By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"In an urban setting with high mobility it's important that you have specific standards and specific curriculum," Hinojosa says. "That you know what every student needs to know and when."
Today, at the beginning of the school year, a parent receives a pamphlet from the district telling them what their children will learn and when. It doesn't matter if they go to school in West Dallas or East Dallas, they will cover the same lessons at the same pace. Parents, meanwhile, know what to expect.
Hinojosa also doesn't want teachers to teach to the TAKS test. On his Wednesday tour of three elementary schools, he appeared thrilled that he didn't see a single teacher pass out a TAKS worksheet. "By and large we feel like if we teach a rigorous curriculum and it's specific and it's monitored, then you will get [the students] there," he says.
Teachers and principals generally prefer Hinojosa's approach to how it was done before he arrived. "A lot of schools just taught to the test. It was awful," says Anne Vincent, a principal at De Zavala Elementary in West Dallas. "Now we've been told we're not to do that. Last year, people did not teach to the TAKS and look at the gains."
Those trustees who have passionately defended Hinojosa—Lowe, Edwin Flores and Jerome Garza—all point to these classroom gains, which they claim are being overshadowed by DISD's budget imbroglio. These trustee refuse to blame Hinojosa for the district's third-world finances and their tragic consequences: the need to fire 630 employees, including 375 teachers, and the resignation of an additional 320 employees.
In the wake of the announced budget shortfall, Hinojosa scheduled an emergency meeting for the district's principals. After hiring more teachers than the district could afford—and miscalculating their salaries on top of that—DISD was now hurtling toward an $84 million deficit for the current 2009 fiscal year. Something had to be done; Hinojosa had to inform his principals they had to lay off some of their teachers. This process took on a clever euphemism—RIF, for Reduction in Force—but for the several hundred DISD teachers and staff it would affect, getting RIF'd meant they would be out of a job in the middle of a school year, in the middle of a recession.
The actual number of teacher layoffs—around one to two per school—may not have looked that devastating on paper, but the anticipation of cuts brought morale within the district to its lowest level in years.
The principals' meeting, held in the main auditorium at the district headquarters, was a bleak affair. DISD officials, sitting behind a laminate table, handed each principal a brown envelope when they entered. Inside each envelope were one or more letters, which the principals were instructed to hand out to each RIF'd teacher. For many principals, this was the first time they learned who among their faculty was being laid off.
The district outlined a very specific process by which it had decided who would lose their jobs. The first group of endangered teachers covered those who were not certified to teach in specific classes. Next to go were the teachers who had poor evaluations from their principals. The final group covered those most recently hired.
Hinojosa, dressed as always in a dark suit, stood at the podium at the front of the room. He looked as though he hadn't slept in days. Those gathered were somber, and he knew he had to say just the right thing as he spoke into the microphone and offered his counsel. "Remember these are positions not people," he told them.
For many in the auditorium, he sounded downright callous, lacking any empathy for those teachers slated to lose their jobs. "He didn't show any emotion, never any concern, never an apology," says one person who attended the meeting. "He just stood there like a stick figure. He's distant. He's not a warm, friendly person."
Hinojosa now acknowledges he should have chosen his words differently. What he meant to say was that there was a system in place—an objective process to guide them. "I was trying to remind them that we have to follow the criteria," he says. "Don't make it personal; follow the criteria."
The principals were told to deliver the news to the newly displaced teachers the next day. But the district quickly realized that it had different names of the unlucky teachers on different lists. The principals had to wait an additional day for school officials to fix their mistakes. Awkwardly, it was the same day that DISD held district-wide parent-teacher conferences.
Because the district places a heavy emphasis on dual-language education, bilingual teachers were largely protected from the RIFs. This proved unpopular among black teachers who felt that bilingual teachers were more likely to be Hispanic than black. Even though the RIF'd teachers and staff were drawn from every race and ethnicity in numbers roughly equal to their representation in the district, the layoffs stoked racial tensions, particularly with the black community's high disapproval of Hinojosa. The local NAACP and the African-American Pastors' Coalition, which largely represents clergy south of Interstate 30, have each called upon Hinojosa to resign.