Nolan Estes, a Finalist for Interim Dallas ISD Superintendent, Would Be "Honored" to Return

Photo by Joan Burnard/Dallas Independent School District
Nolan Estes, at right, presenting a scholarship to School of Science and Engineering student Juliana M. Hossu back in April
At this very moment, Nolan Estes is at his home in Austin filling out a questionnaire sent to the handful of finalists for the position of interim Dallas Independent School District superintendent. It was dispatched to him by DISD board president Lew Blackburn, who, Estes says, called him yesterday and gave him the heads-up that, why, yes, he just might be asked to return to Dallas 33 years after he left DISD to become a professor in the University of Texas's College of Education. (Update: An interim could be named as early as tomorrow's called board meeting.)

He just read to me the first question on the essay test: "Identify the significant positions you've held, what you were asked to do, what were your major accomplishments and what were your mistakes." He laughs. "That was a good question, but I wish they hadn't asked about mistakes, because that's gonna be a long list."

Estes, who served as DISD superintendent from 1968 till 1978, then goes on to list one so-called failure: the fact that, as associate commissioner of education under President Lyndon Johnson, he was never able to fully implement the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, part of the president's "War on Poverty" and the legislation that led to, among other things, Title I funding.

Says Estes, "In 1968 the Congress and the nation had a choice of buying guns or butter, and unfortunately we decided to buy guns, and we know what happened, and I fear history may be repeating itself. Think now, just a minute, if we'd decided to buy butter instead of guns in 1968 where might we be now. So I guess one of my mistakes was we never fully implemented the act. People said it was a failure. But we never implemented it."

On the other side is more of our chat this morning. But long story short: He'd love to come back to Dallas.

So, first thing's first: Do you really want to come back, even if it's just temporarily?

I don't know of an educator in the country who would not be delighted and honored to serve with the Dallas Independent School District. It's a great district. It's the best urban district in the state and one of the best in the country. It would be an honor to serve in any capacity.

When did you find out you were a finalist?

Somebody called me from the Dallas FOX affiliate and wanted to send out a camera crew here in Austin. That was Tuesday. That's the first I had known about it. As you know I keep up with the DISD and the superintendent of schools, Michael Hinojosa, I knew he had decided to go to Cobb County, and I think that's probably a good move. He's a good man who did a great job in Dallas, so I knew he was leaving, but I did not know what the board had been thinking.

Have you heard from the board since then?

The president called me yesterday and said they were sending a survey to those people whose names had been mentioned, and that's the only one I talked to. As we speak I have it in front of me. And I'm gonna fill it out.

For years part of your job at UT has been finding and training superintendents, which means you have a lot of experience with interims. What interests you in the job at this point in your career?

That's a rather unique position and a very important one, and the major responsibility is to smooth the transition from Mike Hinojosa to the new one -- to try to facilitate communications and keep the momentum going till the new superintendent can get there. One of the problems is when the chief executive officer leaves, there's a power vacuum, and everyone rushes in and wants to fill that vacuum, and unless you have a steady hand there's bedlam. And there's often a lack of communication; people don't know who's on first and who's trying to steal second, particularly with the board. In those cases they get what the staff thinks they want to hear rather than what they ought to hear.

One of the things I do is search for superintendents around the country, and I've worked with a lot of interims and know what their challenges are. Here I am giving a school board advice -- can you imagine? But they might be best served with a small team -- say, three people -- serving as the interim along with the board president, who would be there to carefully guide them through the process.

You know, and certainly knew, this job as well as anyone, having held it for a long 10 years. And you speak of how well the DISD's regarded. Yet when Hinojosa said he was leaving, there were more people wanting him gone than wishing he would stay ...

Dallas has done well. Dallas Achieves has been on the national radar screen for a long time now, and you don't want to step back. Argument over the superintendent's performance are a function of how important education is. It's critical to our overall economy, and if kids are going to break the cycle of poverty, the answer is education, and various political groups understand that. And because of that, there's a difference in what the schools ought to be involved in. It's te job of the leader to build a consensus about the future of the district and then go there. Your enemies in that job accumulate and your friends come and go. [He laughs.] It's an interesting challenge.

Would you really want to come back knowing you could be here for a possibly lengthy stay?

