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Indispensable Man

The Dallas public schools were rotten. Then a semi-retired civic leader decided enough was enough.
By  |
Jack Lowe is creating a culture of accountability.
photography by Dan Sellers

Seven years ago, a lawsuit against the Dallas public schools revealed major instances of corruption. One of my favorites was the middle-level manager in human resources who punched a few computer keys so that several South Dallas school janitors found themselves making $100,000 a year. Then he made them rent his houses for $6,000 a month.

That’s the kind of rot that permeated the system when Jack Lowe was elected to the School Board in 2003.


How far up did the rot go? DISD is the third-largest employer in North Texas. Five years ago, one in the parade of recent superintendents (seven in a decade) shared his frustration privately with me. Three weeks previously, he had fired 12 people, five for incompetence and seven for stealing. All 12 firings were overturned by the School Board’s personnel committee. That’s how high the rot went.


After two years of watching this debacle from a ringside seat on the School Board, Jack Lowe—a little to his own surprise—was elected its president in 2005. Immediately, things began to change.
When you’re stuck with a rotting house, the first thing you need to do is put on a new roof. Then you need to bolster it. After that, you can fix the walls and reseal the windows. Only then does it make sense to lay new flooring.


Dallas Achieves, a task force organized by civic leader Don Williams [see page 48], had already drawn up the plans and produced a blueprint. In 2005, when the new School Board recruited Michael Hinojosa as superintendent, he made his adjustments and started taking action.


In this case, the roof of the rotten house was the schools themselves. Education was not the priority in the old DISD; make-work jobs for adults and siphoning off what you could get were the priorities. By contrast, Hinojosa’s first, second, and last priority is the schools [see page 38]. And what a difference his new roof makes. In three short years, he has doubled the number of “recognized” schools and quadrupled the number of “exemplary” schools to an all-time high for the Dallas system. Last year, he fired 180 incompetent employees, and not one was overturned by the new School Board.


Now the walls and windows are being repaired (I’ll get to that in a minute). It should come as no surprise, though, that at some point someone would crash through that still-rotten floor.


The crash was an $84 million miscalculation of the costs of fixing the roof. Hinojosa had hired 750 new teachers, reduced class sizes, and aligned the curriculum. He had done all this relying on an out-of-date and very expensive IT system and a second-rate financial staff. (For a case study in the corrupt purchasing that led to the fiasco, go to page 42. As I said, the rot was everywhere.) The resulting layoffs will hurt, but they shouldn’t cripple, Hinojosa’s reform. That’s because the roof has been bolstered, and the walls and windows are nearly fixed.


The key to a high-performing school is its principal. Try to run a school out of the administration building, and you’ll get principals who are nothing more than go-along-to-get-along patsies. Give principals power equal to their responsibilities, and you’ll get self-motivated achievers who can motivate others. How do you tell whether a principal can handle the job? First, in Hinojosa’s view, you set up a competition for the job. Patronage is gone; it doesn’t matter anymore who you know. Every job opening is posted. To get it, you have to win it against everyone in America who applies. Second, in DISD, principals must now earn the power to run their schools as they see fit. To be fully empowered in DISD, principals must have a school that ranks in the top half in achievement, the top half in improvement, and the top half in employee satisfaction.


The result, Jack Lowe says, is revolutionary. “We’ve gone from an attitude of entitlement to a culture of accountability,” he says. Good people relish that. The kind of people who don’t like it don’t succeed; the next step is to make sure they don’t last.


That’s why I call Lowe the “indispensable man”—an epithet last used by the historian Thomas Flexner to describe George Washington.


None of this would have happened if one man hadn’t decided that 40 years of rot was enough. When Rudy Giuliani proclaimed that New York could be a workable, livable city, nobody in New York believed him. People had grown accustomed to a New York perennially out of money, where you ignored graffiti on the walls and literally stepped over drug addicts on Fifth Avenue. For his efforts, Giuliani was vilified by those with a stake in the old system, and every attack got full play in the daily newspapers. But Giuliani kept at it. He did more than keep at it. He won.


You wouldn’t know it by reading the headlines, but Jack Lowe is winning, too. Quietly, with little fuss and even less personal fanfare, he has led a strong School Board in taking decisive action. The new roof is in place. The windows and walls have been refurbished. Even where the floor caved in has been quickly patched. That’s because Jack Lowe, like Rudy Giuliani, is determined to succeed, and he won’t be deterred.


How do you turn around a disaster? You ask a strong, competent, decent man to take it on. Next, you give him every tool he needs to get the job done.