Dallas Superintendent Mike Moses Doesn't Take Teacher Opposition Lightly
DISD Superintendent Mike Moses couldn't let it go.
A teacher had publicly opposed one of his initiatives at a school board meeting. She stood at the public microphone and admonished the nine trustees seated at their crescent-shaped table: "We elected you, and you should reflect what we want."
The story didn't end there. The next day, Dr. Moses delivered his regular "Friday Memo" to trustees. Item No. 2 informed them that he had researched the teacher's voting record.
"Just thought you might want to know that the teacher who addressed the board ... last registered to vote on August 8, 1997, and, according to the records from Dallas County, did not vote in the bond election or the last trustee election."
Trustee Rafael Anchia says this excerpt from an Aug. 23, 2002, memo shows the intensity that smolders beneath Dr. Moses' folksy Texas exterior.
Learning from the super's words
"A job of that magnitude requires intensity," Mr. Anchia said. "You consistently feel beat up."
The Dallas Morning News examined more than 1,000 pages of Friday Memos, e-mails and other internal communications between Dr. Moses and DISD trustees. The documents, obtained under state open records law, take the reader behind the scenes of tightly scripted school board meetings to reveal how an accomplished manager feeds and cares for his elected bosses.
Most important, the Friday Memos often preview issues that won't show up on public meeting agendas until weeks or months later, which raises questions about when and how DISD allows public participation in its affairs.
On Dec. 5, Dr. Moses mentioned in the Friday Memo seven schools that "we believe may not be needed ..." in a couple of years.
Almost seven weeks later, on Jan. 29, trustees voted to close Navarro Learning Center in West Dallas after the 2004-05 school year. Navarro, one of the seven schools mentioned in the earlier memo, has 176 students in pre-kindergarten through third grade.
Lakita Royal, PTA president at Navarro, said she didn't find out about the closing until the day trustees took their vote. There had been no public discussion, she said.
"I felt a sense of betrayal because we weren't in the know," Ms. Royal said. "I feel that as a parent, I was blindsided."
DISD trustee Lew Blackburn, whose district includes Navarro, said the school is small and serves a small number of children.
"We have space at much larger buildings," he said. "I'm not overly concerned."
In many ways, Dr. Moses uses the Friday Memos to remind trustees that the opinions they hear from residents may not reflect public opinion at large. Or that the news stories they read may not reflect reality as he knows it.
"I'm trying to get information to them and trying to help them have a perspective on who they're hearing from," Dr. Moses said. "You know, three people can make it sound like everybody's against something."
In memo after memo, Dr. Moses' mood runs the gamut from embattled and frustrated to proud and exhilarated. He complains and cajoles. He coaches and compliments. He supplies trustees with information on complex subjects like medical insurance.
Sometimes, the memos resemble a small-town newspaper.
"We are pleased to inform you that that our Budget Department has been awarded the American Association of School Business Official's Meritorious Budget Award for the DISD 2001-02 budget. This is another historic and significant achievement for our school district."
Sometimes, though, the news is bad. And Dr. Moses doesn't pull punches. Employee steals student activity funds. Administrator executes a contract without proper approval. Police accuse teacher of sexual abuse.
A careful reading of the weekly memos reveals the Moses method of injecting change into DISD.
For example, early in his tenure, he began talking about making teachers more accountable for student academic performance. Too many teachers, he said, see the classroom as their exclusive domain, a place in which school administrators should not intrude too far.
Soon, general discourses on teacher accountability moved to specific recommendations to change their employment contracts. By the time he asks trustees to vote on something, those who carefully read his memos will clearly understand what he has in mind – and why.
"He takes great pains to communicate with us so there are no surprises in what he proposes to the board," Mr. Anchia said. "He's very honest about upsides and downsides. He listens to trustees and adjusts to what he hears to get consensus. He clearly explains issues. He reframes them to include nuances. The memos help everybody stay focused."
On Feb. 28, 2002, the Moses method bore fruit when trustees voted 9-0 to reduce teacher contracts from three years to two years – an unpopular idea among teachers and their union representatives because it makes it easier to fire them.
