need a minimum of five to seven years in order to implement and integrate (a program) into an agenda that’s going to be sustained,” said Domenech.

He warns a revolving door affects learning.

“There’s confusion in the ranks in terms of the teachers who don’t know what they’re doing now.  And the kids they’re the ones who are suffering who aren’t getting the programs and services that would make them achieve at a higher level,” he said.

So why the high turnover?

Bob Johnston has a few ideas.  He held top jobs in the administrations of eight Dallas superintendents during three decades. 

“Lack of experience in a big city school district with a lot of problems,” is a key challenge, said Johnston who pointed to Miles’ transition from a Colorado district with 11,000 students to Big D which has 14 times as many students.

And superintendents commit personal blunders.

Johnston remembers the scandalous exit of Yvonne Gonazalez in 1997. She went to prison after using $16,000 in district money to buy bedroom furniture.

“That is probably the best example of somebody who had that Nixon syndrome:  made a mistake and instead of trying to deal with it, she tried to do some things to get herself out of a jam and got herself in a deeper jam,” he said.

Then in 2000, Bill Rojas was fired during his first year on the job after he called a press conference and publicly criticized board members who had hired him.

For the most part the others chose to leave.  But nearly all of them, at one time or another, had to explain financial scandals, endure backlash for budget and staff cuts and navigate citizen protests.

Johnston says most of Dallas’ superintendents weren’t prepared for the non-stop demands of a job where you’re managing 20,000 employees, a billion dollar budget and the instruction of more than 150,000 mostly low-income children.

Then, there’s the board of trustees.

“People come to an urban center like Dallas and they are not prepared for a board that has single member districts, where the board members are interested and in the schools all the time,” said Johnston.

Credit Shelley Kofler / KERA News
Former Fort Worth Superintendent Melody Johnson is now a scholar-in-residence at TCU.

  Former Fort Worth Superintendent Melody Johnson remembers what that was like.

“You’ve got nine bosses who call you every day- 10:00, 11:00, midnight- that’s not unusual in an urban system,” she explained.

“You have members who want to micro-manage, whether they have the knowledge or not, and have strong opinions about what should or should not be happening.  And that’s where you get into a lot of tension.”

A survey by AASA, the school administrators’ group, found most superintendents leave for other opportunities including retirement. But the second most stated reason was conflict with their school boards.

During her six years as the head of Fort Worth schools, Johnson saw board members who hired her replaced by newly elected trustees who had different priorities. She says that can make it difficult for a superintendent to continue.

Now as a scholar-in-residence at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Johnson says she’s looking for solutions. She believes a different board model would help.

“I think the model needs to move more to a corporate model where you are meeting quarterly, where the board doesn’t have to approve every $5,000 you spend or every contract that comes,” she said. 

Dallas’ Mike Miles has faced a lot of the systemic hurdles including an active, involved board.  He dove into the Dallas job while lacking big-district experience.

But Miles may have contributed to his problems by paying top dollar to incoming administrators, then watching as many of his executives left during his first year.

He could also be in hot water with the board after reportedly helping an employee write a resignation letter that criticized trustees.

Saturday those trustees will talk privately about whether Miles should be allowed to complete his three-year contract which ends in July of 2015, or whether he’ll become another of the many Dallas superintendents who doesn’t stay long enough to finish the job.

Length of Stay for Urban Superintendents in Texas by KERANews