By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Terrence McCoy
By Jeff Weinberger
By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
State legislators at the end of another bruising session in the capital are not unlike a football team coming back from an away game. They hop a plane, kick back, and relive in exaggerated detail every point won and lost. Some even think ahead to the next contest. A few weeks ago, on one of these rides back from Tallahassee, a former football coach and Miami High history teacher named Ralph Arza was chatting with fellow legislators and lobbyists about the next scrimmage at the Miami-Dade school district. He wondered aloud whether it was time to encourage the school board to start a national search to replace battle-weary Merrett Stierheim as superintendent.
The reasoning the legislators developed, as related to New Times by sources present for the conversation, went like this: Stierheim's contract doesn't expire until June 2004, at which point he will be almost 71 years old. He'll have accrued sufficient time in the system to garner a state pension, important to a man at the likely end of his public career. Maybe someone could break it to him gently that it's time to go. Stierheim's contract will automatically renew for another year unless the school board cancels it by December. The last thing Arza and the others want is a showdown with the old guy. Stierheim is smart, politically savvy, and comes with impeccable credentials. And he's a fighter. If they bungle it, it could easily look to the public like the dragon killing the white knight to get at the village sheep. Arza prefers a sports metaphor and a different spin. "It's like a good pitcher on the mound sometimes doesn't know when it's time to be released," he explains in a phone interview. "A winner still thinks he's got another pitch in him. Merrett's a winner and he thinks he does have one more pitch."
But Stierheim is also a practical man. He could have raised a stink at the county when Alex Penelas pushed him out to bring in a more malleable county manager. He didn't because he realized his ouster was inevitable and because he's a professional. He chose to swallow his pride and go gracefully. At the school district Stierheim is ever aware of the need to keep at least five of the nine school board members in his column. It is, unfortunately, an awful way to run an organization as big and complicated as the school system -- especially one that needs deep reform and is under constant siege by both interior instability and exterior attacks.
He's managed, just barely at times, to keep a slim majority on his side. Four members -- Frank Bolaños, Agustin Barrera (Arza's brother-in-law), Robert Ingram, and Solomon Stinson -- are his most frequent critics, though for different reasons. Stierheim appears to have solid support from at least three more board members, but there's uncertainty about a couple of the others, such as Michael Krop, whom fellow board members and staff sometimes privately dub "Tricky Mickey," owing to his highly flexible voting philosophy.
At the June 18 school board meeting, Stierheim seemed to have tired of all the posturing. He issued a statement to the board that essentially warned them to fish or cut bait: "At the July board meeting, it is my intent to candidly discuss my observations ... on both my role as your chief executive officer and your role as the elected policy-making board of this school district. In addition, I will advise the board whether I believe it is in this community's and the school district's best interest to institute an immediate national search for my successor...." The implication seems clear. "It looked like either a power play or a shot over the bow," assesses Surfside Mayor Paul Novack, who has frequently sparred with Stierheim over reform issues.
Behind the scenes, discussions continue. ber-lobbyist Ron Book, who works for the school system and several local governments, was present for some of the legislators' chatter. "I've heard some members of the [Miami-Dade] delegation express thoughts that Merrett wasn't there for the long haul, that he didn't have the votes for the long haul," he relates, adding, "I was not a part of the conversation as much as I was just there.... I wish they had stronger feelings for Stierheim. They don't, and that will play out."
According to another source, one idea legislators considered was asking Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez to have a talk with Stierheim, his old friend. Martinez laughs at the idea of playing the part of the Cuban emissary. "Merrett is a dear friend of mine and I respect him," he says. "I don't understand why he wanted to get into that [school district] mess in the first place, but he did and I support him."
School board member Betsy Kaplan also says she's solidly behind Stierheim, as long as he wants to stay. "We are fortunate to have him," she maintains. "People play games, but they will never get my vote. I'm sure they do want him out, the Republican mafia up there." Kaplan repeats a widely circulated rumor that Ralph Arza's true motivation in this could be his desire to snag the superintendent's job for himself. Arza admits he does in fact covet the job -- someday. He also wouldn't mind being the state education commissioner. But not now. He says he plans to take a leave of absence from the school system soon and go to work teaching and recruiting students at Florida International University.