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Let Me Sum Up

If Mike Miles leaves, we still have to deal with the Dallas ISD board, folks

Eric Celeste
DISD superintendent Mike Miles
Mike Miles can survive John Wiley Price being mad at him. He can't survive the business people who tell JWP what to do being mad at him. Photo courtesy of DISD
DISD Board
The DISD board needs to do its first job correctly (hire a good superintendent) and then stay the hell out of the way. Dallas Regional Chamber

A few months ago, a longtime DISD employee was expressing her frustration to a North Dallas power broker. She felt like the good work being done at many Dallas schools was being undermined by the district’s new hard-charging chief, Mike Miles. The longtime employee wondered if she should look for work elsewhere.

The power broker laughed. How many superintendents, he asked, had she worked for in her two decades? A half-dozen or so, she said, plus temporary replacements. “Just wait,” the power broker said. “You’ll be working for another one in a year or two. It might get better.”

Given the busy few weeks for DISD and Miles, I think said power broker was right. He won’t last long now. A year? Maybe. Wouldn’t put my money on it.

 The school board screwed up their one job (hire a kick-ass principal), and now they’re trying to fix it by taking on a job for which they are in no way qualified.

All the signs are there that he’s a goner. He long ago lost the support of the black downtown mafia. He’s now lost the support of the business-class string-pullers. He’s won the support of Tod Robberson. The lamb has seven horns and seven eyes, people.

Losing the biz community here is the real killer. Last week J. McDonald Williams, Pettis Norman and Arcilia Acosta wrote to Miles: “We believe that surely there is a better path forward than what you are proposing to get all our students college or job-force ready.” In that world of suits, that’s strong language.

Remember what happened when senators Barry Goldwater, Hugh Scott and John Rhodes told Richard Nixon his chances of avoiding impeachment were “gloomy?” He resigned the next day.

How do I feel about what has befallen Miles? I really have no idea. I think I’m like you: I’m happy that Miles is trying to hold principals accountable. Principals are being reviewed — and many possibly/probably eventually let go — at about 50 schools. The asshole tough-guy dad in me says GOOD! Our performance sucks! Get ’em out! The squishy shades-of-gray liberal in me says, but, wait, this includes principals at some schools rated as high-performing.

His supporters say, “Gotta crack some eggs to make an omelet!” Detractors say, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!” I say, “Loud noises!” Then I hope the school board can figure it out and make the right decision.

That’s a problem for three reasons. One, because the school board can’t even decide if it backs Miles’ simplistic two-point plan for improvement: get rid of bad principals, focus on quality of instruction. Two, board members have shown no collective backbone for asking Miles to undertake the sort of progressive, long-term systemic changes that take into account the unique challenges of educating dirt-poor urban kids (transforming the magnet model and applying it throughout the system, for example, as Mike Moses was doing). Sometimes the squishy liberal solution actually works. Third, because the school board is part of the problem.

Look, we can all decide that Mike Miles needs to go. That’s fine. He’s the worst kind of smart, the kind of person who sees Socrates’ quote (“The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing”) and thinks, “Pussy.” He was a shaky hire who is trying to change but who has burned too many bridges. He’s lost leverage. If he stays, he’ll eventually be a whipped dog who will do as he’s told.

 Get rid of Miles, don’t get rid of Miles. But accountability and change starts with holding our representatives accountable. It’s on us.

But who will do the telling? The school board? Well, that’s really not its role. Not at this stage. They are to set broad policy and allow the superintendent they hire to execute it.

Unfortunately, that’s not what is happening. You’ve got a bunch of folks who think they’ve figured out solitary solution to school reform — by definition, they’re not relaxing on their own desert island, so they certainly have not — and they are trying to run the district day by day.

In other words, they screwed up their one job (hire a kick-ass principal), and now they’re trying to fix it by taking on a job for which they are in no way qualified.

You’ve heard that trustee Bernadette Nutall has “inserted herself inappropriately into district operations.” This is not only my new favorite euphemism for clumsy sex; it’s also true. But what the paper doesn’t tell you is that others have too.

Why is the district losing top people? Why is the HR chief on his way out? Why did the newly hired, very impressive CFO run back to freaking Garland after three months? In large part because of trustee Elizabeth Jones’ meddling, that’s why. He won’t say it, but it’s true. If she wants to deny it, there’s a comment box right here on this page.

So get rid of Miles, don’t get rid of Miles. But accountability and change starts with holding our representatives accountable. It’s on us. We must make sure the school board members set direction in a way that doesn’t just punish employees but also rewards innovative thinking. We must make sure they understand the complexities of the district they oversee. We must make sure they hire the right person next time. And then we must make sure they stay the hell out of the way.

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