The next day, in the Friday Memo, Dr. Moses thanked trustees for their votes.
But he reveled in victory for only one sentence before launching into a long lament about "some teachers" who don't want to be accountable for their students' academic performance. Their union representatives, he complained, support him only when money gets pushed their way in a bond issue or a salary increase.
You can almost imagine the blood rising in his face, concentration animating his blue eyes, as he pours his frustrations into a dictaphone.
"We have individuals in our district who want accountability for everyone but themselves," he wrote.
"I am not sympathetic to those who simply want to be stubborn, resistant, insubordinate, and who believe the Dallas Independent School District is their playpen to do whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want."
Holding the line
The Friday Memos show a top manager trying to conquer his labor problems. And he doesn't hesitate to ask trustees to help him.
Here's an example: Trustees sit in three-member panels to hear appeals from teachers targeted for firing. Sometimes, they side with the teachers and give them back their jobs.
Time and again, Dr. Moses lobbies the trustees like a basketball coach working the referees. He wants them to back his principals and not the teachers. He even keeps statistics, telling the board in June that trustees have reversed administration decisions "some 25 percent of the last 58 hearings held ..."
"Certainly trustees have the right to make decisions as you believe to be in the best interest of the school district," he wrote in April. "Nevertheless, I will state again that it's difficult for principals to be courageous in their evaluations [of teachers] if their recommendations are not to be upheld."
These appeals panels afford trustees a measure of power and, in their view, the ability to right a wrong every once in awhile.
"He [Dr. Moses] can say what he wants to, but I'm going to judge it on an individual basis," said trustee Joe May. "If I feel I'm right, I'll vote to overturn those things."
Dr. Moses, at age 52, earns $341,775 a year plus perks. When he took over DISD in December 2000, he became its seventh superintendent in less than 10 years. The district was reeling from a decade of corruption, FBI investigations and political infighting among trustees.
While the business of education continued in schoolhouses, DISD was like a circular firing squad at the top. Trustees were split into factions. Factions warred with the superintendent.
Those days are long over. Today, most board votes are unanimous. Rarely, one or two trustees will vote against a Moses recommendation.
"I do work hard to get the board to move together," Dr. Moses said. "I think it sends a signal to the community ... that the board is governing in a responsible way."
Viewed from an economic perspective, DISD looks like a gigantic pot of money and jobs – 20,000 employees, a billion-dollar operating budget and capital improvement construction contracts that will amount to another billion dollars over the next decade.
By the mid-1990s, some trustees and other local politicians had a reputation for treating the DISD like a trough for themselves and friends. Political horsetrading often stymied a superintendent's ability to run things based on sound management practices.
The Moses method of managing a big urban district is distilled in Paragraph 2 of Page 6 of his employment contract, which runs through Dec. 31, 2006.
In essence, it says trustees "shall not" discuss DISD business with any employee other than him unless he gives permission. And it says trustees "shall not communicate with anyone" regarding DISD personnel assignment, reassignment, salary and benefits, evaluation or any other terms of employment unless he agrees in advance.
Dr. Moses said he was straightforward with trustees before they hired him.
"Frankly, I said, 'If you're going to have interactions on a regular basis with teachers and principals, then you really don't need to hire me,' " he said.
In his Friday memos, he repeatedly instructs them to stay out of district operations, refer problems to him and concentrate on setting big-picture policies to govern the district.
Even after three years on the job, Dr. Moses still chides trustees for trying to get involved in DISD contracts and selection of companies that do business with the district.
"There has been some contact with staff about vendor recommendations," he wrote Oct. 31. "Suggestions about who should be involved as subcontractors have made the job of the staff more difficult. Again, it is not consistent with the good work this board has done during the last three years."
Dr. Moses said the Page 6 language in his employment contract is not just meaningless boilerplate.
"I take it pretty seriously," he said.
Trustee Blackburn found out just how seriously in a scorching memo from Dr. Moses.
