Lew Blackburn Swears: DISD Really Wants to Know What You Want in New Superintendent

Dallas Independent School District
Lew Blackburn with the most recent DISD Superintendent, good ol' What's His Name
The real reason I wanted to talk to Dallas Independent School District board president Lew Blackburn last week was about the district's search for a superintendent -- specifically, why it's expected to take so long and why the district appears to be behind its own schedule. Because according to a missive Blackburn posted to the district's website a little more than a week ago "community engagement meetings" were supposed to begin in November, and an online survey was due this month. The latter appeared late Friday, right before 3700 went on winter hiatus, but the only super-search town hall I've heard of was one Edwin Flores held way back in September, with a whopping turnout of about 20. (There was apparently a second one, also led by Flores, around the same time.)

Town halls have finally been scheduled -- a whole two days' worth beginning January 9 at W.T. White and wrapping January 11 at 3700 Ross. I asked Blackburn: Will the meetings and surveys even make much of a difference? Because in the end, the trustees will go with who they want -- so much so they won't even present to the public a short list of candidates, just a single finalist of the board's choosing.

"The meetings will give the trustees an idea what the general public wants, but you're right, we'll make the decision," he told Unfair Park. "What I hear from colleagues is they want to know what the public wants. We all have one or two areas where we'd like to see a superstar, whether it's a finance or communication or curriculum person person. But it's advantageous for us to listen to people . And then we can develop a picture of what our superintendent might look like, and we can tell the search firm, 'Bring us a person who's as close to what the community wants,' and the board will take a shot at picking the person."

According to Blackburn's time line, the board should have a finalist in place by April -- which would make it almost a year since Michael Hinojosa announced he bolting for Cobb County. But as the trustees have been reminded myriad times in recent months, the DISD's one among more than a dozen big-city districts looking for a new leader (including Fort Worth), and the short list could be extremely short as others move on making their respective hires.

(Then again, there are plenty of folks out there who think the trustees are taking their sweet time for two reasons: They don't want to get stuck a bad super, and they rather like being in charge.)

Blackburn says he's "not concerned" about the length of the process because "most of, if not all of, the large school districts take six months before they name a superintendent," he siad. "Fort Worth, they started the same time we did, maybe a month later. But they're in the same boat we're in in terms of a time line. They may be ahead of us because they've already started having meetings, and we'd hoped to start before Christmas. But if we rushed there's a good chance we would not be able to involve the community. The board could say, 'We're going to do this on our own,' and it could be a faster process, but I think it's more important we take our time and get our input from a broad spectrum of people in Dallas to make sure we get the best person. We have a greater propensity to get the best person."

Yes, I asked, but won't everyone just say: "Get us the best person out there"? The survey's vague, meaningless, offering such choices as: "Inspires trust," "Puts students first," "Lives in the district," "Ability to delegate authority appropriately." And on and on.

"In the end," Blackburn says, the trustees will look at the answers and more than likely acknowledge, "This is nothing earth-shattering. But you probably know if we didn't do that, people will say, 'Well, if the board had talked to people, they would have picked a different person.'"

So, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't?

"I'd call it a rock and a hard place," he says with a slight laugh. "It's in our best interest to see what people think. We know the mayor, the Chamber people have an idea what we should do. But the search firm is actively recruiting. I told them, 'Don't want till these meetings.' I told them: 'Start working.' And a week or two after that I was at a conference, and I saw them and there were a lot of people around them, and I worked under the assumption they were talking to people who might be interested. And I think there's a lot of interest. I told them don't wait to see who applies. I told them to look at the districts who've had great success -- who've won the Broad Prize, who are at the top of the leader boards."

Back to that thing about know what the mayor wants. Will Mayor Mike Rawlings, who ran on a platform of reforming the district, have any say in the super selection?

"I know he wants to tell us what he thinks, that's for sure," Blackburn said. "I don't mind him telling us what he thinks. But he won't have a say in who we interview and who we select. It won't be, 'Lew, choose this person.' We won't open it up like that. But I told him, 'If you know people who might be a good fit, pass it on to the board or the search firm.'"

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Educated Dad
Educated Dad

I think it will be important to identify traits that distinguish the potential candidates.  I suspect all applicants will say they put students first, all will say they believe in working with the community, and all will use the phrases "innovative approach" and "new way to educate in the new century."

I want to find a superintendent that has experience building a team and inspiring them to be successful.  If you have not been part of a district team that had success improving scores and morale in a district with similar demographics to Dallas ISD, you won't be the right person.  That person doesn't have to be the leader of the other district, but we need someone who has been in the room and helped make decisions to bring a district up.  That person may be in education already, but I don't care if they are a business person that worked hard to fix their schools, they have to have experience with success of a medium to large district.

