By Terrence McCoy
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By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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"He absolutely has no peer. He's a natural politician," says Phil Hamersmith. "He dominates that school system like very few people could. He's been elected and re-elected as chair, even when everybody wrote him off."
The rise of Solomon Clinnon Stinson was methodical rather than meteoric. It began in 1960, far back enough in Dade County history that, on his application for employment, he gave his race as "Negro," and was required to answer the question, "Do you believe in God?" (He placed a check next to "Yes.")
From 1960 to 1966 he taught at Holmes Elementary School. Beginning in 1962 he worked on his master's degree in education at the University of Iowa, completing his course work in 1967. He rose to assistant principal, then served as principal of North Glade Elementary School in Carol City from 1970 to 1973. He then returned to the University of Iowa for his doctorate, as one of eight recipients of the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation School Administrator National Internships. He earned his Ph.D. in 1975.
Solomon and Jessie Stinson were married in 1961, the same year they purchased a home at 6900 NW Fifth Ave. in Miami. Their daughter, Kyra, was born in 1968. Before Stinson left for Iowa in 1973, he and Jessie divorced. (Jessie Stinson has remained in the school system, and is principal of Hialeah Elementary School.)
Despite family problems Stinson's steady ascent in the school system hierarchy continued. He had apparently hitched his wagon to the correct star in Johnny Jones, who became the district's first black superintendent in 1977. Jones promoted Stinson to an administrative post downtown. In 1976 Stinson even became Jones's business partner in a venture called Contemporary Corporate Executive Alliance. The company operated a dry-cleaning business.
Then it all unraveled. Prosecutors began scrutinizing the business after hearing complaints that the dry-cleaning company was using Miami Northwestern Senior High students and facilities. This investigation eventually fizzled. In 1980 a Dade County jury convicted Jones of diverting public money to pay for gold plumbing fixtures in his house in Naples. The same year another jury found Jones guilty of misdemeanor witness-tampering in an unrelated bribery case. The witness-tampering charge stuck, but an appeals court overturned the gold-plumbing conviction in 1985.
Jones's disgrace was particularly stinging to Miami's black community. "After that I thought it would take an act of Congress to get another African-American superintendent," says state representative and former school board member Frederica Wilson, an elementary school principal at the time.
Stinson didn't stay down for long. After being busted to area superintendent, he worked his way back downtown in 1986, becoming associate superintendent of school operations.
By then he was within striking distance of the top spot. When the superintendent's job opened up in 1989, Stinson was a serious candidate. In early 1990 he lost to Paul Bell, a respected administrator with a background as a Spanish teacher. After Bell's death later that year, Octavio Visiedo, a sharp-tongued deputy superintendent who oversaw construction, bested Stinson for the position. (Visiedo promoted Stinson to deputy superintendent in 1991.) When Visiedo resigned in 1995, Alan Olkes, a long-time administrator nearing retirement, was named as an interim replacement.
Although he was repeatedly denied the superintendency, Stinson still held sway in the district. Both friends and enemies describe him as an extremely intelligent, competent, qualified administrator with a brusque demeanor, dry wit, and wicked sense of humor. Even some detractors admit he was probably the most qualified person for the superintendency throughout the early and mid-Nineties.
Aside from his business association with Jones, Stinson's baggage included a reputation as an extremely vindictive administrator who rewarded loyalty and punished disobedience with equal gusto.
None of which surprises school district observers. "One of the things I found over the years working in education is that the soldiers in that army are unusually loyal to their generals," says T. Willard Fair, president of the Urban League of Greater Miami, who has known Stinson since the late Seventies and now comanages a charter school. "It is clearly a system where people get rewarded for being loyal.
"It speaks to how folks handle power," Fair continues. "It's clear in that system that, if you're on the team, you're on team. If not, you might get punished."
Two current, long-time district employees describe the following instance of the subtle-yet-effective nature of Stinson's revenge, exacted while he was a deputy superintendent:
An interim school principal planned to write a negative evaluation of a teacher. The principal was warned that the teacher was "protected" by Stinson and that it would not be in the principal's best interest to put a poor evaluation in the teacher's record. The principal did it anyway. The next school year the principal was bumped back to assistant principal, where he remained for a few more years before finally receiving a promotion. The principal "was made to go stand in a corner," says one of the employees.
Although he had no knowledge of the previously described incident, Patrick Snay, a onetime principal of Miami Killian Senior High School, contends Stinson reveled in the fear he struck in subordinates' hearts. "He used to say, 'You wouldn't want to make Dr. Stinson angry, would you?'" says Snay, now principal of a Catholic school in Hollywood.