It was the last question of the night: "What do you think of the mayor's concept for taking over the Dallas Independent School District?" The audience, consisting of only a few folks scattered throughout the W.T. White High School auditorium last night, let out a collective giggle. DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, who'd come to White with more than a dozen district officials to talk about the progress achieved with Dallas Achieves, let out a small laugh himself. "I thought I was gonna get outta here ...," he said through a broad smile.
Hinojosa had been a charmer all night; district officials and parents would say after the presentation that they hadn't the superintendent that animated in ... forever? For more than an hour he took the microphone and paced the front of the auditorium, answering questions about everything from dropout rates to the sorry state of the schools' bathrooms. He even demanded questions about the budget, and wondered aloud whether the $104 million in expected stimulus money would do more harm than good. (More on that after the jump.)
With a row of Northwest Dallas principals and Ross Avenue administrators seated behind him, Hinojosa celebrated the district's achievements: 103 exemplary and recognized schools in 2008, up from 32 in 2005; the success of "rigorous curriculum" implentation; the forthcoming high-school makeovers. And he owned up to its failures, acknowledging that Ruben Bohuchot's disastrous, criminal tenure as the district's chief technology officer has resulted in schools without working computers and Internet access. "Painful," is how the super described it.
Then, he answered The Question.
"There were 22 candidates for mayor when Tom Leppert ran for office, and he was the only one to come see me before the election," said Hinojosa. "And he asked me what could he do, and what could the city do, to help the district." He said he and the mayor have "a great relationship," but the superintendent flat-out dismissed the notion that Leppert was in any position to assume control of the DISD -- if only because "right now, under state law, it couldn't happen." Not to mention, he said, DISD also serves students from Seagoville, Cockrell Hill and Addison, whose mayors just might take issue with it.
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School board trustee Edwin Flores was even more blunt. He described the mayor as "an intelligent man, a focused man" who simply asked the question: "What if?" And, said Flores, "It's a good question to ask. ... But I don't think it's a story at all. The newspaper just couldn't find anything else to talk about. It was one politician and an unidentified business man? The city can't handle all the things they have to do. They need to focus on their business, and we need to focus on ours."
And one matter of business is that stimulus dough, which Flores, Hinojosa and recently hired DISD chief financial officer Larry Throm have been talking about with U.S. Department of Education officials in recent days. DISD's expected to get $63,159,000 in Title I money, and $40,911,000 in IDEA dough, which goes toward special-education students. Said Throm of the district's chats with D.C. officials, "We did not leave that meeting with a lot of optimism. That money will be highly regulated."
"I can assure you this: Because it will add dollars -- but for only two years, which is the plan right now -- there will not be layoffs," Hinojosa added. "But the irony is, after two years, we may have to reduce staff when the money goes away."
There was much more discussed at the meeting -- it could Unfair Park with items for the rest of the week. (We really need to talk about "school report card." And "the dashboard." And the DISD's Web site redesign. And Parent University.) But this much was certain at the end of it: The man in charge of the DISD, taking all the heat and little of the credit, sure ain't some dude named Tom Leppert.