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 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.
"We've all struggled with 'does he stay or does he go,'" says trustee Leigh Ann Ellis, who is considered a reliable pro-Hinojosa supporter. "Michael is aware that he has to change, and he has to change fast."
Change may not be something that comes easy to Hinojosa—particularly where his demeanor is concerned. Talk about him to anybody today, and one of the first things they will say is that he's quiet. Some people will say he's quiet in an off-putting and awkward manner, while others will say he's quiet in a humble and gracious way. Regardless, they all hit on the same theme: The guy is quiet.
He was like that as a child. Growing up in a West Dallas housing project and then a series of rental homes in Oak Cliff, Hinojosa liked school and sports more than talking in class or hanging out.
"He was a very serious child," recalls his sister, Martha Hinojosa-Nadler. "He just kind of stayed to himself. He was very focused."
His parents pushed him and their other 10 children to do well in school. Even if Michael's parents were too busy working, his older brothers and sisters made it clear what the family's expectations were.
"You had to be serious about school; you had to do well," Hinojosa-Nadler says. "The last thing you wanted was to get a call from a teacher."
When Michael was born, his father Amado was an Assembly of God minister in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. For years, the elder Hinojosa had been talking to friends in the clergy about bringing his wife and children to the United States. When Michael was two, his father finally got his chance, finding a church in Lubbock that needed a pastor.
Six years later, Amado, eager to try big-city life, headed to Dallas to lead a new congregation in Oak Cliff. As a pastor, Amado earned a living off the congregation's tithing, but the parish only had 35 or so members, and some weeks he was lucky to collect much money at all. "We were so poor we didn't even know it," Hinojosa says.
Michael enjoyed school and fell in love with teaching. After graduating from Texas Tech University, he returned to Dallas to join the district that had educated him. His first teaching assignment was at Stockard Middle School in 1979, before moving to Adamson High School in Oak Cliff, where he taught history and coached the basketball team.
Hinojosa fondly recalls the fledgling days of his career. "When I could get kids to explain the three branches of government in their own words, man, that was really exciting," he says.
After eight years as a teacher and coach, Hinojosa took his first step toward leading DISD. In 1987, he secured a job as an assistant principal at South Grand Prairie High School, honed a reputation as a workaholic and disciplinarian, and then was promoted within the district to be a central administrator. During his seven years at the Grand Prairie Independent School District, he struck then-superintendent Marvin Crawford as both an academic and someone who could one day run a school system.
"We needed his type here," Crawford says. "Someone who was energetic, very smart, worked very hard and was fair."
In 1994, Hinojosa left North Texas for a series of school administrative jobs, including one as the superintendent of the Hays Consolidated Independent School District, just outside of Austin. Again, Hinojosa developed a reputation as a hard-working administrator, but this time around he had to confront a nasty racial dilemma: The Confederate flag still hung outside of Jack C. Hays High School.
The school's few black students had told district officials that their friends outside of Hays regularly mocked them for attending the school.
"I told the board when I got hired that was not acceptable for a district to have a Confederate flag," Hinojosa says. "There are certain things that are non-negotiable."
Despite board assurances it would be removed, the flag remained a school tradition not to be tampered with. Only in July 2000, after facing down loud, sometimes vile opposition did Hinojosa prevail upon the board to remove the flag.
"I thought it was a very bold move; it was a very necessary move," says Laurie Cromwell, the former president of the Hays ISD board of trustees. "He did it because it was the right thing to do. We all received death threats."
Today Hinojosa's fiercest critics, the ones who regularly call for his resignation, are black. "It's kind of ironic," he says when asked about Hays ISD incident. "Not a lot of people know about that."
In 2002, when board members from Spring ISD, a sleepy suburb just north of Houston, came to recruit Hinojosa, Cromwell told them that he was such a talented superintendent that she expected him to outgrow Hays, and Spring too.
In 2005, Dale Kaiser, the president of NEA-Dallas, served on the DISD superintendent search committee to pick a successor to then-superintendent Mike Moses. When he talked to his NEA colleagues in Spring about Hinojosa, "they gave him glowing recommendations," Kaiser recalls.
In April 2005, the DISD Board of Trustees named Hinojosa the superintendent of his hometown school district. Jack Lowe says that he supported the hire because he figured Hinojosa would stay at least 10 years, which would give the district some much-needed stability.
But the district's three black trustees at the time—Hollis Brashear, Lew Blackburn and Ron Price—weren't as impressed, saying they wanted a candidate from a large urban district. In the vote to name Hinojosa the sole finalist, Blackburn and Brashear voted against Hinojosa, while Price abstained.
Hinojosa's proud father, Amado, seemed to anticipate the drama that would unfold after his son returned to DISD. The elder Hinojosa told The Dallas Morning News he asked his son before he accepted the job, "Can you avoid the troublemakers here?"
His son also gave his share of interviews, sounding confident—maybe too much so. "I have some finance acumen as well," he told the News. "I know how budgets work. People say school finance is complicated—it's not."
The budget crisis that threatened to cost Hinojosa his job emerged last March. But the superintendent never saw it coming. In the wake of hiring more than 700 new teachers as a part of Dallas Achieves!, a reform initiative pushed by business community, administration officials told the board that they were facing a $52 million payroll deficit. That should have raised a fleet of red flags. But Eric Anderson, the Chief Operating Officer for DISD who had been hired to revamp the district's finances, told the board not to fret.
