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Four of the nine school board members (all the women) who experienced the ups and downs of the department under the previous chief praise Cuccaro for attempting to usher in a new era of professionalism. (School board members Michael Krop, Solomon Stinson, and Robert Ingram did not, as usual, return phone calls seeking comment. New board members Frank Cobo and Frank Bolaños were not in office during the previous regime.) Board member Betsy Kaplan describes Cuccaro as businesslike and less overtly political than his predecessors. "He does what he's supposed to, but he doesn't show off," she observes. "You don't see him around escorting someone who probably doesn't need an escort. He runs a tight ship."
Cuevas, before he was fired by the board for moving too slowly to make managerial reforms, said he considered the school police a model for changes he might make in other district offices. "This is an example of a department where we brought in an expert and he has made significant improvements," he cooed. "It could impact other departments most definitely."
Cuccaro does play the political game when necessary. Vivian Monroe, who still has powerful allies, continues to work with the school police. Through annual raises she earns more than she made as chief of police (about $89,000), despite having since been demoted from overseeing six investigators to being the commander of Youth Crime Watch. Cuccaro defends Monroe and the position he created for her. "Quite frankly, if she wasn't earning it, I would have cut her," he affirms. "She's good at it, and I think she enjoys the job more." The new job has her acting as liaison between county youth crime and the school police. She may not have been suited for chief of police, he allows, but she is still a valuable resource to the department. "Poor Vivian," Cuccaro says with a head shake. "She became the poster girl for everything that was wrong, and it wasn't always her fault. She didn't always get the support she needed."
Another aspect of Cuccaro's job is dealing with school board members. Cuccaro says they've have been "very supportive" of him and the department. That support apparently doesn't come without strings, as evidenced by an exchange New Times witnessed. At a meeting September 4 between the Miami-Dade legislative delegation and the school board, board member Robert Ingram took offense at negative comments made by some state representatives about the embarrassing way the board was letting then-superintendent Roger Cuevas and his underlings run the district. The personification of sanctimony in a flashy suit, Ingram pointed out that the board's role is to set policy for the superintendent to carry out. He said individual board members weren't supposed to interfere with management by asking deputies and principals and such to carry out their wishes.
After the meeting, as New Times waited for an elevator to make it up to the ninth floor, Ingram cornered Cuccaro in the hall a few yards away. After exchanging pleasantries the bulky ex-police chief and ex-mayor of Opa-locka got to his point. Without the slightest hint of irony, Ingram reminded Cuccaro that the daughter of an old police buddy of his was seeking a job with the department. He mentioned how far back he goes with this woman's father, her puzzlement at not getting the job when she first applied, and expressed his hope that Cuccaro would be able to help sort things out. "I'll look into it," a poker-faced Cuccaro nodded politely, before quickly turning away.
The steps the school police department has taken thus far are encouraging but only the beginning of a long journey toward redemption. "This a five-year plan," Cuccaro notes. "The real measure is going to be year two." He acknowledges that one of his biggest challenges was the low pay scale of the officers that regularly encourages the best and brightest to jump to another agency after he's trained them.
But in November the school board and the police union finally came to an agreement. The starting pay for an officer rose from $26,000 to $30,000, and senior-level officers making $45,000 are now making $53,000. The cops still think they are underpaid, but they believe this is the most tangible indication that the school system does want a real police department. "They stepped up and realized you guys are worth it," union prez Ian Moffett told union members who voted to approve the contract in November.
Cuccaro's main goal for this year is to stabilize the workforce, which he hopes the resolution of the salary issue will help him do. "I want this organization to be the one that everybody leaves all these other organizations for, because the pay is good and we are making a difference with kids."
He also wants to get the school cops more involved in the curriculum at schools, such as in driver's education. Another goal is to better train the security monitors at all the schools to bring their skills comparable to what professional security-guard companies would require.
Ultimately Cuccaro's mission is to train his replacement. He's building the foundation for that now. "The idea that you're just campus cops, that's evaporated over the last year. I'll be ready to leave when I know that the next guy will come from within."
"I want to be part of a professional organization," Officer Hurley says. "When you wear your uniform, you want to be respected. I think the other police agencies are recognizing us and [the school district] is too. It's a good feeling."