By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
It's July 13, and in an effort to evade the brutal midafternoon sun, Cesar Ramirez cools off in the shade of a tree near the entrance of Allapattah Middle School. The wiry Puerto Rican waits for his daughter Amanda to emerge through the turquoise-color doors. From 8:00 to 4:00 Monday through Friday, the 14-year-old attends summer camp at Allapattah.
Two days earlier, Ramirez says, he called the school board to complain about embattled Miami-Dade County Schools Superintendent Rudy Crew. "Look at what he has done," Ramirez sneers. "He's wasted all this money and my daughter's school gets an F. It is unbelievable how they throw away money at the district."
Some 20 miles west, in Miami-Dade's second-largest municipality, Maria Otero says it's time for Crew to go. Her 15-year-old son Gus is entering his sophomore year at Hialeah Senior High. After maintaining a C for two years, Hialeah was one of 10 high schools that sunk to F this year. "I hope the school board removes him," Otero says as she gets into her car parked in the Hialeah High faculty lot. "He has not done a good job."
Once hailed as a savior for the nation's fourth-largest school system, Crew is in deep trouble these days. Not only Allapattah and Hialeah have failed their students, but also 24 other schools Crew once pledged to save. A much-publicized sex scandal at Miami Northwestern Senior High recently earned the superintendent a rebuke from a Miami-Dade County grand jury.
And now the school system faces a series of lawsuits and other controversies related to his autocratic behavior, which could cost taxpayers big. In the past two months, New Times has interviewed the superintendent's critics and reviewed hundreds of pages of legal documents, employee complaints, audits, and criminal probes that call into question both Crew's competence and his credibility. A picture has emerged of a poor chief executive who will do almost anything to enhance his image as an education reformer, even if it means protecting corrupt but loyal administrators or firing those who expose misconduct.
Crew, who earns a salary and benefits worth a half-million dollars a year, declined two requests to meet and answer questions. He also did not respond to a letter and a two-page list of questions e-mailed and faxed to his secretary, Helen Matthews, and his chief information officer, Felipe Noguera.
Indeed it seems Crew is repeating mistakes he made while leading school districts in Tacoma and New York City, where he worked before coming to the subtropics. "The taxpayers of Dade County are starting to realize they are being given snake oil as the cure for cancer," says Herbert Cousins, the district's former inspector general, whose contract was not renewed after he fell out of favor with Crew and some school board members. "The real victims are the kids because they are being shortchanged by Rudy Crew."
Miami-Dade School Board member Marta Perez is sitting on a red antique sofa in the eclectically decorated living room of her one-story Coral Gables residence. Dressed in a green plaid short-sleeve shirt, khaki capri pants, and sensible shoes, she reminisces about the first and last time she dined with Rudy Crew, back in May 2004. Perez had been the only school board member to vote against Crew's appointment as superintendent a few months before. "He wasn't my choice, but he was somebody I needed to work with," she recollects in a sweet voice that belies her tenacious spirit. "The last thing I wanted to have was a bad relationship with the superintendent."
So a few days after Crew officially began his new job, Perez took him to Versailles, the venerable Cuban-American restaurant on SW Eighth Street that's a hub for local politics. As they chatted about challenges facing the school district, restaurant patrons stopped to greet Crew. "Everybody recognized him," she says. "He was nice and we talked, but I don't think he was really interested in being there."
Today Perez remains arguably the superintendent's most adamant opponent; last year she sued Crew and the school board to force release of public information she had requested, including costs for renovating school board offices and a list of employees who are paid more than $100,000. The board member says Crew is a self-promoter. "Our number one priority is to make sure our students compete in a global market and make them, not Rudy Crew, shine," she says.
Born September 10, 1950, in Poughkeepsie, New York, Rudy was reared by his father, Eugene Crew, a clarinetist. His mother died of cancer when he was two years old. After completing college and earning a Ph.D. in education from the University of Massachusetts, Crew spent his early adult life as a teacher and principal in California. In the early Eighties he landed a deputy superintendent job in Boston.
