How Can DISD's Michael Hinojosa Still Love His Job—and Keep It?

It's a chilly, gusty mid-November evening, and outside the headquarters of the Dallas Independent School District, 30 or so protesters have gathered. For two months now, they've called for the removal of Superintendent Michael Hinojosa after he announced that on his watch the district outspent its budget by tens of millions of dollars and, even worse, had to fire teachers to keep the lights on. The previous Saturday, people also picketed outside Hinojosa's North Dallas home, but a neighbor told them he had left after learning they were on the way.

Tonight though, Hinojosa can't go anywhere. While outside protesters demand he step down, waving wind-blown signs that read "Retire Hinojosa, Rehire Teachers," the 52-year-old superintendent will be at the DISD Board of Trustees meeting, where the nine elected officials will be voting to extend their terms by one year. It's an incredibly brazen and divisive move: The same trustees who sat on their hands as the district blew past its budget now want to suspend elections like a military junta angling to stifle democratic dissent.

Hinojosa's job, meanwhile, is not in danger—at least not tonight. The superintendent has a firewall of five votes on the board. One of those five is board president Jack Lowe, who has stymied efforts from the three black trustees to bring a no-confidence measure against Hinojosa. Now by voting to extend their terms, Lowe and the pro-Hinojosa board members can keep their balance of power intact for one more year. That should allow the superintendent time to weather out the district's latest controversy.

The super: Fending off calls that he quit his job, Michael Hinojosa points to improvements in the classroom.
Mark Graham
The super: Fending off calls that he quit his job, Michael Hinojosa points to improvements in the classroom.
Check your work: Teacher rep Aimee Bolender says Hinojosa should have made sure DISD didn't blow its budget.
Mark Graham
Check your work: Teacher rep Aimee Bolender says Hinojosa should have made sure DISD didn't blow its budget.

The protesters outside know exactly what the board is trying to do. Before a cluster of camera crews, they stage a play portraying both Hinojosa and Lowe as partners-in-crime, avidly conspiring to consolidate their power. Hinojosa, meanwhile, sitting with the trustees at the front of the auditorium, seems oblivious to the evening's theatrics. If anything, the stern-faced superintendent with a thick, heavy mustache, seems excited as he starts to speak. He's rushing his words a bit and occasionally even makes eye contact with the audience.

Tonight he's giving his monthly report, and the news, at least from the classroom, is terrific. He could speak broadly about the district's remarkable academic gains—by one metric it's the second-best urban district in the state—or talk about the recent educational audit that lavished praise on the school system's classroom instruction. But Hinojosa can be a bit of a geek. So instead he gives a wonkish speech.

At the heart of his presentation is "self-management of learning," which focuses on making students better learners and thinkers. Hinojosa can be rather shy and aloof, but when he talks about educational concepts, he perks right up. He explains that under self-management of learning, kids don't sit quietly behind rows of desks and fill out worksheets. Instead, they talk in class about how they figure out word and math problems, science and reading questions. This, Hinojosa calls "accountable talk."

The audience couldn't care less. There's fidgeting—and a palpable level of tension evident throughout the cold, cavernous room. Some people simply refuse to look at Hinojosa; others shoot him bitter looks.

After he finishes, members of the audience have their chance to talk. While a few (all of them Hispanic) offer warm words of support, the majority make it clear they want Hinojosa and the trustees who support him out.

That is what Diane Birdwell wants. A DISD teacher and vice president of NEA-Dallas, one of the district's two main teacher organizations, Birdwell mocks Hinojosa and his acolytes on the board for voting to extend their terms.

"Is the issue that you're slow to learn, or is this place so screwed up that no one can understand it in three years?" she says, nearly gritting her teeth. "If the problem is that this building is so screwed up, let's look at what happened. You hired the man who runs this district; he hired the people who worked for him."

As other speakers lambaste the superintendent and board—each one drawing sustained applause from a boisterous crowd—Hinojosa slumps a bit in his chair. He's staring blankly into the auditorium; that joy in his countenance has vanished. Other board members, particularly those who have professed support for the superintendent, look as if they're witnessing an execution. On two occasions, a police officer has to make his presence felt as audience members repeatedly shout "Lowe must go." Here tonight on Ross Avenue, no one cares about self-management of learning. They want blood.

It could have been a made-for-TV movie: A Mexican immigrant raised in Dallas returns to his hometown and leads the district to a series of academic gains, while winning over the business community and some parents with his intelligence, zeal and stubbornness. But the plot turns on the flaws of its hero. In more than three years as DISD superintendent, Hinojosa has been, at the worst possible moments, an ineffective, callous leader. Now in the wake of a devastating financial crisis that forced the district to lay off hundreds of teachers—a crisis the superintendent didn't anticipate—Hinojosa is fighting to save the district, his job and his own battered reputation.

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