West Fargo Superintendent Dana Diesel Wallace makes good on goals, but also makes wavesNot even two years into her job, West Fargo Superintendent Dana Diesel Wallace nearly got the boot from the School Board.
By: Kelly Smith, INFORUM
Not even two years into her job, West Fargo Superintendent Dana Diesel Wallace nearly got the boot from the School Board.
Members hired her in 2006 to be a change agent. But change has nearly been Diesel Wallace’s downfall.
When she arrived from Raleigh, N.C., Diesel Wallace was the district’s first female superintendent in recent memory.
But nearly no one noticed that. They were more fixated on the fact she was an outsider who had never stepped foot in North Dakota until her job interview. She also had never been a superintendent and was following in the footsteps of one widely popular leader and four other long-serving North Dakotan male superintendents.
Expectations were high.
“They (the School Board) clearly had an agenda for change,” Diesel Wallace told The Forum recently. “I got that track record. I think that’s what they were focused on.”
She pledged to boost student achievement in what’s now North Dakota’s third-largest district. Test scores show she’s done that.
But the 49-year-old’s “divisive” leadership personality and some districtwide changes have worn down support from teachers and the public – shaping a tenure riddled with public criticism and controversy.
“I think Dana has a different style than what the community has been used to,” said former superintendent Marvin Leidal, who taught and led the district for more than 20 years. “I think we’ve been accustomed to, if change was going to be made, we’d begin that with staff input. I don’t know that’s been the way it’s been done the last few years.”
From NC to ND
Diesel Wallace said her reputation for data-driven, goal-oriented leadership stems from her athletic and East Coast backgrounds.
“It was a culture that if you weren’t really out there, on the edge, really pushing the envelope, really challenging ... that was required in that culture, that’s just the way it was,” she said of East Coast schools.
As a high school swimming coach, the then-freelance photographer caught the teaching bug in 1991, leading her to teach high school gym classes.
A swift four years later, the Milwaukee native ascended to leadership roles in New Jersey and Virginia schools. By 2006, she was the middle school program director for a North Carolina district with 31 middle schools.
“She was excellent; very forward thinking,” said John Wall, a middle school principal in Wake County Public Schools in Raleigh, N.C., where Diesel Wallace worked. “She really focused on student learning.”
But she wanted to take the next step in her career. Of her three job interviews, one was in the Midwest. It was there, in West Fargo, where she beat out the other candidates for the top job.
“She was set apart somewhat because of her educational background … (and) her focus on student achievement,” board vice president Karen Nitzkorski said. “We wanted to figure out a way to take our school district to a new level and not be status quo.”
Since Diesel Wallace started, the state’s fastest-growing school district has grown by more than 1,000 students. It forced Diesel Wallace to orchestrate the results of unparalleled enrollment growth such as using the middle school space crunch as an opportunity to launch the state’s first STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program.
She initiated several programs that are the first of its kind in the state – from a program to help underachieving, college-bound middle school students to an emergency preparedness program.
She led the development of the district’s first strategic plan, which has now been nearly accomplished two years ahead of schedule. And she boosted growth on student test scores nearly 50 percent since she arrived.
Diesel Wallace has also led a regional movement to reduce area dropout rates. (She dropped out of college twice before earning her education degree, going on to Harvard and Columbia universities.)
Her accomplishments have helped Diesel Wallace muster support from various community leaders.
“She’s very cerebral, intellectual,” said Fargo Superintendent Rick Buresh, who was also a candidate for the top spot in West Fargo. “I find it very useful to have her nearby as a colleague.”
Moving at ‘a fast clip’
But not gaining widespread support from her biggest constituent groups – teachers and the community – has tarnished her public image.
“So much change happened so fast and probably wasn’t communicated as clearly as it should’ve,” former teachers’ union president Joan Baltezore said. “Relationships are a big part of our school community and community at large.”
Even Diesel Wallace admits she may have initiated change too quickly.
“I think I can be hard-charging. I think I can move at a fast clip,” she said, adding, board members told her “‘we wanted change ... we want a strategic plan, we want this, we want that.’ I took that and ran with it … and it has, in some instances, been too fast for some people.”
Within Diesel Wallace’s first two years, music teacher Mavis Tjon was fired for “tapping” a student on the head, the popular program Reading Recovery was dropped, and block scheduling was started – the latter two of which fueled concern changes in the district were happening too fast.
Then a month after a positive evaluation, Diesel Wallace was shocked in April 2008 to hear some board members accuse her of a divisive and polarizing leadership style.
The meeting nearly prematurely ended her career in the district.
“I was surprised by it,” she said.
Some complained she hadn’t sought enough input before implementing changes, while others said she hadn’t made enough effort to establish relationships in the district.
Former superintendent Chuck Cheney, who Diesel Wallace followed, said recently via e-mail that “she has missed the boat on the importance of building professional and personal relationships with the people she serves.”
The motion to not renew her contract was later withdrawn.
Asked if she considered resigning in light of the meeting, Diesel Wallace said, “I might have momentarily. (But) to walk away from it would have accomplished nothing.”
The teachers union, it seemed, felt nothing had changed by fall 2008. Joan Connor, now the teachers’ union president, told the board then that low morale among staff was widespread.
Board members counter Diesel Wallace has done what they hired her to do.
“We wanted measureable change and we got it,” Nitzkorski said. “I think there are ways to make change that aren’t so abrupt and maybe we could have directed that better as a board.”
After Diesel Wallace led spring input meetings, last June’s $65 million building referendum failed. Some voters said their disapproval stemmed from distaste for the district’s leader.
Input meetings for another referendum ensued. This time Diesel Wallace wasn’t at the helm.
After June’s referendum, West Fargo got national attention when the district removed the adviser of the high school’s student newspaper because, he said, administrators didn’t like the paper’s negative content. The move brought on a wave of criticism from students, parents and the community backing teacher Jeremy Murphy.
“Those are personnel issues,” Diesel Wallace said of the Tjon and Murphy incidents. “I wasn’t really involved with either one of them.”
But it hasn’t mitigated public criticism of her leadership.
While personal attacks from the public have bothered her husband – who is retired and lives in Virginia – Diesel Wallace boasts that she has thick skin.
“Do I worry about people liking me or not? I can’t really worry about that,” she said. “If you’re going to lead and lead things that are powerfully good for kids through public education, you have got to know that is going to ruffle some people’s feathers; it just is.”
Now, nearly two years after the April 2008 meeting, everyone from school officials to teachers to the superintendent think – or at least, hope – things may finally be settling down.
“We’ve talked about moving on from that,” Diesel Wallace said.
Since then, an outside company conducted a district-wide staff survey, which reaffirmed a need for improved communication. School board members have vowed to start a communications panel with teachers. And administrative assistant Heather Leas has been charged with sending out news releases to get more positive news to media and improve communication with staff, Diesel Wallace said.
“Hopefully now we can move forward,” said Baltezore, a teacher at West Fargo High School.
Diesel Wallace agrees and said she expects to stick around to see through that mending. While the longest she’s stayed in a district is four years – a mark that comes in her West Fargo tenure next summer – she said she doesn’t have plans to leave.
“If you believe that we’re doing the right things for kids, and again, question what you may, I think … remarkably good things have happened for kids, then you keep your eyes on the prize,” she said. “And that’s what I’m committed to doing.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515