He subsequently was hired as Sacramento's superintendent, where he was paid $110,000 a year. In 1993 Crew went to Tacoma, Washington. There he earned $125,000 annually and persuaded the school board to spend two million dollars over four years to train teachers using techniques developed by the Efficacy Institute; the controversial Massachusetts think tank advocates a philosophy that all children can be taught to "be smart" — but has shown mixed results.
In fall 1994, fourth- and eighth-grade scores on a state test declined, which Crew labeled "unconscionable." He ordered a special retest for the following spring. This time the results were much better — and Crew was labeled a hero.
But not so fast. In 1997, Abt Associates, a highly regarded consulting firm, issued a report on Tacoma schools. It showed that in the months before the spring 1995 retest, the district held workshops instructing teachers to drill students in test-taking skills. The educators devoted up to 10 hours of student instruction to test strategies, developed a special handbook for principals and teachers, and formed teams to coordinate their efforts. "In our view, the test-score gains are most likely a result of the one-time efforts in March 1995 to increase student test-taking skills," the Abt report concluded.
That report was mentioned in the book Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It, by author and Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Peter Sacks. In fact he dedicated a whole chapter to Crew. "The Tacoma story wasn't about student achievement," Sacks wrote. "This was political theater featuring an ambitious and dynamic Rudy Crew and a school board hungry to prove that its schools weren't a mess."
Today Sacks says Crew represents a breed of superintendent that is more politician than educator. "The best of them know how to manipulate their environment to their advantage," Sacks says. "They are like Wall Street investors who are always searching for short-term gains in stock prices that may or may not be good for the company. That is what happened in Tacoma."
Crew will "hop around from school district to school district, do these quick and dirty turnarounds. But when he leaves, it crashes," Sacks adds.
After Tacoma, though, Crew was a hot commodity. In 1995 he snagged the top job as the schools chancellor in New York City, with a $195,000 annual salary and free use of a Brooklyn townhouse. Two years later the New York Legislature gave Crew the power to appoint and remove superintendents in the five boroughs.
During the early part of his tenure, he worked alongside then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani to fix the Big Apple's poorly run public schools. But Crew could not control Edward Stancik, the special commissioner of investigations, who exposed several scandals.
One incident presaged problems the chancellor would have a decade later at Miami Northwestern Senior High: In September 1997 Stancik released a report criticizing officials at August Martin High School, where a female student had been allegedly raped by four members of the varsity football team in an empty classroom. "Had swift action been taken, it is possible that the rape could have been prevented, or, at the very least, interrupted," Stancik wrote. "Even more disturbing, after the rape, when Student A disclosed her suffering to two staff members, they all but ignored her, forcing the girl to shoulder the burden of the sexual assault by herself and encounter her attackers on a daily basis."
Stancik also discovered that August Martin staff members withheld information from investigators and made inaccurate statements to the press. Although he reassigned the assistant principals after the scandal, Crew refused to remove Principal Richard Ross despite Stancik's recommendation and parents' outrage. According to news articles, Crew personally investigated the incident and found that "sufficient additional information" convinced him firing Ross was inappropriate.
Two years later Crew ran into more trouble with Stancik, who uncovered a scandal that also parallels a Miami problem. Stancik exposed that Crew's office of special investigations was aware many teachers were changing students' grades on flunked tests, but did nothing. One of Crew's top New York lieutenants, then-Special Investigations Director Marlene Malamy, played a major role in the misdoing.
(Last year Miami-Dade School Police investigated allegations that Charles Drew Middle School Principal Gwen Coverson had changed 150 D and F grades without consulting the responsible teachers. The officers released a 37-page report claiming the allegations could not be substantiated because whistleblowers failed to cooperate with investigators. But the educators who fingered Coverson contend detectives never contacted them. In a September 30, 2006 Miami Herald article, former Charles Drew teacher Robert Morris said investigators "never returned my calls or asked me to come in for an interview.")
In December 1999 the New York City Board of Education bought out the final six months of Crew's contract after he and Mayor Giuliani bickered over the use of student vouchers. Crew was against them, while Giuliani supported them. The chancellor returned to the Pacific Northwest, where he launched an educational leadership institute at the University of Washington. Sixteen months later, he left to work for a San Francisco area foundation before moving to Miami.
