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.

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
Early Sixties: Stierheim the straight arrow during his stint as an assistant Miami city manager
Courtesy Merrett Stierheim
Early Sixties: Stierheim the straight arrow during his stint as an assistant Miami city manager
Politics hasn't been his only racket: Stierheim with tennis pro Chris Evert
Courtesy Merrett Stierheim
Politics hasn't been his only racket: Stierheim with tennis pro Chris Evert

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.

You've experienced just about every bureaucratic culture that exists in this town -- forever, it seems, in the most difficult of times. In the last decade, particularly, it's been sort of crisis management, where you're coming in when the fire's already out of control. Why do you keep throwing yourself into these situations?

Well, I've been saying to my dear friends who have asked me, that I never saw a challenge I didn't like. And I have a feeling there's some truth to that. I didn't need to do this. I could have done other things. I didn't call any of the [school] board members. I had five of them call me and ask if I would be interested. They didn't offer me the job. They just said, "Would you be interested?" I started giving it some serious thought. Then I went to the other four and the rest is history.

What were your requirements for taking this job?

I had some apprehensions because I don't consider myself in any way, shape, or form to be an educator. That's not my forte. The fact that it was interim was appealing. I mean, I'm not a spring chicken. But I still have a hell of a lot of energy. It feels good to be really challenged again and to be back in the saddle, so to speak. It may get old at some point, but right now I'm enjoying it.

What was your understanding of your mandate coming in?

A majority of the board wanted a refocusing. They wanted to restore public confidence. Obviously they were not happy and they wanted a change. And I think they picked me as a change agent. There's a feeling out there that a shakeup would help, that they want to change the culture.

How would you rate the challenge here, compared to some of your other stints as a top manager?

This one is very different, and in many respects even more challenging. When I went back to the county, I knew everyone. I knew the organization, I knew how it functioned, I knew what the rules were, so I could move right in and be at home. Here I didn't know anybody. I did not know a single person among the senior staff. So I had to do an assessment of people rather rapidly, and that gives me a feeling of discomfort because I don't want to misjudge anybody. I found myself even changing my opinion of certain people as I've worked with them, either for the better or the other way. Another tough job was Miami Lakes [interim town manager]. It was a fun assignment because [his voice lowers, as if revealing a painful confidence] leaving the county was difficult.

Can you expand on that?

It was a difficult time in my life for reasons that came out later. [See "Stierheim in Brief"] It wasn't very happy around the Stierheim house. So when [Miami Lakes Mayor] Wayne Slaton said, "Would you come up and help us?" it was good. It got my mind off it. I could throw myself into it. What an adjustment! To go from 28,000 people and six or eight senior assistants, to go up there to a little storefront. I had one employee. One day Nancy Simon, the councilwoman, said, "I want to get reimbursed for my expenses." That's logical, I think. So I'm home on a Saturday with the county's travel form with the scissors, cutting out "Dade County." I mean it looked like hieroglyphics. And then having someone type in "Miami Lakes" and then I clipped everything and went in and Xeroxed it and I said, "Here's your form." [He chuckles ruefully.] Here's the county manager of the largest county in the United States under the strong-manager form, and I'm doing all this stuff. I had a newly elected city council -- wonderful people but they're all off like bunnies. They want to do everything, and you had to make decisions about whether you wanted to have a staff or not. Hell, they finally got the phone system in after six months, just when I left. But they're happy, pleased I was there. Then this thing came along. It was almost: Stop Friday there and start Monday [at the school district].

When you drop into a situation like this, what are you looking for?

Well, you do a lot of homework. You try to pick people you have a comfort level with and you think you have chemistry with. Then you spend some time with them and try to draw them out. Gradually you begin to put the puzzle together. You get to the point where you want to know who they trust and don't trust. And you sort of have a mental scorecard. You're not taking notes, but when certain individuals keep getting stars or minuses, you begin to get a picture. It takes time. And I'm still doing it. I've been logging the hours too. I need to play a little more tennis and keep myself in shape. This has been the most challenging assignment. When I went into the city [of Miami], that was a numbers game. But it was also -- I could see how sound and proven management principles had been violated just left and right.

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?

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?"

You look like you need a vacation. You've got this terrible tiredness behind your eyes.

