Michael Hinojosa: Today marks five years in the saddle

Since the guy is a walking lightening rod, and has been for as long as I can remember, it’s interesting to note we’ve had Michael Hinojosa to kick around for exactly five years. Of course, is the correct reference “only” five years or “seems like more than” five years?

And five years in DISD superintendent tenure is pretty significant: He’s the first district leader since Marvin Edwards left in 1993 to serve that long.

Hinojosa’s reign started promisingly, with the home-grown former DISD teacher taking the top spot and promising to stay as long as it took to turn things around. And DISD needed a turn-around, suffering from just about every malady imaginable. Poor test scores. Crumbling facilities. Demoralized staff. Too much board leadership, which at DISD is never a good thing.

And regardless of what you think of Hinojosa, he has improved the district (this document was prepared by DISD) on each of the above-referenced points. Test scores have improved significantly. A couple of billion-dollar bond programs are making the facilities at least serviceable, if not necessarily up-to-date. For most of his reign, the board has managed instead of micro-managed. And morale was good. For awhile.

And then along came the 2008-2009 budget crisis, when DISD’s top financial people kind-of lost $50 or $60 million. At the time, DISD was alone among area bureaucracies to face a big shortfall (now, just about all of them have faced or are facing similar shortfalls), so the media pummeled Hinojosa for mismangement, and truthfully he didn’t offer much of a defense. And by the time one financial guy hit the road and a more heralded one took his place, Hinojosa seemed a little punch-drunk, and his legacy of accomplishment was buried beneath mounds of bad publicity and hard feelings that followed an unpopular teacher layoff and a general feeling that DISD was just as screwed up as ever.

It wasn’t. And it isn’t. But as in all things public school-related, image matters more than anything else. And as in all things public school-related, there is no such thing as common sense.

With Hinojosa wounded, critics have taken to savaging him on blogs and in print. Mayor Tom Leppert stabbed him in the back with a not-secret-enough campaign to take over DISD that caught Hinojosa and everyone else in town by surprise.

And the school board made a fateful decision that, on paper, made sense: It delayed its scheduled May 2009 election by a year with the stated objective of redirecting the election money back into salaries. But that largesse didn’t impress voters (or those of us at Back Talk), and the beating the board took from that decision broke its remaining faith among voters and cost then-incumbent Leigh Ann Ellis her board seat in December, when the board was forced to schedule its belated election.

So where are we today, after exactly five years of Hinojosa’s leadership?

By every tangible measure, DISD is better-off than it was. And in a rare stroke of luck that appears to be taking shape, the inner-city is becoming the “in” place to live again, even if you have kids; that trend is bound to mean good things for DISD down the road. There is still a lot of work to be done, both in Dallas and with DISD, but the foundation has been laid, and the next superintendent will have a better jumping-off point than Hinojosa did when he started.

But make no mistake: The current board is just itching to pull the trigger on Hinojosa and send him packing. And in my estimation, he’s exactly one scandal — the next scandal — away from being gleefully terminated by a board that appears eager to begin micro-managing all over again. Maybe Hinojosa will survive until his contract ends in 2012. But probably he won’t. In a district as big as DISD, the next scandal is always just a phone call away.

All in all, Hinojosa deserves a better fate, and he deserves to be remembered in a better light than he will be. But that’s the chance you take when you sign up to be superintendent of a huge public school district. Just like baseball managers, the day you’re hired is simply one day closer to the day you’ll be fired. So Hinojosa appears to be doing what the best of them do: He’s putting on his uniform every day, showing up for the game and working hard to finish his contract out on a high note.


WANT MORE?
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Oak Cliff.