Perez is concerned about the similarities between Crew's past and present woes. "You see the same patterns being repeated here," Perez says. "Crew handled the Northwestern situation terribly. This was a complete embarrassment to the school district."
For more than two decades, Herbert Cousins headed field offices and trained undercover FBI agents. In 1990 he led a group that arrested Miami cult leader Yahweh ben Yahweh and 15 disciples of his sect on racketeering and capital murder charges. "I risked my life on a number of occasions to get the job done," Cousins explains.
So in 2003, he was an easy choice for a group of lawmen tasked to recommend a candidate to become the Miami-Dade school board's first inspector general. In May of that year the board unanimously awarded Cousins, who is also a former teacher and principal, a $140,000 annual salary and the power to weed out waste and fraud.
Unfortunately Cousins no longer holds the title, thanks in part to Rudy Crew. On a recent afternoon, the former G-man met with New Times at the Panera Bread café in Weston, near his home, to talk about the superintendent. "It was not a good relationship because of his dictatorial management style," says Cousins, who speaks in a soft baritone and sports prescription sunglasses that conceal his steely brown eyes. "There was nothing Rudy Crew could do or say to intimidate me or make me violate investigative protocol."
In a civil lawsuit filed March 6, Cousins alleges Crew conspired with several others to plant unflattering stories in the press that eventually forced him out. He is among four former high-ranking school district employees who have sued the Miami-Dade superintendent in the past two years.
Crew wanted Cousins out, Cousins claims, because "I refused to allow him to interfere or control my office's investigations." According to the former inspector general's complaint, sometime during summer 2005, the superintendent became upset because he believed Cousins and law enforcement agencies were investigating him as well as school board members. The suit alleges, "Desperate to assess the scope of the criminal investigations of the upper levels of MDCPS [Miami-Dade County Public Schools], Crew approached Cousins proclaiming his belief that certain sitting school board members were engaged in serious ongoing criminal corrupt activities and claiming he had been misled into signing contracts."
A few days later Cousins took Crew to meet with agents at FBI headquarters in North Miami Beach, where he restated his allegations, according to the lawsuit. Then the superintendent offered to wear a wire in future conversations with the corrupt board members and staff. The lawsuit doesn't name the bad board members, nor will Cousins identify them. (He also declined to give New Times the names of the agents who were present at the meeting). "I viewed Crew's possible cooperation as a major breakthrough in truly cleaning up the system," Cousins says.
Following that meeting, the former inspector general claims Crew again demanded detailed information about Cousins's investigations. When he demurred, Crew allegedly "did an about-face" in regard to ratting out the school board. (The superintendent has adamantly denied he ever said he would wear a wire.)
Sometime around the end of July 2005, Crew and then-schools spokesman Joseph Garcia decided to "assassinate [Cousins's] character," the suit claims. Cousins accuses Garcia of feeding WPLG-TV (Channel 10) reporter Jilda Unruh information that the inspector general was running a private consulting business on school district time. Garcia also claimed Cousins got his job through nepotism and that his office was ineffective. Former school board employee Michael Hoover Lawson confirmed Cousins's claim in a 2006 deposition: "School board people were ... out to get Mr. Cousins and have his department shut down." (Garcia was unavailable for comment for this story.)
Unruh — who no longer works at the station — did a report detailing the allegations. "The Channel 10 piece was fantasy theater," says Cousins's lawyer, Tom Equels. "It was part of an effort on Crew's part to undermine the school board's confidence in Cousins." Reached by telephone at her Miami home, Unruh declined to comment, saying only "I stand by my story." A spokesman for WPLG also demurred. In court documents, the news station denies it defamed Cousins.
Moreover, records indicate Cousins was efficient. During his tenure, he closed 50 cases, including a criminal probe with the DEA that disclosed 22 school district employees had used health insurance cards to buy OxyContin and then sold the drug on the street. All were arrested.
On August 17, 2005, after Crew prodded them, school board members opted not to renew Cousins's contract. Then the board decided, eight to one, to end an agreement that made the Inspector General's Office independent.
The position has remained vacant. Four months ago the school board offered the job to Bob Emmons, a former assistant inspector general with the U.S. Postal Service. On April 16, Emmons declined, citing a lack of "independence." He did not respond to a request for comment.
