Fort Worth

June 10, 2014

Dansby, school board: A bitter divorce

The former superintendent of the Fort Worth school district says some board members expected him to engage in unethical behavior.

At a contentious closed-door meeting on March 25, Fort Worth school board members told Superintendent Walter Dansby that he “needed improvement” in four of the six areas in which he was being evaluated.

A copy of Dansby’s annual written review, which ultimately led to the superintendent’s surprising resignation on June 2, was obtained by the Star-Telegram.

According to the evaluation’s numerical scoring system, eight of nine board members believed Dansby failed to meet expectations in his job. Trustees criticized the 63-year-old superintendent for what they said were unsatisfactory levels of student achievement and for an abrasive management style.

In a Monday interview, Dansby and his lawyer said trustees had apparently ignored data that showed progress in the district since the Fort Worth native took the superintendent’s job two years ago.

His negative evaluation, Dansby said, had more to do with inconsistent board leadership, (five board presidents during his tenure), a breakdown of trust between board members and the superintendent and Dansby’s unwillingness to engage in unethical behavior.

“I wasn’t giving raises to [trustee] relatives,” he said. “I wasn’t hiring people they wanted me to hire just because they wanted me to hire them. I was not cutting contracts … I had to remove 19 people in [the personnel department] who were closely tied to board members over the years.

“I went against the grain for the good of the kids in this district,” he said. “So I stood firm and I feel good about it.”

He would not specify which trustees he referred to. Trustees would not comment on Dansby’s allegations.

Dansby’s evaluation also included 18 critical statements from board members under the heading Opportunities for Improvement. None of the statements were attributed to trustees by name.

“Bullying and retaliation against staff must stop immediately,” one said. “Bullying of some board members has occurred on some occasions.”

Another said Dansby was “unable to take criticism without being defensive.” And yet another said Dansby should “treat staff with respect when working in a group setting: do not raise your voice at staff in front of others.”

Dansby denied engaging in bullying behavior.

“I’ve been asked to do things inappropriately and when I don’t do them and I stand firm, then I’m being a bully,” he said. “I don’t know of any staff member that can tell you or anywhere on any campus where I’ve bullied them or retaliated against them. That’s just not my nature. I haven’t done that.”

‘Surprised and disappointed’

Documents obtained by the newspaper and the interview with Dansby chronicle a bitter chain of events that played out behind closed doors over the last two months. Dansby said Monday he was “surprised and disappointed” when he received his evaluation on March 25.

That night began a heated back and forth between Dansby and school board members.

Ultimately, at a packed school board meeting on June 2, trustees voted 6-3 to accept Dansby’s resignation. Trustees Matthew Avila, Ann Sutherland, Ashley Paz, T.A. Sims, Judy Needham and Tobi Jackson voted to accept the resignation. Christine Moss, Jacinto Ramos and Norman Robbins voted no.

Dansby, who earned a salary of $338,000 a year, agreed to a “retirement agreement and release” that will total as much as $892,899 when owed benefits are added.

As part of the evaluation process, trustees had proposed that Dansby submit a plan to remediate his shortcomings. He declined to do so. Two trustees said last week they had hoped he would have remained in his job as head of the district, which serves more than 83,000 students.

“I thought the relationship was certainly workable and I was wanting it to continue, and I thought it was going to up until that evening,” said Robbins, referring to the June 2 resignation meeting. “I was very surprised.”

Needham, who voted to accept Dansby’s resignation, said she was open to working with the superintendent, who had spent four decades in the district in various capacities, from teacher to coach to administrator.

“All he had to to do was come in and say he was going to work hard and change things, and that he wanted to work with us to close the achievement gap and raise test scores,” Needham said. “I’m really sorry it didn’t work out with him.”

Dansby and his lawyer, Neal Adams, said the board left him no choice.

“Six board members, through their lawyer, said ‘We don’t want him,’ ” Adams said. “If they don’t want us, how can you trust us to do the job? It’s only going to get worse. That’s not in the best interests of the district. All they are going to do is nitpick him to death and he would be even less effective than he is right now.”

On Monday, board members voted to hire Pat Linares as interim superintendent, and to ratify Dansby’s retirement agreement. Linares retired in 2010 as deputy superintendent for Fort Worth schools. Trustees are expected to undertake a national search to find a permanent replacement.

“We’re looking forward to putting all this behind us,” Needham said. “We’re looking forward to having stability and the best superintendent possible for this great district, community and children.”

