Friday, April 19, 2024 Apr 19, 2024
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Who’s Out to Get Mike Miles?

A series of early missteps left the Dallas ISD superintendent at the center of a media feeding frenzy. Two years later, he has a shot at engineering real change.
Photo by Elizabeth Lavin

Jade does a double take when she looks up from the hostess stand at Denny’s and sees the familiar face that has walked through the door.

“Oh, hi,” she says to Mike Miles, cocking her head to the side, beaming, eyes bright. They love Miles here, but they treat him like a customer and not the Dallas ISD superintendent, which is probably why he keeps coming. 

Miles and Jade chat for a moment, then she leads him to a booth near the front of the restaurant, just out of the chill of a cold and damp November morning. He has been a regular at this Denny’s off Central Expressway, near Henderson Avenue, since his wife and youngest son moved back to Colorado late last summer.

Anthony was dealing with a serious medical issue, and the family decided he needed to be near his doctor. They left just in time for Anthony to start the school year with his old friends. Miles tries to get up there to see them every three weeks or so. Next week, for Thanksgiving, he’ll get a rare chance to be with the entire family—his wife, Karen, Anthony, and his college-age kids, Nick and Madeleine. But while he’s in Dallas, Miles doesn’t have the time or inclination to cook much, so he comes here to Denny’s.

It’s a Saturday, so he is wearing a look from the JC Penney Weekend Dad collection: light brown leather jacket over a maroon-and-blue rugby-striped hoodie and jeans. He orders a late breakfast—two eggs scrambled, wheat toast, coffee—and asks a question I wasn’t expecting to answer this morning, especially not from Mike Miles. He wants to know if I’ve seen The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. He went on opening weekend.

“I told my wife not to tell our son that I went,” he says, laughing. His review: “It was packed, and it was good.”

When Miles says those four words, I know that he is a teacher no matter his job title.

With his wife and son out of town, Miles goes to a lot of movies. Mostly at NorthPark Center and mostly action. He doesn’t have hobbies—unless you count playing chess or Sudoku—and he craves the pure escapism of going to a theater and watching things blow up.

“My wife says, ‘How can you go to an action movie and it be relaxing? These things are exploding, people are running from this or that,’ ” he says. “It just gets her on edge. For me, no, I relax.”

The waitress brings the coffee, and Miles grabs a fistful of sugar packets, so many that I think he is going to offer some to me. But they all go into the mug in front of him. 

“As soon as I wake up—I mean, in the shower and everything—I start to think about work and what has to be done, and kind of think through some decisions,” he says. “But when I watch movies or play chess, it’s relaxing.”

Maybe more than anyone in Dallas, Miles needs a reliable method to tune out the world for 90 minutes. He’s in charge of approximately 20,000 employees, nearly 160,000 students, and a $1.5 billion budget, working with a school board that almost fired him last year, in a city that mostly only knows him from media more eager to point out mistakes than celebrate successes. And when he leaves all that behind at the end of a workday that regularly stretches from 6 in the morning until 7 or 8 at night, he goes home to an empty house.

If that wasn’t enough pressure, Mayor Mike Rawlings believes that nothing less than the future of the city depends on turning around the district. The 2010 Census showed that growth in Dallas was flat while every nearby suburb boomed. Why? African-American families left Dallas by the thousands for better schools.

“The results of Dallas schools have been below the floor,” Rawlings says. “In many areas, we’re in the 25th percentile. That’s not acceptable.”

So Miles needs to go to NorthPark to see Katniss Everdeen try to make it out of the Hunger Games alive again. And he can relax because he knows it’s not real. It’s just a story. He’s seen real. He’s lived it, surviving a plane crash when he was a 24-year-old Army Ranger.

