Bleeding Stierheim

"Business whiz" Joe Arriola turns and bites the education hand that appointed him

Two days before the Miami-Dade County school board met to decide whether to extend superintendent Merrett Stierheim's contract or cobble together a national search before the contract ran out in October, a local real estate developer sent an e-mail to a colleague, assessing the situation. "I don't believe it is in anybodies [sic] best interest to extend Merrett's contract," wrote Edward London, in a June 17 message to Edward Easton that also went to select state auditors and legislators.

The sentiment counts because both London and Easton have more clout in the school district than business VIPs usually enjoy. Last year they were appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to a seven-member advisory board approved by the state legislature to oversee, and recommend reform in, the land acquisition practices of the school district. The advisory board was created after Miami Herald reports and state audits revealed massive waste and inefficiency in the way the district buys land and builds schools. (Its bite comes from the approximately $50 million in state money the board can hold or release to the district; so far it has released about $8 million.)

Since last December, however, the oversight board has expanded its inquiries into the construction, maintenance, transportation, and procurement departments. And found problems wherever it looked. This isn't surprising, as the mess left by fired superintendent Roger Cuevas and others is quickly revealing itself. But it's unfortunate that at least one member of the oversight board believes Stierheim is an impediment to deep reform. "Our school system and the oversight board seem like two trains headed for collision," laments school board member Frank Bolaños. "Unless we find a way to work with them and the legislature, all hell's going to break loose."

Joe Arriola (top) is a man with a mission, but whose? Merrett Stierheim is more clearly focused
Steve Satterwhite
Joe Arriola (top) is a man with a mission, but whose? Merrett Stierheim is more clearly focused

The big question is, who's going to be driving the train that hits the school district?

Stierheim's engine is pretty battered at this point, having already scraped against the unions, legislators, his own business manager -- factions that often disagree on the specific methods of reform. The oversight board is also bearing down on Stierheim and the school board to make radical changes (such as privatization) in business operations, or risk losing millions in state funds. In the mix are the personal agendas of Republican legislators like Ralph Arza, a teacher and former football coach who wants the superintendent of schools to be an elected position -- and he hasn't ruled out running himself. Arza, in particular, has been omnipresent in dealmaking at all levels. "They smell blood in the water," observes one district bureaucrat, of aggressive politicians jockeying for control of the district.

There are some who believe Joe Arriola, Stierheim's volunteer business manager, who resigned at the last school board meeting after essentially calling Stierheim a racist in a Herald article, had a hand in ensuring the inevitable trouble. "I'm afraid Mr. Arriola had a hidden agenda," confesses school board member Frank Cobo. "I thought he was here to work with us. But [we didn't] play his game, so he took his marbles and left."

Arriola, bombastic retired chairman of commercial printer Avanti Case-Hoyt, was appointed by Stierheim in February to help sort out the business side of school operations. He was Stierheim's third choice of private-sector help, after prominent businessman Carlos Saladrigas and Orange Bowl president Al Cueto each turned the job down. Insiders say Miami Herald publisher Alberto Ibargüen recommended Arriola. Stierheim declined to comment on who it was, but says he knew Arriola only slightly, through the business community. "Clearly, I made a mistake," Stierheim admits.

A Cuban-American Republican with an inveterate distrust of bureaucracy and unions, Arriola came in with the intention to wrestle the school district to the ground and make it behave. "You want the truth? Sheesh!" Arriola exhales. "I was inside the monster."

Arriola says he believed at first that Stierheim would let him make big changes, but quickly found himself mired in a system where the unions and school board members constantly meddle in management decisions. His ideas about cutting jobs and reorganizing departments didn't go over well. "What has he done?" Arriola asks of Stierheim's reforms. "He's changed a few names, but it's cosmetics. Not one penny has been saved."

Stierheim says that's "simply not true," and Arriola knows it. "The aggregate savings are knocking on the door of $20 million and it's provable," Stierheim fumes. "I have chosen not to get on his level and debate him, but that's just irresponsible." Some high-ranking bureaucrats and union heads suggest the real problem was Arriola's autocratic approach in trying to force change. "He was very abusive," alleges Sherman Henry, head of the union local (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) that represents the school district's custodians, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers. "He would yell and use profanity in meetings. If he was calling Merrett [a racist and sexist], he needs to look in the mirror and recall some of his own conversations with staff." Arriola: "I do yell, I say 'Enough of the bullshit.' If that's abusive, then God bless me. They need somebody to look them in the eye and tell them that." Arriola says his toughness earned him threatening anonymous phone calls at home that said, ''You son of a bitch, you better get out of there or you're going to be sorry."

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