God, I do. This place ... this place...[he shakes his head]. I'm getting pretty long in the tooth. I don't want to believe the calendar, but it doesn't lie. You know, what's really bothering me is there's so much that needs to be done. We are so constrained by this budget and I don't think anybody really realizes it. How are we going to do it? Are we going to increase the student-teacher ratio? That'll make all the parents mad, the teachers, everybody. That's the antithesis of what we want to do. But when you have to cut $40 to $50 million out or maybe more ... I made it very clear in my budget message. Say we're $40 million behind, and that's without health insurance, which is going to go up. This insurance business scares the hell out of me, absolutely scares the hell out of me. It's going to affect the lower-paid employees a lot worse than the higher-paid ones.

Critics would say this is a great opportunity to cut all the dead weight out of the system.

It's easy to say this is a bloated bureaucracy. Well, we cut $16 million on an annualized basis, maybe closer to $18 million. You have to have administration. There was some comment that we didn't need regional offices, but hell, the average regional office here in the school system has 45 to 50 schools. That's bigger than, I'm guessing, 98 percent of the entire school districts in America. Maybe 99 percent. So we really need those offices. These regional offices are dealing with principals, teachers, parent complaints. They couldn't all come downtown. People say, like my good friend Michael Lewis [publisher of the weekly Miami Today]: "Well, why don't we divide it up into six or eight districts?"

What do you think of that idea?

Disaster. Absolute disaster because it would fractionalize everything. How many of those districts would you cover for New Times? How many could the Herald cover? And what's going on in those districts? Seriously. Look what happened when we had all the [Miami-Dade County] Community Councils, and who covered every one of them? What was going on with the zoning and everything else? The incorporation movement is another interesting question. Wait'll we get 60, 80 cities and see who covers all of them. Bigness doesn't necessarily beget economy. On the other hand, there are things that can be done in a large organization. For example, the county was an extremely efficient organization when I left in 1985. Don't think that's self-aggrandizement because there were a succession of good managers and politicians and department heads. We would win more national awards than any county every year.

The luminaries of local government, tourism, and culture like to say that Miami, with its diverse population, is a leader of national trends. Yet Miami's political culture seems to be based on parochialism and distrust among its various ethnic groups.

I love to tell the story of when we had a new chairman of the [Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce]. It was around the time we were coming off of Mariel and the Haitian refugees and the riots -- sometime in the early Nineties. The chamber chairman announced that he wanted to do something about the image of this community, which is such a simplistic approach to a very, very complicated subject. He gathered sixteen people, all heavy hitters from the community. We started out by each listing our five greatest assets. Then we said, "What are our five greatest liabilities?" To this day, it's an amazing phenomenon. You would think that people would say that our greatest asset was our climate, sun, beaches, water, flora, fauna -- you know? But sixteen out of sixteen picked cultural diversity as our greatest asset. Then for the greatest liability, sixteen out of sixteen had ethnic polarization in one form or another. So your greatest asset is, paradoxically, your greatest liability. That, to me, tells the story of Miami. If you look at Elian, if you look at police brutality, if you look at economic disparity in the black community. So what we love most about this town, which makes it so exciting in addition to its God-given assets, is its diversity. Some people are frightened by that and a lot of old-guard Miamians fled. They fled the Cuban migrations. They fled the Haitian migrations. They couldn't cope with it.

What became of the "image" list?

The only way you can change image is by doing something about it. I know that from having run the convention bureau for nine years and dealt with image, which to the perceiver is reality. We had the black boycott. We had the tourist murders. We were losing huge percentages of our international trade and tourism and so forth. The next thing you know, four people got killed. The British guy and a couple of Germans, lying out on the highway. The international press was all over it. I mean, it was ugly. We lost, overnight, 58 percent of our German market, 37 percent of the UK market, and 34 percent of the Canadians. We didn't sit back like ostriches with our heads in the sand. I went over to the county and the police. We set up special programs, like the Robbery Intervention Detail. We had the first tourist-information police in the nation, paid for from airport funds. We did press conferences in Europe. As a result we turned it around and people recognized that Miami is a safe destination. That's how you change image, though. You plan, you execute, and you communicate.

Sounds like a good way to handle that problem, but it doesn't get to the underlying causes.

