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 Heraldreports 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."

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."

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.

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.)

Stierheim says he forced the issue of a two-year contract because he acknowledges the district is rife with problems. He needs time and the security of a long contract to fix it right. "If you want to talk about maintenance and construction, there's no question we have problems there, and I'm working on that," he asserts. "I lost four or five months here with Arriola. What was accomplished?"

Ed London verbally shrugs. "I guess being a bunch of businessmen on the [oversight] board, we want to get this done quickly," he says. "We're not happy with the pace things are moving at. I think we shouldn't be very critical of Merrett now that he has his contract, and let's see how he performs. Hopefully he can attract good executives who can help him run the system more efficiently than before."

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