A Conversation with Superintendent Hinojosa
Josh: Michael Hinojosa has been a student, parent, teacher, and coach in the Dallas Independent School District. He’s currently serving as it’s superintendent, for the second time. Occasionally, he’ll refer to his first term as “Hinojosa 1.0,” suggesting an evolution, an even greater understanding of the city he calls home. Though not the one he was born in.
Dr Hinojosa: No, actually I'm an immigrant I was born in Mexico, Laredo, Mexico, but we moved to Lubbock when I was very young, I was three years old, and we lived there for about six years and then actually I moved to Dallas when I was in second grade.
J: So where’d you start going to school?
H: Well that’s a very interesting story. Of course, when your parents are trying to convince you to go move to a better place, you know, they told us we were going to move to a two-story place. There were 10 of us in the home, in a 1200 square-foot home in East Lubbock, and so we were moving to a two-story place, we were very excited. And so we got here, it was two stories, but it was the West Dallas housing projects, it was not a house, and so right away we were hit, and we lived in West Dallas, and I actually went to Thomas Edison when it was a K-8 and I was a second grader. We arrived in February, and West Dallas has neighborhoods. West Dallas has La Bajada, Los Altos, Elmer Scott is where the projects were, and then Ledbetter. So when I was growing up each one of those little areas were kinda known as their neighborhoods and their gangsters, and all that, so I lived in Elmer Scott, and after our station wagon got stolen in West Dallas my dad said “We’re moving. We’re moving to Oak Cliff.” So we only lived in West Dallas for six months, and then my dad got us a rental home in Oak Cliff on Melba Street, right down the street from Reagan elementary. Of course now it’s known as Bishop Arts. At that time it was just Oak Cliff. So we moved from West Dallas to Oak Cliff, but we went from housing projects- and the projects were segregated. Certain projects had Latinos, most of the projects were African-American. So even in West Dallas, you know, certain recreation centers, at that time it was called North Hampton, the African-Americans went to that recreation center, the Latinos went all the way out to Ledbetter to JC recreation center, so even the neighborhoods and the recreation centers were segregated. By moving to Oak Cliff, it still had some old families, there were white families, and so it was still kind of mixed and so I moved to Oak Cliff when I was in third grade. So I went from third grade to seventh grade at Reagan, believe it or not Reagan had grade seven. So that's kind of my experience up to then. So then let me tell you the big story. So now it's August 1971. I'm a student. I go to seventh grade at Reagan. But in eighth grade I go straight to high school, because at that time Adamson was 8-12 for certain feeder patterns, so I go straight from elementary to high school, and in eighth grade I’m the starting quarterback on the football team I’m the starting point guard on the basketball team and I'm starting shortstop of the baseball team and I’m in the eighth grade but I play on ninth-grade teams because I’ve had a lot of experience playing sports. Then the federal judge says okay, 1954 Brown versus the Board of Education. Dallas, you’ve had 15 years, 16 years, 17 years to do something, you haven't done anything. So now this was August of 1971 and the federal judge said “You’re integrating, immediately.” I was at Adamson, I was a hotshot at Adamson in eighth grade, and all of a sudden we get order that we are all moving, students are moving, teachers are moving, because the district, and the city, and the powers that be had all this opportunity to integrate and they wouldn't do it. So I don't know anything, I’m a kid going on ninth grade and the federal judge blows everything up. At that time there were no suburbs in Dallas. At that time Plano was a small 2A high school. There was no Plano East, no Plano West. There were no malls, it was out in the country, until that happened. So then I find out that I'm going from high school back to middle school. So in ninth grade I go to Greiner. I go from high school to middle school. My class, it wasn’t just me, it was my whole class, but it was kind of unique because Adamson at that time was 8-12, and they changed the high schools to 10-12, and they made middle schools 7-9 all at the same time they were doing this. And by the way the teachers also now had integrate. Because previously there were the black schools. They didn’t know what to do with Latinos, because Hispanic is really a term that was created by the federal government. It was created in 1970 by the census department. Before that we were white. So they didn’t know how to really calculate who we were. So some older Latinos, they had to go to Crozier Tech high school, which is now Dallas High, which is downtown, the building Jack Matthews has redeveloped, beautiful school, but at that time it was Crozier Tech so that’s where most of the Latinos went. Unless you are able to sneak into your neighborhood school because you were “white.” And now though, everything changed. And so I remember like if it was yesterday. I show up at Greiner after I get over being mad about going back to middle school, they called them junior highs at the time, I go up, “coach, coach, I’m your quarterback! I was starting quarterback on the ninth grade team last year, I’m here!” He said “Boy, get out of here.” He had big old chewing tobacco in his mouth, he spit it out and said “I got three quarterbacks, I don't need you.” And this was August. So as a macho Mexicano, I was so hurt, I ran all the way home so nobody could see me crying. And so I've always told people it’s not what happens to you it’s how you respond. At that moment, you know, I had the gangsters say “come on, you see what their doing to you? Come on, join us, we got a spot for you, you can be our captain.” But