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Exclusive: Hinojosa speaks on why he’s resigning (but not retiring) from Dallas schools

This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas.

The longtime superintendent talks about his decision to step down from DISD in an interview with The News.

ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa
Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa in his office at the DISD headquarters in Dallas, on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. (Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

By Corbett Smith and Emily Donaldson

Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa will resign from his role leading the state’s second-largest school district by the end of the school year – and possibly serve in an advisory role until December.

He isn’t, however, calling this a retirement. And sources say a mayoral run could be in his future.

In an exclusive interview with The Dallas Morning News on Monday, Hinojosa was adamant that his resignation wasn’t the final stop of his career, which spans four decades — all in education.

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Hinojosa has led DISD for 13 years over two stints, the second-longest tenure of any superintendent in Dallas history.

“I tried to retire once, and my wife said our house wasn’t big enough for the two of us,” Hinojosa said. “I’ve got to do something, and I’ve got to do something meaningful. I don’t want to be a vendor. I don’t want to just sell stuff – and I can’t stay home.”

But when asked about his future plans, Hinojosa, 65, was noncommittal – apart from his intention not to leave Dallas, where his youngest son, Taylor, lives, as do members of his extended family.

Multiple sources have told The News that for the past several months, Hinojosa has been courted by political operatives as a potential candidate to challenge Mayor Eric Johnson in the upcoming 2023 Dallas elections. Hinojosa is strongly considering a mayoral run, sources said.

When asked about his political aspirations, Hinojosa hedged.

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“I need to focus on Dallas ISD until the next superintendent is named,” he said. After that, “I may consider other options.”

On Monday, Hinojosa didn’t offer any specific reason for why he’s stepping down now, apart from his desire for his successor to stay for the foreseeable future.

Effective school leadership, he said, comes with stability, pointing to successes of Miami-Dade County Public Schools under the direction of Alberto Carvalho, who served from 2008 until December 2021 before leaving to run Los Angeles Unified School District.

A 2018 report by the Los Angeles-based Broad Center found that the average tenure for leaders at the nation’s largest 100 school districts was just over six years.

“I don’t think I have another decade in me,” Hinojosa said. “So, now I have the opportunity to go out and leave the district in great shape, and then they can find someone who can do it for the next 10 years.”

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Like most urban school districts, DISD has been hit hard by the pandemic, as COVID-19 placed a disproportionate burden on families in poverty and people of color. Dallas students have shown steep declines on state assessments and other indicators over the past two years.

Hinojosa said targeting those losses – by trying to accelerate learning through a variety of means – will be the “No. 1 challenge, because these kids have fallen way behind.”

In September 2019, trustees approved a five-year extension for Hinojosa, running his $352,000-per-year contract through September 2024.

Superintendent Michael Hinojosa
Dallas schools Superintendent Michael Hinojosa in his office at the DISD headquarters Jan. 10, 2022. He’s announcing this week that he’s stepping down from the district.(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

At that time, he said he would stay as long as trustees would have him, joking that he’d “ordered a pine box for my conference room.” During a press conference Thursday, Hinojosa quipped: “I’ve had them cancel the order.”

Shortly after his extension, DISD was hit with two mighty blows.

A series of tornadoes in October 2019 ravaged schools in the northwest part of the district, destroying two campuses and severely damaging Thomas Jefferson High School. The district scrambled to relocate 3,000 students to other facilities in less than three days.

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In March 2021, the coronavirus made its way to Dallas, forcing the district to stop face-to-face instruction for nearly seven months, while spinning up remote instruction for its 130,000 students.

The pandemic significantly strained school systems and their leaders, especially when combined with the battles over mask mandates and school curriculum. On Thursday, Fort Worth schools superintendent Kent Parades Scribner announced on social media his plans to retire. Richardson ISD superintendent Jeannie Stone resigned from her post in December.

Hinojosa said that one of the reasons he’d like to stay involved until December is to finish up construction projects at Thomas Jefferson and the new Walnut Hill campus, overseeing the final touches on those projects. Both campuses are expected to be ready for spring 2023.

On Thursday, Hinojosa noted that the ongoing cultural wars in education didn’t factor into his decision, although he had heard from friends and fellow superintendents worn down from that fractiousness.

He reiterated that his decision was on his own terms, and that he believed it was the right time for DISD to find a new leader.

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“They need to find someone who can keep this magic going.”

Dallas trustees were largely complementary of Hinojosa’s performance over the past six years, named to the role after serving as an interim leader when Mike Miles abruptly left the district in spring 2015.

Hinojosa worked to calm what had been a fractious school board, and helped guide the follow-through on many reforms instituted under the previous superintendent.

Under Hinojosa’s tenure, DISD also shored up its financial picture, calling for and winning a tax-ratification election and passing a $3 billion bond, the largest of its kind in Texas history.

“Hinojosa’s done a great job in pushing the district forward,” trustee Dustin Marshall said.

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Even trustee Joyce Foreman, who has frequently battled with Hinojosa on initiatives, offered compliments on the superintendent’s service.

“Of course there have been some things that I’ve had issues with, but overall I think the district has moved in a positive direction,” she said.

Board member Karla Garcia – at one point a student when Hinojosa led the district – said she admired the courage Hinojosa displayed in standing up for his students even when it meant defying statewide orders, like the ban on school mask mandates.

She also praised his ability to connect with community members, especially those who don’t speak English.

“Hinojosa did a great job reaching into the communities,” she said. “He knows them because he is from here.”

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Plus, Hinojosa was willing to face Dallas’ dark past of mistreating students of color, Garcia noted. He was willing to tell the story of Dallas as it is and to acknowledge the segregation and racist policies that shaped the school district, she stressed.

Trustee Edwin Flores complimented Hinojosa’s ability to build on major district reforms implemented in the era of his predecessor, Mike Miles. Hinojosa took Miles’ new pay-for-performance system and built upon it, Flores said.

“Many of Miles’ initiatives survived to Hinojosa’s credit because he evaluated the programs and said these ones work, these one don’t,” Flores said, pointing to the district’s school turnaround model and new school models that bring students in from outside the district.

From 2005 to now, the district went from “living hand to mouth,” to being able to innovate and lead the state, said Flores, who started as a trustee the same year Hinojosa came to DISD.

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

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The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

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