Roger the Dodger

Who is the superintendent of schools, and why will he keep his job?

But there's a long way to go from a feel-good press conference to real change. The biggest obstacle will be the entire culture that has been breeding and inbreeding inside the power structure for decades. It is a structure that rewards cronyism over ability, and it's what has gotten nearly everyone at the top where they are today. It is so widely acknowledged and accepted that some fail even to recognize how misguided it is. In explaining what she thought might have gone wrong in the land deal, Manty Sabates Morse defends administrators by saying that maybe they weren't competent to do the job. "You know the way the system works is people are here for 30 years, and they work their way up the ladder," she reasons. "And in some of those areas probably we needed to hire people from the outside."

Cuevas, in answering Hank Mack's questions, says the same thing. "You can't blame the individual," he argues. "The individuals we have [hired] now are professionals. We never had that before." The message? Incompetence is acceptable as long as it isn't criminal. Does Cuevas really mean the only way a department will be rescued from bad administrators is if they screw up so badly, the system will be forced to hire an untainted professional from the outside? Certainly that seems to be the pattern.

If there were only seven of them, it would be easier to come up with nicknames
If there were only seven of them, it would be easier to come up with nicknames
Running as a school board incumbent might not be the best strategy for Jackie Pepper in her June race against Frank Cobo
Running as a school board incumbent might not be the best strategy for Jackie Pepper in her June race against Frank Cobo

When Cuevas and company got heat for mismanagement in the school police department, they hired veteran Miami-Dade County cop Pete Cuccaro to replace Chief Vivian Monroe last year. Fraind, fresh from being relieved of his oversight of school police, then strangled the public-information process to the point of national embarrassment. So last April the district hired Paige Patterson-Hughes away from her job as public information officer for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Miami office. She fled back to her FDLE job and half the salary after only a couple of weeks. Determined not to be humiliated again, Team Cuevas rejected other qualified candidates and selected from the ranks a young Title I administrator with no media experience. To his credit spokesman Alberto Carvalho has made a noticeable difference in easing reporters' access to public information. New Times hasn't received a bill for thousands of dollars just to see public records in ages (see "A Lesson in Obstruction," June 8, 2000). And two months ago, as the charring began over the land deal, Cuevas split the facilities planning and construction department in two and gave the controversial half to Suzanne Marshall, a former Florida Department of Education facilities official with a good reputation.

But why does it have to come to the brink of disaster before changes are made? Long-time school board gadfly and Killian High parent Susan Kairalla offered a wry assessment to another parent as they stood watching Cuevas's press conference. "This is a school system that wants to feel good about itself," the redhead bluntly advised. "The biggest problem we have isn't corruption. It's friendship. [I] don't think there's a lot of vehemence here. It's just a whole lot of stupid." Insiders who wish to remain nameless concur. "Unfortunately we have a lot of deputy superintendents walking around not really knowing what they are doing," remarks one administrator. "But they are good people."

At the May 16 board meeting, Cuevas promised a radical prescription of reform that would, if taken seriously, strike at the heart of that clannish mentality. No more bureaucrats above the school level will be hired, he said. More important he vowed to "streamline" district and region staff whose jobs don't contribute much to the classroom, and impose mandatory ethics training for all employees.

But it's a job that will require him to establish a level of accountability that his bosses didn't have the will to ask of him in the past four and a half years. If done right it will be the hardest thing he has ever had to do. Not least because there are many in key positions on the school board and in administration who aren't convinced the system needs radical change. Board member Robert Ingram pleaded with Cuevas earlier in May to not buy into the media hype and "fall into the sewer of bloodletting to satisfy bloodthirsty observers.

"I've come to the conclusion that if someone were drowning and you walked on water to save them ... they would write that Roger Cuevas can't swim," Ingram intoned sanctimoniously.

To call Roger Cuevas an ineffective superintendent would be to misunderstand the job he was hired to do. On paper he's the guy ultimately responsible for more than 360,000 students, 53,000 employees, and billions of taxpayer dollars. But Cuevas was not promoted by the school board in late 1996 because its nine members (six of whom still are in office) believed he would be the strongest, most effective leader. Quite the contrary.

Most likely they saw in Cuevas a good-natured administrator with strong community connections, a helluva talent for elections fundraising, and an intense desire to please. These attributes were important to board members in 1996, because a new majority had just a few weeks earlier been elected in the first ever single-member school district races. Overnight the board was transformed from a largely Anglo-Democrat society to one with four Cuban Republicans, two black Democrats, two white Democrats, and one Jewish Democrat. For the first time the school board actually looked like Miami-Dade County.

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