instead I decided to go- we lived right by Kidd Springs recreation center. And so, at that time we had, my parents had bought a house. Still in Oak Cliff but they finally saved enough money to buy a house, and it was over there by Kidd Springs Park, and so I decided then to not let that issue overcome me. So I learned how to play basketball, I went to every gym and then I ended up being starting point guard on that basketball team that same year and we went to city championship and lost to Spence in the city championship, but that whole fall semester of 1971 was just like a blur and I could've gone either way and I was lucky that I had a lot of personal agency, a lot of kids that were my friends didn't have that personal agency, so they got taken over by the system. I persevered and I made it. I was confident and I was strong, but a lot of my peers didn’t and I saw them fall by the wayside. By the way that's when suburbs exploded everywhere. Dallas went in the 60s and early 70s from 65% white to in the 90s and 2000s to 60% African-American and now it's 70% Latino, and all the middle class is gone. The middle class African-Americans moved to the south suburbs, the middle-class Latinos moved to Irving Grand Prairie, Mesquite, Garland, everywhere else. Middle-class whites moved away. People still remember the fights on the forced busing, and what happened. I remember vividly kids from Pinkston, these were my friends, and from Lincoln and Madison being forced to go to WT White and Hillcrest and fights both ways, initiated by the whites and initiated by the Blacks. Everybody was angry and so the district decided "Wow, this is not working out.” So they came to what they called learning centers so that these ethnic minorities wouldn't have to ride a bus 30 minutes to North Dallas. They created quote these “learning centers” where they would bring all these resources for equity in the local communities, and they had mixed success. Some of them did well, but anyway, all the raw emotions that came out, and I was right in the middle of it, so it was just interesting and we lived it at the time and now the irony is I’m in charge this thing.
J: Yeah, and we’re gonna get to that, for sure, but I’m curious, just continuing through the rest of your experience, then you went to Sunset from Greiner, and was there that same sort of rawness at Sunset as well? What was the racial makeup of Sunset at that time?
H: I really don't know I don't have the numbers but what I recall- because we still have middle-class families in North Oak Cliff, if you go right down by Stevens Park golf course and Colorado, there’s this one house that one of my good friends, I always teased him, he was on the baseball team, and his house had an elevator. So at that time there was still a significant number of white kids that went to Sunset. I would say, in my mind it's about 30%, 40% we had about 10% 20% African-Americans, and the rest were Latinos. So that's what I experienced. But you know Oak Cliff has always had this inferiority complex and so when I went to Sunset a lot of the raw emotions of 70, 71, 72, had kind of dissipated by the time I became a junior, senior in high school. But I played on the basketball team, and I used to go to every recreation center. Cummings recreation center, which is right by one of our elementary schools, I used to go there. On our basketball team, we were pretty mixed, I was the only Latino, we had about five or six white guys, and about five or six African-American guys, but none of them had a car and they came from all over Oak Cliff because we didn’t have very good players, so if they wanted to play the couldn’t play at SOC, they couldn’t play at Roosevelt, so they found a way to get a transfer, back then it was called M&M transfer. When you're a majority in your school and you’re going to be a minority in another school, to incentivize integration, they encouraged those young people to go to Sunset, so that’s where we got our African-Americans. But none of them had a car. I'm the one who had the car. So after basketball practice, I would drive all over Oak Cliff taking all the African-American guys home after practice. And we had a decent basketball team but we couldn’t compete with SOC, Carter, at that time Roosevelt was huge, Pinkston was great, so we were competitive, but in that district, you know it was very tough, but I developed a lot of great relationships and got to mix with people different from me. The high school was not a bad experience, it was very diverse, because we still had some middle-class whites from the Colorado, Kessler Park area, but then you had neighborhoods of second and third generation Latinos, and then you had a few African-Americans that had transferred into play sports, and so it was an interesting mix. I didn't know what I was going to do until a teacher got me to apply for a scholarship for Future Teachers of America, and that's a different story related to all of these issues about race and class, and so also I ended up going to Texas Tech, but my high school experience, I would not say was traumatic like that ninth grade year. Tenth grade year was all getting to know these new people, it'd all calmed down by 11th and 12th grade year, so by 1975 we were worried about disco fever, Friday night fever, Saturday night fever, that was the era, so you put in the context of the times, and the music actually helped heal. As much as people diss disco, a lot, you know, white kids, Latinos, African-Americans liked that, so the music helped heal and bring us together at the time, you know, when there were some of the pop stars that helped us overcome the wounds that we had just felt as we’d gone through that. Dennis Rodman’s mother was one of my teachers at Sunset High School. Dennis Rodman’s sister was a better basketball player than he was in high school, she was 6’4” and she went to Sunset with us, she came with her mom, so those are the kinds of people I was around. So it's really fascinating to see how this all played itself out.