It happened on September 21, 1981. Miles was stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington, near Tacoma, as part of the elite 2nd Ranger Battalion. That night, he was aboard a Lockheed C-130 Hercules, seated on a storage box with the battalion commander—a colonel—and the commander’s radio operator. The plane was loaded with a small OH-6 helicopter armed with 50-millimeter cannons, a jeep with a 50-caliber machine gun, and 50 soldiers lined up against the side of the plane.

They were on a rescue mission, or at least a facsimile of one, bound for the Nevada desert, so they could train in terrain similar to—you know what? I’m not going to tell you the rest of the story. 

It’s tempting to focus on this moment in his life, to try to connect it, literally or metaphorically, to where he is now. That was my first inclination when Miles finished telling me the story over breakfast, the details gripping and cinematic. Seven Rangers died, including the colonel and his radio operator. But I’m not going to do it, because that story is as disconnected from his life now as one of his action movies is. 

Miles has been in Dallas for almost two years. Whether he is succeeding or not depends on how you tell his story. And this isn’t a story about an Army Ranger who came to fix Dallas ISD. It’s about a teacher who did. That’s why I can’t help but start on Mike Miles’ side. 

• • •

My parents are both teachers. my father later moved into administration and eventually became a superintendent in West, Texas, presiding over a small school district—one elementary, middle, and high school—for more than a decade. I remember the week the opponents of a bond issue that would fund a new high school campus took out a full-page ad in the local paper, which never carried full-page ads, calling my father a liar. I remember coming home from a family vacation in Florida to find our house covered in toilet paper, shaving cream, and eggs. Eggs are hard to clean up after a few days in the sun.

The closest I ever came to following in my parents’ footsteps: after high school, I worked as a janitor for two years at the elementary school in West. (Which is another possible reason I find myself on Miles’ side. He worked as a custodian at the Colorado Springs City Administration Building for six months.) But, still, I personally know much more about the life of a school superintendent—working under the withering gaze of a city that trusts you with its children and tax dollars, and only rarely, if ever, truly being off the clock—than the average person.

Because of my father, I want to believe in Mike Miles. And because I have a son in Dallas ISD, I need to. 

But it was difficult to do that at first. Miles made it difficult. The pressure on him started before he had even officially taken office, and he brought every bit of it on himself. His first mistake was hiring Jennifer Sprague as the district’s communications director. The 31-year-old came with Miles from Harrison School District 2, where she held the same job. In Dallas, she was paid $185,000 per year—more than double what she’d been making in Colorado and $50,000 more than the Dallas gig had previously paid. 

Sprague was one of several high-profile hires Miles made after being named superintendent, and they all came with a hefty price tag, ranging from $182,000 to $225,000. When it came time to discuss Sprague and the other new members of his cabinet, Miles made his second mistake. He called a news conference at the screw-you time of 7:30 on a Saturday morning, which only backed up the argument that he maybe shouldn’t have brought Sprague with him to handle communications before anyone even asked a question.

Then he made his third mistake. At that press conference, he said, “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 out of it? The answer would be ‘no.’ ” If Sprague were worth her $185,000, she would have locked eyes with Miles at that moment and made a throat-slashing gesture to get him to shut up. But, no. “I’m going to make decisions that make sense,” he continued. “I’m not going to make decisions because the media will give me a hard time.”

He was practically daring them to keep doing so, and the Dallas media have never needed an engraved invitation to kick anyone in the knees, deserved or not. So ABC Channel 8, the Dallas Morning News, NBC Channel 5, the Dallas Observer, and, yes, D Magazine all ran stories with a similar thrust: who the hell does this guy think he is?

Sprague barely made it past Christmas, but communication remained a problem during Miles’ first year, and not just with the media. He slipped up in private, too. For instance, he told principals during a training session, “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.” Which—given that he planned to implement a new principal-evaluation system and, on top of that, hired 60 aspiring school leaders that were trained for a year before letting them compete for principal jobs in the district—was received like a verbal middle finger. And then he sparred with the board of trustees over Sprague’s severance package. 


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