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.

Wednesday, July 24

One month after the school board awarded him a two-year contract, Stierheim and board members grappled with a new budget, from which tens of millions of dollars had to be trimmed. During a break from a tumultuous public meeting in which the board rejected most of the superintendent's recommended austerity measures, he found time to answer some final questions.

Why stay on as superintendent when you initially wanted only an interim position? What can you accomplish in two years?

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 signed on with the sincere intention of being an interim superintendent. In December I had an executive search firm on the agenda and the board tabled it. So I kept on going and I really got involved. I realized that it's one thing to write a letter about management philosophy and for me to talk about professionalism and about taking a risk, and quite another for the principals and everyone else to realize that there will be stable management. To realize that this man is not just a superintendent cycling through, but he's going to be there, willing to take that risk with them. A lot of people said to me, "You're crazy," because there's so much against us here. In two years what do I want to accomplish? Eliminating the F schools and restoring public confidence in the school system. These things are paramount. In two years we'll implement most of the positive recommendations of OPPAGA [a state efficiency audit]. But a lack of funding can strangle these initiatives, so we have to develop a mutually supportive relationship with our legislative delegation.

What do you think Miami-Dade will look like ten years from now, socially and politically?

In ten years there will be a free Cuba, and that will have a tremendous impact on us. I think we'll have a political maturing. We'll become more sophisticated in the electoral process, where people are elected based more on their quality and skills and integrity than on their ethnicity. It also wouldn't surprise me if the courts become disenchanted with single-member districts and swing back more toward allowing more politicians to be elected at-large. Maybe I'm utopian. I've always been an optimist. If I hadn't, the jobs I've had would have killed me. [Laughs.] And this one is the toughest I've had to tackle. I'm looking for the light at the end of the tunnel -- or at least the peepholes. How's that? [Stierheim grins impishly, then trots off, back to the contentious school board meeting.]

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