J: So you mentioned how you got into teaching was a whole other story, I’d love to hear that story as well.
H: Well, it was just this teacher said you know, I want you to apply for this scholarship, find out it was $500, and I said “So, what does that buy you? Not much,” but she bought me a dream that she thought I could be an educator. So I go to Texas Tech and I come right back because I wanted to teach in the neighborhood where I grew up. I graduated in four years and I came right back to Oak Cliff and I was a teacher and a coach. I taught one year at Stockard middle school, and I taught seven years at Adamson high school, and I was the head basketball coach, and I was the youngest head basketball coach in the history of Dallas. But that was also an experience, because now some of those teachers that taught me at Adamson when I was there in eighth grade were still there, but now, the staffs were integrated, all of my coaches buddies, half of them were African-Americans and they remember coming from the all-black schools, and I remember we would sit in the coaches office, and I was the only one that was the in-betweener. So you had the old white teachers and coaches kinda hanging on to segregation, and “why did this happen to us?” And then you had African-American coaches that were bitter about their attitude and they were bitter about their attitude, and I was a Latino guy and I was the young guy. And so I was kind of the bridge between them and amongst them, because I got along both sides. I got along with the good old boys but I also got along with African-Americans. In every personal or professional setting I’ve somehow been the one in between, and this was as a young coach, and that's why I'm hopeful with today's young people, because, see us older people have gone through this, we carry this baggage with us, and for some of us we’ve learned how to deal with it. Others still are very bitter on either side, and they’ve been in positions and we’ve been in positions of power for a long time. But until this next generation takes over, people wonder “why do people go so crazy?” But that's because if you didn't go through it, you don't have the context. And so I think it's been a plus for me to be the one that’s in between all the time.
J: Talking about how the white flight really ended up impacting so much of this, by the time you’re back teacher you’re really starting to see that mount, how did that affect your day-to-day dealing with the fact that you're losing students, different students have to come in to try and fill these gaps, schools end up closing, did that shape your experience as a teacher?
H: A little bit but I was kind of in a cocoon, you know, I just loved teaching and coaching, I loved being back in Oak Cliff, and I was a government teacher so that's another thing that’s helped me, I'm not a politician but I understand politics. But it was interesting at one point during that time almost all the elementary schools in North Dallas shut down. They closed them, they shuttered them because there were no kids. They all went to Richardson, they went to Plano, they went to Carrollton, they went anywhere but Dallas. Then eventually the Latinos started coming in, and the families, and our parents who built this beautiful city, who serve this beautiful city started moving in those neighborhoods. But if you go to almost every elementary school in North Dallas, predominantly Latinos, Hispanic kids with their families that live in those apartments. They don’t live in those houses but they go to those schools. But I even did a presentation to the Harvard child advocacy program at the Harvard Law school about three weeks ago. Everybody thinks this is just Dallas. This is not. I have a spreadsheet that I’m actually going to present to the board in May and, as I presented to that group, the middle class has left every city in America. There are only two major cities in America that have more than 50% white and less than 50% economically disadvantaged: Seattle and Portland. Those are the only two major cities. When I tell people that Garland is bigger than Detroit public schools, they look at me like I'm crazy. Mesquite is bigger than Cleveland Cavaliers. Grand Prairie is bigger than Kansas City. Carrollton is bigger than St. Louis. You just go around the Metroplex and we have suburban districts in our county that are bigger than these big-city districts, and Dallas is the only district that's over 90% economically disadvantaged except for Cleveland. But you think about Miami, it’s Miami-Dade County, so it’s like all their suburbs, so if we had the Dallas County ISD, that would include Highland Park, and Garland, and Mesquite, and Carrollton, and it's not. So we’re the fifth-largest city district behind New York, LA, Chicago, Houston, and us. So that's when the NAPE scores come out people say “well what? It doesn’t make sense, you’re doing well on the state test,” but there's no regression analysis on the NAPE scores, it’s just the kids that you have and how they do on these national norm tests. So we try not to make excuses but when people don’t understand the bigger context- and all of this was driven by white flight, black flight, the middle-class flight, and I used to tell principals when I was under Hinojosa 1.0, because they’d have a lot of parents would come window shop. A former mayor asked me “you got your kids in Dallas schools?” I said “oh yeah, and they went to Harvard and Princeton.” But that mayor never put their kid in our school district. And I have to tell the principals, “look, they’ll shop, but they can’t get beyond race and class, they're not going to pull the trigger.” And that's why I think our new OTI program has so much promise, because if you think about it, it's 50-50. No one wants to be the only white kid, or the only Latino, or the only African-American in the school. But if you have economic diversity, then a byproduct will be racial diversity, and this is why I thought that Koprowski’s initiative was brilliant where you actually socially engineer diversity. And you can’t do it by race now, because the courts have ruled that, but you can do by economics which is tied to race, and so I study demography, I update my spreadsheets every year and I see the trends and how this is all changed and it impacts my work. But it's really been interesting to kind of watch his whole social issue, and we’re still dealing with other things as far as equity but I know that’s part of the next question.
