When Michael Hinojosa announced in January that he planned to resign as superintendent of Dallas ISD, he had run the state’s second-largest school district for 13 years over two stints. By most accounts, he’d done it well. Before the pandemic hit, the Dallas Morning News editorial board said DISD was “poised to be the best urban district in the country,” and a year later H-E-B named it the top large district in the state. Finding the next superintendent would be critical to continuing that success. And pretty much everyone in town who follows education thought they knew who would get the job. Hinojosa himself had hired her.
Hinojosa’s last contract, negotiated in 2019, contained a clause that required him to make his “best reasonable efforts to identify and mentor one or more qualified individuals” who could be considered by the board of trustees as his replacement—or, as he’d later say, someone “who could take over in case I got run over by a DART bus.”
In November 2020, he hired Susana Cordova away from the top job at Denver Public Schools to serve as his deputy superintendent. A News headline a few months later called her a “ ‘rock star’ who might well be Dallas ISD’s next superintendent.” In that story, Hinojosa said, “I love this job, but while I’ve never felt comfortable leaving for another opportunity, now it’s different because of Susana.”
So that was that. Right? Susana Cordova, second in command, former superintendent. She would take over when Hinojosa formally stepped down.
Apparently the nine trustees on DISD’s board don’t read the paper. Four months after Hinojosa made his announcement, the board revealed that it had chosen a lone finalist for the job, and—surprise!—it wasn’t Cordova. That finalist must have been, if not surprised, a bit dizzied by how quickly everything had happened.
Stephanie Elizalde, 57, had worked for DISD, starting in 2011 and rising to the role of chief of school leadership. But she left Dallas in 2020, just a few months before Cordova was hired away from Denver, to take the superintendent job at Austin ISD. And just weeks before the surprise announcement in Dallas, as her name was being floated as a possible candidate, she was doing what she could to silence those whispers. In a letter to staff on April 7, the Austin district said, “Dr. Elizalde is here to stay.” Except that, on May 18, she wasn’t.
Now then, what happened to knock Cordova out of the running and change Elizalde’s mind about returning to Dallas? And how should DISD parents and stakeholders see the choice of Elizalde? The first question will be difficult to answer. The board conducts its hiring business behind closed doors. One trustee refused to tell me even if Cordova had formally applied for the job. (Though it’s pretty clear she was aiming for the gig, given that the board was informed she’d be leaving the district after she didn’t get it.) Some informed speculation should get us close enough to the first answer to at least get partial credit. The second answer I can provide based on a personal experience years ago with Elizalde.
First to the events of this spring: in a phone conversation on July 1, her first day on the job as DISD’s superintendent, Elizalde told me that when that staff memo was issued in Austin, she really did feel like she was staying put. “That April 7, that was absolutely true. I had decided I was not applying for the Dallas position,” she said. Her house in Dallas was on the market, and she and her husband were looking for places in Austin. Then something happened.
“I changed my mind,” she said. “There was a lot of soul searching and conversations with my family first and then conversations with members of the Austin team who had specifically come from either Dallas or somewhere else to join me in Austin. I felt like I owed them. Nothing is ever guaranteed in any of this. We all know we move from place to place. But it wouldn’t have been very kind of me not to have had a conversation with some of my Austin team.”
Even as she was searching her soul, her house in Dallas sold. In fact, she and her husband closed on the sale the day after the deadline to apply for the Dallas job.
So what changed her mind? Or, rather, who? Because a woman selling her house in Dallas wouldn’t change her mind and apply for a job here unless someone led her to believe the job was hers for the taking. Meaning a DISD trustee—or, more likely, multiple trustees—recruited her. A person familiar with the process told me that’s what happened. All Elizalde would say is that she heard from what she calls “internal and external stakeholders” in Dallas, encouraging her to reconsider.
Why Elizalde, though? What happened to Cordova, the heir apparent? That appears to have been her fatal flaw: Hinojosa had chosen her. Multiple people close to the hiring process, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, confirmed to me that this was a problem for some trustees.
But Joyce Foreman, who represents Southwest Dallas, made it pretty clear publicly that she didn’t want Hinojosa to control the hiring process (despite that clause in his contract, which, yes, is weird). She fought to get the board to hire a second search firm, telling the News that the first firm, having been picked by Hinojosa, would “only set up a controlled process with a predictable outcome.”
And two years ago, there was a telling public remark from trustee Maxie Johnson, who represents Oak Lawn and parts of Oak Cliff and West Dallas. When Cordova was hired as Hinojosa’s deputy in 2020, Johnson wrote on social media: “I do not believe Dr. Hinojosa did a nationwide search or had a competitive interview process for this position. Dr. Hinojosa has mentored her and seems to be looking for a successor. The Board will determine that, not a homeboy hookup.”
Asked about the selection of Elizalde and how that played out, Johnson responded to a Facebook message, saying he was “really proud” of the board’s selection. “When campaigning, I ran on safe learning environments, equitable resources, quality programs, and true transparency and accountability,” he wrote. “I believe Dr. Elizalde will help reach these goals for all kids in Dallas ISD.”
OK, so that’s at least part of the answer as to how Elizalde surprised perhaps even herself with a return to Dallas. To answer the second question, the one about how stakeholders should feel about the choice, one person who worked closely with Elizalde on her first tour through DISD says we should remember 2014. An Ebola outbreak that year put Dallas in the national spotlight. After Thomas Eric Duncan’s diagnosis, the district discovered that he had been in contact with several families—all with school-aged children. The former co-worker says Elizalde handled the situation “masterfully,” going to four campuses to calm parents and direct the district’s response “like a field marshal.” The co-worker says she was “tough as nails.”
That impression jibes with my own. A number of years ago, we had a situation with my son’s school. I won’t bore you with the details except to say that our beloved principal was leaving, and the pick for his replacement became the Most Important Thing in everyone’s life, and another nearby school also needed a new principal. So the community had two Most Important Things in everyone’s lives as it appeared the district wanted to promote an assistant principal from one school to be the principal at another, and tensions ran high. Both sets of parents brought the same question to Elizalde: why couldn’t both schools just promote their own assistants?
Elizalde met with all of us. She politely and firmly told us, giving specific reasons, why our plans wouldn’t work. She knew both schools well. And, as it turns out, she was right. The other school’s performance improved under its new principal, and my son’s school attracted a lot of really talented applicants that we, as parents, got the opportunity to interview. She was masterful, and she was tough as nails.
I discussed the hiring process with trustee Joe Carreón, who represents Northwest Dallas and parts of East and West Dallas. He said the district had about six “high-caliber” candidates, but Elizalde’s deep familiarity with the district made her stand out. “I think my colleagues didn’t want to see the district changed dramatically—not that Susana would have done that either,” he said. “We weren’t looking for a new visionary. We needed someone who knew Dallas and was in line with our goals. We didn’t expect that the right candidate would know every school in the district, but Stephanie actually does know every school in the district.”
And Carreón, who began his term after Elizalde left for Austin, said he’s already impressed with the board’s choice. I spoke with him before Elizalde had officially taken over in Dallas.
“She’s already out here, touring schools, and she isn’t even being paid to work for us yet. She’s taking meetings,” he said. “It makes me excited for the district and for the kids.”
This story originally ran in the August issue of D Magazine with the headline, “Bonus Question.” Write to [email protected].