For Whom the School Bells Toll

Two mice, driven by drought from their farm cubbyhole, searched for jobs in the city. Finally, one bragged that he’d signed on for the next rocket to the moon. Noting horror on his friend’s face, he blurted, “It was either that or cancer research.”

This story bubbles to the surface in today’s topsy-turvy employment environment. Many applicants take what they can get.

In a long ago school setting, the wise old superintendent who had served well for a couple of decades left three sealed envelopes in his desk drawer. The new guy was instructed to open one annually if needed.  It was a rocky first year, so he tore into the first envelope. “Blame me,” the former “super” advised, and the successor’s contract was extended. The second year was no better, so the next envelope was opened. The message: “Blame the teachers.” So he did, and was granted a contract extension by a grumbling board on a 4-3 vote. His third year mirrored the first two, so the crestfallen superintendent opened the remaining envelope. It instructed: “Prepare three envelopes.”

For some superintendents – particularly in large districts – three years is a worthy goal in a tough job where success meter needles fluctuate between the improbable and the impossible – usually toward the latter.

One new superintendent, having promised the moon and several planets, offered “rah-rahs” upon his appointment. “I am fired with enthusiasm,” he crowed to the board, the media and a cheering crowd.

A few months into his contract, he was sent packing. “I’m leaving the same way I came in here,” he insisted, “fired with enthusiasm.”

In our out-of-control world, school leaders face a myriad of problems, ever growing in numbers and complexity. A good example is Dallas ISD, where superintendents drop out faster than students.

The new man, Mike Miles, comes from a relatively small district in Colorado. And he’s raising critics’ hackles and eyebrows before he’s officially on the job.

He’s bringing along a 31-year-old communications chief at an annual salary of $185,000, more than double her pay in Colorado. Miles justifies the salary because of her “track record and trustworthiness.” (She and another member of his cabinet were hired “on the spot,” without consideration of other applicants.)

Opposing voices say that the communication chief is barely out of the starting gate and that she’ll face a much tougher track in Dallas. It’ll be muddy at times, always uneven, strewn with potholes and unexpected twists and turns along the way. Media will poke and prod, ever present, ever questioning.

Her goal may be to keep DISD in the news and off the front page. More likely, she’ll feel as victimized as the guy in the swamp. You remember – the one who lamented that when waist-deep in alligators, it’s hard to remember the initial objective was to drain the swamp.

Fans want Miles and his staff to hit a home run. Sadly, they’ve got one strike left. What with the lousy economy, shrinking budgets, lay-offs, restless employees and factions too numerous to count, the DISD chief will start out with his judgment already in question. (And we used to think that horse sense and stable thinking were in the same harness.)

Years ago, a superintendent friend distinguished himself in a gentle era when it was yet possible to do so. He offered an intriguing observation – that some of his colleagues sign on because they are masochistic – happiest when most miserable.

One such guy learned the other day about a new state law permitting landowners to offer feral hog hunts from helicopters. He checked out details, and was advised that the sport will be expensive, about  $300 hourly for hunts that run from 3-5 hours. (Almost 2,000 landowners have signed up and 130 helicopter companies are ready to fly.)

“I’m broke, afraid of heights and have no intention of joining the hunters on a helicopter,” he explained. “I was just wonderin’ if I could run with the hogs.”  Maybe he should check with the hogs first.

Dr. Newbury is a speaker in the Metroplex. Email: Phone: 817-447-3872. Twitter: @donnewbury. Website:

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