At this very moment, Nolan Estes is at his home in Austin filling out a questionnaire sent to the handful of finalists for the position of interim Dallas Independent School District superintendent. It was dispatched to him by DISD board president Lew Blackburn, who, Estes says, called him yesterday and gave him the heads-up that, why, yes, he just might be asked to return to Dallas 33 years after he left DISD to become a professor in the University of Texas's College of Education. (Update: An interim could be named as early as tomorrow's called board meeting.)
He just read to me the first question on the essay test: "Identify the significant positions you've held, what you were asked to do, what were your major accomplishments and what were your mistakes." He laughs. "That was a good question, but I wish they hadn't asked about mistakes, because that's gonna be a long list."
Estes, who served as DISD superintendent from 1968 till 1978, then goes on to list one so-called failure: the fact that, as associate commissioner of education under President Lyndon Johnson, he was never able to fully implement the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, part of the president's "War on Poverty" and the legislation that led to, among other things, Title I funding.
Says Estes, "In 1968 the Congress and the nation had a choice of buying guns or butter, and unfortunately we decided to buy guns, and we know what happened, and I fear history may be repeating itself. Think now, just a minute, if we'd decided to buy butter instead of guns in 1968 where might we be now. So I guess one of my mistakes was we never fully implemented the act. People said it was a failure. But we never implemented it."
On the other side is more of our chat this morning. But long story short: He'd love to come back to Dallas.
So, first thing's first: Do you really want to come back, even if it's just temporarily?
I don't know of an educator in the country who would not be delighted and honored to serve with the Dallas Independent School District. It's a great district. It's the best urban district in the state and one of the best in the country. It would be an honor to serve in any capacity.
When did you find out you were a finalist?
Somebody called me from the Dallas FOX affiliate and wanted to send out a camera crew here in Austin. That was Tuesday. That's the first I had known about it. As you know I keep up with the DISD and the superintendent of schools, Michael Hinojosa, I knew he had decided to go to Cobb County, and I think that's probably a good move. He's a good man who did a great job in Dallas, so I knew he was leaving, but I did not know what the board had been thinking.
Have you heard from the board since then?
The president called me yesterday and said they were sending a survey to those people whose names had been mentioned, and that's the only one I talked to. As we speak I have it in front of me. And I'm gonna fill it out.
For years part of your job at UT has been finding and training superintendents, which means you have a lot of experience with interims. What interests you in the job at this point in your career?
That's a rather unique position and a very important one, and the major responsibility is to smooth the transition from Mike Hinojosa to the new one -- to try to facilitate communications and keep the momentum going till the new superintendent can get there. One of the problems is when the chief executive officer leaves, there's a power vacuum, and everyone rushes in and wants to fill that vacuum, and unless you have a steady hand there's bedlam. And there's often a lack of communication; people don't know who's on first and who's trying to steal second, particularly with the board. In those cases they get what the staff thinks they want to hear rather than what they ought to hear.
One of the things I do is search for superintendents around the country, and I've worked with a lot of interims and know what their challenges are. Here I am giving a school board advice -- can you imagine? But they might be best served with a small team -- say, three people -- serving as the interim along with the board president, who would be there to carefully guide them through the process.
You know, and certainly knew, this job as well as anyone, having held it for a long 10 years. And you speak of how well the DISD's regarded. Yet when Hinojosa said he was leaving, there were more people wanting him gone than wishing he would stay ...
Dallas has done well. Dallas Achieves has been on the national radar screen for a long time now, and you don't want to step back. Argument over the superintendent's performance are a function of how important education is. It's critical to our overall economy, and if kids are going to break the cycle of poverty, the answer is education, and various political groups understand that. And because of that, there's a difference in what the schools ought to be involved in. It's te job of the leader to build a consensus about the future of the district and then go there. Your enemies in that job accumulate and your friends come and go. [He laughs.] It's an interesting challenge.
Would you really want to come back knowing you could be here for a possibly lengthy stay?
It takes 180 days. We like to have 120 to 180 days. You need to have somebody in there by January, February, because that's when the budget cycle starts. FOX asked me abut the budget. Well it's been developed for two, three moths, and they've built in hedging against what the legislature will do. That guy from A&M down in the Governor's Mansion has done some funny things. [He laughs.] But all that's built in. It's all over but the shouting now. Whether or not the legislature finalized heir budget or not, schools will start September 1. There's a disconnect. So, no, the board would be well advised to aim for having someone on the board by January, and they could be in by March 1. So you're talking about, I hope, six months of keeping the momentum going and facilitating communications and letting everyone know what's happening.
Having been involved in super searches and training for these many years can you recall a district asking one of its former superintendents to return?
It's rather rare. Usually they ride the superintendent out on a pole.[He laughs.] So it would be unusual. It is true, however, in order to facilitate the transition someone needs to know about the culture and the history, and I know a little about the history and culture and know a lot of things you shouldn't do. I may not know a lot of things to do [he laughs], but I know what doesn't work. But I would hope they think about a team approach. When I was in Chattanooga early in my career, the superintendent left, and the board used a team of three, which worked well.
Trustee Carla Ranger has brought that up -- a sort of executive council -- but it doesn't appear to be gaining traction.
It takes a while for a board to get its mind around a new concept.
Especially this one.
They just need guidance to pull them together and get their minds around their shared and common goals.
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