The result is that — for almost two years — there has been virtually no independent oversight of the board's six-billion-dollar budget. Says school board member Ana Rivas Logan: "The biggest impediment to bringing back the office has been this school board and the superintendent."
If Crew's neutering of the Inspector General's Office shows a penchant for paranoia, his treatment of a handful of former employees hints at something worse — a dismissive attitude toward women and a desperate need to control access to his bosses on the school board.
One of those who has complained about the superintendent's behavior is Madelyn Schere. The soft-spoken 63-year-old University of Miami law graduate had been a district employee for more than 25 years when Crew arrived in 2004. She started out as an English and journalism teacher at Miami Jackson Senior High in 1966, left to pursue a law degree, and in 1980 accepted a position as an assistant school board attorney. In 2005 she was earning an annual $165,365, which spoke to her many accomplishments. On at least five occasions, she had been credited with saving the school district hundreds of thousands of dollars and successfully defending the school board in court, according to job evaluations in her personnel file.
But in April 2005 Schere and seven female attorneys signed two letters to Crew and the school board. They complained the superintendent had ordered district employees to refrain from speaking about pending cases. In one instance that year, they even had to subpoena district employees, who failed to show up for depositions. "It impeded our progress in our ability to defend the board," Schere says. "It was just his way of keeping control of what was reported, what was said to the board."
Eight months later board attorney Julie Ann Rico declined to renew the contracts of Schere and five other attorneys who signed the letter. "Basically Julie Ann said she wanted to bring in new people," explains Schere, who like the other women, didn't receive a severance package. "I believe Rudy Crew orchestrated our removal behind the scenes."
Of the eight lawyers who signed the letter, only Ana Segura and Melinda "Mindy" McNichols were retained by Rico, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story. "They kept Ana and Mindy to make it look like they weren't retaliating against us," Schere says. "It was a complete shock. You can see why no one at the district is going to speak out against Crew after what happened to us."
Schere sued Crew, Rico, and the school board, alleging age discrimination. "I was replaced by two people," Schere says. "One is much younger than I am, and the other one has much less experience."
Indeed the lawyers were not the only women who claim to have experienced the superintendent's wrath. Mercedes Toural served as the district's second-in-command during the first four months of Crew's administration. She was appointed to the post by Crew's predecessor, Merrett Stierheim. Toural, who earned $193,000 a year, had risen through the ranks, starting as an elementary school reading teacher. She developed the district's nationally recognized bilingual program.
Crew, she contends, immediately disliked her. After arriving in summer 2004, he transferred some of Toural's authority to other deputies. Then eight hours into a school board meeting in September that year, she stepped out for a drink of water just as board member Betsy Kaplan asked a question. Afterward, she claims, the superintendent summoned Toural; her executive assistant, Willa Young; and deputy superintendent Ofelia San Pedro to his office. Crew was upset. He said he had wanted Toural to answer the question and, she claims, "screamed and shouted at the top of his lungs. He said, 'Fuck you. And I mean all three of you. I will put your asses out on the street if that ever happens again.'"
Beginning October 3, 2004, Toural took an unpaid leave of absence following a scathing performance review from Crew. "You have been offered numerous opportunities to provide vision, leadership, and management," the superintendent wrote in his September 27 memo to Toural. "The evidence from your lack of execution demonstrates that you are neither successfully managing the day-to-day tasks nor the long-term planning required of [the position]."
Toural says her battle with Crew affected her health. She claims she developed high blood pressure and her doctor warned her she could have a stroke. A year later she resigned and filed a grievance. In a letter addressed to the school board, Toural wrote, "My health had steadily deteriorated under the threats and negative treatment of Mr. Crew.... This was the culmination of several months of a concerted pattern of discrimination and desperate treatment by the superintendent against me."
The former number two also accuses Crew of maliciously interfering with her quest for a new job with the Early Learning Coalition of Miami-Dade/Monroe in fall 2006. The coalition, which pays the school district to provide developmental services for hundreds of preschool children, at first named her the best qualified candidate to become the CEO. But then, Toural contends, Crew called a coalition board member and threatened to stop doing business with the group if she was named to the top job.
Toural filed complaints with the district's civil rights office and with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which were both dismissed. On January 25 she sued Crew in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, claiming he had demonstrated a "persistent discriminatory attitude toward Hispanic females, particularly Cuban-Americans, and his abusive, demeaning, and unfair treatment of women."
That's not all. Before filing her lawsuit, Toural complained to Susan Rothstein, then-director of the civil rights office. Rothstein passed those complaints on to the school board attorney's office.
According to a grievance Rothstein filed July 29, 2005, Crew then reneged on a promise to promote her to assistant superintendent. And finally, on June 15, 2005, the superintendent eliminated Rothstein's position; she was reassigned as a nutritional wellness coordinator, a role with little to no responsibility. She is currently on leave from the district and working for the City of South Miami.
Through his attorney Reginald Clyne, Crew denies he did anything wrong regarding Toural (Clyne couldn't be reached for comment on Rothstein's claims). "Mr. Crew has every right to state to the potential employer that he would not want to work with someone in a close manner who had a pending lawsuit against him," Clyne says.
Dressed in a brown designer suit softened by a powder blue shirt and matching tie, Rudy Crew is perched on the dais of the Miami-Dade County School Board. It's 5:06 p.m. on July 11, and he surveys the scene. There aren't enough seats to accommodate the 300-plus visitors, who spill into the aisles and the hall outside. Most them are students, present and former teachers, and alumni of Miami Northwestern Senior High School.
In the back of the room, TV news camera crews from WFOR, WTVJ, and WPLG are rolling. This is the denouement of the Northwestern drama. Back in September, then-18-year-old star running back Antwain Easterling had intercourse with a 14-year-old ninth-grader inside a girls bathroom at the school. Officials knew about the incident but did not report it to police and allowed Easterling to continuing playing.
Four months later, the girl's mother, fed up with the unresponsive Northwestern staff, complained to the Miami Police Department. On December 7, Easterling was arrested on a felony count of a lewd and lascivious assault on a minor. By then Crew's office knew what the star football player had done, but Easterling was allowed to play in the state championship game anyway.
"Miami Northwestern has been a source of great concern since I came here," Crew says to the crowd, his cadence picking up with each syllable, as if he were a preacher. "As an educator, a former teacher, the part that hurts me the most is that there is a lot of talent at Northwestern."
In the days leading up to the meeting, a rumor has been swirling that Crew will suspend the Liberty City school's vaunted football program. People at the meeting are fuming. "He should suspend himself," hisses one angry Northwestern alum.
"It's a red herring to deflect attention away from wrongdoing on his part," growls another.
To punctuate his words, Crew jabs his left index finger into the podium. He singles out the students in the auditorium, telling them he wants to have a face-to-face meeting with them, no adults. "It is going to be a loving, fatherly conversation," Crew promises. "But it will also be a hard conversation. I am not going to let you fail or let you think you can't do A-plus work."
He says he's tired of "watching Northwestern have a greater number of kids who are locked up rather than looked up to." He's also sick "of watching these kids who are poor attendees on a month-to-month basis. Northwestern just about leads the pack."
By the time Crew wraps up his sermon, he has placed Northwestern's varsity football players on probation and dismissed the team's varsity coaches. He holds up a document with the names of 21 Northwestern school employees who did not report the alleged sex crime. "My intent is that all the people on this list will no longer be there by the fall," intones Crew, theatrically waving a sheet of paper in the air. "They will sit at home and watch everybody else go to work."
Then Crew lectures the parents. "It is wrong that you only come down here once in a while when I talk about shutting something down. People flew down here from wherever. I am not impressed. You need to flip the culture of this school."
Despite the impressive display of authority, Crew's reaction to the Northwestern affair is much like his response to scandals that plagued him in Tacoma and New York: too little too late. One person who escaped punishment is Ronda Vangates, a high-level district administrator who reports directly to Crew. Vangates is a political heavy hitter. In previous jobs, she served as an aide to county Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler and chief of staff to Miami Mayor Joe Carollo. Crew hired her in 2005 as an administrative assistant and legislative liaison. A Northwestern alum and a nonpracticing attorney, Vangates was promoted last year to director of the district's Civilian Investigative Unit. She earns an annual $95,000 salary.
