Bleeding Stierheim

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

It's Arriola's take on events that has proved more popular with Republican and Cuban-American political interests, who share some goals, if not always the motivations behind them. "Joe's a real gem," London says. "He's not been tainted by bureaucracy and bullshit. He's not going to take crap from people. That's the kind of guy you need, in my opinion." London complained in his e-mail to Easton that "Stierheim and Company" were not being cooperative in handing over pertinent information and making changes he felt were necessary, such as replacing chief financial officer Richard Hinds, who London alleges hasn't provided credible financial figures the board needs to make intelligent decisions. Arriola calls Hinds "the king of misinformation."

It's why London expressed the hope that the school board would kick out Stierheim and replace him with Arriola to run the business side and an education guru to run the learnin' side. "The article in the Herald brings about the end of Joe," he notes. "There is no way Merrett can keep Joe after he expressed his opinion of Merrett. It will be either Merrett or Joe."

It was Merrett. But Joe promised to return to haunt him by getting himself appointed to the oversight board. Whether Stierheim will be able to work with oversight board members and legislators on one side, unions on the other, and the mercurial school board behind him, remains to be seen. There is a basic philosophical divide between a company man like Stierheim, who has built a career on understanding and improving complex public systems, and a private-sector strongman like Arriola. Arriola, with his big mouth, represents the uncontrollable id of the Republican interests who think government should be small and local. They also believe public entities should be made to conform as closely as possible to the principles of free-market enterprise. That may mean farming out business functions like maintenance and transportation. Or it may mean breaking the district into three or four smaller ones, an idea Arza says he plans to ask the legislature to study.

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

Union leader Henry considers the Arriola/Stierheim falling-out to be part of a "Machiavellian" maneuver by Republicans intent on turning the district into a business. "I think they had the meeting during the legislative process and Joe Arriola was factored into the chess move," he opines. "This is all part of a systematic free market privatizing strategy that the governor and his brother [the president] have been doing." Easton, the developer and oversight board chair, scoffs at the notion of Republicans trying to take over the school district. "I would say that's just a cop-out for bad behavior," he contends. "We just want to make sure the business is handled in a prudent and practical way and the first order of business is the children."

While Henry may be overstating the case for conspiracy, it's no secret that Florida ranks among the lowest states in spending on education -- and student performance. Republicans are not inclined to raise taxes, and that's about the only way a significant increase in education dollars can happen. Also, Jeb Bush and the Republican-controlled legislature have been pushing state services in general toward privatization; hence the rise of vouchers and charter schools. In the huge money-sucking Miami-Dade school district, all the scandals have created an unprecedented opportunity for Republicans to squeeze the money hose on one side and criticize the results on the other. "What I'm seeing is not Republican[ism]," complains one school bureaucrat and closet conservative. "This is cannibalism."

Some Republicans are concerned that Stierheim's ability to make radical changes will be hampered by the fact that the school district unions supported his contract extension. That he "sold his soul to the unions," as Arza puts it. Easton says mildly, "We'll find out in the next couple of months what Merrett's position is. We'll find out how much union involvement has been with Merrett whenever it comes up for those votes."

Adding to the pressure are the term limits facing state legislators who plan to make a long career out of politics. This makes eager newbies, "Stepford Republicans" (or Democrats for that matter), more receptive to the direction of party leaders with larger designs. That was an obvious factor at the June 19 school board meeting, when a small clutch of hormonally ambitious young men in dark suits lurked near the back of the auditorium, their presence meant to send a message to school board members most vulnerable to ethnic politicking.

Several Cuban-American Republican legislators spoke, all selling the same line, nearly word for word, that Stierheim's contract should not be renewed, that he should have to compete for his job against a national search. The Stepford phenomenon was incarnated nicely by sweet-faced legislative toddler Rene Garcia, very GQ/John-John in his dark suit, shiny dark hair, and flawless features. At the podium, Garcia behaved like an earnest schoolboy sent on a hazing mission by his elder frat brothers. He praised Stierheim's record and apologized for the personal attacks made on him, then looking sheepish and uncertain, launched into the party line (echoed by Arza and legislator Gus Barreiro). He stumbled through the speech, flubbing badly at one point, pleading, "I'm sorry, I lost my train of thought, where I was going with that." (Perhaps because they weren't really his thoughts.)

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