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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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In the midmorning sunshine outside one of Miami-Dade County's most impenetrable bureaucratic fortresses, a tightly packed crowd of journalists forms a small arc three rows deep around a podium. Behind the podium a well-dressed man in his late fifties stands under the shadow of the Metrorail line that runs between the nine-story school board building and NE Fourteenth Street. Suddenly a strong, clear voice booms from the doughy face, taking the assembled media from every news organization in town by surprise.
"I am responsible," schools superintendent Roger Cuevas intones in the first few seconds of a most remarkable public address. "I am determined to fix what is broken and regain the public's trust." The super's prepared speech, which he reads first in English, then en español, is remarkable not in its predictable content but for its very existence. Nicknamed Roger the Dodger by media wags during his four and a half years as the well-paid head of a four-billion-dollar public agency rocked by high-profile scandals, Cuevas has never before made such an address. It is so uncharacteristic that dozens of district employees hang out of windows in a building across the street just to watch.
Cuevas's tendency to sit silent, squinting benignly into the middle distance at school board meetings as the nine elected performers play dodgeball with facts, has helped earn the school district a reputation for being an unresponsive bureaucracy run as much on political patronage as on the tenets of good government. His unwillingness until recently to take responsibility, require it from others, or even admit problems is part of that equation.
His reliance on deputy superintendent Henry Fraind -- to some the personification of officious obstruction who tainted the departments he touched, from school police to land acquisition to public information -- hardly helped the system's public image. As one scandal or another oozed out of one of Fraind's domains, Cuevas quietly removed that department from his purview, even as Fraind's salary (now a comfortable $180,643, plus $12,000 in annual supplements), continued to increase. He's currently in charge of governmental and legislative affairs for the district, and operations and security at the district's downtown office buildings.
And fortunately for Cuevas, Fraind seems to be a universally disliked, distrusted, often incompetent number two, conveniently deflecting glare about an incompetent number one. But Fraind, for all his gleeful machinations, really is just a bureaucrat whose career has been greased by his zeal for serving the purposes of his superiors, whether superintendent or school board members. His success in that regard recently caused deep personal embarrassment to one board member. Betsy Kaplan shook with rage during a May board meeting as she complained that Fraind had inappropriately used her name to help push the purchase of a defunct nursery the district may never use. "He's the epitome of the bully, which means he's the epitome of the toady; it's two sides of the same coin," suggests one former district insider.
Ironically the former spokesman for the school district has now been gagged, even as he may take the fall for an entire system's mistakes. Recent media reports reveal his suspicious role in a bad school-land deal, and behavior such as ordering police gear and allegedly asking a former school cop to tap his bosses' phone lines. "I've been advised I can't comment any further on anything," Fraind reports. Asked who told the school district's second in command he couldn't speak to the press, he responded in true Fraind form: "I can't even disclose that."
Just as Fraind has shut up, his famously mute boss is talking up a storm. But what draws the $251,000 man outside into the sunshine to make ambitious promises is not a personal epiphany. It is the collective pressure from outraged state lawmakers, incredulous media, frustrated prosecutors, and a weary community that just wants someone to stop the bleeding. They are tired of hearing about screwy land deals, about oversexed administrators who cost the system millions in legal battles while collecting regular paychecks, about a top school cop linked to a murder scandal, about teachers pressured to change the grades of student athletes, about a board member who was found to have blatantly overcharged a low-income tenant and who may face felony perjury charges for lying about it.
Observing Cuevas's scripted performance as he stands in front of a silent, suited phalanx of deputy and associate superintendents, Overtown parent Keith Ivory tries to reconcile this bright new image with the one he noted in February, just before he was kicked out of a school board meeting for criticizing Cuevas's lack of response to his concerns (see "Parental Consensus," March 1, 2001). "Basically just damage control," figures Ivory, a leader in the grassroots group Parents in Action, which is fighting to improve several of Miami's inner-city schools. "This is a response to all the heat," he continues. "He should have been doing this all along."
So why hasn't he? Until now Cuevas's approach to management, the school board, and the media has worked beautifully for him. So well that in February, eight board members voted to extend by two years his lucrative contract, which includes a $251,000 salary and a goody bag of perks, no formal evaluation by the board, and a golden parachute worth about a million dollars. The extension clearly was orchestrated by insiders as some three dozen speakers, mostly prominent politicians, business folk, and organizations with financial ties to the school district, showed up to support the extended contract. One board member garnered rueful laughs when he wondered aloud whether he was witnessing a painfully overdone show of support or a eulogy during the three-hour spectacle.