On the first morning of his second go-around as the man in charge of Dallas ISD, interim superintendent Michael Hinojosa saw his old enemy, trustee Bernadette Nutall, walking toward him with a purpose. Nutall was a constant thorn in Hinojosa’s side during his first stint at DISD (2005 to 2011), from the moment she was elected, in 2009, until Hinojosa quit to take a job in suburban Atlanta. Nutall would often barge into his office without an appointment, demanding he take action on whatever parochial concern she had that day. This meeting was different, though. This time, Nutall walked up to Hinojosa and hugged him.
“I’m so sorry,” she told him, according to witnesses. “I’m sorry for the way I treated you. I’m so glad you’re back.”
The sense of relief within DISD wasn’t confined to those with whom Hinojosa scrapped during his first stint. Trustees, school administrators, teachers—everyone spoke during Hinojosa’s first few weeks back on the job of “finally being able to breathe,” as one staffer put it. That’s because the previous three years under controversial superintendent Mike Miles had been so contentious. Certain teachers, media, parents, and trustees had made it their full-time job to attack Miles and his reform efforts, making life at district headquarters chaotic. “Every day there was another scandal in the paper, even if we knew there was no substance behind the allegations,” says another administrator. “Eventually, you can’t do your job. Eventually, it defeats you.”
Hinojosa’s return was shocking. He was semi-retired, and Miles had survived every attempt to run him out of town. But without warning, in late June, Miles quit. By week’s end, Hinojosa had been named interim superintendent. “We needed stability, a known quantity,” a trustee said at the time. Which made sense: Miles was the burn-it-down guy, the reformer who had to sear the land so that the next guy, the build-it-up guy, could start fresh. Hinojosa is that build-it-up guy.
But just a few months later, the heat was already on Hinojosa. As the school year began, in August, he told me he knew he was in for a long spell of “fussin’ and discussin’ ,” as he put it. According to
multiple sources, it’s likely that Hinojosa will have had his “interim” label removed by the time you read this, but he is still under heavy pressure from trustees to accomplish most if not all of the following:
Get a $1.6 billion bond approved by skeptical voters in a November election; repair relationships with anti-reform wings of teacher and parent groups; convince a wary business community that he will protect and continue pushing Miles’ reform programs, such as expanded pre-K, school choice, and teacher evaluations; navigate the storm that is sure to come this month when teachers receive—or don’t—the first raises and bonuses based on how they performed under the evaluation plan; keep the majority of key cabinet members, especially those whose departures would signal dissatisfaction in the reform ranks; and ensure the district’s finances stay solid, especially since Hinojosa’s previous tenure was sullied by budget slipups.
The trustees have come up with so many criteria for success because some worry that Hinojosa is not a dedicated, reform-minded superintendent. Although he is seen as something of a “pre-reformer”—he tried to get a less rigorous teacher-evaluation system passed, and choice schools like A. Maceo Smith New Tech High School started under his watch—staffers are wary that his early championing of programs like school choice or expanded pre-K will evaporate when he meets back-room resistance.
Hinojosa says he should be evaluated based on what he’s doing now, not the past. “At some point, we need to let the past go,” Hinojosa says, sitting at the conference table outside his office. “It’s going to be a challenge because some people are still wounded, and healing doesn’t happen overnight. People are not going to believe what I say. They’re going to believe what I do.”
You want to believe Hinojosa when he says he can accomplish all this and more, because it’s so easy to be swept up in his tornado of positivity. In the weeks leading up to the school year’s start, he was seemingly everywhere: pressing the flesh at a black church on Sunday morning, making jokes from the stage at a raucous DISD back-to-school convocation while a DJ spun records and Mavs ManiAACs hyped the crowd of teachers. Hinojosa received a standing ovation when he said that if he’s still superintendent next year, he will try to get teachers time off during the entire week of Thanksgiving.
Working a crowd, whether it be 5,500 teachers and staff members or one skeptical journalist, is Hinojosa’s strong suit. But he knows the goodwill can dissipate if he doesn’t show there is substance behind his style.
The bond election’s success is paramount. “The first question is, Can we get a bond passed while he is at the helm?” says one trustee. “If so, we’ll look at keeping him. That’s only the first step, understand. But it’s a crucial first step.”
You might even say that as first steps go, it’s a doozy. The bond’s success will have to overcome objections from Joyce Foreman, who has spoken out loudly against it. The merits of her objections range from “nonexistent” to “evaporate under scrutiny.” She complains about proper transparency, even though more than a dozen community meetings and public hearings on the bond proposal have occurred, and there is a trove of information online on the DISD site. She complains that the bond doesn’t show north-south equity, but schools in southern Dallas would get roughly two-thirds of the bond money, as opposed to those in the north. But when you have the ear of a few lazy reporters around town, populist nonsense of the type spouted by Foreman can still sway an election, especially one without major races to draw more voters.
This is where Hinojosa’s emotional intelligence shows. Miles showed little patience for those who ignored data and let their feelings influence school policy. “Hinojosa’s desire to be liked, his cheerleading for the district, this is where it’s a good thing, something Miles never understood,” a trustee says. “Part of the job is making your enemies feel better. Making them feel like they’re not really your enemies.”
Some people, me included, believe that’s a dangerous game. Placating demagogues for the sake of civility does not make them less disruptive. Giving a tiger a taste of meat does not make it less likely to want more flesh. But if you’re less cynical than I am, maybe you really do believe everyone wants what is best for the city, the district, the kids. If so, you can look naysayers in the eye and think you can convince them to trust you.
Hinojosa certainly believes this.
“It’s all about trust. That’s what all these objections boil down to,” he says. “The thing that we cannot do is get in the bunker mentality and say, ‘Your argument is not valid, because here are the numbers.’ The numbers are only half of the story. The rest of it is the images, what’s in people’s minds about what they think is fair or not. I think we’re going to have to work our way through that. Because some people would argue that figures don’t lie, but liars figure. I just think we can take a deep breath, let people be heard, and then I think in the end we will just march forward, put the best plan we can together, and see.”
That’s the sort of enthusiasm the district needs right now. The build-it-up guy has to be hopeful. He has to bridge competing interests and rally diverse groups behind a single cause. But that cause has to be improving educational outcomes for poor kids, not just making grown-ups feel good. This time around, Hinojosa has so far only proven he can do the latter.