Midterm Exam

Q: Why would an intelligent man voluntarily leap into a toxic snakepit? A: Because his name is Merrett Stierheim and he just can't help himself.

In October 2001, when Merrett Stierheim narrowly won an interim appointment as superintendent of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools despite a smear campaign heavy on ethnic politicking, he might well have been thinking, "Here we go again." As county manager (twice) during its most trying moments, interim Miami city manager during its financial meltdown, chief tourism cheerleader during both natural and social disasters, and now as head of the dysfunctional school system, he has built a career on crisis management in an increasingly complicated social and political milieu. His reputation as the white knight of sullied bureaucracies has made him an almost mythic figure.

As superintendent, Stierheim's karmic role has been no different. The school district is a magnified version of the bureaucracies he wrestled with earlier: unwieldy, riddled with corruption, and staffed by a demoralized workforce. He spent eight months attempting to reform the scandal-ridden system during a major budget crisis, debilitating battles with labor unions and his chief business officer, and mounting pressure from a state oversight board. His task was made harder by the fact that his tenure was originally intended by the school board to be brief -- just one year to garner the public-relations benefits of Stierheim's eminence. As a result, entrenched functionaries who had seen superintendents come and go many times simply hunkered down to wait out the storm while school board members jockeyed for power. Outside professionals recruited for top administrative jobs were reluctant to commit to a system in which stable leadership seemed uncertain.

But this past June Stierheim won an important battle to extend his contract through mid-2004. It means he'll have an opportunity to continue his reorganization of staff, promote efficient business practices, and instill a culture of professionalism that could serve to focus the $4.1 billion institution on its primary job -- education.

A man of tremendous intelligence, integrity, and competence, Merrett Stierheim is also a competitive bulldog, full of stubborn vigor and a sense of righteousness that some say blinds him occasionally. "Merrett knows he has an ego, but it's under control," counters a long-time friend. At age 68 his battle-scarred personality is beginning to loosen up, revealing a humor and empathy often subsumed by his overwhelming sense of mission. "It's an amazing thing about aging," he muses. "I find myself being more pragmatic, less opinionated, more tolerant. When I was young, I thought I knew things. I was very self-confident. I still am, but in a more reserved way, a more comfortable way."

Stierheim agreed to sit with New Times and reflect on what he's learned in his long career as a professional civil servant in a place as endlessly confounding as this one. The interviews took place at three critical points this past year: when he was about 100 days into the job and contemplating a major reorganization of personnel; just before the June 19 school board meeting in which he fought for his survival as superintendent; and one month after he won a two-year contract. In the first meeting Stierheim was upbeat, full of the vitality he's brought to every job he's had since 1959. But by June he looked like a man who'd barely survived four months of sleep deprivation and stress. "I'm running out of gas, I know," he said wearily, sitting down for a brief interview scrunched between a meeting with a school board member and a budget pow-wow.

Stierheim spoke at length about the school district, its problems, and how he sees his role. But the conversations also ranged over his experiences in the broader community. He talked about the ethnic divide, about poverty, corruption, lack of leadership, and the failure of media watchdogs to prevent some of the worst breakdowns of the public trust. He also touched on recent battles, such as the strong- county-mayor, weak-commission concept favored by state Rep. Carlos Lacasa and Mayor Alex Penelas, and what will happen if proponents of decentralizing the school district succeed in breaking one big bureaucracy into several smaller ones.

February 1, 2002

The suite of offices on the ninth floor of the school district&supl;s main administrative building on NE Second Avenue is quiet, for once. Merrett Stierheim is in his casual Fridays outfit -- green suit, white shirt, but no tie, a miniature gold palm tree symbolic of the tourist industry pinned, as always, to his jacket. His avuncular face bears an odd resemblance to that of comedian Jonathan Winters, or perhaps more aptly, to retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.

He ushers me into his corner office, with its spectacular north and east-facing views. Standing behind his desk, he can look right down Fifteenth Street to the Venetian Causeway, past the Miami Herald, and out to magnificent Biscayne Bay, which, like much of Miami itself, appears beautiful on the surface but conceals many unpleasant secrets beneath. "Come here and look at this," he says, pointing out the window at the Port of Miami, where the fading sun bathes the white hulls of the cruise ships in a golden glow. His dark eyes, half-hooded by a perpetually assessing squint, rake over the bayside scene with a patriarchal gleam. "Isn't that beautiful," he purrs.

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