By Colleen McCain and Joshua Benton
New Superintendent Mike Moses faced daunting problems when he took the job. The district was in debt, the school board divided and a bond program desperately needed.
“The district was pretty upside-down,” Dr. Moses said. “The board was in crisis.”
That was Lubbock in 1989, not Dallas in 2000.
Dr. Moses, the lone finalist to take over Dallas schools, is credited with a decisive turnaround of Lubbock schools. Now Dallas leaders are counting on the 49-year-old to do the same here.
When they started their three-month superintendent search, DISD trustees said they were looking for a leader who was “absolutely bulletproof.” In Dr. Moses, a former state education commissioner and current deputy chancellor of Texas Tech University, they think they have found their man: a back-to-basics educator with an unwavering focus on student achievement.
Interviews with dozens of people who know and worked with Dr. Moses throughout his 26-year education career indicate that the man touted by Dallas trustees, who must wait until Oct. 30 to officially hire him, lives up to his advance billing.
His career betrays hardly a hint of controversy, and in the Lubbock, La Marque and Tatum school districts, he has produced the kinds of results Dallas trustees are seeking.
“If I wanted a person to lead me to war, and I got to pick and choose, it’d be Mike Moses,” said John Washington, an assistant superintendent in Garland who worked for Dr. Moses in Lubbock and La Marque.
Supporters – they seem thick on the ground in every city where he has worked – say Dr. Moses has all the necessary skills: political talent to unite a fractured board, financial skills to strengthen a budget and sheer niceness to get along with everyone.
In today’s maze of competing educational ideologies, Dr. Moses speaks not of philosophies, but of achievement.
“We don’t teach programs,” he said. “We teach children.”
His is a direct, no-frills approach with a singular focus. “We don’t have time for things that don’t work,” Dr. Moses said last week.
All programs, he said, should be evaluated with the same measuring stick, gauging whether student achievement has increased. Initiatives in Dallas that already have been approved – such as a new math program and seven Edison Schools – will be held to that standard.
Dr. Moses makes no secret of the importance he places on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. He carries test scores with him and retrieves them to illustrate how far Dallas lags behind most of Texas’ other large districts.
Educators who have worked with Dr. Moses said he was the same in his past jobs. Although some do not share Dr. Moses’ enthusiasm for TAAS, they agree that better test scores are indicative of better-educated kids.
“TAAS is not necessarily what lights my fire – it’s not why I come to work every day,” said Mike Bennett, principal of Lubbock’s Monterey High School. “But it does increase learning. And if it helps educate children, then it’s a good thing.”
Making the leap
While Dr. Moses has won accolades from his former colleagues, some people have questioned whether he is prepared to take on the problems of an urban district with more than 160,000 students.
The Lubbock district is less than one-fifth the size of DISD, and the cities are vastly different. Most Lubbock students are minorities, and agriculture remains the driving force in the West Texas city where the Goodpasture grain elevator dominates the skyline.
Dr. Moses said the formula for success isn’t much different.
“In a big district, all the numbers have more zeroes,” he said. “But I think the skill set is pretty close to the same.”
When he arrived in Lubbock in 1989, the district was in the red, a trustee was suing the school board and schools were still struggling with desegregation. Within a few years, debt was erased, trustees’ working relationships improved and desegregation efforts were complete.
Dr. Moses said he is confident that he can accomplish similar objectives in Dallas, and he points to his period as state education commissioner as evidence that he brings a broad base of experience.
But he acknowledges that leading a district this size can be a precarious balancing act – especially given the number of people who want his ear.
“I’m already learning that the most precious thing I have is time,” he said. “I don’t want to shut people out. I want to hear their concerns. But once I’ve heard them, I need time to work on them.”
From baseball games to block parties, Dr. Moses has been a visible presence in the communities where he has worked, those interviewed said.
And already, in the two weeks since Dr. Moses was named the finalist for Dallas superintendent, he has met with leaders from every corner of the city, shaking hands for hours at a stretch and patiently explaining his vision for the district dozens of times.
T.J. Patterson, a longtime Lubbock City Council member, said Dr. Moses reached out to all groups, including minorities.
Many blacks think that Dr. Moses’ reputation was blemished when he converted the city’s historically black high school, Dunbar, to a junior high school, said Mr. Patterson, the first black person elected to Lubbock’s council.
In the early 1990s, enrollment at Dunbar dropped below 200. District officials said maintaining the increasingly empty building as a high school simply wasn’t feasible financially or logistically.
