Miles Is out at DISD, and the Politicians Are in. Is Everybody Happy Now?

He didn’t just get sick of it and quit. There was calculation. Dallas School Superintendent Mike Miles, who came here three years ago with a mandate to reform the school system, quit yesterday because the board had flipped and the mandate was gone.

In effect the school board gave up on Miles. Now we’ll see if it’s also giving up on reform. The question is what happens to the schools.

Will the anti-reform element on the board see Miles’ departure as an invitation to rush in and rip out the Miles reforms root and branch? Can the pro-reform element stop them? With a fight like that going on, what kind of candidate will want to be our next superintendent?

We’ve had a superintendent in the past who left to do some federal prison time. Now will we only get candidates for the job who’ve already done time? Everything is on the table today —the whole show. It’s all up for grabs.

The mood Tuesday in the board room where Miles and top staff assembled to deliver the news was somber and moist-eyed. Most of his team came here from other parts of the country to take part in turning around the nation’s 14th largest school district in a city with one of the nation’s highest child poverty rates. They all looked grim as Miles took questions from more than 40 reporters and 10 camera crews.

But out in the corridors of school headquarters, jigs were being danced. Rena Honea, president of the Alliance AFT teachers union, said: “This is a day that many have looked for, because many, especially in the education field, believe that this has not been the direction the district needed to go. So for many, yes, this is the day that we have awaited.”

After the announcement, Joyce Foreman, the only school board member to attend, beamed radiantly and waved ta-da on her way out the door.

The sod was still falling on the coffin when I got a series of exultant texts from Latino leader Rene Martinez: “Well, Jim! I told you at the last board meeting Miles had lost Latino support and was his own worst enemy. I’m hearing he was forced to resign.”

Depends on what the meaning of “forced” is. Eric Celeste at D Magazine broke the resignation story overnight (and he’s not even in town) with the basic outline of a dispute between Miles and board leadership. Yesterday morning two hours before Miles’ press conference, Matthew Haag had a story in The Dallas Morning News in which board President Eric Cowan said Miles was resigning over a “contract dispute.”

My understanding, based on conversations with several people close to the matter, is this: Cowan and board member Dan Micciche were negotiating with Miles over an array of amendments Miles wanted made to his three-year contract. He had asked for five originally but agreed to drop two.

The three he insisted on were 1) The board would agree to follow its own rules (i.e., not try to crash staff-only meetings and cause police incidents, as board member Bernadette Nutall did last year); 2) As long as Miles was superintendent, the board would agree not to interview potential replacements for him, as both Cowan and Micciche have said they intend to do; 3) Some compensation that was delayed until 2017 be made available immediately if he gets canned or leaves before 2017.

Miles also said he wanted the board to vote on his amendments as a vote of confidence at this Thursday’s meeting before he leaves Saturday to visit his wife and son, whom he exiled to Colorado two years ago after protest demonstrations at his home here.

I tried to reach Cowan. His mailbox was, as always, full and not accepting messages from Earth. But I did talk to Micciche, who confirmed most of what I had been told about the negotiations by three other sources who spoke to me not for attribution. My sources told me Micciche and Cowan had agreed to the money thing or had at least promised it would not be a problem.

But Cowan and Micciche would not move on the amendment about following board rules (said they already have to follow them) and would not agree to stop recruiting a replacement while Miles was still in place (said they knew he was leaving soon). They also refused to give him a vote of confidence.

None of that was really a surprise, given how the new post-election nine-member school board has stacked up. In support of Miles and school reform are four members: Mike Morath, Miguel Solis, Edwin Flores and Nancy Bingham. Deadly opposed are Joyce Foreman and Bernadette Nutall. Lew Blackburn wavers but tends to move toward Foreman and Nutall, creating a three-to-four split.

Since early in Miles’ tenure, Micciche and Cowan have been important swing votes, originally in his favor for the most part. They have voted to support him on key elements of school reform including merit pay for teachers. But over the last six months Micciche and Cowan have migrated toward the anti-Miles camp.

Cowan is angry about a principal whom Miles fired from Cowan’s kid’s elementary school in North Oak Cliff. Micciche says he has questions about Miles’ judgment and thinks he picks bad fights at bad moments.

But Micciche said this in a written statement he sent me: “Dallas has the highest child poverty rate in the nation among big cities, and over 40 percent of the students in Dallas ISD are English language learners. The challenges are enormous. I appreciate the extraordinary efforts that Mike Miles and all of our educators make to help improve the education and lives of our students.” (The most recent census data I could find show Dallas is actually not No. 1 in child poverty among big cities nationwide, but leads in Texas.)

A board member who spoke to me not for attribution said he thought there were still ways Miles could have survived and won a five-four vote had he pushed his contract demands to the full board at Thursday’s meeting. But he didn’t want to survive that way.

In a brief one-on-one with Miles in his office after the announcement, I found him chipper and composed as always – serious about the issues, quick with a laugh if a joke was any good.

I asked him about another way he could have survived. This had to do with Cowan’s kid’s school, Rosemont Elementary in North Oak Cliff. It’s a school with 441 children, 85.7 percent Hispanic, 10.2 percent white, non-Hispanic (high for DISD), 2.9 percent black. In 2014 the state gave it a rating of “met standard,” which is not terrible but bleh.

Miles thought the school could do better and didn’t renew the employment contract for Anna Brining, the principal. A contingent of mainly white parents showed up at a board meeting and demanded that the board countermand Miles’ action. Led by Cowan, the board agreed with the crowd and non-non-renewed her (did renew her).  But Miles still had the option of firing her. It would have been less messy as a contract non-renewal, but he’s the CEO, and he can fire anybody he wants.

So he did. So I asked him. Would this have been different if you had just let Cowan keep his principal? Sure, keeping the principal at Rosemont would have been political and maybe a tad sleazy. But those white folks at the meeting were Cowan’s key constituents. As a board member said to me yesterday, “If you’re going to ask people to run for office, you’re going to have to let them take votes that are political once in a while.”

Miles got the question immediately, of course. He shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think so. First of all, the Anna Brining decision is a decision that I think is in the best interest of kids in this district. I wouldn’t have made a different decision, even knowing what I know now.”

And that’s kind of it. What the school board member said about letting politicians be politicians is probably true. But politicians aren’t ass-kickers. They’re never the kind of people who can come in and turn around a huge well-fed entrenched bureaucracy, line it up and bring it to attention. Mike Miles is that kind. And now Mike Miles is gone.

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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