Black economic disparity? That has always been the Achilles heel. It still is. I practically say it in every one of my speeches. That's the other thing that's frustrating: black economic disparity and the ethnic polarization. The clannishness. I'm not suggesting we get rid of the culture, but it shouldn't be we, they. It should be us, Miamians. Miamians for Miami. It's like a dream. For many people it's reality. But for too many it's not. The whole thing about voting, for example. "Just vote for anybody as long as they're like us." We need the [legendary Miami-Dade Congressman] Dante Fascells and the universally popular and really solid elected officials who don't play the ethnic card. We've got some, but we could use a lot more.

It seems as if on the big issues -- ethnic polarization, poverty, transportation, education -- there hasn't been enough sustained leadership from enough areas of the community to achieve much forward movement. Why is that?

Well, that's a very profound and deep subject that we could write a book about. I think public life has been deglamorized by the media, by dirty politics, by arrogant citizens, by a pervasive attitude that public service is a second-class activity. "Why do I want to expose myself to that kind of crap? Life is too short. I'm more materialistic than perhaps I should be, but I love it." This is the attitude. "Why do I want the grief of going to a commission meeting or board meeting that's going to last until midnight and have to listen to people rant and rave? Why do I have to associate with sleaze politicians?" Ever since Watergate, I think, there's been a decline in the general attitude toward government and public service. We had a blip with 9/11 of nationalism and pride. I don't know how long that'll be sustained. I think the media bears a lot of responsibility. Where I've been asked to go in and clean up situations, those situations should never have been allowed to occur in the first place. I think the media failed along the way in its watchdog responsibilities. I don't want to sound like an ingrate because, by and large, the media has always been kind to me, or at least supportive -- I'd like to say for good reason. My reputation, for example, at the Herald is the Hulk attack, the Incredible Hulk attack. I don't know who the hell came up with that but it's pretty good, because sometimes when I read the paper, I think maybe I was at a different meeting than the reporter. It just drives me nuts because here you give somebody the power of the pen, and that's an awesome responsibility, and you ought to take that very seriously.

Miami seems to be politically immature, with a large immigrant population that almost innately distrusts government.

I think that's true. There's also no grassroots. It's so rare to find somebody who was born here or whose parents were born here. We're all migrants, all transplanted people. I've been here 43 years. I came in 1959, I'm ashamed to say, to a segregated community, and this was before the first Cuban migration. So I've seen the old Miami through four decades of change. And we're still young. We're just a little over a hundred years old. My God, you look at big cities around the world and we're a baby. We don't have that long democratic tradition with our population. They don't understand the council/manager form of government. They identify with the alcalde, el jefe. Like this whole business of changing the charter, going to a strong mayor.

What do you think about that, Carlos Lacasa's big idea, which Alex Penelas also favors to some degree?

I was a lifelong city and county manager, where there is a dichotomy between the professional management and the policy-making board -- traditionally a weak mayor. That was my career. Still is in a way, even as superintendent. I'm here as a manager. I chaired a charter-review committee, and as chairman I voted for an executive mayor, retaining a manager, similar to what they have at the county now. The reason I did that is because of our diversity.

What do you mean?

Single-member districts are the worst things that have happened to local government in America -- period, end of report. I was opposed to them. I wrote letters to the Herald, which was absolutely convinced this was the panacea, out of naiveté. And now, if you notice, there was a little blurb in an editorial about single-member districts not being what everybody hoped. Why? Because you don't elect statesmen. That goes back to one of your earlier questions: Why don't we have more political leadership? Well, if we were electing leaders countywide, you'd have a better shot at getting people who were more statesmanlike, who had to be concerned about the farmers in South Dade and the Redland, about the cliff dwellers in Northeast Dade, and the Beach. You couldn't ignore Liberty City and Overtown and Carol City. You couldn't ignore Little Havana and the poorer areas of Hispanics. Nor could you ignore the more affluent areas. As a manager who's had to deal with single-member commissioners and school board members, I can say it's very parochial. If you're elected within a district, it's only natural you're going to be a bit parochial. And then when you go to carve up the pie, it's not necessarily who has the greatest need, it's "Do I get my share? And do I really give a damn about the people in South Dade or in North Dade or on the Beach or wherever? Because they don't vote for me." Some elected officials transcend that and are magnanimous and do have a concern for the total community.

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?

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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