J: So in relation to all of these issues, we’re doing an equity audit, and we’ve passed an equity resolution. What do you see as the purpose of taking these steps, how would you state that, and what are you hoping to see on the other side of passing a resolution and having these audit results come back?
H: Well, part of it, I think the equity audit is the catalyst for change and let me tell you why. Nobody's baby is ugly. If you want to describe your own baby it’s a pretty baby, you know. But when someone else describes the really, the real truth, then you find out where you have gaps. The only disappointment- we’re going to present the equity audit this week- the only disappointment I’m going to have in it, it initially was supposed be a mixed methods, both qualitative and quantitative, but because of funding issues it only became a qualitative. So we’re still going to get some rich context and issues and stories and things about it. The disappointment is if it's not quantitative then how do you really know about equity. So we’ve decided that this equity audit is the catalyst to make us make some significant changes because we've had a few anecdotes. Like we had one ED that was over a feeder pattern in Northeast Dallas, and then we put in charge of the turnaround schools, and she’d always been in the Northeast Dallas and if they didn't have technology the parents would help them get the technology but now she's in charge of the schools in sunny South Dallas and they don't- there are really technology deserts, just like their food deserts, just like everything else. And so, but that anecdote was not powerful enough. So we've created an office of racial equity, and in this office of racial equity, we’re gonna have quantifiable items. The other good news is that we've also doing a long-range facilities and technology master plan, so by definition some of the stuff will be in there, because we are walking every campus to look at the facility, we’re going to every classroom to look at the technology. So we’re quantifying that in our plan as we go. And if one school has this, and this school has this, that doesn’t mean they both do like this, that means we have to fill up this bucket before we go up together. And if you got additional resources then you're okay. But you got winners and losers and you only got limited resources then that's where the fights begin as, “what you mean you can give it all of them?” That’s because they don't have it. But, so this office of racial equity is going to have not only information that we’re gonna compile about stuff like technology and buildings and programs like access to AP courses IB courses, access to the good stuff. But also, you know, discipline, behavior, overidentification of students, and so their charge is to come up with a quantifiable identification of all the gaps, and then we start filling the buckets to level the playing field. Other districts have done office of racial equity. We’re slow to the game, because for a long time in Dallas, if you talked, there were fights and they were fierce, about everything, when the new Black Panther party used to show up board meetings. And I think because people were afraid to talk about it, because it was so volatile. But now I think people have come to an acceptance and now we’re getting a lot more young Turks who really want- I tell people at all time “you go to the airport, you go to the mall, you see diversity, you’re not in a bubble!” So this is what the real world is going to look like for the rest of their lives. Us old-school people got to figure out how to make this thing work until we hand it off to the young people who are gonna be in positions of authority in the future. So I look at things from this lens. I saw from a student- as a student, before and after integration, and then I saw it as teacher, and then as a superintendent I seen the remnants of it and the history of it, and very few people have been able to be on both ends of this spectrum. And others: “How did this get here?” Well if you don't know the history... And then others: “Well they did to me!” And that's all they remember. And so someone's gotta be the bridge that's been on both sides of that.
J: Another just quick question about your experience as a student and thinking about facilities and resources and equity, did you see a difference in the resources that were available to you, whether it was technology, or recreation or whatever, as, you know, a student at Edison and then at Reagan versus then once you’re moving into Sunset and this integration push is starting to happen.