Mr. Patterson said he understands the reasons behind the decision, which came after a series of public forums. But he said many blacks saw the conversion as a slight.
“When you close Dunbar, you take something away from people,” said Mr. Patterson, who generally gives Dr. Moses high marks. “There’s still a void there.”
In Dallas, where more than 90 percent of the district’s students are minorities, some black activists complained when Dr. Moses was hired that the new superintendent should have been black.
In Tatum and La Marque, Dr. Moses ran school districts with substantial black populations and maintained generally good relations with minority leaders, community leaders said.
“He treated everyone fairly,” said Drenon Fite, a black school trustee in Tatum, which has a student body that is 35 percent minority. “Race didn’t even affect our relationship once.”
Dr. Moses’ success in Dallas could be determined by how well he can work with a school board often defined by public squabbles and divisiveness.
In the past, Dr. Moses has won favor by cultivating an atmosphere of professionalism and mutual respect, his former colleagues said.
Dr. Moses said strong leadership and a willingness to listen will be essential in Dallas. “I think if I make suggestions in the right way, the board will listen to me,” he said.
It was as state education commissioner that Dr. Moses’ diplomatic skills faced the toughest test. He was appointed to the job by Gov. George W. Bush in 1995.
Taking the job, after about five years in Lubbock, meant dealing with a state board divided along political lines.
“When he talked to me about the possibility of applying for the job in Austin, I asked him why in the world he would want it,” said state Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, chairman of the Senate education committee. “We did have a very fractious State Board of Education, and the job was fraught with pitfalls.”
The senator said he sees similarities between those challenges in Austin and the ones Dr. Moses would face in Dallas: “I think they’re very comparable.”
In 1998, board member David Bradley of Beaumont wrote a letter to Dr. Moses accusing him of, among other things, “feigned ignorance,” “arrogance,” “pandering,” “stonewalling” and a “cover-up” on issues on which Dr. Moses had disagreed with conservatives on the board.
Dr. Moses responded: “I do regret your harsh and demeaning tone. It is obvious you wish to portray me as a villain in what clearly needs to be a working partnership. For my part, I will continue to respect your role as an elected official.”
At all three stops of his superintendent career, Dr. Moses has been able to persuade voters, through bond issues, to support schools financially.
“He was talking about the condition of the campuses even before he was hired,” said Jimmy Hayley, a former La Marque school board member. “He put a lot of emphasis on exteriors, on having the yards mowed and edged. His theory was that if the facilities look good and you’re showing you’re taking pride in it, the students will do the same.”
Dr. Moses’ salesmanship will be put to the test in Dallas, where district officials have said they need voters to approve a $1.6 billion bond proposal to alleviate overcrowding. Dr. Moses has said he first needs to improve student performance.
Officials across Texas also praised Dr. Moses for his financial skills; he left none of his stops worse off fiscally than he found it, they said.
From almost the start of his career, Dr. Moses was pegged as a rising star.
He had been born into a family of educators and started his career as a teacher in Duncanville and a principal in Garland.
In 1982, school officials in Tatum, a city of 1,200 about 140 miles east of Dallas, were already talking about the 30-year-old principal as a possible superintendent.
The principal of their elementary school had just died, and their superintendent was planning to retire in a few months.
The late principal happened to be Dr. Moses’ uncle, and the district’s leaders brought him in to interview for the principal’s post with the idea that he might shortly take over as superintendent.
Some balked at his age, but his friendly demeanor quickly changed those minds.
“He just had a charisma about him that his age didn’t make a difference,” said Altha Reynolds, tax assessor for the Tatum ISD.
The same skills that won him notice early have served him well since, said Bill Miller, former Lubbock school board president.
“He will develop a rapport with a janitor just as easily as with Tom Hicks,” Mr. Miller said. “He takes his political skills and uses them in the best interest of schools.”
Mr. Miller is among Dr. Moses’ staunch supporters. But he acknowledges that his friend’s passion for education sometimes means that Dr. Moses is a bit thin-skinned when it comes to criticism.
“He needs to learn to withstand the slings and arrows that come with the job,” Mr. Miller said. “Sometimes he forgets that he’s a public figure, subject to criticism.”
On balance, though, Dr. Moses’ strongly held beliefs and passion for children generally translate into positive results, he said.
“He is a person who can get people to believe in a cause higher than themselves,” Mr. Miller said.