Stierheim says he'll continue working in county
By Sherri C. Ranta
Longtime civic administrator Merrett Stierheim said he plans to continue working in Miami-Dade County after he leaves his post as superintendent of schools June 30.
Mr. Stierheim said he plans to tackle more challenges in the county after leading more than a half-dozen public and private organizations in Miami-Dade in the past 45 years.
But Mr. Stierheim, 70, stopped short of revealing his next job.
"I'm not going to retire, but I don't want to work 50-60 hours a week," he said this week.
"I have a few choices - and quite a few inquiries. But I'm not ready to announce it yet. I'm very serious about the one I'm looking at."
Before taking his next job, Mr. Stierheim said, he's ready for a break and a return to some favorite pastimes such as reading, fishing and tennis - hobbies he left behind when he was asked to take the school position in October 2001.
"It will be nice to have that luxury on July 1 to make a decision as to what I want to do and have the freedom to do it. I've never taken time off between jobs," he said.
"I don't have to work - I'm not wealthy at all - but I don't want to vegetate, either," he said. "There are always opportunities for leadership in this community."
He said he would be willing to lead a referendum campaign to finance a $1.5 billion school construction project and deferred maintenance in the district.
He said he and his wife, Judy, want to travel, "smell the roses" and visit their his mother, who lives in Ocala, and their daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Among Mr. Stierheim's critics is the Miami Herald, which said in an editorial recently that he is leaving an "unfinished agenda" in the school district. But mr. Steirheim said the criticism "simply reflects a lack of understanding of the magnitude of the changes implemented in the school system."
"I'm very proud of what we did," Mr. Stierheim said. He said that under his watch, the district made personnel changes at top posts throughout the district, put an end to political patronage appointments and made progress on statewide tests that have raised the overall level of the school district.
"Given our socio-economic deprivation and tremendous diversity that creates great challenges for our students and teachers, I think that's remarkable progress," Mr. Stierheim said.
He said he is also proud that the school board has adopted 90% of the best practices recommended by the state's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. More than 200 recommendations made after a district-wide review in 2002 are expected to be adopted by August, he said. The recommendations cover every aspect of the district from administration, food service and transportation to use of lottery funds and construction and maintenance, he said.
"With a bare majority of the school board, we've opened the windows, let the air come in and made institutional changes that will be long-term," Mr. Stierheim said.
"Can I say the construction and maintenance problems are totally solved?" he said. "No, but the blueprints, timelines and specific goals are all spelled out."
David Lawrence, head of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation and former publisher of the Miami Herald, said Mr. Steirheim's stewardship at the school district will enhance his longtime reputation.
"He will depart this position with his flag flying high and every bit of his reputation for professionalism and integrity not only maintained but enhanced," Mr. Lawrence said. "We're all to some extent temporary stewards to his world. As a steward, your job is to leave the place in better shape than you found it. On that score, it seems to me the Miami Dade Public School System is in better shape than it was."
The school board hired Mr. Stierheim in October 2001 after a land-acquisition scandal left his predecessor, Roger Cuevas, without a job and the board without the trust of the public.
Mr. Stierheim has signed three contracts with the school board, often winning favor in a 5-4 vote.
He's reorganized the district three times, trimmed costs for cell phones, beepers and cars and worked with the board to write and adopt a strategic plan tied to budgetary considerations.
Mr. Stierheim acknowledged that he has stepped on a few toes in his tenure at the school district and said he has encountered some of the nastiest politics of his career.
He said he decided in October that it was time to go because "the people there are more focused on undermining your administration than being team players."
Mr. Stierheim said he "could list every elected official I served with over 40 years as a reference - including five that were sent to jail who I think would say positive things about me."
But he didn't have good relationships with some in the school district, he said. "It was difficult when you've got some of your board members trying to undermine your administration. Hopefully, (incoming superintendent) Dr. Rudy Crew will not have to deal with that."
He said he wishes Mr. Crew well. "He's a proven professional. That's really what I wanted when I recommended the search and selection committee. I really didn't want to see what happened in the county when I left the second time - with all due respect to (former county manager) Steve Shiver," Mr. Stierheim said.
"I wanted to turn the reins over to a proven administrator/manager experienced in large, complex government. Rudy certainly has that skill," he said. "For those who wanted a pre-eminent educator, they certainly have one in Dr. Crews. I like him. I think he's very focused. I think he's tough. It takes a certain amount of toughness to do that job."
Miami-Dade County Manager George Burgess and Assistant County Manager Bill Johnson worked as interns under Mr. Stierheim in the early 1980s during his first tenure as county manager.
"If you look at the totality of his career," Mr. Burgess said, "look at the different jobs he's assumed over the years, you can't be anything but awed by the challenges he's been willing to take on. He deeply believes in public service. He wants to make a difference. We need more people like that."
Mr. Stierheim's career began as assistant city manager in Miami from 1959 to 1967. He then served as Clearwater city manager from 1967 to 1973 and Pinellas County administrator from 1973 to 1976 before returning to become Miami-Dade County manager in 1976.
He was county manager until 1986, supervising a $5 billion infrastructure expansion project that included construction of MetroZoo, the downtown library and cultural complex, Government Center and the county's mass-transit system. He presided when the county dealt with the infusion of 160,000 Cuban and Haitian refugees in the 1980s and during the riots that left Greater Miami with a burnished reputation.
After ten years as county manager, Mr. Stierheim stepped down and became CEO of the Women's Tennis Association. In 1990, he became president/CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. In 1996, he served as Miami's city manager, helping the city recover from a $68 million deficit.
He rejoined the county as manager in 1998, serving until 2000. In addition, he has served in a number of pro-bono government roles.
Mr. Stierheim's time at the school district, Mr. Johnson said, "reinforces his leadership ability - his role in stepping in and trying to solve problems. He's done it time and time again in this community. He's never backed way from a challenge."