H: Well I always thought, you know, we always had the oldest and the poorest stuff, you know I do remember that. I mean when I played high school basketball, we played against teams in the suburbs and they had these nice gyms and we didn't even have bleachers in our gym and all of us got thrown into one locker room. I thought it was just the urban experience, but I think part of it was the expectation and where you started. But even worse than that, worse than that, there was always this: “Oh, you’re from Oak Cliff, you’re nobody.” I only applied to two universities because I was told that I was not gonna make it. I applied to University Houston because it was urban and applied to Texas Tech because my sisters went there. And I got in both, and I decided to go to Tech for familiarity. I didn't think I could get to UT. Well, I ended up getting a four-point UT Austin for my doctorate because effort creates ability, you get smarter through hard-work, if you really have a growth mindset, than things can change, the narrative can change. But I was: “You’re just from Oak Cliff, be happy with University of Houston and Texas Tech.” I vowed that if I was going to get a doctorate, I was going to get it from the tier 1 institution, because I wanted to break that myth, and wanted to break that cycle, but I never had a chip on my shoulder. I always felt that inside, but so I could get along with everybody I never really articulated it until I was in a position of authority, where I had a little bit more credibility with my comments. But it was even worse because it was the level of expectation. Now, because of our P-Techs we got 800 kids that have said they'll go to Sunset high school, first, second, or third choice to be part of that P-tech. We had 800 kids when i was in high school trying to get out of Oak Cliff. Now they want to go to Oak Cliff because of what we’re offering, a free college education and a partnership with an industry partner. So to me it's just been surreal to see that, and so, a lot of times we don't know how words can damage expectations. And so it's not just about the stuff. It's about the emotions, it's about the discipline. If you tell a kid to read out loud and he can't read, what's he going to do? He's going to act out and then you’re gonna kick him out because he just acted a fool because he can’t read and he doesn't want everybody else to know he can't read. So those are the kind of things that we don't even think about that put our kids into hostile situations that other people just take for granted. And if you've never worked in that environment you can really make some fatal mistakes about how you treat students and how you treat adults.
J: What was the inspiration to move from being a teacher, being a coach to taking this next step into educational leadership?
H: It was all actually by accident. Because I didn’t want to leave teaching. I loved teaching, I loved coaching. In fact, in high school, my high school coach said “Hinojosa, you’re short but you’re slow too.” I said, “thanks, Coach that’s very inspirational.” He goes, “But no, you’re the smartest kid I ever coached, you gonna to be somebody, it’s just not in college basketball.” So when I was coaching and I was the youngest head basketball coach in Dallas, all I ever wanted to do was coach, but it was actually accidental. I was dating young lady, and I said “baby, when are we going to get married?” She said “I’m not gonna marry a coach. Why don’t you become an administrator?” So I went out and got me a job, got me a suit, shaved, said “babe, how you like me now?” and she dumped me! So, it never works out the way you think. It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you respond, but actually that was the best thing ever happened to me. I got into the administration, I started seeing how things work, I had some good hard-core experiences, I had some personal agency, and then my career- I went from assistant principal to assistant superintendent in four years. I was superintendent by the time I was 36. So it was kind of by accident. But then I was amazed at when I first went to El Paso area as a superintendent someone asked me- this was in 1994- they said “so, what do you want to be long term?” I said “I want to be superintendent of Dallas!” I can't believe I said that, because they’d seven superintendents in 10 years and one of them went to prison, I said “if they can screw it up, I can’t do that bad! I can better than that.” And as it turns out I'm superintendent of Dallas twice. But it’s just kinda how it happened. I remember I was superintendent outside of Austin one time and the Dallas job came open again, and I got people calling, I said “No, I’m ready not yet. I’m not ready.” This is a big job, this is a big job, and if you're not ready, it can take you down, it’s taken a lot of people down. And so I said I'm not ready, when I'm ready, then I'll go after it. So I needed another job that was bigger, higher profile until I felt like I was ready. So it's all been kind of by accident, and it’s just been- it never really had direction that way but it just kind of worked out. And then coming back is another story. But it’s one of those things, you know, I love this city and I love this district, and that's what I do what I do. And these experiences have molded me to be able to handle the intensity of this position. To me, it’s just, I don’t know what else I would do.
J: You know, having had experience at all of these different levels, and different sizes of school districts, what is it about- and obviously the size has a lot to do with it, and probably the racial equity stuff all kind of factors in there as well- but what is it that is unique about the Dallas school district and the city of Dallas? What is different about working here than anywhere else?
H: Couple things. Number one, I learned when I was superintendent in one district about this leadership triangle: that the students are in the middle, at the top is the board, and they’re very diverse, over here is the staff, they’re very diverse, and over here is the community, it's very diverse. But in a lot of those communities, there's not always a lot of different diversity. But check out here in Dallas: I have nine board members, three black, three white, three brown. They’re all smart, I have three attorneys, two that have an MBA from Kellogg school, another one from UT, another Masters from Harvard, and then our two African-American board members, they put in a lot of time, they’re very smart, they may not have the degrees but they work and so they're very smart. So everything is tri-ethnic with my board. And then we actually- people don’t know this but our staff’s tri-ethnic. If you look at our data, we have about a third, a third, a third. And then if you look at our kids, we’re mostly, we’re only 5% white. But the community’s tri-ethnic. In every way, whether it's the chamber, whether it's the advocacy groups, whether it’s, you know, anything else. And so I think the difference is that Dallas is a lot more like a Northeast- Dallas and Ft. Worth are so close but they're so different in every respect. Fort Worth is where the West begins and Dallas is much more like a northeastern type city that you see. And if you’re not prepared for that, then it's very difficult to manage. And if you don't pay attention to those kinds of issues, like if you’re gonna go make a recommendation and you haven’t thought of that, I think that's what makes the job so different from any other city is the tri-ethnic balance of all of those stakeholders.
