We Need Another Hero: Why Miles’ Fate is in the Hands of Dan Micciche and Eric Cowan

How they can prove themselves

mad-max-beyond-thunderdome-mel-gibson-children

To: Eric Cowan and Dan Micciche
From: Eric Celeste
Re: Your vote later today

Eric and Dan:

I know you both think you need to fire Mike Miles today. I know you each think you should do this because a) you hear from a lot of angry people in your district who want him fired, and b) you believe he has made severe management mistakes. I understand. But let’s talk for a minute about why this is a terrible idea for each of you, for your districts, for the city, and for the kids in DISD.

Let’s start with why this will be bad for each of you. You will be blamed.

You will argue that is not fair. After all, you two have been the swing votes on every major reform effort the district has put in place, from TEI to school choice efforts. You both held fast when Elizabeth Jones tried to orchestrate Miles’ firing previously. By being thoughtful, responsible stewards of the public trust — by holding Miles accountable but not succumbing to status quo nonsense — you have done yourselves and your city proud. That is undeniable.

But all that will be gone if you vote to fire. Ignore that I will blame you — who cares what I say? — but the city at large and the reasonable people in your districts who don’t spend 18 hours polluting comments sections will see you as the ones who caved to the nut jobs. I know that this makes you furious. Hell, the reason Miles is still employed is because of you two! It’s not that you two are joining those wild-eyed loons! You just want better management! It isn’t fair to say you’ve caved to the status quo! You have real issues that must be addressed!

I know this is your argument. In a vacuum, sure, it makes sense. But you are not in a vacuum. You are not quiet heroes wandering the land by your lonesomes. You are in the place they have put you. You are in the place you have asked to be. You are in Thunderdome. You have to battle with the ones in the cage, and there is no place to hide. You win or you lose. You stand strong or you cower. You are one of them or you are not. That is how your vote will be seen. That is how you will be remembered.

No, it’s not fair. We will do it anyway. Because we don’t hold crazy people responsible for doing dumb things (the status quo trustees). We don’t hold ass-kissers responsible for kissing ass (the pro-Miles trustees). We hold smart grown-ups responsible for making tough decisions. That’s you two. Sorry.

Perhaps you’re strong enough to take that new personal brand with you and move on after firing Miles. Perhaps that’s because you only want to do what is right.

Okay, let’s go down that path.

You have each said in private conversation with others that the parents and teachers in your districts want him fired. For you, Dan, this means that even if you believe Miles’ worthwhile reform efforts outweigh his management missteps, you’re going to be held accountable on May 9 should you be presented a chance to fire him and not take it. You fear you will lose the election, and the district will go back to the same terrible status-quo representation it had for a decade. I know this has caused you great consternation. But it’s misplaced worry, and it’s clouding your thinking.

Let’s start with the obvious: Your opponent is a joke. You’re going to cruise to victory. If you get less than 60 percent of the vote, it may signal the end of days. It’s just not going to happen.

But let’s say it did happen. Let’s say your district decided to hold you accountable for one decision that you know — even given your severe disappointment with the Superintendent’s management decisions — is not the best action for the district today. You know firing Miles outright at today’s meeting will make recruiting his replacement more difficult; it will embolden the crazies; and it will make it almost impossible to pass a TRE and fund the district’s Comprehensive Plan (school choice, pre-K facilities, CTE expansion).

Ask yourself then: Is doing so worth staying on the board? Is it worth setting reform back years to keep your seat, even though you’re unquestionably one of the best trustees we’ve ever had? What have you lost? You’ve lost a nonpaying headache of a job representing people who are determined to see DISD go back to the slow decay it underwent in the aughts. The gamble — don’t cave, find a better way to transition to the next leader — seems worth it.

For you, Eric, it’s a little different. You don’t even know that you want to run again, and you’re not up for re-election this year anyway. But — as with Dan — you feel a responsibility to represent the wishes of your district. And you’re convinced that Miles has lost widespread support in Oak Cliff.

I’m not sure that’s true in either of your districts, but let’s assume it is.

I get that you’re in a tough spot, especially with the angry middle-class parents who have your ears. For you Eric, that means friends and neighbors still mad about the firing of a popular Rosemont principal. Now, you know that the school has severely underperformed. You’ve seen the data not even mentioned in the newspaper (the ERG campus-level data), as have I. You know what’s in the personnel files. You know it was the right move. But, dammit, you feel like it’s just one more sign that Miles is tone deaf. Everyone is so angry! And they all have my email address!

That’s why you’ve come to this place where you think something must be done. A window to your thoughts can be found on your wife’s Facebook post yesterday. It’s a very thoughtful post, and anyone who doubts that you’ve struggled with this should read it in its entirety. But let me just quote the first few graphs:

Mike Miles may have made some student achievement gains, but he’s also had some setbacks. I don’t even want to get into the data game- it’s online. Interpret as you want.

But beyond that, he has hired incompetent people to run critical departments and paid them large settlements when it didn’t work out time and again. He implemented TEI poorly, causing more distress in what is an already sensitive program. He’s repeatedly thumbed his nose at the board’s authority, and they’ve absorbed it time and again in the interest of continuity, and perhaps also as a way of showing the teachers and principals that they, too, are having to give a little if we want to change the status quo.