Replacing Melody Johnson

Dansby’s departure is the latest painful episode in a tumultuous era for the district. In 2004, Superintendent Thomas Tocco resigned amidst a $16 million construction billing scandal. Melody Johnson was hired from Providence, R.I., as Tocco’s replacement, and was credited with restoring public trust and creating innovative programs. But she abruptly resigned after six years because of relentless criticism by some board members, board President Ray Dickerson said at the time.

“The constant attacks make it untenable for her to be an effective leader,” Dickerson said in 2011. “I’m amazed that she’s been able to hang in there as long as she has because it’s been particularly difficult the last three years.”

As deputy superintendent, Dansby, who grew up in Fort Worth’s Stop Six neighborhood, emerged as the only candidate to succeed her. He began his career in 1974 as a Rosemont Middle School teacher and coach. He later coached at Paschal and Southwest high schools. He served as an assistant principal at Paschal and principal at O.D. Wyatt High School before moving into district administration in the mid-1990s.

He was named interim superintendent and in February 2012 was named the first African-American superintendent in school district history.

Last November, a Dansby-led $490 million bond package was overwhelmingly approved by Fort Worth voters. In late May, citing his bond package efforts, Dansby was named “Communicator of the Year” by the local chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

While the bond program was hailed as a success, test scores and student achievement continued to deteriorate and lag behind those of other urban districts in the state. The achievement gap between Anglo and African-American students continued to broaden and was of particular concern to trustees.

Management style a concern

His 2014 evaluation also made clear that Dansby’s management style had become problematic for some board members.

Trustees were asked to evaluate whether Dansby needed improvement, met expectations or exceeded expectations in 23 areas covered in six broad categories. According to the overall evaluation, a statistical composite of the assessments of the nine board members, Dansby met expectations in categories titled Operational Effectiveness and Efficiency and Board and Community Relations.

He needed improvement in the categories of Student Achievement; Family and Community Engagement; Workforce and Customer Service, and Board and Superintendent Relations.

“The operation of our curriculum department continues to result in unsatisfactory levels of student achievement,” one trustee noted in the evaluation.

Dansby said that last February he provided trustees with a thick book of data relevant to his evaluation. Statistics often showed progress in student achievement, including slightly higher graduation rates and slightly lower dropout rates from 2012 to 2013.

“This has nothing to do with the data in that book,” Dansby said. “In fact, I don’t really know if they really looked at it.”

Among trustees, his management style was a more frequent complaint.

“Be more proactive and supportive of staff, less threatening and intimidating,” one trustee wrote.

Another trustee said: “Quit arrogance, become humble and treat board members with respect.”

A third criticism said: “Respect Board Members and refrain from divisive measures pitting Board Members against each other. We are aware and talk about the methods you use for this.”

Adams, Dansby’s lawyer, said state law prohibits the use of anonymous comments as part of an appraisal.

“We have no idea who said any of this stuff,” Adams said. “He’s already said to them, face to face, how he feels about what he was asked to do. He feels very strongly that’s why he got what he got.”

Board dissatisfaction was almost unanimous. In the 23 categories related to his job performance, the nine trustees were asked to evaluate Dansby using the following numeric ratings: 1 for needs improvement; 2 for meets expectations; and 3 exceeds expectations. Though not identified by name, aggregate scores of eight of the nine fell between 1.2 and 1.8. One trustee gave Dansby a rating of 2.5

The unsatisfactory review cost Dansby a $10,000 bonus. Trustees also did not vote to extend his contract.

Choosing to resign

Dansby responded to the March 25 evaluation with an April 15 letter to the board. In it, the superintendent challenged the review format and methodology, said it was too early for him to be judged in some areas, and asked trustees to reconsider their overall judgment of his performance.

To respond, the board hired an attorney of its own, Rhonda Crass of Mansfield.

“The consensus of the Board is that the evaluation is fair and representative of your job performance,” Crass wrote to Dansby on April 25. A copy of that letter was also obtained by the Star-Telegram. “You and the Board … discussed in great detail the concerns the Board had in each of these areas, including the two domains in which you meet expectations and the four domains in which you don’t.”

Crass said that the school board requested that Dansby come up with a plan to remediate his shortcomings, and a timetable under which that could be achieved. The plan was to be submitted to the board by May 14.

“The Board hopes to move forward together with you, as a united team of ten, to work for the betterment of all students of Fort Worth ISD.”

Instead, on May 30, Dansby, through his attorneys, gave the board two choices. One was to modify his evaluation, reflecting that he met expectations, and extend his contract another year. The second alternative for the board was to accept his retirement agreement.

On June 2, the board voted to choose the latter.

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