Crew's Control

The new school super deep-sixes Miami's provincialism in a New York minute

So we got Rudy Crew. The new superintendent of the Miami-Dade school system is a savvy man. Masterfully coquettish in handling many suitors from different cities vying for his acceptance, he had us chasing and panting right up until the last second. We won his hand, and Crew gained not only a sizable six-year contract (worth more than $400,000 the first year), but a widely varied contingent of supporters, including, significantly, business and civic leaders who sweetened the deal with a forgivable home loan.

One example of Crew's astute self-marketing came a couple of weeks before the contract was signed. After meeting with groups of district employees and parents, he strode into a conference room to face the local media at the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. Wearing a black suit with subtle pinstripes and a royal purple tie, Crew cut a smooth figure, seeming very capable with the clichés of modern speechifying. In handling the press, he showed that he is able to think on his feet and convey a pleasing, if vague message. The Miami district is, he said, like a "diamond in the rough," full of people who exude a "quiet, guarded optimism."

In one instance, Crew was asked by Spanish-language media whether he could say anything en español. He gamely responded with a short burst of Spanish before losing it. "Um, I'll say it in English and then butcher my way through in Spanish," he said, launching into a spiel. "In Spanish?" one of the reporters reminded him hopefully. "Uh, this is going to be a problem," he acknowledged.

The Two Powers: Rudy and Rudy back in the New 
York City day
Getty Images
The Two Powers: Rudy and Rudy back in the New York City day

Beyond this exchange, the press conference and Crew's handling of the negotiations clearly sent the message: "Look, I'm willing to play, but it's my game."

But Crew, once the chancellor of the New York City public schools under its autocratic mayor, Rudy Giuliani, knows that despite the big sloppy wet kiss Miami has just given him, his most definitive moments will likely come near the beginning of his tenure. He will have to push forward as far as he can before losing the momentum of all this goodwill to the sheer size and complexity of the institution. Unlike the New York system, which is contained within five boroughs of one city, Miami encompasses several dozen municipalities.

As with most urban districts, Miami faces the problem of how to stretch a budget over its many acute needs. But Miami also has more than its share of institutional problems created by an insular bureaucratic culture that tends to reward loyalty over competence; the loss of a districtwide leadership and vision created by the implementation of single-member voting districts in 1996; and a largely passive, disaffected community that kept quiet so long as the gravy train of contracts poured hundreds of millions into the local economy.

In 2001 these problems caught up with the system. Scandals broke, the public mood darkened, and a power vacuum was created. Into this opening stepped several new players, including state legislators, community leaders, and business interests. Agendas varied from avarice to relative altruism, but the common theme was an attempt to control the uncontrollable. Thus Merrett Stierheim, already a known public entity as a former county manager with a steady hand, was hired as superintendent by a divided board for the purpose of getting it out of hot water.

Despite his mixed attempts at reform, the main problems of the school district are still the paranoid, bureaucratic culture and deeply dysfunctional business operations. These two interrelated issues helped kill Stierheim's agenda. In the end, his legacy will be that he laid the groundwork for Crew, and that he orchestrated the process that ultimately got Crew hired. In November 2003 Stierheim announced he would appoint a committee of local notables to help select his replacement. His presumption irked board members, but forced them to instead appoint their own committee to give the process more credibility than usual. Another key was the selection of executive search firm Korn/Ferry International, which further signaled that local politics would hold less sway.

Probably the most important appointment was board member Perla Hantman's tapping of Florida International University president Mitch Maidique, who chaired the committee. He, like the others, wanted to get a candidate from outside Miami. At some point along the way, Maidique's considerable ego became intertwined with the outcome of the superintendent search. Maidique got involved in negotiating Crew's contract -- along with board chairman Michael Krop and school district attorney Johnny Brown -- and recommended he meet with people around town. Crew's Korn/Ferry reps asked Stierheim to offer some reassuring words after Crew met with Ralph Arza; the state legislator reportedly strongly impressed upon Crew the need to get along with Republican leaders. Two weeks later, according to sources, Korn/Ferry warned Krop that Crew was about to take a job in St. Louis. Krop called Crew directly and urged him to make one more trip to Miami.

Maidique was also lobbying heavy hitters in the business community to pony up cash to give Crew a signing bonus. This was key, and part of the incentive packages other districts were considering. Maidique gathered a group to throw in on the deal, but by last Friday the specifics had not been nailed down. Over the weekend, the negotiations nearly fell through after it looked like only Maidique and Joe Arriola (Miami's city manager and a wealthy retired businessman) would be signing a promise to loan Crew about $240,000 to buy a house. (Each year Crew stays, the amount he has to pay back is reduced by 25 percent.)

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