Mike Miles vs. Patronage: DISD's Impending Principal Purge

Several minor political brush fires sent up smoke at the Dallas public school system after a tough new reform-minded superintendent took over the reins last July. But in two months the whole woods will be on fire, with Superintendent Mike Miles in the middle of it.

Does he survive? I don't know. Do we?

In early April the district will send out an innocuously titled document called a "growth plan" to some number of principals among the district's 222 heads of schools. In spite of the bouncy title, everybody who gets one will know exactly what it means — a bull's-eye on his or her back.

The district operates a multipart assessment system for school principals based on numerous criteria with multiple written reports along the way. A growth plan comes almost at the end of that process.

A principal who receives a growth plan is actually being put on notice that it ain't working. Something serious has to change in that principal's performance before May or the principal will be fired, or, as they put it in the ever-gentle lingo of public education, "non-renewed."

Most of the brush fires around Miles have had to do with complaints by teachers and their union reps that they are being treated harshly or unfairly under the new superintendent's reform regime. But in board meetings and public appearances, Miles has made it clear his first major target is not the teachers but their bosses. His whole deal is that schools only prosper under strong leadership and part of bringing that about is tough accountability for the principals.

So who could argue with accountability? Oh, man. Where to start? For the last half century the public school system in Dallas has been the city's main engine of political patronage. If anybody really needs a lesson plan for that, just think back to last November when Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price showed up at a school board and told the TV crews that Miles was running the district into the ditch.

Think about it. What in the hell is a county commissioner doing at a school board meeting? Aren't they supposed to stay busy building roads and bridges and keeping track of drainage? Price wasn't at school headquarters to talk about education. As the county's most powerful African-American elected official, he showed up at Ross Avenue to put Miles on notice. His message was plain. Do not mess with my protected people.

So I could tell you that the machinery of patronage and protection will really get cranking when those so-called growth plans start hitting the desks of DISD principals and some dozens or more of them find themselves on the fast track to sack city. But that would not be entirely accurate. In truth the machinery started cranking a month ago. In response to my request for public documents, district lawyers provided me with a stack of emails showing that two district board members have been demanding detailed information about the growth plan process before the documents even go out to principals.

One in particular, board President Lew Blackburn, has demanded copies of all the growth plans and supporting documentation for the entire district. Blackburn was frank and open with me about his intentions, which are to closely monitor the entire process and presumably to interject himself and the board into it in instances where he thinks principals are not being treated fairly.

"The key word is fair," he told me. "I don't question the administration's decisions about hiring an employee or terminating an employee other than, has that employee been treated fairly, especially when it comes to a termination or separation? Are we treating our employees fair across the board?"

Blackburn told me he will do his own private analysis of all the principals who receive growth plans in April. "Rather than ask the administration to give me their assessment, I am just asking for those documents, and I will do my own assessment and will draw my own conclusions from that."

It seems like a daunting task. Blackburn has demanded not just the growth plans themselves but other benchmarks including a goals statement and a mid-year assessment. He says he is looking for cases in which there is a noticeable discrepancy between earlier positive assessments and a negative assessment in the growth plan.

"That would be a red flag to me," he told me.

This seems like very thin ice in terms of the clear direction of state law and specific language in the superintendent's employment contract. By law and by contract, Miles has total control over personnel decisions. The law pointedly bars school district trustees from meddling.

In Texas if trustees can't stomach a superintendent's actions, their recourse under the law is to fire him. What's more, there are provisions in the law whereby a fired employee can appeal to a committee of the board sitting as a quasi-judicial body. Any trustee on that committee who has already been involved in that employee's case might have a legal conflict.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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