School reorganization due later this month, new superintendent says
By Sherri C. Ranta
Year 2002 will bring a major reorganization of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, said interim Superintendent Merrett Stierheim, a veteran administrator credited with bringing order to a scandal-ridden, demoralized government in the late 1990s.
A new district organization chart for the nation's fourth-largest school system is expected to be released late this month by Mr. Stierheim, who with a mandate from the school board brings a reputation for administrative savvy to a system that last year suffered a loss of public trust.
The plan would result in cutting in half the 13 or so positions with direct reporting responsibility to the superintendent, Mr. Stierheim said. Efficiency and accountability, he said, are the biggest factors determining the new organization.
"We're putting business functions where they should be and in some cases recruiting from outside. We'd like to promote from within," Mr. Stierheim said, "but sometimes programs require special skills - for example, they need to be run like a business."
Mr. Stierheim came to the district in October 2001 as state officials were in the process of reducing funds to education, a move that resulted in an $81 million deficit in the district's $4.1 billion budget. He succeeded Roger Cuevas.
A $7 million dip into the district's contingency fund and budget cuts were proposed - positions went unfilled, overtime was curtailed and cell phones, beepers and cars were cut from the budget to make up the shortfall.
The problem, Mr. Steirheim said, is almost solved. He said he awaits word from several unions regarding proposed two- to five-day mandatory unpaid leaves of absence this year for employees. The leaves are designed to save the district about $21 million.
What will the 2002-03 budget bring? Mr. Stierheim said that will depend on what the Florida Legislature decides in the next few months.
"If they decide to make further cuts in education, I think we're facing layoffs, which we tried to avoid, and possibly programmatic cutbacks," he said.
"The primary mission of the school district is educating students. That takes place in the classroom for K-12. That's the last thing we want to affect," Mr. Stierheim said. The district has about 360,000 children enrolled this school year.
"Summer school is an added program, and if our backs are against the wall, in addition to layoffs, we may be forced to cut that. Several districts have already done that. This is offered as an example," he said.
Crowding is another challenge Miami-Dade County Public Schools face. The average classroom size is about 26, the superintendent said.
"The ultimate solution," Mr. Stierheim said, "is to go before the voters for bond issues to build facilities. But given, and I think everyone agrees, voter skepticism and lack of confidence, we have to build that confidence and public trust before I recommend we go to the voters for bond funds."
Hired as an interim superindent, Mr. Stierheim has a one-year contract with the board. The group recently halted a national search for a new superintendent, telling Mr. Stierheim they wanted to give him room to work.
"They unanimously tabled it. That surprised me. I didn't want anyone to accuse me of dragging my feet on the search," he said.
Before going to the school district, Mr. Stierheim - after retiring from the county - was city manager for the new City of Miami Lakes. In addition to managing the county and City of Miami, he previously served as president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.
This is the first time Mr. Stierheim has overseen a school district.
"Before my name surfaced, I was getting calls from the members of the school board asking me if I was interested - that was very encouraging. I ultimately put my name in the hat after Roger was gone," he said.
Mr. Stierheim said the school board has basically given him a mandate to reorganize and reform the district.
"People should remember, it was the school board who said they wanted a change. The board does deserve some recognition and credit for being the initiator and catalyst for change. I came in on a mandate to improve the administration of the school district - that's called empowerment."
Operation of the school district, he said, "is not nearly as complex an operation as I thought it might be because it has only one mission, that is, the education of our children. There is no other mission, whereas the county (government of Miami-Dade) has multiple goals."