By Trevor Bach
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On a recent Thursday about 1 p.m., Carlos Manrique is driving his white Hyundai SUV west on the Dolphin Expressway when he grins and compares himself to the founder of software giant Microsoft. "Look at Bill Gates," he says. "He didn't graduate college."
The 48-year-old uses this shaky logic to illustrate he's the most qualified person to oversee adult education programs at 21 schools — even though he has only a high school diploma and has never taught a class. In fact Manrique has been addressing questions about his lack of collegiate and teaching credentials since he first applied for a job with the school district 13 years ago. "Just because I don't qualify as an instructor," he says, "doesn't mean I can't supervise."
Indeed the school board pays him $85,000 a year. While book-learning has eluded Manrique, political savvy and a knack for sidestepping scandal has aided his career. Since he was hired by the nation's fourth-largest school district, Manrique has been accused of giving jobs to his bosses' friends and family members, overseeing a program plagued by identity theft, and buying more than $240,000 worth of educational materials from a company that employs the disgraced former schools chief who hired him. His career tells as much about the importance of politics in the cash-strapped district as it does about Manrique himself.
A heavy-set guy with thinning gray hair, wide brown eyes, and pronounced jowls, he came to Miami from Havana in the late Sixties and attended Belen Jesuit Preparatory School, graduating in 1978. During the next three years, he bounced from Miami-Dade Community College to Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, majoring in business, but dropping out of both. In 1984, he landed a gig as a $25,000-a-year legislative aide to then-Republican state Sen. Javier Souto (now a county commissioner), where he spent the next four years. Around then, he graduated from the Florida Law Enforcement Academy in Tallahasee and worked as an auxiliary special agent for the FDLE.
In 1988, he left Souto's office to run for the state House of Representatives, but lost to (current U.S. Rep.) Mario Diaz-Balart. Four years later, he won the District 115 seat, which he held for two uneventful years before losing a nasty campaign to Alex Diaz de la Portilla, a member of one of the county's best-known political families. During that contest, Manrique's then-wife Madelin publicly accused him of beating her. (He later divorced her and won sole custody of their son.)
But that little mishap didn't halt his upward career trajectory. In 1995, he applied to become the school district's real estate manager — even though his only real estate experience was as a part-time manager of a Hialeah mobile home park while attending community college. Remarkably an interview panel recommended Manrique, passing over six other job candidates with more experience and education. The school board declined to hire him after media reports criticized the panel's choice.
He was determined to someday work for the school board; two years later, then-Superintendent Roger Cuevas hired Manrique as the board's state lobbyist. Though he'd never worked in that capacity either, he had at least served in Tallahassee.
In 1999, Cuevas reassigned Manrique to run a welfare-to-work program. There he came under fire for giving jobs to a dozen relatives and friends of influential school officials, many of them lacking the degrees required for their posts. Individuals on the payroll included Cuevas's son Robert, then-Deputy Superintendent Henry Fraind's sister-in-law Cruzana, board member Solomon Stinson's pal and former Miami Dolphin Larry Little, anti-Castro terrorist Orlando Bosch's wife Adriana, and then-West Miami Mayor Rebeca Sosa. (Now a county commissioner, Sosa continues to report to Manrique. She is a specialist in the school district's workforce development education program. The two are close friends.)
The Miami-Dade/Monroe WAGES Coalition concluded Manrique and the school district had violated their own rules that state case workers and administrators must have college degrees. Manrique says he was never involved in hiring program workers. "I inherited all of them," he explains. "For example, Cruzana Fraind had been working in the WAGES program for a year and a half before I took over." He was never disciplined.
In 2001, the school district promoted him again, naming him the workforce education supervisor. Manrique demonstrated "distinguished leadership" in managing five adult technical education centers, according to a job evaluation by his boss, Nelson Perez. But in 2006, state auditors had a less sanguine opinion. They faulted the workforce program for allowing 13 would-be students to use the social security numbers of dead people to qualify for classes.
Manrique claims he was not responsible. Indeed his bosses blamed the problem on an inadequate computer system. Then last July, they promoted Manrique, adding the school district's adult education program to his portfolio. That program was previously overseen by 35-year public schools veteran Dale Keith.
Keith claims Manrique isn't qualified for the job. When Keith was hired for the post in 1998, the school district required a master's degree, a teaching certificate, and extensive teaching experience, the 60-year-old ex-administrator explains. "I have been a special education teacher, a district administrator in student assessment, and an elementary school assistant principal," Keith says, adding that administrators opted not to renew his contract at the end of the last school year.
One reason Manrique is unfit for the job, Keith contends, is that he spent more than $240,000 on education materials from New Century Learning, a company that employs former Superintendent Cuevas, the man who gave the former legislator his first job in the system. Cuevas, you might recall, was fired in 2004 for bad leadership and botched land deals. His firm wasn't named in state and federal grant applications filed last year, so it is not supposed to receive money, Keith contends.
Manrique insists he did nothing wrong, adding he has never met with Cuevas and that New Century is among 20 new vendors selling products to the 21 adult education schools. He says, "The principals are the ones who pick and choose the materials they want to use."
Keith is a disgruntled employee with an ax to grind, Manrique claims. The fact that he never completed college shouldn't be a barometer of his experience. He's a great example for high school dropouts. "I'm the perfect person to put in front of them," he says. "I am proud of my accomplishments and what I've done."