Michael Hinojosa didn’t apply for the Cobb County school superintendent’s job by the Jan. 31 deadline, but a timely pregnancy provided the opening for the Cobb Board of Education to lure the Dallas educator to Georgia’s second-largest school district.
A generous Texas pension made it feasible for Hinojosa to leave Dallas, where the student population, operating budget and superintendent’s salary are all roughly 50 percent larger than in Cobb.
And watching the Cobb school board in action helped secure his desire for the job.
The school board voted 7-0 Thursday night to name Hinojosa, 54, the sole finalist to replace Fred Sanderson, who is retiring June 30. That action started a state-mandated 14-day comment period, and the board is expected to make the hiring official at its next meeting June 8.
"I'm certainly flattered and honored that they would seek me out for this position,” Hinojosa told the Dallas media Thursday night in a news conference, posted online as a video by the The Dallas Morning News. “I was obviously not seeking a position and had not sought (it) at all, but when they contacted me two weeks ago, actually, I decided to take a look at it.”
Hinojosa in late September signed a three-year contract extension, running through June 2015, after being an unsuccessful finalist for superintendent of Nevada’s Clark County School District, the nation’s fifth-largest. The Dallas School Board voted 5-4 to offer the extension without a pay raise. At that time, he said his “heart is in Texas” and he was off the market.
But after spending his entire 32-year education career in Texas, including 15 of the past 18 years as a superintendent, Hinojosa listened when Cobb called about two weeks ago. He turned in his application May 12.
He said the key was another call from Georgia in April.
“Two weeks before that, my oldest son (Alex, 33) from a previous marriage, who happens to live in the greater Atlanta area, told me that his wife was expecting a baby,” Hinojosa told the Dallas media. “I don’t know if any of you have been a grandfather before, but this is new to me. And for me to have an opportunity to be close to my son kind of changed the equation. . . . That kind of changed the conversation of the notes that I had been giving to other people because this was different.”
Family Ties Bind
Hinojosa would be the first Hispanic superintendent in the Cobb district’s 130 years. He arrived in Texas at about age 2 when his minister father moved his family of five sons and five daughters from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, in 1958, according to his Clark County application.
He told Patch Thursday night that family bonds have played a large role in his life.
Hinojosa and his wife, Kitty, a high school English teacher, have two grown sons, Taylor, 18, and Michael, 20. Both will attend Ivy League schools in the fall–Princeton and Harvard, respectively.
“I’d make it to my boys’ ball games and made it a priority to be a dad,” he said. “I’m proud of the amount of time I spent with my boys and my wife.”
Calling Cobb County a good school district with a good national reputation, Hinojosa said he learned a great deal about the school system through its website.
“What I did was I watched the last five months of board meetings online to see what they were dealing with,” he said. That was a period when the board bickered over and drew scrutiny from the and the.
“I also saw their staff, and they do everything well,” Hinojosa said. “I studied everything online. I was very impressed with the staff and how much they were able to manage the growth of their buildings. I studied everything that I could.”
Hinojosa said he found the time to navigate around the website amid an ongoing budget crisis for the Dallas schools because of the early schedule he keeps.
“I get up at 3:45 every morning. I think sleep is very overrated,” Hinojosa said. “They’re very transparent with their information online. You could look at their budget and their comprehensive annual financial report, and I studied it as well. Obviously, they have issues and problems, but I was impressed with the quality and services that their front office supplies and the high-achieving students they produce. They have a large number of students taking Advanced Placement courses.”
Hinojosa’s research into the district impressed school board member Lynnda Crowder-Eagle of West Cobb.
“He’s really done his homework on Cobb,” she said. “He watched meetings online and really knew a lot about us. He just seemed like a person that wouldn’t run from anything. I’m very excited.”
He Tackles Tough Questions
Hinojosa demonstrated some of that tenacity in addressing the Dallas media Thursday. Dallas school board members were caught off guard by his decision to leave at the end of June, and the Dallas Morning News said in an editorial headline that he’s leaving the nation’s 14th-largest school district in a “lurch.”
He pointed out that when he was hired in May 2005, he was the school system’s seventh superintendent in 10 years.
“That’s the longest that Dallas has had a superintendent in 25 years,” he said. “So if you want to talk about commitment, I’ve put my heart and soul into this job. I’ve worked very hard every day. I’ve met with you under some very pleasant and some very unpleasant situations, and I didn’t run from you. So I feel like I’ve put a lot of effort in my position. Things do change, and certainly this is a very unique opportunity.”
He told Patch that his comfort level with the Cobb board made it easier for him to leave the district where he started his education career in 1979, teaching social studies and physical education and coaching.
And although he is facing a six-figure pay cut from Dallas, which pays him $328,000 a year, to Cobb, which pays Sanderson a base of $206,000, Hinojosa can more than make up the difference by officially retiring from his Texas job.
“I’ve been recruited for other jobs and turned them down, and you only get to be a grandfather once,” he said. “I didn’t want to turn down the opportunity to talk to them, and when I talked to the board, I felt very comfortable.”
Board members at Thursday's meeting said they also felt comfortable and confident with naming Hinojosa.
Tim Stultz of Smyrna and David Morgan of South Cobb both said Hinojosa’s successful background of working with diverse populations will help him to address the achievement gap found in South Cobb.
The bilingual Hinojosa has worked with other urban superintendents with the Council of the Great City Schools the past the five years to make strides in student achievement and fiscal matters, according to his nine-page Cobb County application.
“I think this guy will be a jolt to the system,” Morgan said. “He’s going to really bring an energy and expertise to student achievement that is going to be a win-win for all Cobb stakeholders.”
Board Chairwoman Alison Bartlett and Vice Chairman Scott Sweeney of East Cobb each liked Hinojosa’s experience with large districts, particularly the Dallas Independent School District and its $1.2 billion budget.
“He’s run a system that’s larger than ours,” Bartlett said. Cobb’s large enrollment makes it “a tough road for us, and having someone with that experience will be very beneficial.”
‘Good People’ on Board
Hinojosa said he looks forward to meeting the Cobb board members again and the district staff members for the first time Monday morning when he visits the district.
Sanderson said he will work through June 30 to help Hinojosa transition to his new post, and Hinojosa told Dallas media that he will stay to finish the budget process there.
“I could tell they were good people but could tell they don’t have a lot of experience,” Hinojosa said of the much-maligned Cobb board members. “Most have only been there two years. . . . They’ll get more training, I’m not afraid of that. They’re young in their service.
“We can learn together as a team, and I just feel they have a lot of potential. Now they have a lot of obstacles they need to overcome, but those things can be handled.”
Board member David Banks of East Cobb did not attend Sunday’s final interview with Hinojosa because he had to work, and Banks was the only board member who was silent when given the chance to comment on the superintendent finalist Thursday night.
Banks said Hinojosa is well qualified for the position, although he wondered why Hinojosa would leave such a lucrative salary and break his contract.
“I’m neutral. It was pretty much predetermined because we already named him finalist,” Banks said. Besides, “the local media is going to do a number on him at some point; you come at your own peril. Cobb has a not been good to superintendents.”
That history hasn’t hurt Hinojosa’s enthusiasm. He said: “I’m excited for this opportunity. I have a lot of energy. . . . (As a superintendent) you do whatever hours it takes to get the job done.”
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