Last fall, Dr. Blackburn e-mailed DISD staff members to request a list of central office administrators for the last five years and whether they lived in or out of the district. He also asked for a list of current administrators and their salaries.
And he wanted the information within 48 hours.
"Making such a request of the staff and wanting this information in 48 hours is inconsiderate of anything else happening in our district," Dr. Moses wrote in a personal memo to Dr. Blackburn.
Dr. Moses said he would provide the information. But he added later in the memo, "I fully expect you and other members of the board to respect the terms and conditions of our agreement as well."
Dr. Blackburn, a school administrator in Wilmer-Hutchins, said he knows he occasionally steps on Dr. Moses' toes.
"Sometimes I'm not a team player when I feel like we are going in the wrong direction," he said. "But if I thought he [Dr. Moses] wasn't doing a good job, I'd be campaigning to get him out. He's the highest-paid superintendent in the state."
Throughout the mid-1990s, DISD's troubles and travails led the 10 p.m. newscasts. Trustees complained about each other. They complained about the superintendent. The superintendent complained about them. Scuffles between police and protestors broke out during board meetings.
The media megaphone made everything seem broken.
When Dr. Moses arrived, his Friday Memos sounded themes designed to improve the district's image. He pledged to be circumspect during news interviews. And so should trustees, he advised. Criticizing each other through the media, he warned, would be divisive.
He and trustees considered restructuring how and when residents may speak during school board meetings.
The nine trustees meet as a "committee of the whole" each month to discuss major agenda items. A week later, they meet for a regular school board meeting to take formal votes.
In a memo dated June 28, 2002, Dr. Moses recommended moving all public comment to the committee of the whole meeting and eliminating residents' participation in the following week's regular board meetings.
The change would still allow people to comment on issues before trustees vote at the regular board meeting, he argued. And it would lessen the chances that residents' complaints might disrupt board meetings.
"I recognize the importance of public participation," Dr. Moses wrote. "Nevertheless, as I have said many times, your meetings are your meetings. They are public meetings, not meetings of the public."
Trustees never acted on his proposal. Residents can still sign up to speak at both meetings as long as they stay cool and take three minutes or less.
More than 18 months later, Dr. Moses says he would not recommend eliminating public comment from the board meeting.
"It's working," he said. "I don't know now that I would go back and disturb it."
Credit for progress
Clearly, DISD's public image has improved under Dr. Moses. Its shirttail is tucked in and it says, "Yes ma'am" and "No, sir." But does it make better grades?
Last spring, 53.5 percent of DISD students passed all sections of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the statewide test that measures academic skills. In Houston, 58.1 percent passed; in Fort Worth, 61.2 percent passed.
In DISD, student performance on state-mandated tests has become the ballgame.
Dr. Moses pledges to jettison teachers and principals who fail to improve test scores. He said he hasn't asked trustees to extend his contract the last two years because he holds himself to the same standard.
"I don't want them to think that accountability is not shared at the top by the superintendent," he said.
Trustee May gives Dr. Moses the credit for turning around the district's image. But Trustee Ron Price has a different take. He said Dr. Moses came to town after things had begun to settle down at DISD's Ross Avenue headquarters.
"A lot of people who kept up havoc are no longer there," Mr. Price said. "Dr. Moses came to Dallas at the right time, when the board was in transition."
All nine trustees praise Dr. Moses as an effective, collaborative leader who listens.
They say the Friday Memos reflect the thoughts of a dedicated educator and a complex chief executive who's driven to improve his organization.
After The Dallas Morning News obtained the memos in January, Dr. Moses vowed to stop writing them and conduct more business by telephone or in person. Mr. Anchia said he hoped Dr. Moses would reconsider.
"I don't have such hubris that I take offense to these memos," Mr. Anchia said. "I'm always appreciative of how astutely he deals with things."
Now, upon reflection, Dr. Moses said he may keep writing.
"I would rather praise in public and criticize in private," he said. "And I'm not going to criticize the board a great deal, but I am going to take some opportunities, for want of a better word, to counsel the board."
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Tawnell D. Hobbs & Scott Parks
Dallas Morning News
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