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Mike Miles: The TT Interview

The incoming Dallas ISD superintendent on the transition from Colorado Springs to Dallas, the short-term and long-term challenges for Dallas ISD and the recent debate over salaries.

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Scrutiny and media attention are nothing new to incoming Dallas ISD Superintendent Mike Miles, who has been a diplomat in Poland, a teacher, a principal and the superintendent of a Colorado Springs-based school district. Though Miles does not officially begin his job in Dallas until July 1, he has already faced criticism over the salaries for his cabinet-level staff during a period of austerity for Dallas ISD. 

Jennifer Sprague, who will follow Miles to Dallas from Colorado Springs, will earn $185,000 as communications chief. Miles' chief operating officer, Kevin Smelker, will earn $220,000. 

Deborah Hendrix, the president of the Board of Education for Harrison District 2, where Miles is coming from, says Sprague’s ability and leadership justify her salary. “That communications team did everything they could to make sure they could get the [Harrison] district shifting its gears from low-performing school to a district that has high standards for teachers, administration, students and parents,” Hendrix said.

The Dallas ISD Board of Trustees approved Miles in an 8-1 vote. Board President Lew Blackburn said the board voted in favor of Miles because it wanted “somebody that was going to try and increase student achievement – basically somebody that was going to help turn the district around.” 

In an interview with the Tribune, Miles talked about the transition from Colorado Springs to Dallas, the short-term and long-term challenges for Dallas ISD, and the recent debate over salaries. The following is an edited version of the transcript. 

TT: What are some of the biggest challenges in making the transition from Colorado Springs to a big urban district like Dallas? 

Miles: I look at what we did in Harrison with regard to keeping a focus on instruction. I look at the consulting work I did with other big districts in the East on keeping a focus on instruction. So, coming to Dallas, I’m doing the same thing – keeping a focus on instruction. It’s bigger, but the principles are the same. 

TT: Because you’re coming from a smaller district in Colorado Springs, what are some of the things that you said in your interviews with the board about why you’re qualified for the job in Dallas?

Miles: One, I have lots of experience working with many, many districts. As part of the consulting work that I did, I got to see many districts and help a lot of districts on achievement and instruction — the bread-and-butter things that we do at schools. The second thing is, we were able to do things in Harrison — a relatively small district if you compare it to Dallas, but a medium-sized district in Colorado — we were able to do things that big districts couldn’t do but should have been able to do. For example, we implemented the most rigorous pay-for-performance plan in the nation.

TT: Are you going to try to implement the pay-for-performance plan in Dallas as well? 

Miles: I think at some point we’re going to move to differentiated compensation. But that’s not the first year, not the second year — there’s some time we have to take to do that. 

TT: Is differentiated compensation the same thing as pay-for-performance? 

Miles: Well, I think people have different definitions for different things — some people call it strategic compensation, some people say pay-for-performance — and there’s a lot of confusion out there, that’s why I try and avoid the word. For example, in Texas and in most places across the country, pay-for-performance hasn’t been pay-for-performance, it’s been incentive pay. So you still have a salary schedule, and then you add bonuses or something for achievement. Incentive pay for example is inherently unsustainable because in tough budget times the first thing to get cut is the bonus.  

TT: What are some of the most immediate challenges for yourself, and for the district? 

Miles: I’ve been working hard in the last five to six weeks to hire a central office staff that is well-qualified to help schools raise the quality of instruction, improve student achievement, and have a positive and supportive culture in the buildings, in the schools.  

TT: What are your more long-term goals for the district?

Miles: The more long-term goals are outlined in Destination 2020, but I’ll give you the short version. The short version – and I’m not being facetious – is we’ve got to put an effective teacher in front of every kid, and an effective principal in every school. That’s it in a nutshell.  We’re working on having a process where we recruit teachers who can help us raise student achievement. We’re working on assessing the effectiveness of both teachers and principals in a more rigorous fashion. Down the road, we do want to tie teacher evaluations and principal evaluations to student achievement and eventually to compensation. We do want to work on making sure we have more college- and career-ready students. 

TT: Did you anticipate such a strong reaction to your decision about your cabinet members’ salaries? 

Miles: Yes.  If you look at a lot of large urban districts, maybe it’s not exactly equivalent, but if you look at L.A., John Deasy there faced very similar criticism. Dallas communications has actually been stand-offish over the last few years, and the media there will tell you that that’s the case. I want the district to be much more engaging with the media, and much more proactive, not reactive. 

If you’ve studied districts, most people who want to engage the public and understand media in the 21st century know that they have to have a good communications department. Charlotte-Mecklenburg has a great communications department. They just won the Broad Prize. Houston has a great communications department. 

The districts that have great communications departments understand media has changed, and districts have to spend the money on good communications so that they build community support. That’s a different paradigm, a different way of operating, so until people get used to it, and understand what a strong communications department that has a different way of operating can do, there’s going to be pushback. 

One of the things that wasn’t reported, though the onus is on us to get it out there, is we’ve already saved $500,000 on our central office staff, already, and we’re not done with reorganization. We are matching our form to our function, so we’re cutting some staff and finding other efficiencies — and I haven’t even started.  

TT: Why do you think these salaries have gotten so much attention? 

Miles: There’s lots of interest in, “Who’s coming in?” There’s lots of interest in “Are we going to be more fiscally responsible?” I think there’s lots of interest in “How does this guy operate?” and lots of interest in “is he going to repeat the same mistakes” as all these superintendents that seem to get in trouble in Texas. I think if you come into Dallas and you don’t expect that kind of scrutiny and that kind of attention to some of these things, I think you're being naive as a superintendent. 

TT: What’s it like being in the limelight for this kind of thing when you first stepped in? 

Miles: You know, people may think that Colorado Springs is a small town — it actually has 500,000 people, and there’s a lot of attention and scrutiny of the superintendent there, also. I’m very used to the media, very used to the scrutiny. I was a diplomat; there’s a lot of scrutiny in Washington, D.C. That’s part of the cost of having the job.

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