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Published in Print: September 19, 2001, as Miami-Dade Addresses Management Problems

Miami-Dade Addresses Management Problems

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Delaying a vote on whether to oust its embattled superintendent, the Miami-Dade County school board last week moved to hire a new administrator, independent of the superintendent, to oversee budget and management issues.

The move was intended to address criticism by some Florida state lawmakers that the school board and top administration of the 361,000-student district are unreliable.

Superintendent Roger C. Cuevas, who has been superintendent for five years, has faced intense criticism from some board members and legislators for his handling of district business. Among other complaints, they point to the superintendent's questionable land purchases for new schools, which include a plot of land on a sacred American Indian burial ground, and charges of overpaying for other parcels.

Perla Tabares Hantman, the chairwoman of the board, has expressed a lack of confidence in Mr. Cuevas' leadership ability and had planned a Sept. 12 vote either to establish objectives for him to meet next year or to terminate his contract.

The vote to decide Mr. Cuevas' fate was postponed last week because of the airliner attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington. A new vote has been scheduled for a special session on Sept. 26.

"With the complexity of Miami- Dade County public schools and the size of the school district, I welcome the assistance that will be provided by the person who fills this new position," Mr. Cuevas said in a statement. The superintendent declined comment on criticisms leveled at him by lawmakers or the pending vote to determine his future with the school system.

Several influential state legislators met with board members at what was intended to be a fence-mending meeting earlier this month. Instead, it turned tense as angry lawmakers lectured the board for two hours on what they said was its inability to control the superintendent and his staff.

Lawmakers pointed to a vote by the board to reject the creation of an audit committee and criticized it for a 141/2-hour meeting in late August that began at 1 p.m. and ended at 3:30 a.m.

The longest school board meeting on record in Miami-Dade tested the endurance of parents, teachers, and school activists, who waited into the early morning hours to express their opinions to board members about teacher-salary negotiations and other issues.

Upgrades Needed?

The push for an administrator independent of the superintendent, who would check figures coming from the district staff and serve on the same level as a deputy superintendent, came from Rep. Carlos A. Lacasa, the chairman of the Florida House of Representatives' budget committee.

"They haven't upgraded their management systems for decades," Mr. Lacasa, a Republican, said in an interview last week.

Rep. Lacasa said he would withhold an opinion on whether Mr. Cuevas should remain in his position until the board can provide information that legislators can trust. He did say, however, that the new position would be the beginning of better management and budget oversight.

"I told them you need an independent staff for planning and budget purposes that answers only to the board and that can't be intimidated by the superintendent," he said.

In other action, the school board approved a $4.1 billion budget and a 4 percent raise for teachers. The United Teachers of Dade, a 36,000-member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, has been pushing for teacher raises and began a media campaign at the end of August to create momentum for them.

Annette Katz, the union's communications director, said the board agreed to salary increases three years ago, but reneged, claiming the legislature had not provided the board with adequate funds for a pay increase.

Ms. Katz said the teachers' union would campaign in behalf of a larger salary increase next spring when contract negotiations begin again.

Vol. 21, Issue 3, Page 5

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The Miami-Dade school board has long had an audit committee. No vote was taken at the school board committee meeting against the creation of such a committee.

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