Lew Blackburn Swears: DISD Really Wants to Know What You Want in New Superintendent

The real reason I wanted to talk to Dallas Independent School District board president Lew Blackburn last week was about the district's search for a superintendent -- specifically, why it's expected to take so long and why the district appears to be behind its own schedule. Because according to a missive Blackburn posted to the district's website a little more than a week ago "community engagement meetings" were supposed to begin in November, and an online survey was due this month. The latter appeared late Friday, right before 3700 went on winter hiatus, but the only super-search town hall I've heard of was one Edwin Flores held way back in September, with a whopping turnout of about 20. (There was apparently a second one, also led by Flores, around the same time.)

Town halls have finally been scheduled -- a whole two days' worth beginning January 9 at W.T. White and wrapping January 11 at 3700 Ross. I asked Blackburn: Will the meetings and surveys even make much of a difference? Because in the end, the trustees will go with who they want -- so much so they won't even present to the public a short list of candidates, just a single finalist of the board's choosing.

"The meetings will give the trustees an idea what the general public wants, but you're right, we'll make the decision," he told Unfair Park. "What I hear from colleagues is they want to know what the public wants. We all have one or two areas where we'd like to see a superstar, whether it's a finance or communication or curriculum person person. But it's advantageous for us to listen to people . And then we can develop a picture of what our superintendent might look like, and we can tell the search firm, 'Bring us a person who's as close to what the community wants,' and the board will take a shot at picking the person."

According to Blackburn's time line, the board should have a finalist in place by April -- which would make it almost a year since Michael Hinojosa announced he bolting for Cobb County. But as the trustees have been reminded myriad times in recent months, the DISD's one among more than a dozen big-city districts looking for a new leader (including Fort Worth), and the short list could be extremely short as others move on making their respective hires.

(Then again, there are plenty of folks out there who think the trustees are taking their sweet time for two reasons: They don't want to get stuck a bad super, and they rather like being in charge.)

Blackburn says he's "not concerned" about the length of the process because "most of, if not all of, the large school districts take six months before they name a superintendent," he siad. "Fort Worth, they started the same time we did, maybe a month later. But they're in the same boat we're in in terms of a time line. They may be ahead of us because they've already started having meetings, and we'd hoped to start before Christmas. But if we rushed there's a good chance we would not be able to involve the community. The board could say, 'We're going to do this on our own,' and it could be a faster process, but I think it's more important we take our time and get our input from a broad spectrum of people in Dallas to make sure we get the best person. We have a greater propensity to get the best person."

Yes, I asked, but won't everyone just say: "Get us the best person out there"? The survey's vague, meaningless, offering such choices as: "Inspires trust," "Puts students first," "Lives in the district," "Ability to delegate authority appropriately." And on and on.

"In the end," Blackburn says, the trustees will look at the answers and more than likely acknowledge, "This is nothing earth-shattering. But you probably know if we didn't do that, people will say, 'Well, if the board had talked to people, they would have picked a different person.'"

So, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't?

"I'd call it a rock and a hard place," he says with a slight laugh. "It's in our best interest to see what people think. We know the mayor, the Chamber people have an idea what we should do. But the search firm is actively recruiting. I told them, 'Don't want till these meetings.' I told them: 'Start working.' And a week or two after that I was at a conference, and I saw them and there were a lot of people around them, and I worked under the assumption they were talking to people who might be interested. And I think there's a lot of interest. I told them don't wait to see who applies. I told them to look at the districts who've had great success -- who've won the Broad Prize, who are at the top of the leader boards."

Back to that thing about know what the mayor wants. Will Mayor Mike Rawlings, who ran on a platform of reforming the district, have any say in the super selection?

"I know he wants to tell us what he thinks, that's for sure," Blackburn said. "I don't mind him telling us what he thinks. But he won't have a say in who we interview and who we select. It won't be, 'Lew, choose this person.' We won't open it up like that. But I told him, 'If you know people who might be a good fit, pass it on to the board or the search firm.'"

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky