Before Mike Miles even assumed his new post as superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District, he stepped up to a microphone and showed everyone, with TV cameras rolling, that he’s not yet ready to handle at least one part of the job.
This was mid-June. Miles wouldn’t officially start until July 1. But he’d already made several hires at Central, as the rank and file refer to DISD’s administrative building on Ross Avenue. One hire in particular, communications chief Jennifer Sprague, had tongues wagging. The 31-year-old had performed the same job for Miles in Colorado Springs, at Harrison School District Two, where she earned $86,652. He brought her to Dallas for $185,000. Reporters wanted to ask him about the move (and maybe get some face time, in case there were any future openings at Central). So, with a board retreat already scheduled for later that day, Miles called a press conference at 7:30 on a Saturday morning.
Wearing a crisp, tan suit and an indignant look on his face, he defended his hires. Referring to Sprague and another highly paid administrator he brought with him from Colorado Springs, Miles said, “They’re not my friends,” putting air quotes, oddly, around the word “friends” before adding, “I’ve never had coffee with either of them.”
Then Miles posed a question: “If Jennifer Sprague were an ugly, slightly older male with 20 years of experience, who had won all these national awards, would any of you in this room make a story of it if he received the same salary as the communications person in Houston ISD?”
The assembled reporters assumed it was a hypothetical question (the answer to it, by the way, is yes). But one of them, NBC Channel 5’s Scott Friedman, saw the coffee denial as a challenge and filed an open records request with Harrison School District Two, asking for several years of Miles’ expense reports.
Welcome to the nation’s No. 5 media market, 88 spots ahead of Colorado Springs. Here, if you’re the boss of a public institution, the second-largest employer in the city, and if you make screwball declarations about potables and the company in which you consume them, the media will dig. By way of comparison, Harrison School District Two has about 11,000 students; DISD has about 157,000. The stakes have gone up, and Miles, at least at this early stage of the game, is having trouble adjusting.
Behind the scenes, he has made more serious blunders. At a training session with principals from across the district, he said, “The best-trained principals in this country are in Colorado Springs. You’re not trained as well as they are, but you will be in one year.” To appreciate how that must have sounded to the district’s 230 principals, you need to know that every one of them right now fears for his job. Miles will hire 60 or more prospective principals this year whom he plans to train personally. They won’t run schools; they’ll learn (and get paid). Then, next school year, with their connection to Miles, they will set out to take jobs from current principals.
Some in the district have labeled these trainees PITs, not affectionately, for “principals in training.” Too, they’ve been making comparisons between Miles and Bill Rojas, owing to the speed with which both men made changes when they got their jobs and to the fact that they bear a passing resemblance. (Primer: Rojas was fired in 2000, after one year of service. If he is not DISD’s biggest failure, then he is, at
least, someone you don’t want to be compared to.)
Not all has been bad, though. Administrators—none of whom, for obvious reasons, would speak on the record—say that Miles is accessible and personable. Unlike Rojas, he doesn’t curse like he’s reciting lines from Deadwood. And he has undone the previous administration’s alignment of principals, grouping them not by school level (high school principals with high school principals) but by feeder pattern (the middle school whose graduates go on to a high school). That was a popular move. As was making changes first at Central, rather than at the schools. (Though one move, appointing Shirley Ison-Newsome to assistant superintendent, has not gone over well. Ison-Newsome has worked at the district for decades. She was embroiled in the 2006 credit card scandal, for spending district money on expensive pillows from the gift shop at Mount Vernon, in Virginia; generated bad press as an area superintendent, for ordering a private bathroom built onto her office suite; and then, just this year, fell on her face when she approved a $57,000 field trip for 5,000 boys to watch the movie Red Tails, a gaffe that still has authorities trying to decide whether she misspent federal Title 1 funds—just to list a few reasons why she’s not universally loved.)
The more substantive issue, though, Miles’ reorganization of the district, has taken a backseat to his coffee consumption, a distraction entirely of his own making. (Scott Friedman, the TV reporter, discovered that Miles and Sprague had eaten lunch together (salmon). There was no indication whether coffee came into play.) Going forward, will his thin skin and tone deafness continue to make a difficult job even harder? Can his communications chief save him from himself? One telling incident from his previous post suggests that the answers are, respectively, yes and no.
J. Adrian Stanley is a reporter for the Independent, a weekly paper in Colorado Springs. She wrote several stories about Miles. “The stories weren’t necessarily flattering,” she says, “but I felt they were fair, showing both sides of issues. Miles and Sprague did not agree. Personally, I think they may have been conditioned by the treatment they received at other local news outlets, which tended to portray Miles as a local hero.”
Here is a sample from a 2010 profile of Miles that ran in the daily Gazette: “Miles, 53, is a complex man: intense but calm; warrior and poet; a student who went from the parade fields of West Point to the liberal college forums at Berkley; someone whose favorite movies are Gladiator and The Sound of Music; a veteran who opposed the war in Iraq; a man who prefers raising up impoverished kids over a glamorous diplomatic job.”
“Whatever the case,” Stanley says, “I certainly heard from Sprague after the stories printed. Often she would call me to complain in heated tones.” After Stanley wrote a cover story about Miles, she says, Sprague and Miles paid a visit to her office. “The meeting lasted around an hour. It was apparent from the beginning, though, that neither Sprague nor Miles was interested in discussing the issue calmly.”
Sprague has a different take. She describes the tone of the meeting as “nothing but professional.” “We had to sit her down—I mean, sit down with her and explain how the story was inaccurate,” Sprague says. Furthermore, she says, the Independent’s publisher admitted in the meeting that Stanley’s story was biased. Stanley says that is not true, pointing out that her publisher didn’t attend the meeting.
Before Miles left Colorado Springs, I asked his old district for every email written this calendar year between Miles and Sprague. I got exactly one written by Miles. “Ten years from now,” he told Sprague, “when I’m gone from the district ... they will say, ‘I can’t believe there was a time when DISD didn’t have a cabinet-level communications person’ [meaning Sprague]. The innovators and change agents always get beat up because most people can’t imagine a different way until they are shown.”
That is one explanation.
I got just one email from Miles because Harrison School District Two keeps emails for only two weeks. An administrator there explained that they don’t have the budget or server space to store any more than that. At DISD, they do. The district installed a new email system last year. It stores every email from every employee, going back seven years. Here in Dallas, people will dig.
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