In his role as chief middle school officer in the Houston Independent School District in Texas the last two years, Howard County Public School System superintendent candidate S. Dallas Dance has shown a "unique ability to build consensus among stakeholders with divergent interests during contentious issues," according to a system statement on his candidacy released early Monday morning.
Dance, 30, who the statement calls an "unflappable professional who is respected for his political acumen," is one of two finalists for the Howard County position. The other is Renee A. Foose, the current deputy superintendent of Baltimore County Pubic Schools.
The district's statements about Dance's poise reflect others made by multiple people who have worked with Dance in Houston.
The Houston system Dance currently works in has faced multiple high-profile challenges in recent years, including a large budget deficit, a string of teacher layoffs, a shake up of school principals and a cheating scandal that mostly centered around elementary school test scores but also raised flags at a few middle schools.
Dance took on a "lot of issues in a lot of schools" when he joined Houston's system in 2010, but he did so without ever getting flustered, according to Michael Lunceford, president of the Houston school district's board of trustees.
"You have a balancing act that you have to have, and to me he's done a great job," Lunceford said. "We have our drawbacks. We've had schools that are struggling and he's had to make some tough choices on principals that weren't doing the job and teachers who weren't doing the job in the classroom."
Despite the problems, Dance has helped lead the school system to record high graduation rates, record low dropout rates and improved test scores, said Terry Grier, the school system's superintendent.
Dance works like "his belly's on fire," Grier said, and is "one of the brightest young educators in the country today."
Dance is not entirely free of detractors, though.
According to Dave DeBlasio, a former administrator in and current critic of the Houston system who now runs the popular blog houstonisdwatch.com under the pseudonym Judd Bingle, Dance has been criticized in the past for missing a large number of work days and "not necessarily being truthful" in matters regarding firings in the system.
Still, though DeBlasio considers the Houston system as a whole to have a "very toxic atmosphere" at the moment, he said Dance "is probably one of the good guys of the group."
DeBlasio has been heavily critical of Dance in past posts on the site, but also said that many of his friends, former colleagues and sources still in the school system, including janitors and teachers, have praised Dance, both in comments on the site and in person.
"They seem to like him well enough," DeBlasio said. "I've dealt with him. He seems approachable. He seems reasonable."
Rising through the ranks
In the last decade, Dance has moved rapidly through the education field, first in Virginia.
As he jumped from classroom teacher to principal in a rapid set of raises in the Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia while earning a master's degree in administration and supervision from Virginia Commonwealth University, others took note, including Bill Bosher, who was superintendent of Henrico when Dance was hired and soon became Virginia's superintendent.
Before long, Bosher was serving as Dance's doctoral advisor at VCU, where Bosher is a distinguished professor and where Dance received a doctorate in educational leadership in 2007 after writing his dissertation on the characteristics of principalship in Virginia.
"He worked so well and so hard that the major concern for some who were reading his (dissertation) was that it wasn't taking him long enough," Bosher said. "Part of my struggle was to make sure that we looked at quality and we looked at his output rather than look at his pace, and he did very, very well."
Dance's pace through the ranks of school administrators has also been something of note, people said, but not in a negative sense.
"He's perceived to be young, but he doesn't get flustered," Lunceford said. "I've never seen him not handle a situation properly."
"I can promise you Dallas works with and leads principals in Houston, Texas who are in their 50s and 60s, and no one questions Dallas' age," Grier said. "He has high expectations, he's a collaborator, he works well with teams of people, and he certainly recognizes and knows he doesn't have all the answers."
Dance is also "down to earth" and popular among teachers, according to Chuck Robinson, executive director of the Congress of Houston Teachers, a professional organization in the city.
"From my perspective, as far as the way he's worked with the teacher organizations, I would give him high marks," Robinson said. "He's one of the folks who actually answers their email."
Dance is single and has a 2-year-old son, Myles.
Bosher said he thinks Dance is ready for the next phase of his career, and would make a great superintendent.
"He's looking for a place where he will find it professionally challenging, but also (find) a sense of family, where he can stay awhile," Bosher said.