School & District Management

Vacuum at the Top Takes a Heavy Toll On Dallas Schools

By Robert C. Johnston — December 13, 2000 11 min read
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Once again, the question here is not who will sit in the district superintendent’s chair at 3700 Ross Ave., but how long he will stay there.

When former Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Moses takes over Jan. 1, he will become the sixth superintendent to run the Dallas schools in seven years.

Retaining school leaders is a national problem. In big cities, the average tenure of superintendents is just 28 months. Still, that is nearly double the length of time that the latest Dallas executives lasted. Less visible than headlines about the comings and goings, however, is the toll the turnover has taken on the 162,000-student Dallas Independent School District.

Pick almost any department, and the fallout is evident:

  • The special education department has had four directors in five years. The 300- person staff is temporarily scattered over more than two dozen sites, while thousands of students’ files have been boxed for months. District officials acknowledge that the confusion likely has delayed services for hundreds of students.
  • The personnel department is blamed for failing to seek contracts to replace the health-insurance policy, which lapses Dec. 31. The mix-up forced the school board to adopt a one-year plan that raised costs for thousands of employees.
  • The number of schools rated by the state as low- performing increased from nine last year to 28 this year, a dramatic jump that many here say could have been avoided if there had been consistent leadership and accountability from the top.
  • Just about everyone in Dallas agrees the deteriorating and crowded schools need some $1.3 billion in upgrades and repairs. But most concur that the revolving-door leadership—coupled with the conviction of a former schools chief for embezzling district funds—has chilled public confidence in the system to the point that quick approval of a construction bond is a long shot.

The bottom line, said Tom Kelchner, the president of the Dallas School Administrators Association and the principal of T.C. Marsh Middle School, is this: “We have been in transition for five years. That’s too long for the children.”

Dallas Shuffle

There is a silver lining here. Teachers and school leaders have persisted and, in some cases, thrived despite the turmoil. The key, they say, is turning their backs on the upheaval downtown, even as they cling to hope that someday the situation will improve.

“When I tell people I work for Dallas Independent Schools, the initial response is, ‘I’m sorry. How can you do that?’ ” said Patrick Tester, a special education teacher. “But once you close the door to your classroom, you can’t be bothered, because you know you are educating children.”

In the past decade, Dallas has hardly been a utopia of school administration. Racial tensions and charges of micromanagement by the school board have often put district officials at odds. But employees at all levels say that the past few years have been particularly hard.

“In the past, every superintendent had a philosophy about the school district,” said Donna Johnson, a former Dallas principal who retired in May. “And because they didn’t change frequently, you knew what it was.”

Principals and administrators complain now that it is more difficult to find central-office employees to help them, and that keeping morale high is a challenge.

For many, the district reached its emotional and public relations nadir with Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez, who took over the schools in January 1997.

The first woman and first Hispanic to head the district, she took Dallas by storm. She even rode into a rally for the district’s 19,000 employees on a tractor to symbolize her promise to clean up the bureaucracy. In reassigning 77 of 217 principals, Ms. Gonzalez tried to get women into leadership positions.

“She was a breath of fresh air,” said reading specialist Carrye Williams, who saw Ms. Gonzalez as a hero. “We felt she knew the Hispanic kids we’d worked with.”

Just more than a year after taking the job, though, the charismatic chief was sentenced to a 15-month federal prison term for using district money to buy furniture for her home.

Longtime district employees recalled crying as they watched the media coverage of that episode, which implicated several other district administrators as well.

For the next two years, interim Superintendent James H. Hughey ran the district. The longtime Dallas educator moved another 38 principals, but was credited with restoring calm to the city’s schools.

In August 1999 came Waldemar “Bill” Rojas, an assertive reformer and former San Francisco schools superintendent. He re-shuffled the deck again, bringing in about a dozen highly paid top administrators who, in turn, each brought several of their own aides.

Department heads were moved. Robert B. Cooter Jr., the district’s popular “reading czar,” left. And new mathematics, science, and reading initiatives were announced.

Eleven months after taking over, Mr. Rojas was fired last July for failing to develop “good rapport” with the school board. His lawsuit claiming wrongful termination is pending.

In stepped Robert Lee Payton, a respected, 36-year veteran of the district who came out of a brief retirement to become interim superintendent.

“Nothing got off the ground under Dr. Rojas,” recalled Myrtle Walker, the principal of the School of Health Professions, a magnet high school. “Last year was a total blur.”

Missing Files

One of the programs hit hardest by the tumult has been special education.

Today, Associate Superintendent Rosemarie Allen oversees special education, which serves some 15,000 students. Since Ms. Allen joined district headquarters in 1994, the program has been given to her, or taken away, five times.

She spent last year in the research division with no management responsibility.

Now, with special education again under her wing, she is stuck with a logistical mess. Roughly 300 specialists, who include trainers and psychologists, are spread out in 27 places across Dallas after being moved last spring from the building where they had been housed.

Thousands of student files sat in boxes for months as the district sought a home for the program. Hundreds of students likely did not receive the appropriate services this fall because their records could not be located, Ms. Allen said.

“In the past, you could call one place and get what you need,” said Mr. Tester, the special education teacher. “Now, I don’t know where everyone is. We haven’t had a directory in two years.”

The timing of the disruptions is especially bad. The Texas Education Agency has assigned a monitor to oversee the special education program and could take over the services if Dallas is not in compliance with regulations soon.

“If special education had a constant, long-term leader with a plan that was funded and implemented constantly, we would not be in this situation,” Ms. Allen said. “Consistency and message have been lacking, and it has affected every department.”

Low Scores

Things are not much different at the office where programs in bilingual education and English as a second language are housed. Gloria Gutierrez, a former Dallas principal, is the fourth executive director of that department in five years. She fills a post that had been empty for eight months.

“Each [director] came in and said we want to start from scratch,” she said. “That sets everything back.”

It also created confusion. In the months leading up to the 1999 state assessment, the district twice changed its interpretation of state policies on which students should take the tests. As a result, students moved between English and bilingual programs weeks before the exams—changes that determined if they would be tested in English or Spanish.

Most observers in Dallas say those shifts likely contributed to the increase in the number of low-performing schools.

But not all has been lost in the leadership transitions. Ms. Gutierrez applauded Mr. Rojas’ decision to set a limit of 30 months for students to be enrolled in bilingual programs before they take tests in English.

“Before, there were no rules for when students should be ready,” she said.

Health Emergency

Even though many teachers and administrators forged ahead, there was no escaping the impact of the insurance debacle.

Interim Superintendent Payton cites two crises that have dominated his tenure. The first was finding out that the district’s $1 billion annual budget, which he had been told was balanced, was actually $20 million in the red. Perhaps more surprising, he said, was the news this fall that no one had started the lengthy process of renegotiating the health-care plan, which expires Dec. 31. The explanation? It simply fell through the cracks during leadership changes.

The official in charge of the personnel department is on administrative leave as a result.

A one-year emergency compromise was worked out last month that raises the cost to employees of basic family coverage by $66 per month, from $296. Premiums for the top family plan jumped by $303 a month, from $379. The cost of employee-only coverage fell, however, by $19 to $30. The average salary for a teacher in Dallas is $41,000.

“I have to go above and beyond the call of duty to keep morale going,” said Deardra Hayes-Whigham, the principal of T.W. Browne Middle School said of the staff members at her school. “This was a time that I came out with a breakfast.”

The shortcomings in leadership resonate outside the school community as well. Those repercussions are likely to be felt when the Dallas school board asks voters to approve a bond issue for as much as $1.3 billion, which it hopes to do next fall.

Even Tim Reyes, a senior at W.H. Adamson High School, which was built in 1915, understands the district’s public relations problem: “Everyone has in the back of their heads that we have had so much trouble holding down a superintendent.”

As part of his government class, Mr. Reyes is working with about 25 other students to raise community awareness about the need for a bond. As an example, he says, the 20 or so toilets for the 1,200 teenagers at his school are inadequate and increase tardiness.

When hot water finally reached the boys’ locker room this year, only two of 13 showers worked. As for the girls, they have just six showers. Basement classrooms take on several inches of water on rainy days, and skylights leak.

The physical disrepair of his school has been a big distraction from academics, says Adamson High’s principal, Francisco Ramirez. When he came to the school in 1999, he was handed an inch-thick list of fire-code violations. The longtime administrator tackled the problems by tapping acquaintances in the facility department for favors that newer principals might not get.

Mr. Ramirez points out that his students’ test scores have improved: Seventy-one percent passed the state math test last year, up from 58 percent the year before.

Still, it is hard for him to contain his frustration with a system that is in disarray and seems to forget its priorities: “I’m keeping a building running, scores are up, and all they can do is call me and ask what happened to the popcorn we used for a fund- raiser.”

Oscar Rodriguez, one of Dallas’ nine subdistrict superintendents, hopes that voters mulling the future bond proposal will see beyond the past administrative problems. “When people say the district will just mess up the money, I say, ‘Think of little Juan in the portables. He doesn’t know the sins of our fathers,’” Mr. Rodriquez said.

2001 Odyssey?

As a new year approaches, it is unclear where the legacy of turmoil at the top leaves Dallas.

For starters, many here are cautiously hopeful that Mr. Moses, the incoming superintendent, has the perfect balance of experience, temperament, and connections to bring new stability and direction. Since departing as state commissioner in, he has been a deputy chancellor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

“What he’s going to do is create a perception for the district that everything is going fine,” Ms. Johnson, the retired principal, said. And that, she hopes, could lead to real change: “If you say it enough, it becomes reality.”

By necessity, many rank-and-file employees have turned their backs on the central office and want nothing more than to be left alone. Under the right leader, it’s possible they may again look downtown for the vision they want and the support they need.

“We’re in this business because we love it,” said Ms. Walker, the School of Health Professions principal. “If they could just get someone in and fix the areas we need straightened out, that would be fine.”

In an effort to shelter themselves and their programs from change, some ambitious educators have crafted their own survival strategies.

University of Wisconsin professor William F. Tate was brought on under the Rojas administration to revamp math and science programs. He believes that his promising new engineering programs in Dallas high schools will continue because of outside supporters such as Texas Instruments and Southern Methodist University.

“The way to survive when there’s turbulence is that you need external partnerships,” Mr. Tate said. “You put on your raincoat and work on collaboration.”

Mr. Cooter returned recently to head the Dallas Reading Plan, a 4-year-old initiative started and partly financed by Dallas businesses to promote teacher training in literacy strategies for the early grades.

While it was on hold for a year in his absence, Mr. Cooter said the program, in general, has been “untouchable” because of its business support.

Overall, though, people in the Dallas district seem to be suffering from turnover fatigue. And many school employees say they want vision, direction, and follow-through, not new programs.

If anyone can be the leader that the bruised district needs, it might be a man with the biblical surname of Moses. Critics in the state legislature already have pledged to withdraw their calls for a state takeover now that Mr. Moses is on the way.

“We just need our basic needs met,” said Mr. Rodriguez, the area superintendent. “We have the potential to be a great district.”

This two-year special project to examine leadership issues in education is underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation in New York. This week’s installment was also underwritten in part by the Ford Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2000 edition of Education Week as Vacuum at the Top Takes a Heavy Toll On Dallas Schools


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