J: Absolutely, well, and then there’s also the added layer of how something like a housing policy, you know a new one just came out of City of Dallas, how much that ends up affecting things like efforts to try and desegregation schools. So you know, you mentioned being familiar with politics, and you’re not necessarily a politician, although I think some people may disagree with that even, but the awareness that you have to have of things that are outside of your purview, your authority as a superintendent but that still end up shaping what it is that you have to do in your job, things like that are coming out of the city of Dallas, or out of the county, or even out of some of the suburban school districts. How do you manage and balance and keep your finger on the pulse of all of those things as well?
H: Well, you have to have a great team and I do have a great team and they help me, but as the CEO you have to look at everything. Just like initially when we were losing enrollment, we all thought different things that were the catalyst. But then actually we started studying and yes, charter school was the biggest one, but also birthrates actually had an impact with the recession in 2010 and there's a bubble of kids that are smaller and it’s going through everywhere, so if you don't pay attention to birthrates… And then gentrification is another big issue! Every school that is in jeopardy of closing ‘cause they’re under enrolled is really being driven as much by gentrification as it has by the charter schools. In the North Dallas high school feeder pattern, all those rental homes and apartments have been taken down and replaced by 600 square-foot apartments that only certain people can afford, and they’re not going to have families. And you don't need to just go with your hunch. You know, in God we trust and everybody else bring data, because we gotta, you have to look at the data points that are leading you to other conclusions, and I got the board to turn on a dime to let me close a couple of low enrollment schools because now we have a market of 4000 families that want to come to our specialty schools, so we had, I had to put the board in a tough spot, but I know that I only have these applications right now, and these students are our lifeblood and if I don't pull the trigger now, those 4000 applications aren’t going to be here next year. So, we had- now we’re going to open a new Montessori and a new personalized learning school. But I put the board in a bad spot but to me it was worth it because if I didn't I would lose an opportunity to recapture part of our market share. So you look at your goals, you look at your ideas, and then do risk reward analysis with your board and then you just hope they’re with you, and then if they don't support you they don’t support you, and then you back off and try something else or come back next year. So that's a very specific example, and housing policy drives the gentrification, and that impacts our world. And if you don’t have a professional demographer, and if you're not doing an environmental scan, and if you're not doing- you know, the same thing with our collegiate academies on the positive side, we found out that you can get a job in education, IT, medical industry, and manufacturing, and so that’s where our pathways are for these jobs and that's why we have 66 industry partners. If you're not paying attention to what the community is telling you, you’re going to miss those opportunities or you’re going to make fatal mistakes, and so you have to pay attention to those external elements because it impacts our world.
J: So you mentioned funding in regards to the equity audit earlier, and not necessarily having enough to even do as robust of an audit as you would have liked to have done. So on the other side of starting to get some of these results back, what is the strategy for making sure that some of the changes that need to occur in some of these allocation of resources are as equitable as possible in regards to the funding for it. And then as like a second part to that question, what are maybe some of the changes that don't necessarily even have a cost implication but are more just a fundamental philosophical shift that needs to occur.
H: Yeah I think you have to have a unrelenting high focus of high expectations. Just like people didn’t expect me to go anywhere except U of H or Texas Tech, and those are both great schools, but there were so many other options, and that’s what we do about some of the practices that we employ. But also, you know, I've also learned this by watching the legislature and watching- if funding is a zero-sum game and you got winners and losers, then the winners are happy and the losers are mad. And in our business your friends come and go and your enemies accumulate. So every time you make a tough decision and make somebody mad you got another enemy. By the way I was a basketball referee for seven years, so I’m used to everybody yelling at me and you gotta have a thick skin, you gotta keep going even though someone's disagreeing with you and yelling at you, you can't take it personally, otherwise you’ll wilt in this job. But so then, there’s not only equity, but there's adequacy. And so sometimes you just have to go for as many resources that you can get, and you have a much better chance of success if you have new resources to deal with these issues. And certain things you just got bake into the baseline budget. Now one of the ways we've had some success is that we funded our strategic initiatives first the last couple years and then we only gave great teachers a salary increase. But my great principals didn’t get an increase, my team didn’t get an increase, our secretaries haven't gone an increase, nobody else has because we funded those strategic initiatives. But if we had additional resources and you fund your strategic initiatives and you take care your people, then you got a much better chance for success. And you gotta make- I gotta make a decision, what do I build into the baseline budget and then what I put up for grabs. And so those are the high-stakes recommendations that I end up having to bring forward and I always gotta find a way to get support from the board, because ultimately: democracy is an ugly thing but it’s the best thing going, and I don't have absolute power, I have to go prove it up to my school board and if they can’t support it than I have to come back with something else they can support. So that's what makes jobs at a little bit more complex than what people might look at should be easy to handle from the outside.