However, my biggest beef with him is that he never seems to care or even try to fix his people problem. Schools are a people business. You want amazing people to come to work there? Create a good company culture. You want involved parents? Remember that they’re your customer and treat them well. You want more funding from the state? Be nice to your legislators. You want a successful bond election? Roll out some amazing achievements and work the voting population.

The other side to this, though, is Miles and the board have worked a lot of hours on programs that deserve a chance. School choice is my personal biggest beacon of hope, not only for what it will should do to help ALL kids, but also for what it will offer those who live in Oak Cliff but outside Rosemont boundary. Rosemont is full. Every middle class NOC kid can’t transfer into Rosemont. So who’s going to go pioneer the middle class participation in the other schools? Who’s going to take that leap of faith and put their kid in the less popular neighborhood school? But if you we’re able to select specialty programs and campuses doing great things, like at Mata, or like the Rosemont dual language program, wouldn’t you feel better about trying it out? I would. But if Miles and Co. are fired tomorrow, who carries school choice forward? Will it set the first round of programs back 1 year? 2? More? There are other programs, too, like ACE, which is designed to help stabilize IR schools. The kids at Dade, in particular– which is a school that has had 5 principals in 4 years (including the one he moved from Hogg)– deserve a chance to see if this can work for them. What happens to ACE if Miles is fired tomorrow?

Eric, you’re a lucky guy. That is one smart person. I can argue points with her — for example, despite the b.s. Bernadette Nutall is going to spin tonight, the principal at Dade is leaving because of serious health issues, not because of Miles — but she’s right overall. This isn’t really about Mike Miles. He’s going to be fine. He leaves today or in two years, he’s going to be implementing TEI-type plans all over the country and getting paid a lot more with many fewer headaches. But if these reforms he’s implementing don’t take root, the district is screwed.

And that’s why I don’t like the idea that we shouldn’t “even get into the data.” Because when she talks about the need for reforms, she’s talking about programs that will affect outcomes. There are and will be real improvements for poor kids. And when the data shows us poor kids are not doing as well as poor kids at another school — which is what the Rosemont data show — then we need to fix it. Hell, to do nothing is immoral.

And you know this, Eric. Dan knows this, too. You know that you aren’t just a marionette for a handful of parents who have your ear. You know kids aren’t served if trustees don’t, when needed, ignore passions and make cool-headed decisions. That’s not an option when the person being asked to stand up to the mob isn’t smart enough to do so. But you two are. You’ve proven it many times. And it’s bad for your districts if you don’t — as your wife was doing yesterday — explain the complications and far-reaching effects of rash actions. Explain that conspiracy narratives are lazy thinking, change is hard, and grit is needed.

That’s why this is bad for the city: It means our district, filled to the brim with poor kids who will do MUCH worse in life than middle class kids will if these improvements aren’t made, will hit the brakes on these reforms. It means the crazies win.

Now is the time you would both make a very good point: The district is not served by mismanagement, either. And you believe it’s time to hold the manager accountable.

We could argue just how mismanaged the district is. Miles has made mistakes, no question. To your mind, he still makes them. To mine, most of the Brett Shipp b.s. (has any journalist ever tried harder to get a public official fired?) and scandal gate stuff is meaningless. But let’s look at where we agree. Miles’s flaws:

— He is stubborn. (Example: There’s no good reason he still hasn’t named a schools chief. It’s been a year almost.)
— He made some unquestionably bad hires. (We all know them.)
— He is a poor communicator. (Nerdy wonks often are, but he must deal with it.)
— He has a supernatural ability to piss off large swaths of teachers. (Self-evident.)
— His emotional intelligence is not what one would call “high-level.”

I could argue that he’s getting better (I could name five chiefs who are excellent) at these things. I could argue that you want to throw out the good in search of the perfect. But there’s no need. Because even if he’s fatally flawed, as Amy Cowan noted above, the reforms Miles has brought clearly outweigh these problems TODAY.

So how do get past this?

You’ve each talked about putting in place a succession plan instead of firing Miles. This is smart. This is why you’re the reasonable trustees. I also know that there has bene resistance to this from Miles. (See: stubborn.) And, look, from his perspective, you’re asking him to give up overhauling the district because nut job status-quo trustees want him fired before the May 9 election. I get that reluctance.

So here is what I ask of you:

You need to find a way, in the next five hours or so, to do the impossible.

I don’t know what that thing is. I’m not as smart as either of you. And it’s unfair to ask this of you, to suggest that if you don’t do this you will be blamed. It is not fair in any way. But here we are.

Somehow, you need to find a way to snatch victory. In the hero’s journey, there is a period of crisis, his darkest hour, when defeat seems certain. You’re there.

I don’t know how you’ll do it, but you must find a way to hold Miles accountable — but not fire him. You need to let the city vote on May 9 with Miles still in place and see how it responds. You need to take that knowledge into his year-end review and do with it whatever you think best. And you need to know that at that point we will then trust you, no matter your decision. Because you will today have proven yourselves heroes. To us, sure. But more important to the kids you serve.

Godspeed,

Eric

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