KERA is looking into the remarkable number of help-wanted ads for school superintendents across the country, from Los Angeles to Newark to Fort Worth. Today we dig into the checkered history of the top job in Dallas. With Mike Miles’ departure last month, the district is looking for its eighth permanent leader in two decades. How has that turnover shaped a struggling district that’s the second-largest in the state?
Across the country, urban superintendents last, on average, about three years.
One morning last month, Miles shocked the city. “When I arrived three years ago, Dallas was ready for a change," Miles said. "There was broad recognition that we couldn’t continue to do the things that we’ve always done.”
And with that, Miles was done. His morning departure was the way things get done around here. Three years and gone, on average. Sometimes though, superintendents don’t even last three years.
Back in 1997, after Chad Woolery served his three years, trustees hired the district’s first Hispanic female superintendent. Yvonne Gonzalez, steered a bulldozer across Reunion arena for a huge, pricey school kickoff rally for employees.
“But I want you to believe in the power of us,” Gonzalez told the crowd. “That those children next Monday, when they come through the school house doors, have an army, that they have an army of 19,000 of us that are going to fight for them”
Gonzalez’s actions drove the district into a ditch, She lasted eight months. In September of 1997, she quit amid a financial and sexual harassment scandal.
“I am not guilty of any harassment, sexual or otherwise,” Gonzalez said in her resignation speech. “And the people who really know me know that.”
“Yvonne Gonzalez, she resigned, she was sent to prison for using school funds to buy furniture,” says Tawnell Hobbs. She’s a long-time education reporter for the Dallas Morning News. After Gonzalez left for her sparsely furnished federal cell, James Hughey became interim, then full-time superintendent. Two years later, Hobbs says trustees reached out to a man from San Francisco.
“Bill Rojas, when he came in, he had a lot of promise,” Hobbs says. “The relationship with the board was so fractured, he got terminated when he was on vacation. So there you go on that.”
Rojas lasted eleven months. That’s when Mike Moses arrived.
“Moses was very stabilizing,” Hobbs says, “and the city leaders were really tired. So he made everybody feel good. He has a great background, he’s a former education commissioner. He has a good reputation in the education community.”
Moses served his three years, helping usher through a bond package. He left saying he was worn out. Another interim served half a year before Michael Hinojosa arrived and stayed six years.
“We always like to say in our searches, you really need to stay five-six years in order to make meaningful change,” Kenneth Dragseth says. “And that’s difficult with urban change so quickly.”
Kenneth Dragseth is President of School Exec-Connect, a national search firm that helps find superintendent candidates. What happens when the district leader leaves too soon?
“Long term student achievement gains don’t happen with constant change, with constant turnover,” says Mike Moses, former Dallas Ssuperintendent, who joined a different school leader search firm.
Former teacher and Dallas board secretary Bob Johnston concurs. He retired in 2000, after nearly 40 years with the district.
“If you’re not there long enough you can’t really do anything to influence what goes on in the schools,” Johnston says. “And the key to success of all who’ve stayed over time is that they hired good education people on their staff who could influence the schools and make changes in the schools.”
Michael Hinojosa oversaw academic gains during his tenure, but also laid off hundreds of teachers because of accounting mistakes. Dragseth, the search firm chief, says money mismanagement often trips up superintendents.
“One of the first things that gets a superintendent released is if they aren’t managing the finances,” Dragseth explains. “So you’ve got to be able to balance the budget and get the confidence of the community that the district is being run well.”
Hinojosa brought in expert fiscal managers, fixed the problem, then left to run a district in Georgia. Now he’s back in an interim role. Trustees may decide to keep him, but they also plan to search the country for candidates to lead a district that Dragseth says, comes with a label.
I think it has a reputation of turning over superintendents. I think it’s a tough district.”
As the eighth superintendent in two decades may soon find out.