Who's to Blame for all Those Top Defections at DISD? Not Mike Miles.

Lots of news the last two weeks about people fleeing the "cabinet" of Dallas school Superintendent Mike Miles, a reference to his executive team. It so happens I have been pursuing a story in that area, which I will convey in full in a column in the paper next week. But I can't keep my mouth shut about it that long, so here goes:

The repeated suggestion in the news and editorial page coverage is that the recent departures from the top executive ranks of the school district are at least equally the fault of Miles and school board trustees. From what I have learned, that's not true. The fault lies totally and utterly with the board.

A contingent on the school board is picking off his staff one by one. Their real target -- the one they really want to pick off -- is Miles. He's gutting it out. But he's starting to look like the Disney version of Davy Crockett -- last man standing at the Alamo, fending off Santa Ana with the butt of his rifle. It's very dramatic, but how long can it last?

Most of the people who have departed have avoided reporters like the plague, because they want to keep working in education. Everybody in education knows the one sin that future school boards will never forgive in a job applicant is having dished to a reporter about a past school board. But one of the departures, who is retiring and may even go home and run for a school board seat himself, has spoken to me, citing chapter and verse on why he and his colleagues are ditching out on Dallas.

A major part of the story is pretty obvious to anybody who pays attention. African-America school board members Bernadette Nutall and Lew Blackburn want to get rid of Miles in order to stop an academic reform movement that has been costing come black school principals their jobs. According to recently released emails, Nutall has been ambushing top staff members while they're out doing their jobs, threatening consequences if they don't agree to sabotage their boss's reform program.

As evidenced at the last board briefing, Blackburn, a former board president, thinks nothing of suggesting in public that staff members appearing before the board may be lying. Especially where money is concerned, some staff members worry that such an accusation could carry criminal implications. It seems like too high a cost or risk for a simple appearance before the board.

But the black anti-reform board members are by no means the whole story. Another member who may drive the staff even crazier is Elizabeth Jones, who is white and represents trustee District 1, stretching all the way north to the Bush Turnpike. At the suggestion of Kevin Smelker, the departing chief of operations, I watched tape of the June 13 briefing in which Jones raised a series of questions about the effectiveness of a special training program Miles has established for school principals. (Jump to six hours, 15 minutes in the video on the DISD website.)

I did watch. Twice. I talked to Jones about it later. Now I think I may be crazy, too. Crazier.

Jones is very bright. Well, she talks like a very bright person. Walks like one. She has a big background in international finance and worked for McKinsey & Co., the international consulting firm that companies and institutions hire so McKinsey can tell them to spend less and charge more.

Not one of Jones' questions to Miles about the training program for principals made any real sense. There's a pattern. She starts out talking about things that sound very precise, like performance metrics, bench strength, internal capacity and businessy stuff like that. But then when Miles or other board members ask her to name the metrics she wants, she retreats into hippie talk and says she just wants to "wrap my head around it holistically."

You ever try to wrap somebody else's head around something holistically? In my experience when people tell you they just want to wrap their heads around something holistically, it means they want a divorce.

When other board members intervene to defend Miles and tell Jones her questions don't make any sense, she goes ultra-haughty, just doesn't listen and talks louder and faster. I'll get into this more in the column.

What's going on here is simple. It's obvious. It's happening in public before our very eyes. Miles came in with a mandate to fix a school system that cranks hundreds of kids every year straight through the pipeline from pre-K to prison. Reforming it means firing some people. Those people are fighting back. There's a war on to get rid of Miles in order to protect jobs.

Some board members are trying to trip him up, meanwhile, just because they're crazy. I say some. I mean one. But here's the point: The departures mean that Santa Ana's army is drawing closer to the Alamo.

Meanwhile, the city's only daily newspaper keeps doing these editorials and stories about how many of Davy Crockett's top lieutenants seem to be deserting his team by getting shot, and what does that say about Crockett's ability to retain top talent? I know what I might do if I were one of his top talents. Tap him on the shoulder and say, "Hey, dude, this sucks. Let's look for a tunnel."

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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