‘Tired’ Moses walking away from DISD; Analysis: Successes are many, incomplete

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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How you evaluate Mike Moses’ tenure as Dallas superintendent depends on what you value.

As a manager and a political figure, it’s hard to call him anything but a success. He put a more positive face on the district than Dallas had seen in years. He convinced a series of people – the FBI, a federal court, Dallas voters – that DISD was turning around and deserved the benefit of the doubt.

But at the schoolhouse level, Dr. Moses’ grade can be only an incomplete. Test scores and dropout rates, while improved, still rank at or near the bottom of Texas. It may take years to see whether improvements in student performance are real and lasting.

Still, nearly everyone around the district took Dr. Moses’ resignation Wednesday as a blow. Dallas hasn’t had the best of luck choosing superintendents in the last decade: Bill Rojas, fired after less than a year, and Yvonne Gonzalez, who resigned the post on the way to a prison term.

“We went through successive superintendents, one more disastrous than the other,” said Dallas Mayor Laura Miller. “Finally, we had someone who had the temperament, the political skills and the ability. I am more than extremely disappointed.”

Political skills

Dr. Moses honed his political skills in his years in Austin as Texas education commissioner. And his greatest victories as superintendent seemed to come from his ability to persuade bodies outside the district to see things his way.

He persuaded the FBI to shutter its multiyear investigation into alleged criminal activities by district officials – and persuaded the bureau to produce an unusual letter announcing the investigation’s end.

He persuaded Judge Barefoot Sanders to end the district’s desegregation order after 32 years of federal control.

He convinced Dallas’ powerful business community that he was a calm leader who would bring stability and sense to the district.

He convinced voters – with help from those business leaders – that a district with a history of financial malfeasance should be trusted with $1.37 billion in taxpayer money.

That bond program, the largest in Texas history, is likely to be the longest-lasting evidence of Dr. Moses’ tenure. During the next few years, 20 schools will be built, with additions or renovations to all 218 existing schools.

Dr. Moses’ calm, at times soporific personality gets much of the credit.

“I want to say this in the most positive way: Mike is a good ol’ boy,” said Sandy Kress, the former DISD board president who went on to advise President Bush on education policy. “People like Mike. You want to help him. It’s an infectious ‘Let’s be together, let’s work together’ sort of thing. He has that in abundance. It works to his advantage.”

“He knows what he’s doing, and he has a very nice demeanor,” Ms. Miller said. “That’s a good combination. If you know what you’re doing but you’re a jerk, which is what happened with Rojas, it doesn’t work.”

Some criticism

Like all urban superintendents, Dr. Moses took his hits, from residents and the media. Recent controversies about his outside consulting work and a dispute at Pershing Elementary were part of the job, he said Wednesday. But those who worked for him in Austin and Dallas have long described him as thin-skinned and susceptible to criticism.

“Mike can be a sensitive person, which is just his personality,” Mr. Kress said. “But he deserved a lot of credit for building up support from various places across the community.”

That included bringing relative calm to a school board that had been known for infighting and feuding in the late 1990s. Particularly in the early part of Dr. Moses’ term, board meetings were often festivals of agreement, with the superintendent often reminding trustees publicly of the importance of unity and decorum.

In recent months, shifts in the board’s makeup made the body’s pro-Moses stance a bit less unanimous. But he still had broad support the day he announced his resignation. He also enjoyed relatively untroubled relations with teachers and their representatives.

“I’m really impressed by the way he pulled everyone in the district and the community together,” said John Stevens, executive director of the Texas Business and Education Coalition and a Moses friend.

“When he first told me he was considering leaving, I asked myself, ‘OK, who is the logical successor?’ I think that’s a very real concern for this community. Things can be tenuous and fragile.”

Classroom record

Dr. Moses’ impact in the classroom – in the quality of education available to Dallas children – is less clear. He threw out the jumble of reading and math curricula used in the district’s 157 elementary schools and replaced them with a standardized system. But the impact of those changes could take years to see.

Test scores, school ratings and dropout measures improved during his tenure. But so did those of other urban districts and Texas as a whole – and Dallas, because of its miserable record, had much room for improvement. Mr. Kress, while saying Dr. Moses was a strong academic leader, said it was difficult to know how much of the gains were due to statewide initiatives and how much were due to his work.

In 2003, of the state’s 1,039 school districts, DISD ranked 951st in how many of its students passed all sections of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test. It also trailed all of the state’s large urban districts, even those with higher student poverty rates.

“I think Mike accomplished what he could at this phase of academic improvement,” Mr. Kress said. “The truth is that the next phase, getting student performance up to where it’s among the best in the state, will take another three to five years.”

Some might say that three and a half years isn’t enough time to create serious improvements in academic performance. On the other hand, three and a half years is the longest tenure of any Dallas superintendent in more than a decade, and a hair longer than the national average for urban school chiefs.

One of the issues that gave Dr. Moses trouble in recent months was his work on the side to help other districts pick superintendents. Ironically, his biggest contribution to DISD may be in guiding the district to pick his successor – someone with the combination of political, leadership and educational skills needed for the job.

“I hope the trustees have learned during these years what a superintendent should resemble,” said Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price. “If nothing else, it would be worth it if he could etch in their minds what a superintendent should look like in the future.”