It takes 180 days. We like to have 120 to 180 days. You need to have somebody in there by January, February, because that's when the budget cycle starts. FOX asked me abut the budget. Well it's been developed for two, three moths, and they've built in hedging against what the legislature will do. That guy from A&M down in the Governor's Mansion has done some funny things. [He laughs.] But all that's built in. It's all over but the shouting now. Whether or not the legislature finalized heir budget or not, schools will start September 1. There's a disconnect. So, no, the board would be well advised to aim for having someone on the board by January, and they could be in by March 1. So you're talking about, I hope, six months of keeping the momentum going and facilitating communications and letting everyone know what's happening.

Having been involved in super searches and training for these many years can you recall a district asking one of its former superintendents to return?

It's rather rare. Usually they ride the superintendent out on a pole.[He laughs.] So it would be unusual. It is true, however, in order to facilitate the transition someone needs to know about the culture and the history, and I know a little about the history and culture and know a lot of things you shouldn't do. I may not know a lot of things to do [he laughs], but I know what doesn't work. But I would hope they think about a team approach. When I was in Chattanooga early in my career, the superintendent left, and the board used a team of three, which worked well.

Trustee Carla Ranger has brought that up -- a sort of executive council -- but it doesn't appear to be gaining traction.

It takes a while for a board to get its mind around a new concept.

Especially this one.

They just need guidance to pull them together and get their minds around their shared and common goals.

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Michael MacNaughton
Michael MacNaughton

Interesting article on Nolan Estes:

The article does not exactly paint the former superintendent with the same rosyglow that some remember. Nolan apparently threw money at problems (with littleeffect) and was a reluctant participant in desegregation - only doing so uponcourt order and then only paying lip service.

The article points out the rapid growth of the administration - something weare trying to combat to this very day. In the period when Estes arrived, 1968to 1975, student enrollment declined from 158,000 to 148,000 and the teacherpopulation declined from 6,600 to 6,300. in 1968, approximately 90 administratorsmanaged the district; $700,000 was spent on consultants; the bureaucracyconsumed 3.6 per cent of the budget. By 1975, there were more than 250administrators; consultants required $1.8 million in fees; and the bureaucracyconsumed a whopping 8 per cent of the budget. In 1968, funds for teacherscomprised 71 per cent of the budget; in 1975 they comprised only 45 per cent,suggesting a disproportionate emphasis on the administrative bureaucracy.

"Unfortunately for Estes, the 1971 desegregation crisis earned him areputation for bureaucratic double-talking. While he was saying things like"the priority must be to provide equal educational . . . opportunity forall students, not the achievement of racially-balanced student bodies,"most of the facts seemed to indicate that this priority was not being put intoaction. To many people's surprise, Estes himself would admit as much in federalcourt in 1974."

It's worth the read.

Michael MacNaughton
Michael MacNaughton

It appears that the Board of Trustees has stepped in it.Talk about the cart before the horse!The board jumped straight to "Who" before they nailed down the "How" and the "What".

HOW.  Nail down the process.  How should the selection process work?  A straight appointment? An interview? If an interview then how should candidate names be gathered?  Lew has apparently e-mailed out a questionnaire to potential candidates already.  How were the questions selected?  Will the public get to see the candidate responses?

WHAT.  What do the trustees expect of the interim? Hold the district together for a few months while a search is made? Begin to move the district forward based on Trustee and Commission recommendations?

WHO. Who should we select as interim candidates?

The Board may be wise to take a mulligan and start over...they have the time.

Michael MacNaughton
Michael MacNaughton

I hope one of the trustee interview questions is "If hired, who is your boss?"


"That guy from A&M down in the Governor's Mansion has done some funny things" OK I might now be able to forgive the man who signed my diploma for building Skyline.


Ahhhhhhhh. Monster want book from lady! Give book! Ahhhhhhhh. Monster angry! Ahhhhhhhhh


And to this year's honorary SchooI Superintendent, Mr. Nolan Estes, I present this ceremonial gold plated whistle.  Mr. Estes, the streets of Dallas are yours.


OMG, not only NO but Hell NO, keep his sorry ass in Austin

Just Groovy
Just Groovy

Appears we've selected our interim superintendant.

If Estes purchases a home in Dallas, as opposed to rents, we will be able to figure out if knows whether or not the board will be hiring him permanently.

Oak Cliff Clavin
Oak Cliff Clavin

Everything about your job seems freaking awsome Robert.......except having to report on the cesspool that is the DISD board.

Well done, none the less.


I would guess Estes isn't interested in a permanent gig.  This is probably a step to retirement.     

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