By Trevor Bach
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By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
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Three months later some board members have changed their tune dramatically. Chagrined members suggested publicly that the timing of the contract extension (which wasn't due to run out until mid-2002) was fortuitous for Cuevas, coming as it did just a few weeks before the anticipated release of a critical state audit report. "I believed then and I believe now that that timing was premature," declared board chairwoman Perla Tabares Hantman, after giving Cuevas 90 days to clean house or start thinking about what else he wants to do with his life. "Clearly in light of the disclosures since that extension, my concerns were appropriate."
It is a startling reversal considering just seven months ago a majority of the board frothed indignantly at the mere suggestion that it needed to create a district ethics commission. Perhaps a few are thinking ahead to the next election, which may come sooner than expected for some, depending on how the board decides to redraw the boundaries of its nine districts to reflect changes in the census. That process must be completed by the end of this year.
As for the public, some of the speakers who trumpeted Cuevas in February quietly wish they'd stayed home that day. Openly most say they still support the superintendent but hope he really means to fix what's broken. Sherman Henry, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Union Local that represents the school district's custodians, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers, belongs to this latter camp. "There have been some unwise decisions made down there," he admits. "I think he has some problems there. He probably needs to do something."
That much is clear. But whether a man consistently rewarded for doing nothing can or will do something is another question.
Hank Mack is a short, sturdy-looking man in his seventies with a passion for accountability and a genuine fondness for the Miami-Dade school district. For some twenty years, Mack has served on the district's audit committee, a body composed of community members who review the work of the system's internal auditors. He has weathered the financial upsets of the past two decades, including the 1980 scandal in which then-superintendent Johnny Jones was convicted of diverting public money to pay for gold plumbing fixtures in his house in Naples. (That conviction was later overturned, but a witness-tampering charge stuck). Mack shares with chief auditor George Balsa a sensibility summed up by the gold-colored plaque sitting front and center on Balsa's desk. It reads: "When it comes to money, God you trust. Others you audit."
But this afternoon in early May, Mack has just about had enough. He's mad. He's embarrassed. He tells a roomful of people assembled for an audit-committee meeting he's ready to walk if Roger Cuevas can't explain to him how the school district mishandled its affairs so badly that state legislators are requiring it spend $300,000 to pay outsiders "to look over our shoulders and see if we know how to buy land." He's particularly piqued because the audit committee had warned administrators and the school board about the problems in its land-acquisition program more than a year before the board paid millions too much for wet farmland in South Miami-Dade. Gripping the knob of an ornately carved walking stick, Mack launches a sulfurous stare toward Cuevas. "I don't understand it," he spits out. "You're the boat driver here, and somehow you should have dealt with this two years ago."
Instead theMiami Heraldwrote a report in March 2000 detailing the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of that mid-1999 deal involving lobbyists and administrators. The story alarmed state legislators enough to send auditors looking into the land-buying practices of the district. Roughly a year later a state report concluded that the school district's site-planning and land-acquisition processes were expensively flawed. Legislators in turn imposed several measures aimed at keeping the school district on a very short financial chain.
The initial reaction from several board members and top administrators was typical of a system that refuses to acknowledge its warts. They quibbled over meaningless details such as whether the land really was a swamp or just real wet, yet didn't tackle the truly egregious questions. Questions such as why the former head of land acquisition was put on indefinite leave but is allowed to roam headquarters and records rooms at will. "I am appalled," audit committee member Sharon Brown says. "This is the fourth largest district in the country, and we deserve a world-class response."
District officials also blamed the affair on a legislature seeking retribution for a grand jury report last summer that recommended the school district sue the state for failing to adequately fund public education. Board member and chief protector of school administrators Manty Sabates Morse describes this past legislative session as ugly. "They made us all feel like dirt, and it was our own representatives who did it to us," she moaned at the audit committee meeting. "Like we're all crooks, [full of] fraud, corruption, and a lot of people on the take."
That the rest of Florida generally views Miami-Dade County's scandal-ridden political climate with a jaundiced eye hardly is news. But the school district got spanked this spring because even the jaded locals were starting to get uncomfortable. Freshman state representative and Miami Senior High teacher Ralph Arza believes the school district is a bureaucracy that has existed far too long in self-imposed isolation. It seems doing things the way they have always been done is no longer good enough. "When you hear of money being misspent, you have to immediately say, That money could have been used for teachers," he laments. "It hurts. It hurts all of us." That said Arza is encouraged by the chinks of light beginning to show through the district's rusted armor. "I think superintendent Cuevas's remarks were long overdue to come forward and take responsibility," he offers. "That's what the legislature was looking for."