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Miami-Dade schools overwhelm 'last chance'

After two years of crises and a divided School Board, a former Pinellas County official is leaving the nation's fourth-largest district.

Published December 29, 2003

MIAMI - Miami-Dade school chief Merrett Stierheim pokes his head into the tiny bathroom adjacent to his office and points toward the shower.

There, dozens of shabby cardboard boxes are stacked as high as the unused shower head. A stuffed trophy fish pokes out of a box on top.

"That's my life in there," says Stierheim, the soon-to-depart superintendent of the nation's fourth-largest school district. The boxes hold the plaques and proclamations routinely awarded to CEOs like him. Some date back to his days as the Pinellas County administrator in the 1970s.

Stierheim, 70, shakes his head. "I never did unpack," he says.

After just two years managing a school system where scandal and crisis are the norm, Stierheim is calling it quits. He plans to leave after his contract runs out in June. Miami-Dade is searching for its sixth superintendent in 15 years.

Stierheim's brief tenure is yet more evidence of the seemingly insoluble problems that are wearing down many of the nation's largest urban school districts, and their leaders. Years of failure are giving way to impatience. The result is unconventional, even desperate, efforts to find solutions.

In New York City and Chicago, mayors have taken over the public school system. Philadelphia's was taken over by the state, and then handed over to for-profit management companies that have yet to meet expectations.

Other large districts have turned to outsiders. San Diego hired a district attorney. New Orleans hired a Marine colonel. Los Angeles hired the former governor of Colorado.

Stierheim, a noneducator and an outsider, was to be Miami-Dade's solution. He took on many of the district's pathologies, including cronyism, questionable spending, academic failure and crushing poverty. But as he prepares to leave, the district is still lurching from crisis to crisis.

Its construction program is being held hostage by the state, which doesn't trust school officials to spend the money wisely.

The School Board is as divided and fractious as ever, both politically and ethnically.

And many Miami-Dade schools are a mess. The district has the most F-rated schools in the state, which is not surprising since it is the state's largest district. But it also has Florida's only triple-F school, Miami Edison High, which recently experienced student protests and the forced transfer of one-third of its faculty.

With his 40-plus years of administrative experience, Stierheim was thought to be one of the few managers capable of fixing such a mess. Now he sits in his ninth-floor office, a spectacular view of the Intracoastal Waterway behind him, and contemplates the $210,000 job he is about to leave.

"I thought I'd seen it all," he says wearily, "until I took this job."

"The main thing'

A 12-year-old boy sits outside the principal's office at Comstock Elementary School in one of Miami's poorest, most transient neighborhoods.

On a chair to his right sits the boy's tiny dog, a black terrier mix named Pulga, a Spanish word meaning "flea."

The boy, Erlan Rivas, came to tell principal Alejandro Perez that he is leaving, going to Honduras. His father has been deported. He says he will miss Comstock Elementary, a place of refuge and learning and Spanish-speaking friends.

Perez deals with such scenes every day. His students - low-income Hispanics and African-Americans - come and go with maddening frequency from the apartments and subsidized housing that surround the school.

By any measure, Perez is making progress. The school's recent C grade is a major improvement. Parents stream to campus to take classes to learn English. Some stick around to help out.

Stierheim can cite such progress in Miami-Dade schools with surprising specificity. He tries to stay focused on the district's primary mission, or, as he puts it: "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."

"The main thing is educating children," Stierheim says. "Miami is the poorest big city in the country. And Miami-Dade is the most diverse area. We're the test tube for the country. We need to get it right."

But it is easy to lose focus here.

Take the fight over school construction money. If the district can't convince the state it will spend its money wisely, Miami-Dade stands to lose tens of millions of dollars. That means schools won't get built.

"That's the sad thing; all of that nonsense affects the classroom," said former School Board member G. Holmes Braddock.

Nowhere is the district's dysfunction more evident than at School Board meetings, interminable affairs filled with rancor and grandstanding. A recent meeting lasted nine hours. That was not long by Miami-Dade standards.

There was a lengthy discussion about the construction money. One speaker announced his intentions to run for the board. A board member proposed giving more powers to the board chairman.

At one point, United Teachers of Dade administrator Mark Richard exclaimed in frustration, "People are more interested in the palace politics than in whether Johnny can read."

"Dragon slayer'

Stierheim, who moved to Miami after serving as Pinellas County administrator in the 1970s, was supposed to be the miracle worker. Pinellas County administrator Steve Spratt, a longtime friend and colleague, calls him "a dragon slayer."

