By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"You and your staff did not deliver on multiple significant deadlines regarding the audit and the budget. I had to get involved in many items delegated to you and your staff because the work was not getting done," he wrote. "The political implications of the deficiencies in your division have been detrimental to the success of the district. The audit has created a creditability gap in the community."
Still, the district's money problems can't be explained by the job performance of one individual whom Hinojosa himself hired a year earlier. In Hinojosa's three full years as superintendent, the district spent more than its final budget in two of them, including more than $50 million in the recently concluded 2008 fiscal year.
State revenues did come in above projections during all three of Hinojosa's budgets, but they were only enough to cover budget deficits in the first two fiscal years. In 2008, however, the deficit was so gaping that no state windfall could make up the difference. And the district is again projected to bust its 2009 budget.
Hinojosa will not engage in specifics about the financial crisis that caused 375 teachers to lose their jobs. Neither he nor DISD board president Jack Lowe seems inclined to examine past mistakes to ensure the district doesn't repeat them.
"I have very little interest in trying to figure out who to blame for this," says Lowe, former CEO of construction giant TD Industries and Hinojosa's staunchest supporter on the board. "I'm trying to look out the front windshield, make sure it doesn't happen again and get back to the business of educating kids."
It's something of a ritual for him—each Wednesday—when Hinojosa makes it his business to get back to the classroom and visit the schools in his district. It's also something of a media show, allowing reporters to see him in his element, touring the grounds, talking to principals, teachers, even janitors, engaged in informed, even humorous conversation about classroom instruction and teacher training. On tour, he cuts a different figure than the dour man seen twice a month at school board meetings.
Since becoming superintendent, Hinojosa has visited all 255 schools in the district—and most of them twice. On this Wednesday morning in November, he travels to Edna Rowe Elementary School, a recognized school in East Dallas near Pleasant Grove.
Hinojosa doesn't enter any classes. He just peers inside, and if a kid spots the stern-looking man in a pricey suit, the superintendent will quickly leave. But a fleeting glance can reveal a lot. When Hinojosa looks into a classroom, he wants to see desks facing each other and students working in groups. He hopes to see kids discussing reading assignments or math problems as a teacher either guides their discussion or works one-on-one with a struggling student.
This is the process he referred to at the school board meeting—the meeting riddled with insult and accusation—as "accountable talk."
At Edna Rowe and the two other elementary schools he visits—Bayles and Mount Auburn—there are classes of engaged, orderly kids bunched in small groups, talking quietly about the day's lesson. Essays, word problems and Venn diagrams are taped on the walls. No heads are flopped on desks, no rambunctious kids in the hall when class lets out.
"What you saw was not an accident," Hinojosa later says. "It was by design, and that's what we're doing system-wide."
Since Hinojosa became superintendent, the district has improved its scores in the high-stakes accountability TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) tests. Many of these gains were modest, usually registering just a few percentage points higher, but they happened across the board in nearly every core subject. As a result of the district's improved test scores, DISD now has more than 100 exemplary and recognized schools, twice as many as it did when Hinojosa became superintendent—a greater percentage of exemplary and recognized schools than any of the state's six big urban districts with the exception of Houston.
Of course, test scores don't tell the whole story. In December 2005, the National Center for Educational Achievement, an Austin-based nonprofit, conducted an educational audit of the district and released a series of highly detailed recommendations. The firm followed the district for three years and in November announced its findings: The district had made strong progress in meeting most of its recommendations, from bilingual staffing to professional development to how the district teaches core subjects such as math, science and reading. "They came in last month and said it was stunning what we accomplished the last three years," Lowe says.
Not everything is stellar in every classroom. DISD has 21 academically unacceptable high schools, more than any district in the state—four more than it did three years ago. The school system also owns one of the worst graduation rates in the country, although Hinojosa inherited that problem.
Still, the superintendent, for all his flaws on the business side, does have a common-sense academic philosophy that seems tailor-made for a large, multi-ethnic urban district like Dallas. He wants every regular school in DISD to teach the same thing at the same time. This may sound stifling, but consider how it was three years ago. There was no guarantee that a fifth-grader at DeGolyer Elementary in Northwest Dallas and his counterpart at Adelle Turner in South Oak Cliff were covering the same class subjects. One student might be learning how to add fractions in September, while the other might not arrive at that lesson until December.