H: We’ve taken a peek at this week's agenda and we saw that a TRE, 13-cent, will be recommended again. Do you feel like we’re making progress on getting that supermajority that we will need?
J: We’ll see, but I'm not giving up on any of the board members, and I’m not taking anything for granted either. But I’ve also listened, and we’ve also owned this one. And we’ve taken into consideration- because one of the board members who’s a fiscal conservative said “okay, if you’re keeping all the money in year one, what are you going to do next year? And you still have strategic initiatives and you still want this?” So I think part of what's in this plan is, you know, we have figured out a four year plan, and we have listened to the board members, and you know if we have less kids, we need to have less staff. Cutting staff is very difficult to do. But if we’re going to make campuses cut staff, then central has to cut staff, at a higher rate. So we've listened, and we’re coming back and we’ll try it again, but you know, you only get three strikes in baseball. The count is 0 and 2, and I just don't know what this pitch is gonna look like, so I'm gonna give it my best effort, and hopefully we can convince a super majority to invest, because the cavalry’s not coming, the state’s not gonna help us. As you well know, property value growth doesn't benefit us like it does the city and the county, in fact it kind of hurts us. So we got a chance, but I don't want my legacy to be the bankruptcy superintendent, that I cut our way to the bottom. You know, I just can make a pitch for resources and if it’s not there it’s not there. So, we’ll see what happens.
H: I think it's a hybrid, I think there are some things- I'm used to, I been a superintendent for 23 years, most of them in Texas. We knew that if you got this law passed, then the rules were written by this month, and then you knew the rules of engagement and you knew how to go forward. There’ve been- maybe because there’s so many new people at the agency, they don’t get the rules out fast enough and we can’t implement fast enough, but let me tell you this. Even with the high-stakes nature of some of these things, I am very confident to predict that we’re down to 13 improvement required schools, and that by next year we’ll be at less than five. I can predict that because we’ve actually closed five of those, and if they make it they get to stay open on three of them, but if they don't, they close. And then we’re making enough that we can predict we’re gonna have success. But we actually don't even know where the goalpost is. It’s like if I went to Jerry Jones and I said “I want you to hire a blind kicker,” ‘cause we don't know where the goal post is. So right now depending on how they set the cut points, we could have zero improvement required school or we could have 10 brand-new middle schools that are improvement required, ‘cause we haven’t been told what the cut points are. And for us, we’ve taken care of it, because any school that’s IR 4 or 5, we’ve closed them. So we don’t have a problem with state takeover. Houston has 10 schools. Five of them are high schools. And if they don't all make it, and of course their governance issues are a little bit more pronounced than ours. So the stakes are very high. So to answer your question it’s a bit unusual. Now, one thing the commissioner has said to his credit is, once they set the goalposts they’re not moving them for five years. That will be great, and a relief. But then we have two more legislative sessions in those five years and it may be out of his control. Anything could happen. So we don’t have time to whine about it, we just got deal with it, and so you make your best estimate, best prediction, make your best decisions, and then you try not to leave too many things to chance. Cause like any IR 5, the board supported me on that, and if you look at the votes, most, almost all of them were 9-0 and a couple of them were 7-2. So it just depends on what the stakes are and how big they are before you can make some big decisions.
J: I'm curious, in your, of course, copious free time, if you’ve had a chance to follow what's going on with the public school finance commission down there in Austin, and if you had any thoughts on something you’d like to see come out of that. But sort of just even more generally what in an ideal world is some legislation you would like to see out of Austin that would really benefit an urban school district like Dallas as opposed to so much of what's coming out now seems to be sort of a hinderance.
