Kim Olson, a Democratic candidate in the runoff for a suburban Texas district that includes the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and surrounding affluent suburbs, is most commonly known for her past career in the Air Force. “Retired colonel” is the epithet she uses on her social media accounts, her military service is prominently featured on her campaign website, and Democrats and the media have been debating how much of a liability an early 2000s contracting scandal in Iraq, where she was accused of war profiteering, would be in a general election. (Olson denies the charge, but she did plead guilty to two lesser offenses relating to conflicts of interest and obtaining outside employment without permission.)
Another line on Olson’s resume, following her retirement from the Air Force in 2005, gets much less attention. From August 2007 to June 2009, Olson was the human resources director for the Dallas Independent School District, the second-largest district in the state. Beyond a reference at the bottom of Olson’s campaign website that as HR director, she “oversaw $1 Billion dollar budget and 22,000 employees,” she rarely mentions this job on the campaign trail.
There may be good reason for that. Her tenure in a seemingly anodyne school administrator role was contentious, from budget issues and teacher layoffs to getting reprimanded by the school board. When she abruptly tendered her resignation in 2009, providing no reason why, a Dallas Observer columnist noted that it “seems an awfully quiet way for one of the school year’s most controversial figures to go.”
Some of the controversy stemmed from her close ties to the education reform movement. Olson was trained at the Broad Superintendents Academy, a bootcamp for reform-minded education administrators. As HR director, she helped lead the push to bring Teach for America, which recruits recent college graduates to teach for two-year stints, into Dallas public schools.
“She helped facilitate that [TFA] contract and most traditional educators were highly opposed because Teach for America teachers had only six weeks of training,” said Rena Honea, the president of the Dallas teachers union, who was in union leadership during Olson’s tenure. “There was a big push from the business world and the education reformers, but Kim was the one who helped foster that contract and relationship.”
Olson declined to comment on these aspects of her record. Instead, she provided a comment on how her campaign has responded to coronavirus.
Her rhetoric toward teachers also exacerbated tensions. In an interview with D Magazine, a monthly publication covering Dallas-Fort Worth, Olson once quipped, “Most educators don’t understand leadership because that’s really not what is practiced.” She went on to add, “Just because you’ve been the head of a classroom or a school doesn’t mean you have leadership.”
Olson’s tenure as HR director also overlapped with the most severe budget crisis in the Dallas school district’s history. A bombshell Dallas Morning News investigation from November 2008 detailed the district’s fiscal woes and shoddy accounting practices: The district had overspent its previous budget by $64 million and was on track to run up an $84 million deficit that year. The report led to new audits and the swift installment of a new CFO.
The budget problems began well before Olson arrived at the school district, but when she was blamed for the crisis unfolding under her watch, she denied all responsibility. When she was blamed for authorizing the hiring of new teachers the district couldn’t afford and criticized for laying off hundreds of them later on to balance the budget, she insisted that it wasn’t her department’s fault, that her staff had merely executed personnel decisions approved elsewhere by budget officials. When a school trustee pressed Olson on what her department would do if the budget office was wrong or made a mistake, she said her team did not attempt to reconcile its figures with its own data and did not even have the staffing allocation to do so. (A spokesperson for Olson’s campaign said the $1 billion budget reference on her website refers to overseeing compensation and benefits — not the personnel budget she distanced herself from years ago.)
While Olson maintained her department’s innocence in the district’s fiscal crisis, she was simultaneously taking contentious steps to boost its public image. In November 2008, three school district employees took the unusual step of attending a school board meeting to offer praise for the HR department. One after another, the principals offered testimony about how great it was to start their school year with highly qualified staff already in place at their schools.
The Dallas school trustees could sense something fishy was going on, as it was hardly the beginning of the school year. One trustee said it was “very suspicious” the administrators had shown up to speak. “I feel a setup,” he added.
At the end of the meeting, Olson admitted that she had asked the three principals to come to the meeting and recognize her department’s work. Trustee Lew Blackburn said he was “very angry” that the principals were asked to leave their jobs to come and praise HR, and he told the school superintendent that “if this happens again, I will be highly pissed.”
In March, Olson emerged from her seven-way primary in Texas’s 24th Congressional District, with 41 percent of the vote. Because no candidate got 50 percent, she will be facing off in a July runoff against Candace Valenzuela, a school board member for the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District who earned 30 percent of the vote.
The district, which is currently represented by Republican Rep. Kenny Marchant, is one of seven Texas House seats the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee aims to flip in November. In August 2019 Marchant announced he would not seek reelection. The winner of the runoff will face off against Republican Beth Van Duyne, a former mayor in the district.