Running from DISD

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.