Also, our new superintendent will need a thick skin.  I don't know how that can be evaluated, but we need to know they can make good decisions even when they're not liked.  Dallas superintendent is a thankless job.  It pays well, but there are two many opposing opinions, varied stakeholders, and a history of discontent for anyone to think they will come in here and be loved 3 years later.  I grew up in Dallas, and people have always thought the school board was bad.  Sure, a former superintendent going to prison is a bad memory, but people still complained about Wright and Edwards.

Finally, the next superintendent needs to coach and mentor others on the staff that can potentially replace him or her without fear that the person is gunning for their job.  I want other school districts to come and try to get our executive staff, and I want us to know we have two or three people ready to slide into place the next time we need a new superintendent.

If they have a good record of improvement and team building, I'll support them and their ideas.  If we just get someone that came from another Highland Park or Allen, it's a waste of time.


Obviously the new superintendent must put students first and understand that delegating the work toward their success back onto students is critical. Our students must be leading the way. The superintendent must see that and acknowledge that. That happens only if the superintendent understands that schools must give students a credible, well informed focus on their own future, a plan for their own futures that is written, then updated periodically, and stored in a place of respect in the school.The superintendent must understand why former students are the best mentors possible, and then work on a system to have adult alumni return to their former middle schools to share what they would do differently if they were 13 again in DISD. They can say how it was and what they would now recommend. Everyone learns from their mistakes, but not everyone admits it. Our superintendent must be able to articulate their own mistakes and how they have learned from them. We must spread this simple yet powerful ability to our students so they can develop their own ability to achieve. The new superintendent must understand why we must end the fantasy of DISD doing everything for our students. DISD must develop a school system that nurtures and reinforces students planning for themselves, students doing their own work. Not enough of such independent work is happening. There is not enough money to do education any other way!


Sounds like sugar coating for a business-as-usual DISD Board operation.  They're making a show of getting input from the people so they can spread the guilt around when their choice inevitably comes up $85million short and has to fire teachers, then re-hire them because he fired too many.The first thing we need is a new board of trustees, a new charter for DISD clearly defining rules for contracting and hiring, and a greatly reduced administration staff.  After that, we can look for a new superintendent. 


The list of qualifications is short.

1. Someone who actually gives a crap about the kids.2. Someone who refuses to pander to the lowest common denominator.3. Someone who refuses to do bidness the usual way in Dallas - meaning no more under the table, backroom, brother-in-law, cash in hand kind of no-bid contracts that put a little bit of money in a few corrupt pockets, but always wind back around to big businesses.4. Someone who actually gives a crap about the kids.

I know, that potential candidate is DoA in Dallas. In fact, that ought to be the title of a reality TV show set in Dallas.

Titus Groan
Titus Groan

Actually it's simple.  We need a black person with a Hispanic surname, who vows not to dismantle the magnets.  So let's look for folks of Caribbean descent who were educated in the Northeast.  That's my ideal candidate.


" ... Mayor Mike Rawlings, who ran on a platform of reforming the district, ... "  I still do not understand how the Mayor of Dallas (or anyone on the Council) thinks they have the authority to reform the DISD.

Reform City Hall first, Mr Mayor.

Mr. Sarcasm
Mr. Sarcasm

Let me get this straight.  You want to excuse the current democratic process, elect new trustees (I'm assuming the current ones cannot run), rewrite how the district operates, restructure and reduce the entire administrative staff (I guess the new board will do that), and after that, hire someone to run it.

It sounds like a good ideal situation.  But like I say about the Occupy folks, how would you practically do that, and how do you keep us away from the same situation with different people 10 years later.

I'm not arguing with you...  IJS


One person fits that list:

Dale Hanson

Thank God for Kids

DISD Teacher
DISD Teacher

He could at least work with the DCC and RCC to clamor for an FBI audit of the district.

Rooting out the corruption would weed out some of the worst people in positions of power in DISD, both those officially employed and those benefitting indirectly.

Rawlings could at least do that; he has the bully pulpit.  Of course that assumes he really wants to reform DISD and not just appear to want reform.  

DISD's status quo exists for a reason:  private schools benefit, Park Cities homeowners and landowners benefit, all the people who build/sell homes in the 'burbs benefit, people who have to build roads so people can live outside of DISD and commute in all benefit, etc.  

He's merely trying to appear like he cares.

Titus Groan
Titus Groan

Always easier to stand outside the tent and piss in.

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