How to Succeed in Education Without Really Studying, Part 2

The high and mighty rushed to the aid of dubiously degreed schools superintendent Roger Cuevas

In September 1997 New Times published a story describing how several top administrators of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, including superintendent Roger Cuevas, had received advanced academic degrees from institutions widely denounced as diploma mills. What was the fallout from the piece, which was titled "How to Succeed in Education Without Really Studying"?

Nothing.

In November 1999, Channel 10 (WPLG-TV) ran a series titled Credentials in Question, which told almost exactly the same story about the same top administrators. The fallout from these television reports? Plenty of sound bites and fury. But if last week's school board meeting was any indication, the result will be the same. Nothing.

Despite the chorus of support for Cuevas last week, activist Nathaniel Wilcox had sharp words for the superintendent
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Despite the chorus of support for Cuevas last week, activist Nathaniel Wilcox had sharp words for the superintendent
Board member Marta Perez ain't happy with Cuevas
Board member Marta Perez ain't happy with Cuevas

The visceral power of video did accomplish one thing: It inspired an entertaining circling of the wagons in support of Cuevas, both from the board members who chose him, and from some of the most powerful people in Miami-Dade County. The 4:00 p.m. public hearing during the November 17 board meeting was a star-studded affair, highlighted by the surprise appearance of Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez. "I'm here to make sure that Cuevas stays around," Martinez said shortly before the hearing opened. "He's a good person."

Martinez added his voice to a chorus of support that included influential folks such as United Teachers of Dade union leaders Pat Tornillo and Murray Sisselman; American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union president Sherman Henry; and Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce president Bill Cullom. Other notables who signed up to speak on Cuevas's behalf, but didn't show, were Osvaldo Soto, chairman of the Spanish American League Against Discrimination; Adora Obi Nweze, president of the local branch of the NAACP; Modesto "Mitch" Maidique, president of Florida International University; and Eduardo Padron, president of Miami-Dade Community College.

Cuevas's most vocal supporters, though, were seated to his left on the dais. "I nominated Roger Cuevas in 1996, and I did not make a mistake," said board member Manty Sabates Morse. "I would nominate him again right now." A wave of applause swept through the half-full auditorium. Later she added that Cuevas's 1974 master's degree from a program at the University of Northern Colorado that allowed him to study without attending classes at the Greeley, Colorado, campus had long ago been validated. (The program was not accredited and is now defunct.)

"[His degree] was accepted in Tallahassee [by the Bureau of Teacher Certification] back in the Seventies. It is a legitimate degree," she said. "It's a nonissue."

Solomon Stinson, who the previous day had been replaced as board chairman by Perla Tabares Hantman in a unanimous vote, commented, "I'm saddened that so much has been said about nothing. No one has said that his degree is not authentic. Roger Cuevas is a success story, and it should have been portrayed that way."

But not everyone on the dais was singing Cuevas's praises.

"If we had a system where the top administrator had some [degree] like that, and the system was running well, it wouldn't be such a concern," board member Marta Perez said before the meeting. "But there are problems in this system. The superintendent is the economic and educational leader of the school district. His educational expertise should set an example for our students. Getting a degree should mean attending class, being tested, going to lectures. You open to the back pages of any in-flight magazine, and you'll see these places where you can get a certificate."

During her remarks from the dais, Perez (who received her master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Miami) expressed her reservations not only about Cuevas's academic credentials, but also about the performance of Johnny Brown, the school board attorney. Brown is the only district employee besides the superintendent who reports directly to the board. Last month, after deputy superintendent Henry Fraind shooed Perez out of a staff meeting, Brown didn't defend her right to attend, and Perez hasn't forgotten that. "I have cause at this time to be dissatisfied with both [Brown and Cuevas's] performances," Perez said. In her sometimes rambling, breathless speaking style, Perez called for a review of the superintendent and attorney's contracts in July 2000.

There were a few other speakers critical of Cuevas, most of whom were affiliated with two black activist groups: People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality (PULSE) and Project HOPE (Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence). Nathaniel Wilcox, the PULSE executive director who has called for Cuevas's resignation, voiced his dissatisfaction with the superintendent's credentials. Wilcox's organization has recently called attention to the sorry state of some inner-city schools in black neighborhoods, notably Allapattah Middle. His vocal criticism of Cuevas, he says, jibes with that mission. "We see the scores on the SAT, FCAT, and Florida Writes tests being unacceptably low in our community," he related afterward. "Then we see some people in leadership positions in the school district with questionable degrees. When you look at it that way, it kind of all falls into place."

And, according to Wilcox, movers' and shakers' support for Cuevas was not confined to speakers at Wednesday's meeting. "People have called me and basically told me to back off," Wilcox says. One of those callers was State Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Northwest Dade), a former school board member who voted for Cuevas as superintendent in 1996. "She told me he was doing a pretty good job," Wilcox continues. Wilson did not respond to phone calls seeking comment for this story.

Wilcox adds that he also got a "knock it off" message, indirectly, from H.T. Smith, the influential Miami attorney who counts board member Solomon Stinson as one of his clients.

Smith confirms he has been trying to broker a meeting among the leaders of PULSE, HOPE, church leaders in the black community, and school administrators. He calls himself "a friend of PULSE," but disagrees with Wilcox's call for Cuevas to step down. "I don't think it's the best strategy to ask for the death penalty, not if you want to have a long-term relationship," Smith says.

Wilcox has agreed to at least one of the Smith-organized meetings, but promises to maintain his aggressive posture. "We're going to keep pushing," Wilcox declares. "H.T. Smith doesn't control us."

ted_kissell@miaminewtimes.com

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