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.
Teachers were overwhelmed with work and later filed a grievance against the system. Dance acknowledged the problem and apologized to teachers.
Next, he made a decision to put all high schools on a similar schedule, which is forcing the majority of high-performing schools to make significant changes for next fall. He has said the change will reduce class sizes, save money and help struggling students who want to transfer around the county.
But the move has angered students, parents and staff at high-achieving schools. More than a hundred from Hereford High School turned up at a recent meeting, and some rang cowbells and chanted outside the windows. They say the school's schedule has worked for 20 years, and they want to keep it.
Dance said emphatically last week he would go ahead with the schedule change, but he has allowed some flexibility for next year's juniors and seniors at Hereford and two other schools — a small adjustment that has done little to quell the anger.
"What I see developing is a pattern and practice of the one-man rule, which is resulting in a loss of educational opportunities," said Connie Taylor, a Hereford parent.
And the redistricting of school zones for the new Mays Chapel Elementary School has drawn more criticism, with some residents complaining the percentage of low-income students who attend one of the affected schools will increase.
Dance has made other, less controversial moves as well, but some say they have only added to the perception that too much is happening at once.
"The staff has been reeling from all of the changes outside the system" when Dance decided to pile on his own initiatives, said Abby Beytin, head of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County. "I am not sure what the rush was for."
Dance is the first superintendent of a large district in Maryland to introduce a plan to put a laptop or tablet in the hands of every student beginning with a pilot next fall. And he has done an audit of the school facilities in the hope of devising a 10-year plan to update and build new schools.
Schmidt, the school board president, said Dance's insistence on making quick progress can be positive.
"That can be a good thing in some ways," he said. "He is impatient to get where he wants to go and sometimes people perceive that as arrogance."
Schmidt said he has advised Dance to "slow down and listen." Collins said Dance sometimes has left the board in the dark, neglecting to inform members of major changes. The board learned about the scheduling change in the newspaper rather than hearing about it from Dance.
Schmidt, however, highlights what he says are Dance's achievements, including the technology initiative, the amicable takeover of a charter school and the strides made in updating facilities and building new schools.
Despite the uproar over several issues, many of his critics are also his advocates. They say they would like to see Dance succeed and hope he will consider changing his approach.
"I think he is experiencing growing pains in terms of someone who came from another school system and is learning a lot about a large, complex system," said Bill Lawrence, executive director of CASE, the association that represents principals and some administrators. "I think he would benefit from reaching out to veteran BCPS folks for advice and counsel."
Dance isn't backing away from any of his changes, but said the organization should always review its moves.
"After a decision I make, I go back and reflect on the decision," he said.
It is that calm, analytic decision-making style that Hrabowski appreciates.
"When you have change in a system or a university, there will be a number of people who will be worried about that rate of change," he said. "Most important is that he is someone who cares deeply about children."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun