DISD’s Hinojosa: Should he stay or go?

It wasn’t the relentless carping by teachers’ groups that turned Michael Hinojosa into a civic punching bag. It wasn’t the endless stream of Dallas Morning News investigative stories (and blog comments) about this or that DISD shortcoming that destroyed the man’s spirit.

It wasn’t the surprise $64 million budget shortfall two years ago that permanently damaged his reputation. It wasn’t even the currently divided school board, which has three or four automatic “no” votes for just about any initiative Hinojosa brings forward and which refused earlier this year (for the second time) to extend his contract beyond its May 2012 expiration.

All of that contributed to Hinojosa’s ongoing flirtation with the Las Vegas school system, but none was the final straw.

Instead, it was the oddly timed and ill-fated power-grab by Mayor Tom Leppert to take DISD control away from Hinojosa and the board that ultimately made DISD’s superintendent realize that he had better look after himself because no one who counts in Dallas was going to cover his back. Leppert’s skulking around was quickly abandoned when it became public, and the DMN curiously gave him a pass on that one — no investigative piece with unnamed sources telling us what really happened, although you can be sure we would have seen that piece had Hinojosa tried anything similarly sinister. Leppert’s move was the last straw, and Hinojosa realized that he literally had no friends who count in Dallas.

It’s interesting that so many of the people who at least acquiesced in Leppert’s takeover attempt are today being quoted as saying they hope Hinojosa doesn’t leave Dallas. But when the chips were down during and after the financial crisis, these are the same people who hung the guy out to dry and allowed Leppert, the self-proclaimed education mayor, to run his mouth behind the scenes about what needed to be done to “save” DISD.

Hinojosa hasn’t done everything right during his five-year tenure as superintendent: There have been communication problems, unachieved initiatives (the Broad Prize, for one), not enough progress on dropout numbers and constant operational issues (schools with poor aid-conditioning, for example), but that stuff is going to happen in a district as far-flung as DISD no matter who is running the show. But for the most part, Hinojosa has answered his accusers and done what he could to stay focused on improving DISD’s educational experience.

And good things have happened: When Hinojosa took over, 49 percent of DISD students passed state educational tests, while in 2008-2009, that number had risen to 64 percent. The $1.35 billion bond issue to build new schools and repair others was pushed through by Hinojosa. Most teachers now have planning periods built into their days, giving them paid time to refine their lesson plans and more time to tutor kids who need it. And speaking as a parent of DISD students, I can tell you that in my time with the district there has never been more focus on the underachievers, as well as devising and offering programs to keep kids in school and teach them fundamental skills.

Still, though, people complain about the guy. In the DMN blogs, the term “Hiney” is routinely used by commenters trashing Hinojosa. The teacher groups seemed to have enjoyed fomenting discontent with the guy among their rank-and-file, working to make his administration seem, at various times, racist and/or inept.

As a result, we’ve collectively created a toxic environment that Hinojosa can no longer stand, even for $300,000 a year and even though he’s a Dallas guy through-and-through who likely would have been happy to end his career here had we given him the chance.

Should the school board members, who now plan to meet Thursday while Hinojosa is in Las Vegas interviewing for the new job, offer him more money to stay? Should they terminate his contract immediately and eat $600,000 in salary and perks since he’s obviously willing to entertain other offers? Or should they ride this thing out, hope he isn’t offered the Vegas job and wait until May 2012 to let him ride off into the sunset?

Last December, I predicted that one way or the other, Hinojosa wouldn’t be DISD’s superintendent by the end of 2010. Then as now, I don’t think Hinojosa’s decision will be driven by money, nor will he be swayed by the johnny-come-lately praise he’s receiving from people worried about who a divided and partially incompetent school board will hire as a replacement. No, I think if the people in Vegas want him, he’s gone. And we have only ourselves to thank for that decision, like it or not.

Tomorrow, I’ll outline the one thing the board should do to make Hinojosa’s job description more suitable for DISD’s environment —whether Hinojosa winds up sticking around to run the show or whether some other sucker follows him here and, later, to the inevitable gallows.


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