June 3, 2014

Superintendent’s departure is a puzzle

At noon Monday, Walter Dansby wrapped up an hourlong meeting with the Star-Telegram Editorial Board seemingly confident and focused on his job as Fort Worth school district superintendent.

At noon Monday, Walter Dansby wrapped up an hourlong meeting with the Star-Telegram Editorial Board seemingly confident and focused on his job as Fort Worth school district superintendent.

He had discussed in detail the steps in his five-year strategic plan, adopted by district trustees a year ago, to improve school performance and student success.

He talked about the $490 million package of bond projects approved by voters in November and reiterated the pledge he had made in an Editorial Board meeting last summer: “My plan is to see this thing through.”

He spoke about individual programs aimed at helping students, teachers and administrators achieve their goals while improving the district as a whole.

By 10 p.m., trustees had voted 6-3 to accept Dansby’s resignation.

Neither he nor individual trustees contacted by the Editorial Board on Tuesday would discuss for the record exactly what caused the superintendent and the school board to part ways.

It’s not Dansby’s role to say. His leadership of Fort Worth ISD is over. After 40 years as a teacher, coach, high school principal and administrator, two of them as superintendent, his last day is Monday.

But trustees have a heavy responsibility to describe for district residents, students, teachers and administrators, if not where they differed with Dansby, at least their own strategic plan in as much detail as his.

Importantly, they owe it to their constituents to quickly restore confidence in how they will carry out the $490 million bond plan without having Dansby around to help. He was the district’s acknowledged expert in that arena, having steered the $594 million 2007 program to successful completion after previous bond plans went awry.

The 2013 bond program was at the top of Dansby’s mind in a follow-up Editorial Board interview Tuesday. He talked about what he saw as the 2007 program’s keys to success: exacting requirements for bidders, careful selection of contractors and prompt payment of bills.

“If I have one regret about this experience,” he said, “it’s that I won’t be here to see that [2013 bond program] through.”

It’s logical to assume that if any trustees see a different process for the 2013 bonds, Dansby would protest to the point of resignation.

Likewise for his strategic plan for district academic success. He talked Tuesday about the time and effort put into that plan and the people involved in drawing it up: parents, community members, district employees, Chamber of Commerce representatives “and most of all, students.”

On Monday, he told the Editorial Board he was willing to be judged by the success or failure of that plan, which is geared to produce data about where the district stands on its growth path at any given time.

In what he called “a continuous improvement model,” the plan prescribes quarterly reports by which administrators can judge success or adjust for failure. Dansby discusses it with passion.

Finally, he pointed with pride to a makeover of the district’s personnel operations, which stresses aggressive recruiting, early hiring, determining each teacher’s or administrator’s desired growth path, targeted training and “learning networks” for extra employee support.

For students, in addition to programs to encourage and track academic performance, Dansby touted efforts with the Momentus Institute of Dallas aimed at helping students’ social development. Those efforts are supported by a two-year grant from the Sid Richardson Foundation.

It’s clear that Dansby has deep feelings about all of these things. Even trustees say he has done a good job as superintendent.

What triggered his resignation? We may never know.

What happens next? Trustees will have to tell us.

They should tell us their goals and plans as they set about the task of, first, naming an interim leader for the district — an organization with more than 10,000 employees and 83,000 students cannot go a day without someone who has ultimate, day-to-day decision-making authority — and then searching for a new superintendent.

Anyone applying for the job would want to know those goals and plans. People who live in the district and trust their children to Fort Worth schools deserve to know.

We’re all listening.

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