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Running from DISD

Daniel Fishel

I'm like you. Since Mike Miles started as Dallas schools chief a year ago, seven people have resigned from his leadership team. I wonder what's wrong. Why are these people leaving? Is it Miles? The school board? Me? My dogs?

It's not easy to get a good answer, because the last thing people want to do when they're looking for a new job in public education is talk to a reporter. Better to have a snake tattooed on your forehead.

In the news business, we still have to say something even when we have no idea what we're talking about, so typically we say the truth probably lies between the two extremes. Hope you don't have to count on us someday to get out of a burning building.

That's what The Dallas Morning News and most other local media have been saying about the resignations at the school district. Oh, it must be all of them. The board is treating top executives badly. But there must be something wrong with Miles too.

Let me offer what I think is an important point. The truth does not always lie between the extremes. Responsibility is not always shared. Blaming both sides equally is not profound or sagacious, not the wisdom of Solomon and just not fair — it's an injustice — if only one side is to blame. That's like asking what's wrong, and somebody says, "Lotta stuff." Not an answer.

Finally last week I got one of the recent departures to talk to me. Miles brought Kevin Smelker here a year ago from a Colorado Springs school district to be chief of operations. Smelker told me last week his departure had everything to do with the board of trustees and nothing to do with Miles. He said he was confident the same was true of most of the other people who have departed.

"There's a comment in my resignation letter that most of the members who have left as cabinet members didn't leave because of him," Smelker told me. "They left because of the difficult working relationships with select board members."

His letter of resignation, dated June 20, says: "My decision today to leave was reinforced by recent events during the June 13th board briefing; in all candor, it was the 'straw that broke the camel's back'.

"Once again, specific board members demonstrated intimidating behavior toward our staff, and the prolonged discussions were not only unprofessional but were absent of any specific direction or clarity despite efforts by other trustees to seek clarification to help put a productive framework around the pontification taking place during the meeting."

OK, that's a specific answer. Doesn't make it the right answer. But at least it's an answer to the question of what's wrong. The board. I sat at my desk and looked at the video online for that June 13 briefing. I found a surprise.

Two black members of the board, Bernadette Nutall and Lew Blackburn, gave top staff members a hard time, which was not a surprise at all. Since arriving here a year ago, Miles has been prosecuting a tough program of academic reform, which has involved sacking a number of school principals. Nutall and Blackburn have been on his case and on the backs of staff for some months because they see their own mission on the board as protecting the jobs of well-liked principals.

We've been there, talked about it, knocked all that around already. I think we all get the basic dynamic by now. An alliance of black leadership and the teachers unions want Miles and his team gone because they regard Miles and his reform effort as a threat to jobs. No surprises there. Let's not go back over it again.

But I found something else in the June 13 meeting that was a big wake-up for me, maybe because I haven't been paying close enough attention. The school board member who really made Miles and his team crazy, more than the black members, was Elizabeth Jones, who represents trustee District 1 in northernmost Dallas.

She went on and on about an "academy" — a special training program — that Miles has set up to train school principals and assistant principals. The new leadership academy just graduated its first class. They haven't started their new jobs yet, but Jones seemed to be asking how well-trained they are. I think.

She has an impressive résumé in international finance and as an employee of McKinsey and Co., the management consultants. When she talks, everything she says has a certain tone of authority and erudition. But every time I tried to figure out what she was asking, I wound up cuffing one ear with the butt of my palm to see if I had some spiders lodged in there or something.

 

This is the board's last briefing before it must vote on a $1.2 billion annual budget. Jones says, "I really want to understand. I think it's in our interest to do so, because we put money into specific initiatives [and] we should understand the relationship between the dollar in and also the opportunity cost of what that could have supported, everything else being equal."

Well, sure. So, yes. So, here we are. So how's the weather over there?

She talks some more. Miles tells her he doesn't understand what she wants to know, what's missing. She goes at it some more, saying she wants more measurements, wants to know things, understand things. Miles says there was a curriculum, and they were tested and the ones who passed the test graduated. Then she wants to know how he knows the money was better spent than money spent training other school leaders who don't go to the academy.

Finally fellow board member Mike Morath, who normally would be taken as her ally, tells her nobody can understand what she wants.

"If there's a way that you could sort of make a list with some generic descriptions of the things that are not here," he says, "because I'm not sure anybody is going to intuit how to give this to you without some guidance."

Jones tells him, "I want to put it all together. I want to see the totality of that, and what I see here is a bunch of slices. From a budgetary perspective we have one of the finest budget guys around. That, I'm not taking issue with. But from a management and a performance (perspective), I don't have a whole lot of insight in a lot of that area, and this concerns me."

Mm-hmm. Ouch! I think maybe I whacked myself in the ear a little too hard on that one, because all of a sudden I had a vision of an assistant city editor I worked for 100 years ago in Detroit, very bright, straight into the newsroom from a distinguished academic career, not a day of newspapering behind him when he came to the task. He used to stare at my stories when I submitted them, shake his head, rub his eyes and say, "Jim, there's something missing."

I would say, "What?"

He would turn to me, face riven, like we were watching a horror movie, and mutter, "I do not know."

I remember that I fantasized leaping forward and choking him to death. Terrible thing. Fortunately I was able to self-medicate at that point in time with a locally made psychoactive compound called Stroh's beer. I remember you had to take tremendous amounts.

Elizabeth Jones is that man. She sounds like she's making sense. She is not. And it looks to me as if she drives Miles and his top executives crazy. Ku. Ray. Zee.

As she did me, when I called her. I cannot take you back through our phone conversation here because of space constraints and the limits of my sanity which may be, who knows, pretty limited. I asked her what she wanted. She said she wanted to know if the $4 million spent on the leadership academy was well spent. I asked her by what rubric or metric she would measure that. She said, "Opportunity cost."

I tried to get at opportunity cost. She said it was the money spent on this versus the money spent on that. I asked what rubric or measurement would be useful to determine if the right amount of money was spent on either this or that. She said opportunity cost. Again.

Look, there's a very distinct possibility here. Maybe she's the next Simon Kuznets, an American economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1971 "for his empirically founded interpretation of economic growth which has led to new and deepened insight into the economic and social structure and process of development." And maybe the rest of us are idiots.

I don't think Morath is an idiot. Miles doesn't seem like an idiot. Eric Cowan, the board president, seems very un-idiotic. He told Jones the best way to see how well-prepared the academy graduates are for leadership is to see how they do. If Cowan wins a Nobel Prize, maybe they'll say it is "for his empirically founded interpretation of how well-trained people are according to how they do."

But let's cut to the real issue here. We hear all the time in this town that the public schools are the city's greatest handicap, the drag-anchor holding Dallas back from what feels like an enormous burst forward waiting to happen. We hear all the time that we're going to fix what's wrong. We know that reform will be difficult — terribly painful for some — because we're not idiots. We hired these people to come in and do the basic bushwhacking for us.

 

When they leave like this, one after the other after the other, it's because of what is wrong here, not what is wrong with them. We are the answer to our own question, what's wrong. How hard is that to see? We'd have to be crazy not to see it.

Oh, wait. Maybe I just got it.


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