A year and a half into the tenure of the superintendent they hired for his communication skills, Baltimore County school board members probably did not expect such an uproar.
Protesters rang cowbells, blew horns and chanted in the cold night air outside a recent board meeting while inside the drab administration building frustration and emotion poured out as one speaker after another criticized decisions made by Superintendent Dallas Dance.
School board meetings this winter have been filled with expressions of discontent from those who don't believe their point of view has been considered. As Dance maps out his vision for the state's third-largest district, he has upset just about every constituent group in the county over issues such as school scheduling and redistricting. He has made rapid changes to a system accustomed to the stability and gradual moves of the previous superintendent, who had been on the job for a decade.
"The decisions that are being made are very big decisions," said board member Michael Collins, who emphasized he was speaking for himself, not the board. "They have a dramatic effect on the classroom teacher and the building administrators. There seems to be minimal attempt to gain buy-in from those groups. There are too many things, well-intentioned, that are being done too quickly."
State Sen. James Brochin said constituents tell him they are not being heard.
"There is no compromise," the Baltimore County Democrat said. "It is his way or the highway. It is the art of compromise that makes good public policy, and there is no art of compromise here. It is very frustrating."
The job of running a large school district is full of challenges, and it was expected Dance would not encounter resistance when he began making changes. He still commands the support of the majority of the board.
"There have been certain communication issues that I maybe wish he had handled differently, but I think he is doing a good job," said Lawrence Schmidt, the board president who helped hire Dance.
Seen as warm, outgoing and disarmingly forthright, Dance, 32, was hired in part because the board believed he would be a great communicator, particularly with groups that felt shut out by the previous administration. Dance's predecessor, Joe Hairston, retired amid complaints that he was unresponsive to public concerns on a number of issues.
Dance came from an administrative job in the Houston school district, and his energy was immediately visible. He began meeting and talking with legislators, parents, students and the unions on a regular basis. He gave out an email address; he says he receives about 200 messages a day and responds to every one. He visits schools often, and tweets his encounters along the way.
After a shooting at Perry Hall High School early in his tenure, he was on the scene quickly and called a community meeting to discuss the event with the public.
"I clearly understand and respect people's viewpoints," Dance said. "I don't think there is anyone you would talk to who would say that this administration hasn't been more open and hasn't communicated more."
Dance's mentor and adviser, University of Maryland Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski, said he believes the new superintendent is trying to listen to different perspectives.
Hrabowski communicates with Dance several times a month. The bottom line, he said, is progress is being made. Graduation rates are up and dropout rates are down. Hrabowski said Dance is determined and doesn't make decisions lightly.
"I really do believe you have the brain power in place," he said.
But critics say the issue is his leadership style. Some observers say he collects comments from the public, but the opinions don't often alter his decisions.
"The superintendent is very good at talking at people," Collins said. "He is very weak at talking with people."
Dance — whose annual salary is $260,000 — has begun a reshaping of the district. Amid three big statewide reforms — new curriculum, new tests and new teacher evaluations — Dance decided to heap on changes of his own.
There have been missteps. Elementary teachers walked into classrooms last fall without the curriculum they needed to teach.
Dance had embarked on a major revision of the English language curriculum to match the new Common Core standards, but it was ready only days before the start of the school year, and what was available was difficult to access on the digital platform.