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.

You've found similar problems here?

No question about it. You know, I'm always reminded of Lord Acton, of power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. And you see evidence of it all the time. You saw it in the city with [convicted former finance director] Manohar Surana. He just got so much power he felt he could do what he wanted -- wheel and deal, take bond money and spend it on operating stuff, commingled funds. I mean it was outrageous what was going on there! And the city was bankrupt not only of money but of professionalism. Middle management, the bedrock, wasn't there. And I think to a certain extent those abuses took place [at the school district]. The governmental supplements being handed out? Some of those people had no right to those monies. That was just done by the superintendent, or [deputy superintendent] Henry Fraind, or a combination of both. It should never have happened. And nobody knew about it. Maybe rank has its privileges, but not to the extent it was. I'm looking at salaries too. I look at that and that sort of gives me a trail. Who got raises and who didn't and why? What's the competency level and what's the experience level? So you start putting all that together. And after a while you get a read.

What's your read?

Steve Satterwhite
Stierheim, in his first turn as county manager, hamming it up at a Metrozoo fundraiser
Courtesy Merrett Stierheim
Stierheim, in his first turn as county manager, hamming it up at a Metrozoo fundraiser

I don't think the school board knew about it. So that was where the Lord Acton thing came in. The superintendent had the power. He didn't have to report to the board. He just went ahead and did it, or Mr. Fraind did it.

How do you turn around a huge bureaucratic culture like this?

Slowly. The culture of this organization has been building for years and years and years. When I say inbred and insular, it's not in a demeaning way. It doesn't mean we don't have great people -- dedicated, caring, loving teachers, principals, and so forth -- because we do. But through the years the culture was to always hire within. It's sort of like, what's that disease royalty gets? Hemophilia. It's sort of like hemophilia. Everybody's marrying in the family. You don't get any new blood coming in, no new ideas, no people coming from a different county or state. So you're not as innovative as you could be.

You've made the first small steps toward reform, taking away the perks like cars, pagers, supplement pay, and also telling employees they don't have to participate in school-board political campaigns.

Yeah, baby steps. Getting rid of some of the frills, some of the obvious stuff. As far as the political campaigns, I have always been that way. I have never contributed to the campaign of an elected official I've served under. In fact I'm loathe to do it for anyone. I don't go to fundraisers. I don't socialize with my elected officials. Doesn't mean I won't go to dinner occasionally, but I mean become pals. I have a saying that I don't go native with my subordinates, my staff. I maintain a distance. Not an aloofness that's cold, because I'm very warm with people and I treat staff like they were family. But if you start palling around with a department head, inevitably you've got to make a tough decision and you don't want to have a friendship come between what should be a pragmatic decision.

What's the next step?

I've never faced a total reorganization like I'm doing here. It's important for me to establish credibility. I've gotten a lot of credibility with principals and teachers. People in the community are telling me: "Stay the course." And that's encouraging. It doesn't mean it's going to be done with any arrogance. Hopefully it will be done with compassion and with timing. In other organizations I've run, it was a chip here, a chip there. Gradually it all starts coming together and you get a humming machine and it's really moving, everybody's motivated and they trust each other. You build that confidence. It's so important to lead by example -- then people think they can trust you. It's so important to be loyal to your troops because more loyalty follows from the top down than will ever flow from the bottom up. I learned that a long time ago. It's so important to be consistent. It's so important to tell the truth. No substitute for telling the truth. All you have to do is lie once and you're dead meat. They won't trust you, whether it's the media or your troops.

Tuesday, June 11

In the four months since the previous interview Stierheim has demoted most of the top tier of former superintendent Roger Cuevas's administration, moving them out to regional offices or back into schools. He's lost a major fight with the unions over using employee wages to plug a budget shortfall. His business manager, Joe Arriola, and school board member Frank Bolaños are blasting his administration on Cuban radio programs. Numerous audits have been released that reveal in gory detail just how poorly the business side of the school district had been run under the Cuevas regime. State legislators and a state oversight board are pressing for immediate changes; some are suggesting the district should be broken into smaller districts. And the school system is anticipating an even worse budget crunch and escalating health-insurance costs next year. Adding to that, Stierheim's future as superintendent is uncertain, as school board members continually shift alliances. Stung by the memory of his humbling departure from the county, he doesn't want to leave before his mission is complete. Yet he's tired. Stierheim enters a conference room for his interview, almost slumping into his chair, settling his arms on the table and inquiring wearily: "What do you want?"

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