That's because the district was now expecting $29 million in state revenue and more than $30 million in savings from cutting operational expenses. On April 18, district officials sent out to all DISD employees an unsigned memo trying to ease any concern about the school finances. Although the memo acknowledged that DISD had spent more money than it initially projected on hiring teachers, the district wouldn't be in the red, the correspondence maintained. "Balancing the additional revenue and the cost savings, the district projects that it will end the fiscal year with a surplus of revenue over expenditures."
That DISD's finance guys claimed to have erred in the district's favor overshadowed a fundamental point: They clearly had no idea what money was coming in and what money was going out.
Budget officials miscalculated teacher salaries by nearly $3,000 per position. Principals routinely asked for extra teachers and routinely got them—even if their schools were adequately staffed.
There were instances of invoices that were left unpaid for months. In May 2008, Hinojosa received an e-mail from a credit analyst for one of the district's vendors, Science Kit and Boreal Laboratories. The analyst wrote to inform the superintendent that the district hadn't paid several purchase orders dating back nearly a year and totaling nearly $90,000. "Although one of our team members has been in constant contact with your accounts payable department, we are failing to see any type of resolution."
People working closely with the district regularly heard stories of DISD's adventures in accounting. That's why Aimee Bolender, the president of Alliance AFT, a negotiating group for teachers, couldn't believe how nonchalant Anderson was about the possible $52 million payroll deficit. "No worries, everything is fine," she remembers him saying in meetings at least twice.
But Bolender remained unconvinced. She always thought of Anderson as arrogant, and she needed assurances that her teachers were going to have jobs next year. So later, in a meeting with him at the district's main offices, Bolender asked Anderson to provide a more thorough accounting.
"I don't have to explain the budget to you," she says he told her. (Anderson declined to comment when reached by the Dallas Observer.)
Anderson and the district's other finance staffers weren't much more forthcoming with their boss. Last spring, Hinojosa asked for a "district-wide labor costs report" that could have spelled out DISD's looming problems in greater detail. But it never ended up on his desk.
"They were in the process of getting it," Hinojosa says. "They just didn't produce it, and that led to the systemic issues in place here."
But that explanation is not good enough for Bolender, who wishes the superintendent did what she tried to do.
"Let's just say that the $52 million was the elephant in the room. How do you walk around without dealing with it?" she notes. "If I was Dr. Hinojosa I would have asked Eric Anderson every day to prove to me it was taken care of. I wouldn't have just taken his word for it; I probably would have had someone else take a look at it too."
Hinojosa agrees that he should have done more to make sure that Anderson's projections were solid. "Hindsight is 20-20. I wish I would have done those things," he says, after learning about Bolender's rebuke of him. "He and his team did prove to us where the money was going to come from, but I did not have it validated externally. I wish I had."
If Hinojosa has been reluctant to condemn Anderson publicly, behind the scenes, he was critical of how Anderson handled the audit of the district as well as the budget issues that prompted the current fiscal tumult. In a job evaluation of Anderson, dated May 29, 2008, Hinojosa all but told the chief operating officer he was going to lose his job.
"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.
"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.
Truth is, the superintendent's unpopularity crosses racial lines. In the aftermath of the layoffs, the leaders of the district's two main teacher associations say that Hinojosa has strained his relationship with their members. "We did a survey of folks on whether they have confidence in his ability," says Dale Kaiser of NEA-Dallas. "Ninety-six percent said they have no confidence. It's hard to lead people when they don't believe you, when they don't trust you, when they don't have confidence in you."
Hinojosa, somehow, remains convinced that he has strong support among teachers and principals. Recalling his tour of three Dallas elementary schools, where he was warmly greeted, he says, "There was no passive-aggressive behavior, people were friendly, nobody turned their back on us. They were excited about what they were doing."
Even if the superintendent is fooling himself and his failure to watch the district's finances has hurt him among teachers, it has yet to cost him support on the board. Right now, he has the backing of at least five trustees, maybe six. The black trustees, Carla Ranger, Blackburn and Price have called for a no-confidence vote against Hinojosa. Lowe, meanwhile, has used his position as board chair to table their request.
And with the trustees' decision last month to suspend elections and extend their terms of office for an extra year, the superintendent doesn't have to worry anytime soon about candidates running on an anti-Hinojosa platform.
But that doesn't mean Hinojosa is in the clear. As hard as they've tried, the trustees can't ignore public sentiment forever. One more dramatic misstep—one more highly public example of the superintendent failing to keep tabs on the unwieldy, doddering district's operations—and the protesters who gathered outside DISD headquarters on a cold Thursday evening may turn into a conquering army.
Hinojosa is certainly aware of his precarious position, but that doesn't temper his resolve to stay on the job or his optimism for it. "It's a tough job. I love my job; I still love coming to work despite the huge challenges I have," he says.
And yet all the conflict engulfing him has exacted a high toll—at least that's the way his sister sees it. "He's a private person. He doesn't say much, but I've certainly seen him age," Martha says. "I can only imagine the level of stress he's under."
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