Meet Mr. Arza

In four short years, state Rep. Ralph Arza has gone from schoolteacher to powerful politician, and now he's about to take control of public education in Miami

But for years the school district had been trying to buy some of the land to build three schools, finally resorting to the expensive eminent-domain process after Cayon refused to sell. According to the Miami Herald, in June 2003 Arza met with Hialeah Gardens Mayor Yioset De La Cruz, Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, school board member Agustin Barrera, and district staff at Hialeah City Hall. The politicians, all of whom have received campaign donations from Cayon, wanted the district to look elsewhere for school land.

At the district, Barrera tried to persuade the school board to reconsider its decision to force Cayon to sell, even though the land is not in his jurisdiction. Arza offered to change a state law preventing the construction of schools under flight paths near airports, which would open up more land for possible school sites. He filed a bill to that effect last month. That bill, if passed, could benefit another Arza campaign contributor, Fernando Zulueta, charter-school executive. Zulueta has filed an application to build a charter school in Doral, inside the "no-school zone" around Miami International Airport. County zoning staff and the aviation department see this as a potential public-safety problem because the school would be built only about a mile and a half from a busy runway. But they may have little say in the matter. The county's Developmental Impact Committee, which would normally approve or reject such a proposal, has granted its powers on this issue to the Doral City Council. If Doral approves it, and it's a good bet the city will, then it will go to the school board for a final approval.

In Tallahassee Arza has repeatedly introduced legislation that aggressively chips away at the school district's jurisdiction. Last year, for instance, he filed an unsuccessful bill allowing certain cities to convert public schools within their borders to charter schools and take control of them. This session he has filed a charter-school bill that would make it much easier for postsecondary institutions to sponsor their own charter schools, and also a bill that would require the Miami-Dade district to create a committee to examine its governance structure. Arza says he has in mind questions such as whether the district should be divided, whether there should be an elected superintendent, and whether some board members and a board chair should be elected at-large.

Jonathan Postal
Three characters in the Miami education soap opera 
(from top): Schools superintendent Merrett Stierheim, 
lobbyist Ron Book, and school board member Frank 
Cobo
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Three characters in the Miami education soap opera (from top): Schools superintendent Merrett Stierheim, lobbyist Ron Book, and school board member Frank Cobo

In addition he's now sponsoring a bill that requires school districts to develop initiatives to enhance reading. This sounds like a good idea. A close reading of the language, however, suggests that a handful of educational-materials companies would also benefit. The current bill requires the use of programs endorsed by the state education department; only a few companies, including Scholastic and Voyager Expanded Learning, have received the needed endorsement.

Arza took a leave from his $57,375 teaching position in late summer and picked up two consulting jobs. Miami City Manager Joe Arriola handed him a no-bid contract worth up to $25,000 to serve as a consultant on education matters. About the same time, Arza also accepted an invitation from Florida International University to be a "visiting lecturer" for nine months. The fee: $23,000. Arza makes $28,000 per year as a legislator. While some people may see these jobs as unethical conflicts of interest (taking money from a city and a university in need of his legislative help), he says there's nothing illegal about them.

Stories about ethically questionable conduct abound in the school district and in Tallahassee. One example: Arza's alleged heavy-handed relationships with lobbyists, several of whom have privately grumbled that even by Tallahassee standards, Arza is exceedingly demanding when it comes to favors such as tickets for special events and picking up the tab for large dinner parties at restaurants. But hard evidence is in short supply, mainly because government agencies that employ lobbyists normally don't require them to document expenses.

New Times asked Arza directly whether he pressures lobbyists for such favors. "No, never," he replied. "I don't think that's true. The only thing I've ever got is if there's a sponsored event. Lobbyists sponsor dinners in Tallahassee all the time and that's about it."

However, school district insiders say that one of the reasons the board consented to give lobbyist Ron Book a fat contract beginning in 2002 is that he agreed to include on his team an unlikely roster of other lobbyists, including Rick Rodriguez Pina, a Hialeah lobbyist close to Arza, and Al Lorenzo, a political operative known more for his ability to run phone banks and deliver absentee ballots than for his skill as a lobbyist. The contract is now worth $365,000, compared with the $120,000 per year the district used to pay for outside lobbying services.

By the end of May the school board will likely have chosen a superintendent. It very likely will not be Ralph Arza, but even if he can't credibly be made superintendent, he still might exert enough influence over the process that Stierheim's successor will be forced to recognize him as a political patron. Arza told the Herald recently that he wants the next superintendent to hire him for one dollar per year as a political advisor and liaison to municipal leaders. He told New Times he thinks he should have a role in determining who becomes the next superintendent: "I've invested enough time and sacrifice to have a say-so. How can you make a decision on a new superintendent and not involve the people who control 50 percent of the funding? It's arrogance."

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