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FW’s Superintendent Resigns — Why This Means We Should Extend Miles’ Contract

Perhaps you read about the Monday resignation of Fort Worth ISD’s popular superintendent Walter Dansby. If not, I encourage you to read the story and watch the video above. It’s awesome, in that it shows DISD doesn’t have exclusive rights to volatile board meetings.

Why am I bringing this up? Not because Dansby got a $662k severance package, which when coupled with his pay gives him about $900k over the next seven months. “Executive makes sweet coin” is not news to me. Don’t care about that. What I do care about is showing you how this could affect Dallas ISD — and why it means we need to give Mike Miles a new contract, soon.

Here’s what you need to know for this conversation: Mike Miles, as of July 1, has one year left on his contract. I suspect the board will revisit this come August-September, as that’s about the time they normally do such things. Just like in sports, it’s a terrible idea to have a leader/manager/coach go without a contract extension into their last year. So when the board looks at this, it will either say Miles needs to see out this contract as-is (no es bueno), or the board will give him another year or two to show faith in the reforms he’s announced so far (and ones to come).

How does Dansby affect all this? In a few different ways. Fort Worth won’t go after Miles as a replacement, but whomever they go after will leave a job opening. I talked to Bud Kennedy from the Star-Telegram yesterday, and he said the district will probably not go for a reform-minded leader but someone who can get their financial house in order. “A green-eyeshade type” is what he said. (Google it if you don’t know it, because it’s an awesome term that I’m going to run into the ground in short order.) That means if they hire the current green-eyeshade school chief in Albuquerque (just picking a place at random), there will be a nice opening for someone who isn’t that type — perhaps a reform-minded superintendent from Dallas?

Good, you say! Don’t let the door hit you! Fine. But remember when Miles came here? He hired the (now-departing) Sylvia Reyna from Fort Worth so he had a) a top educator with skins on the wall who b) knew the area. I can almost guarantee that if Fort Worth chooses an outsider, a similar poaching will be considered — and we can disagree on Miles, but he’s got some damn smart people working under him at the lieutenant level. And those people are as unmoored as Miles is right now as he enters the last year of his contract. Heck, more so. None of them have contracts. So this affects everyone in the administration at a crucial time for the district.

All of this is a long way of saying the board needs to, for once, not wait until a concern festers into a cock-up. They should decide right now, this summer, if Miles deserves a contract. Really, they have three options, today and tomorrow and next month, so there’s no reason to wait. Here are the options:

1. Decide he’s not the one. Fine, gone, bye. Just understand that you’re basically setting Dallas back 10 years if you do this. Given the two decades of interference and disruption the DISD school board has fostered on Dallas, why would anyone ever believe again that they should come here and try to help us fix our school system? Look at this chart someone forwarded me called DISD Board Benchmarking. It shows an undeniable pattern — the board either hires bad people or runs off good people. In either case, supers only stay on average 2.3 years. That has to change.

2. Give him one more year on his contract. This makes sense on its face. Reasonable people could come to the conclusion that Miles operates better when he feels he’s under close scrutiny. A public bitch-slap (which is what this would be, no question) tells him a) we still don’t trust you, so we’re keeping you on a tight leash; b) even though we’re supposed to be an oversight board, we run this district — always have, always will; and c) your reforms, which should be evaluated on a long horizon, will be under scrutiny from the get-go. Decent idea in theory, terrible in the environment it will create.

3. Give him at least two more years. This will be seen as a long leash. I think it’s the least you can do to give an administrator the backing they need to take chances, install reform measures, fix problems as they arise, gather feedback, course-correct, analyze data — all the things systemic change takes. This solves so many problems: It allows the conversation to be about Miles’ reforms, not his job status. It shows the board is doing what a board is supposed to do: don’t micromanage, back the leaders of your organization in public, give them political cover to make tough changes, evaluate as you go.

Are there concerns with giving Miles two years? Of course. He could go back to alienating people and making dumb mistakes. Getting rid of him would cost $800k-ish instead of $400k-ish. Again, so what? Life is about risk management. Weigh the benefits (substantial, long-lasting, child-driven) vs the risks (short-term, tiny bit of cash in respect to the budget, board members with bruised egos).

I spent time last week talking to Terdema Ussery, the Dallas Housing Authority top dog. We discussed how he helped turn the agency around, and it was by making sure the board had great people on it, of course. But it also meant hiring and backing the leader they chose to run the agency. As well, establishing a collaborative working relationship with department staff was crucial — meaning the board would help set policy in conjunction with staff, and then staff would execute it free from micromanagement, and the board would protect staff from political/financial forces swirling about. It was everything this board has not been able to do for 20 years.

Hey, why not start now? If you don’t, it’s not just that you’re risking losing Mike Miles. It’s not just that you’re unsettling other top people in the organization. It’s also that the low-level bureaucrats who never change, who are impossible to root out, continue to believe that they can always do just enough to get by, because the big reform-minded boss will be gone soon enough. They’ve been right for two decades. Can you blame them?

  • Eric Celeste

    UPDATE: See! Change has a cascading effect! Etc. and so forth.

  • Wylie H Dallas

    Very true… there is absolutely no reason for the Board to delay on this….

  • Mike Dryden

    Since you say it takes 1 to 2 years to analyze the district and make meaningful changes, are you for the home rule charter attempting to analyze the district, get feedback and write a charter in 4 weeks or should they take the full year and do a thorough job?