FORT WORTH -- Longtime Fort Worth educator Walter Dansby officially became superintendent of Fort Worth schools Tuesday night, the district's first minority leader.
Supporters noted the historic significance and that his appointment coincided with Valentine's Day.
"All our hearts are aflutter ... for the gift of Walter Dansby," said Richard Gonzales, a member of the Black, Brown and Tan Caucus.
Dansby, 61, grew up in Stop Six and graduated from Dunbar High School. He earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington and his master's at Tarleton State University.
He has worked in the district for 38 years and was named interim superintendent after Melody Johnson resigned in May.
"This is a special evening for all of us," board Vice President Juan Rangel said.
Dansby's salary will be $328,950, and he will be eligible for a $10,000 bonus annually if his evaluations meet or exceed expectations.
The board vote was 7-0. Trustee Judy Needham was absent.
Dansby joined the school district as a teacher and coach at Rosemont Middle School in 1974, just one year after federal courts ordered busing for desegregation.
He coached at various schools including Paschal, where he later became an assistant principal. He was principal at O.D. Wyatt High School until he was promoted to area dean of instruction and continued to rise through administration roles overseeing instruction, athletics, student affairs, maintenance and, most recently, the 2007 bond program.
Dansby is the right person for the job because he doesn't need a learning curve, said Larry Shaw, executive director of the United Educators Association.
"He knows where the schools are. He knows where the bathrooms of those schools are," Shaw quipped, referring to Dansby's work on each campus through bond renovations.
The biggest issues Dansby faces are improving academics and getting a handle on budget challenges in the district, which has 83,000 students and 11,000 employees.
Academic gains were made under Johnson, as overall student passing rates on state assessment tests rose from 56 percent in 2006 to 65 percent in 2011. That rate, however, still lags behind other Texas school districts.
Also, with more than half of the district's 142 schools failing to meet federal Adequate Yearly Progress standards, and about 15 percent being rated unacceptable by the state, Fort Worth has the highest percentages of failing schools among the 10 largest districts in Texas.
There are also many unanswered questions surrounding the implementation of the new statewide accountability tests.
Dansby said he wasn't looking to implement wholesale changes, but said there will be a lot of talk about "singleness of purpose."
That includes constantly evaluating how the district is doing, he said.
Big budget shortfall
The school district is facing a shortfall of nearly $55 million this fiscal year. To help rein that in, trustees Tuesday night approved giving 600 teachers up to a $10,000 bonus for early notification that they will not return next year. The offer is also open to the first 100 degreed professionals.
Officials say they hope the move will help minimize layoffs by giving administrators a clearer picture sooner of next year's staffing needs and what positions can be eliminated.
The bonuses could cost the district up to $4.6 million but potentially save up to $15 million a year, Chief Financial Officer Hank Johnson said.
Dansby said the bonuses and changes in the hiring and scheduling processes are steps in the right direction.
'The best candidate'
Before Dansby, only Anglos have been superintendent or school board president, though some minority trustees have served as acting president. Before Johnson, the leadership positions were held by men.
In 1993, many wanted Morris Holmes, the district's top ranking African-American administrator, named superintendent to replace outgoing leader Don Roberts. Holmes left the district after the board wouldn't guarantee he'd get the job.
During the search to replace Johnson, some had pushed for the board to consider a Hispanic candidate because about 60 percent of the district's students are Latino.
Other Hispanics supported Dansby.
Trustee Christene Moss said that although some in Fort Worth aren't ready for an African-American superintendent, "I think that is something that's needed. It's something that I feel it's time for, but that's not why I voted for him. I voted for him because he was the best candidate. It wasn't his race but the skills he has to move this district forward."
The Rev. Michael Bell, a longtime advocate for minority students, said Dansby's appointment is a critical turning point for the district.
"This is a minority-majority student body district that we're dealing with here and in the past instead of getting better in addressing the needs of those students, the test scores and other indicators show that we have not been getting better but worse," Bell said.
"Now with Dansby and the support of the African-American and Hispanic trustees, the ball is in the court of those persons heretofore have been on the fringes and now are on the inside."
Dansby's appointment will also be significant to Hispanics, said Uriel Ramos, a leader in a local League of United Latin American Citizens council. He said Dansby met with his group to discuss concerns about the rising Hispanic dropout rate. By doing so, Dansby has already shown he's open to working with community groups to address district needs, Ramos said.
"That is different from the former administrator who said that she welcomed the help, but then there was very little follow-through," Ramos said. "Mr. Dansby has shown he's open and accessible to the community."
Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700