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.

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.)

Concerns were raised by board attorneys that this arrangement could later become a conflict of interest for Crew and the district owing to relationships with FIU and the city. Then Krop called Paul Cejas, a former school board member, former U.S. ambassador to Belgium, and member of Miami's power elite, to ask him if he would save the deal by committing. Cejas would have no possible conflicts. Cejas came through. (The details of this proposal have yet to be worked out.) Oddly, after riding shotgun on the whole affair, Maidique was out of town Monday, the day Crew's contract was approved by the school board.

At least for now, Crew has the support of nearly all sectors of the community, and a singular opportunity. This fall the school board's composition will change. Krop is likely retiring. Betsy Kaplan is retiring. Frank Cobo has a tough campaign ahead of him. And Stierheim himself hasn't ruled out a run for the board, in Kaplan's district. "People have been asking me," he admits. "I haven't said no. Do I want to do that? That's a tough question."

Back in New York, the two Rudys used to get on famously over Scotch and cigars, until Crew started a public showdown over Giuliani's plan to experiment with school vouchers and Rudy G forced his smoking buddy out. Of course Miami Mayor Manny Diaz (who has expressed an interest in taking over the city's public schools) is no Rudy Giuliani. Neither is Arza, the self-appointed Rasputin of local education politics. Arza lost some street cred when the Miami-Dade legislative delegation failed to prevent a raid on state funding to the school district by the Senate president.

One rampant rumor used to explain the lack of acrimonious ethnic politicking in Crew's appointment was that some board members and their legislative allies believe it will be easier to "torch the place," i.e., break up the district, if it is run by a black Democrat rather than a Cuban Republican. Another rumor was that Republican leaders, including Gov. Jeb Bush, had made some calls to encourage board members to get their acts together in this critical election year. Certainly the lack of the usual shenanigans on Spanish radio and from players such as Arza indicates that some critical consultations were made.

The other challenge, internally, will be mending the culture. This means stopping the "dance of the lemons," as Crew once termed the New York habit of merely shuffling around inept or corrupt school administrators. That's when he'll find out whether school board members really want a strong superintendent. "He's been in urban education so long, he has a sixth sense," opines Betsy Kaplan. "He's been in the same game with different players. I think he'll do just fine."

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