Sixteen months into the job, you’ve got some good news: The Dallas Independent School District’s TAAS scores are up over last year’s.
The trend lines are moving in the right direction. In reading, African American students were up by seven points. Hispanic students were up by eight points. Economically disadvantaged students—that’s 72 percent of our district—were up by nine points. But we still have work to do. Statewide, 85 percent of all students passed the tenth-grade test. We had 75 percent passing.

How do you get those numbers up?
We have to keep our teachers focused on their mission: excellence in literacy and computational skills. We have to make that and that alone the mind-set. I think large bureaucracies get lost sometimes trying to do too many things, trying to be all over the field.

You make it sound easy.
Well, let me tell you what I did in December 2000, when I started as superintendent. I passed out the 27 objectives of each TAAS test to every DISD principal. Also, because I’m a competitive person, I passed out a chart of how we had been doing versus the other large urban districts in Texas. And I said, “Here’s our target. Don’t be confused about what we’re expecting.” I wanted the message to be easily understood, and it was. The results speak for themselves. We had 28 low-performing schools when I took the job. We’re down to 10 now.

You recently got a raise, from $294,000 a year to $310,000 a year, making you the highest-paid superintendent in the country. What do you say to perennially underpaid teachers about the gap between your salary and theirs?
There’s no question that we need to pay teachers more. That said, there’s a market out there for superintendents, just as there’s a market for teachers. Districts try to respond to those markets. Many people think my compensation ought to be market-driven—including some teachers. After news of my raise made the papers, I got several nice notes from teachers saying, “We’re glad you’re staying.”

The New York City schools have almost ten times as many students as DISD, yet your New York counterpart’s pay is $65,000 less than yours. How do you explain that?
You never know what has gone on in a district or how size comes into play. The Spring Branch district, near Houston, has only 33,000 students and just hired a superintendent for $250,000. I would observe that Dallas is on its sixth superintendent in less than five years, and that some risk comes with the position. Risk is related to reward. Low risk doesn’t warrant a high reward. High risk sometimes does.

Your raise was a preemptive strike against Texas Tech University, which reportedly was considering you for its vacant chancellor’s position. You weren’t really a candidate, were you?
We talked informally to determine interest on both sides. I didn’t apply for the job, and I made it clear that Tech never offered it to me. But there were other things at play that haven’t been reported. I was approached about a job other than the one at Tech, though I can’t talk about it. The bottom line is, I’ve signed a contract through 2006. I’m here as long as they think I can contribute.

“They” is the school board.
Yep. Because of redistricting, all nine board members are up for reelection this summer. If you look at the tenure of superintendents in urban districts, it’s usually tied to the school boards that hire them. We’ll see what happens.