By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
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.
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."
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.
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'sMiami 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.
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."
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."
Cuevas is talking about cutting six to twelve percent of the budgets in downtown and region offices and making them more accountable. That means bodies out of jobs. But will the right people be let go? After all, the current system is set up to reward loyal friends over competent employees. Which begs the crucial question, Are Cuevas and his deputies ready to turn their carefully built world of alliances upside down? Finally a public may be watching to find out.