With A Year Left On His Contract Superintendent Wants To Restore Public Trust In Miamidade Schools
By Susan Stabley
Merrett Stierheim’s chief goal as superintendent of Miami-Dade Schools is basic yet daunting – restore public trust in the county’s troubled education system.
With his contract expiring June 2004, Mr. Stierheim has a short time remaining to improve the county’s educational institutions, as well as clean up the district’s scandal-riddled construction and building-maintenance programs.
It’s an ambitious goal, he conceded Friday.
"If I get them, I’ll walk on water."
Mr. Stierheim became the leader of the nation’s fourth-largest school system in October 2001, when he succeeded the fired Roger Cuevas as an outsider with a reputation as long as his resume.
He was the first town manager of Miami Lakes, city manager of Miami during its financial crisis in 1996 and twice was Miami-Dade County manager. He has served as CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association and leader of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, when it was plagued with the public-relations nightmares of a black boycott and deadly crimes against tourists.
The county’s public-school system has a reputation of its own – as a "sick organization" plagued by "cronyism" and "external political influence," in the words of Mr. Stierheim in his annual report to the school board in July.
The district faced an $81 million budget deficit in 2001 in the wake of state cuts. The next year, the system that educates more than 338,000 students in 337 schools faced a $40 million shortfall.
Mr. Stierheim quickly instituted reforms despite lacking traditional experience in the government of education – from a staff reorganization and salary cuts to the recent hiring of Herbert Cousins as inspector general, a new position Mr. Stierheim calls "just one leg on the table."
A state oversight board has been working on reforming the system’s land-acquisition methods, but construction of schools remains an issue.
A professional construction-consulting firm has been tapped to complete an evaluation of the district’s construction and maintenance departments, Mr. Stierheim said, and raise standards "to where we are building quality schools and maintaining quality schools."
"Clearly, we have a way to go," he said. "It’s not going to happen overnight. This problem took many, many years to develop."
Results of the evaluation are expected by early November, and possible fixes include outsourcing and downsizing, he said.
"There’s a lot of feeling that we’re overstaffed," he said.
Foremost, Mr. Stierheim said, the focus for educators is on students.
"The only mission of the school district is the education of our children," he said. "And by and large, our teachers and principals do a good to excellent job in carrying out that mission."
But, he said, that doesn’t mean the district can’t or won’t improve.
"We’ve very focused on education, on trying to eliminate our ‘F’ schools and increase FCAT scores," he said.
"In saying that, I think its important for our citizens and parents to know that over the past two years, we’ve more than doubled the number of ‘A’ schools from 51 to 110. We have more than doubled the number of ‘B’ schools to 56, up from 20-some-odd. We’ve reduced the number of ‘C’ and ‘D’ schools by 63%, and we’ve reduced the number of ‘F’ schools – originally, there were 28, then 26. Last year, there were 12. This year, seven."
Mr. Stierheim said he will create a new position at the seven failing schools by hiring vice principals focused on curriculum and education. Special programs will be continued for four inner-city schools and more counseling will be added.
Mr. Stierheim said some programs work against the district – such as state-mandated opportunity scholarships that cause a "brain drain" in some schools.
"Parents can take a student out of an ‘F’ school and move (the student) into another school," he said. "If you start losing those students who score the highest because those parents are involved and care, then it works against you when you aggregate the FCAT scores.
"It’s not an easy problem," he said. "But it’s state law, so we live with it."