Stierheim was the Dade County manager through race riots and the Mariel boatlift. He ran the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau when the city was synonymous with carjackings and cocaine. He was brought in to rescue the city of Miami after its financial meltdown in 1996.

That tour of duty got him drafted for the Miami-Dade school job. Five board members approached him around the time that superintendent Roger Cuevas was getting fired.

They appealed to his sense of duty. They appealed to his sense of himself as a manager of the unmanageable.

On the wall in Stierheim's office is a framed cartoon from the Miami Herald, showing a group of Osama bin Laden look-alikes sitting around a table arguing. The caption reads, "Negotiations for a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan reached a critical stage." A man at the table speaks into a cell phone: "Hello, Merrett Stierheim?"

"I do like a challenge," Stierheim says. "And this is the mother of all challenges."

But Stierheim took the Miami-Dade school job with two strikes against him.

"The Hispanic community wanted, No. 1, a Hispanic, and No. 2, an educator," says board member Frank Cobo, a Stierheim supporter. "So what did we do? We hired an Anglo, noneducator."

Stierheim took office in late 2001 and quickly did what only an outsider could. He set out to learn, and show the public, just how bad things were. He conducted an anonymous survey of principals.

"Things were worse than I thought," he says. The survey revealed "a sick organization." It showed "rampant fear and paranoia."

Ninety-three percent of principals disagreed with a statement that the district effectively managed its money. Nearly 90 percent said promotions were influenced by cronyism and nepotism.

Stierheim set about changing the way principals were hired. He reorganized the staff. He changed a policy regarding take-home cars and the use of cell phones and beepers.

In short, he stepped on toes.

There has always been a sense of the temporary to Stierheim's tenure, which both helped and hurt him. He was not concerned about holding onto his job. But many who resisted change calculated that they could outlast him.

Stierheim has hurt himself at times.

"I believe he is a man of integrity, a problem solver, but now the superintendent seems to be a point of contention," says board member Perla Tabares Hantman, a Stierheim supporter. "Merrett has a difficult personality. I tell him he doesn't listen."

"So badly out of kilter'

Michael Lewis, editor and publisher of the business publication Miami Today, has a theory about the Miami-Dade school system: It's just too big. It has more students, 366,000, than the city of St. Petersburg has residents, 250,000.

The average school district in the U.S. has about 3,500 students. That's smaller than dozens of Miami-Dade high schools. Even Florida's other large districts are not in Miami-Dade's league. Pinellas has about 112,000 students. Hillsborough, the nation's 10th-largest district, has 170,000 students.

Sheer size is one reason superintendents in big urban school districts tend not to last very long. Big bureaucracies with big problems are notoriously resistant to change. It's no coincidence that the nation's largest districts are the ones trying the most radical management experiments.

Lewis thinks the Miami-Dade school district must be broken into more manageable pieces. The proposal seems far-fetched. It would require a change to the Florida Constitution. But it keeps coming up.

"There's no way one human being can run that system," Lewis says. "The entire school system is so badly out of kilter. A new superintendent would not be able to change it in a decade."

Especially not with this School Board, which is divided in almost every way.

The board is made up of five Hispanics, two African-Americans and two Anglos - the unmistakable result of a switch to single-member voting districts in 1996.

Though the board is more diverse now, many in Miami-Dade think single-member districts are the worst thing to hit the schools since Hurricane Andrew. Critics say some board members are more interested in their own turf than the welfare of the district as a whole.

Single-member districts have led to "the downfall of the district," says G. Holmes Braddock, who left the board in 2000 after serving 38 years.

He wonders whether Miami-Dade schools can recover.

Looking ahead

The answer may depend on the selection of a new superintendent, which is likely to be a difficult battle.

"Merrett, in many ways, was the last hope, the last chance, for reform without drastic restructuring," says Dario Moreno, who has studied the region's politics and economics as director of the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University.

Whoever succeeds Stierheim, he says, must be charismatic and independent. Someone with the confidence of the entire board. Someone unafraid to shake things up, and willing to stay a while.

Moreno isn't optimistic.

"That's the best-case scenario, not the likely scenario," he says. "It's likely that this board won't agree. Then they come up with some sort of compromise, someone they can control. And then the district suffers."

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

[Last modified December 29, 2003, 01:01:24]

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