Roger the Dodger

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

The board selected Cuevas without advertising the position or even interviewing anyone else. Members hailed him as a "bridge-builder" who would hold together a racially diverse and not always harmonious district. He promised to streamline the bureaucracy, which had been engorged a few months earlier in a round of promotions pushed through by outgoing interim superintendent Alan Olkes, finishing the work of former boss Octavio Visiedo. But what essentially happened the following year is that while the bottoms in the cushy chairs changed, the bureaucracy stayed about the same size. Then it began to grow again. The main difference was that some of the people in key positions now held allegiance to a new boss, widely acknowledged to be board member and shadow-super Solomon Stinson. A career schools administrator, Stinson was a former contender for the superintendent post before retiring to run for office in 1996.

But even Stinson, whose legendary protectiveness of the loyal and vindictiveness toward his perceived enemies approaches the mythological among the rank and file, cannot shoulder alone the responsibility for Cuevas's administration. Stinson flatly deflated the blustering of fellow board members in May as he reminded them it takes at least five out of nine members to make or break a superintendent. "If five people are unhappy with the superintendent, a million dollars is nothing in the scheme of a four-billion-dollar budget," he cracked, referring to Cuevas's parachute. He should know. That's about how much the school district paid in 1999 to the sexual-harassment victims of former principal and Stinson pal William Clarke III. Cuevas slapped him with a feather: Clarke's punishment was a $70,000-per-year desk job.

At least four other board members are getting what they want from the Cuevas administration. Insiders and former administrators contend that it's common practice for some of the elected officials to meddle in personnel affairs and treat their districts as personal fiefdoms. Board members uniformly deny this happens. "I'm always careful to know my position," claims Perla Tabares Hantman. "I am a policymaker. It's not my position to interfere with [Cuevas's] decisions about staff."

At least Cuevas surrounds himself with good people: "Officer" Henry Fraind is the super's right-hand man and a heck of a snappy dresser
At least Cuevas surrounds himself with good people: "Officer" Henry Fraind is the super's right-hand man and a heck of a snappy dresser

Yet how do you explain the success of a man like Henry Fraind? He has always managed to float to the top despite proving a continuous embarrassment to the system. Unlike Cuevas, who is considered a personable guy even by detractors, Fraind is viewed by most as a schemer. He doesn't even go to the fundraisers other administrators consider nearly obligatory. He must be doing something for the right people, critics whisper.

Without mentioning names, some board members will admit that the relationship between staff and board is not always healthy. "I do find staff willing to help to the extent I'm very careful what I ask for," allows new board member Jacqueline Pepper. Board member Betsy Kaplan learned that lesson the hard way when her name was dragged through the mud after Fraind used it to push a bad land deal. Yet Kaplan suffers from a bit of the old denial philosophy that has helped the board limp through so many crises. It's not Roger's fault, she believes. After all, the board hired him and then extended his contract. "There's no point in sitting here dumping criticism on him when it's not his fault that it is his job," she offers as a perplexing excuse.

In general, though, the current mood on the board is to talk reform. "I think we have to do something," Michael Krop asserted at one meeting. "I don't think we can let everybody off the hook the way we normally do." Some of this new sentiment may be partly attributed to an elections cycle that promises to be brutal for some. Pepper must run again for election June 26 against the tenacious Frank Cobo, who is running partly on a "tough on Cuevas" platform. Manty Morse, Marta Perez, Perla Tabares Hantman, and Solomon Stinson are all slated to run in 2002. Depending on the redistricting process, it's possible other board members may have to run again early. And if a court ever determines Demetrio Perez committed perjury in a case he lost concerning a low-income former tenant whom he overcharged, it's possible he could be removed from office.

All of which makes Cuevas's position a bit more tenuous than during previous scandals. And it leaves room for more questions. Will he resign or be fired? Hantman has warned she wants to see real change in three months or else. But none of the other board members have yet said they are willing to go that far. Will Fraind become a well-compensated scapegoat for the system's ills? Cuevas himself maintains he won't resign because he believes that, despite all the problems, he is accomplishing his chief mission of improving educational standards. "I made some mistakes," he concedes in a brief phone interview. "I was probably concentrating too much on the real mission, which is education. I'm happy about that but not happy with the rest." He's not yet saying whether that will mean firings or resignations of specific people in administration.

Most important could there be real reform? Karin Brown, president of the Miami-Dade County Council PTA/PTSA, says she still believes in Cuevas and his intentions to do the right thing. "For the sake of the children, I hope we can move forward, teach children, and get schools built," she says, adding the usual insider's plea that the media should concentrate on positive stories about the system. Cuevas blames himself for negative press, realizing that all the bad news has eclipsed whatever good is occurring. "I feel awful because it is probably the best kept secret," he reveals. "I feel bad for my students and teachers because they are doing terrific."

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