H: Well, I’ve been watching it, and in fact I’ve testified once and my team has testified a couple times, they could do one thing, but they won't do it, that would be very simple. If they just took this recapture money, $4 billion that the state uses as revenue for the general fund, if they just took some of that money and increased the basic allotment, it would raise everybody up, and Houston, and us, and Austin would be out of recapture and every district would benefit by raising the basic allotment. But that means taking some of that $4 billion and putting it into education that’s collected by property taxes. I don’t think that’s going to happen. What I think is going to happen, is there may be some opportunity to set up some funds and they’re going to incentivize the behavior that they want. If you think differently about strategic compensation, they put a dollar, some funds available that you could apply for, you’re not requiring districts to do it, but if you want to do it here’s a resource. If you believe in certain turnaround models and you want to apply for some funds- I believe something like that may come out of this, but then it’s got to get approved by both both chambers and signed by the governor. But I think that has a reasonable chance. The other one would help everybody, but I just don't see them raiding that four billion dollars that they get, that they’re using for transportation and healthcare, I mean they’re not wasting the money, they’re using it for other state purposes but it’s being collected as school property taxes. So we'll see, but there's never a simple answer to what's going on.
J: Any, just, last thoughts, something that you would like people who may not have visited a Dallas school, what are some of the misconceptions that you would like to address about where you work and these schools?
H: Well, you know, all three of my boys went through Dallas schools, one elementary and two in secondary schools, and you can get a great education in Dallas, but you gotta be able to look beyond race and class. And if we have the opportunity to bring back the middle class that's great, but if not we still can get a great education. The fact that so many of these people have partnered with us and you get a- between the Dallas County Promise and our collegiate academies, you won't get all that debt. And then, a lot of these community college kids, they stay in this community, they don't run, you don’t have a brain drain of these kids going somewhere else. So I would just want people to give us a fair chance. And you know, some of my board members get mad when we get a negative press article. It is what it is, but you just gotta be in this for the long game, and unfortunately sometimes superintendents come and stay for three years and then there's constant turnover. Be in it for the long game. You know we want this not to be a tale of two cities, we want everybody in the city to prosper, the businesses and the families. And we deal with people’s two most prized possessions, their money and their kids. So people get very excited about this stuff. But I think that we’re headed in the right direction and we don't apologize for our demography, but we have good kids. People come, it's amazing, every time we do principal for a day, it's almost unanimous: “Well, this was not what I was expecting, wow, these are good kids, and wow, this is a good school.” More people need to have that epiphany, I think and I think we’d be better off in the long run.
J: Do you see any big differences between- you know you mentioned some superintendent turnover and you’ve been here now in two different eras- are there any big differences in your current tenure than there were from the last time?
H: Just about everything. But it’s not my district, I mean, I have to take the context: the players change, the situation changed, not only internal but external players change. But I learned this a long time ago. I was in a young superintendent’s academy and the facilitator said “You guys are nothing but a bunch of hired hands.” Well, I’m a well-trained professional educator, I beg your pardon. He goes “no!” He goes “raise your hand if you’re going to retire in the district where you’re superintendent right now.” Out of the 35 superintendents, three raised their hands. Now the board members, they usually retire where they serve. So we just sometimes think because we’re the well-trained professional educators that we know best. Well it's not our district. It’s their money, their kids, and their schools and so you need to be adaptable to the context that you’re hired in. And if I make it to the end of my contract which expires in December 31st of 2019 but who's counting, if I make it that far, I would've been the longest serving superintendent in Dallas since integration, since I was a kid. Before that, it was bankers and lawyers who were on the board. And so only three people would've served longer than me, and that would've been WT White, Crozier, and JL Long would’ve been the three that have served longer than me. So stability helps, because every time a CEO change, in any corporation, there’s gonna be changes. It doesn’t matter, if the CEO changes, there’s gonna be changes in strategy and staff and everything else. So stability is more important especially for a long urban district that has suffered there are some urban districts like Long Beach that had three superintendents in the last thirty five years. Very high performing, poor kids, but they have a strategy, they implement, and they go the long game. And that’s what’s missing in a lot- I’ve been back three years, and out of the fifteen largest districts, I have the second longest tenure, and I’ve only been back three years. Of all the fifteen largest districts in America. So, I mean, what does that tell you about the nature of the job?
J: You think you’re going to retire here now?
H: I think so. You never know, but I love being a superintendent so much, the one year I was retired, I hated it. But I don’t know where else I would go. And I love this community, but you know, I’m only mistake away from them not wanting me, so it’s kind of out of my control, so who knows?
The Miseducation of Dallas County is powered by the Commit Partnership and produced by me, Joshua Kumler. It was executive produced by me, along with John Hill, Rob Shearer, and Kathryn Mikeska. Mixed and mastered by Will Short. Music by Trevor Yokochi. Special thanks to Dr. Hinojosa and his entire team up at DISD central administration. This podcast is dedicated to educators everywhere. The future is in your hands. We’ll be back soon with more Miseducation.
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