According to a June 5 Miami-Dade grand jury report on the Northwestern affair, Vangates "made efforts to halt the criminal investigation" into school employees who had covered up the sex allegations. Vangates sent Northwestern's then-Principal Dwight Bernard and other district employees an e-mail asserting she had directed Miami-Dade School Police to cease their probe.
The grand jury concluded that "this e-mail was profoundly upsetting, troubling, and offensive.... The unthinkable was that non-police personnel could have the audacity and apparent authority to interfere with an otherwise valid criminal investigation."
Vangates has maintained she thought it was a matter for Crew's office, not the police, to probe. The grand jury didn't buy her excuse: "We find it unreasonable and unbelievable that it was not known this was a criminal investigation ... [and it] was halted in its tracks before it was complete, before all statements were taken, before any assessments could be made, and certainly before anyone could be arrested."
Since the scandal broke, only one person has been arrested in the coverup: Principal Bernard, who was charged June 6 with felony official misconduct. He was reassigned to a desk job. Crew fired the school's football coaches and promised to get rid of the Northwestern employees who knew of but failed to report the claim. But he has not taken responsibility for his administration's role in the scandal. This irks school board member Rivas Logan. "If you know a crime was being committed, you report it. And his administration did not report it."
Meanwhile Crew has reassigned Vangates to another post: director of performance management, curriculum, and instruction. So the woman who allegedly hampered a criminal investigation will now hold sway over how teachers instruct their students.
Several hours after the camera crews and Northwestern acolytes left the school board chambers, Crew ran into a buzz saw when members began discussing his annual performance bonus. Board member Evelyn Greer proposed a figure of $41,000. Those present deadlocked.
Then Renier Diaz de la Portilla suggested Crew receive $20,000. That didn't go anywhere either. "A 420 percent increase in the number of F schools is simply not acceptable," said Rivas Logan. Later she added, "Personally I want to put [Crew] on notice. There has to be a consequence."
Responds Crew supporter and board chairman Agustin Barrera: "Sometimes we all get frustrated. I remember just four years ago the district was in disrepair. We had a state oversight board watching us. I think we are going in the right direction. One of our biggest challenges has been leadership in our schools. Dr. Crew addressed that."
While the school board continues to discuss the superintendent's merits, it appears he is looking for a new job.
Of course he is well paid. Under his current package, Crew receives $315,000. And the school district provides a pension and health benefits, reimburses his travel expenses, and even pays a $1200 stipend for his home office, from Internet service to computer equipment. (Back in 2004, to woo the superintendent, millionaire and onetime school board member Paul Cejas gave Crew a $240,000 loan to help pay for his $840,000 three-bedroom house in Coconut Grove.)
He apparently wants even more. According to news reports in Miami and Washington, D.C., Crew was not long ago the leading candidate to replace D.C. Superintendent Clifford Janey. On April 11, former Miami New Times columnist Jim DeFede reported on his WINZ-AM (940) radio program that D.C. was willing to pay Crew between $600,000 and $900,000 to lure him away from Miami-Dade. Crew, a guest on the show, responded, "There are other school districts. Certainly the Washington, D.C. scenario is very real."
Later that evening, during his television segment on CBS 4, DeFede said losing Crew would be bad for the county. "Personally I hope Crew stays," he rhapsodized. "He has done an amazing job, and if the numbskull politics of Miami-Dade ends up running him off, it will be a long time before we attract someone of his quality to take on that job."
Seven days later, a lengthy letter Cejas wrote supporting the superintendent was published in the editorial pages of the Miami Herald. Cejas blared, "Under the stewardship of the school board and the management of Superintendent Rudy Crew, our school system has gone from the brink of being taken over by the state to becoming a model system in our nation."
As it turned out, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty passed on Crew in favor of a local candidate. But that doesn't mean the Miami superintendent isn't still angling for more money. Indeed the school board might take a new vote on his bonus August 1, as this paper goes to print.
Says school board member Rivas Logan: "The contract we gave Rudy is being used to train school boards what not to do. No one is going to pay him what we pay him."