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Published in Print: May 22, 2002, as Miami-Dade Board OKs Tougher Ethics Policies

Miami-Dade Board OKs Tougher Ethics Policies

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The Miami-Dade County school board has adopted more stringent rules of ethics for conducting its business, a move designed to restore public confidence after a bruising year of disclosures about inappropriate spending by the panel and the district's former superintendent.

At its May 15 meeting, the nine-member board voted to install in Miami-Dade a full-time inspector general who would monitor district operations and report to the Florida Department of Education. The board also voted to place additional regulations on lobbyists who advocate before the panel.

In addition, it placed new restrictions on district employees. The board decided that administrators who leave the district must wait several years before engaging in business with the board, and that employees cannot take extended leaves of absence to work in the private sector.

The language and terms of all of the measures, which passed unanimously, were being drafted and will come before the board for final approval next month.

"These are major planks in a concerted effort by the board and my office to enhance the ethical framework of the structure of the school district," said Superintendent Merrett R. Stierheim, who pressed for the ethics changes. "These were areas where there had been some abuse in the past and needed to be shored up."

The ethics rules were adopted in the wake of a series of allegations that raised questions about the handling of money in the 370,000-student district, the nation's fourth largest.

Superintendent Roger C. Cuevas was fired last September amid criticism of his purchases of land for school buildings. Those purchases ultimately led the state legislature to establish an oversight panel whose approval is now required for certain types of district spending. ("Miami-Dade Board Fires Cuevas as Superintendent," Oct. 3, 2001.)

Last month, The Miami Herald ran a weeklong series examining school board spending over the past decade, outlining what the newspaper said was a pattern of awarding "questionable" contracts that enriched favored lobbyists, contractors, and former board members.

Also last month, a state-mandated audit of the district's financial management found that the district, which has an annual budget of $4.1 billion, could save more than $500 million over five years by improving its management practices.

Seeking Efficiency

Mr. Stierheim, a veteran public administrator who was hired after Mr. Cuevas' dismissal to get the district's house in order, intended the ethics measures as part of an effort to reduce wasteful spending and ensure integrity.

"This isn't rocket science," said Paul R. Philip, his chief of staff. "It's pretty basic. We want to make sure we're operating as efficiently as possible so more money reaches the classroom. There are certain things you have to do to restore public confidence. We're designing systems to change the perception and the reality of how the school board does business."

Melinda M. Miguel, the inspector general for the Florida education department, said that the new local position of inspector general, like its state counterpart, would be empowered to monitor district operations, with an eye toward efficiency and integrity, and refer any wrongdoing to law-enforcement officials.

Other districts have internal or local auditors, but Miami-Dade County will now become the first in Florida whose watchdog reports to the state. The arrangement "enhances the integrity and independence" of the position, Ms. Miguel said.

School board member Manty Sabatés Morse said she does not believe the panel's spending patterns warrant the addition of an inspector general. She contended that the district is sufficiently monitored by the state and an outside audit committee, but said she supports the idea since there is a public perception of trouble.

"It's not that big a problem," Ms. Morse said. "But there have been a few incidents where people on the school board felt uncomfortable with past employees or even [past] members of the school board trying to get into business with the board. It has happened, and that's what we want to stop."

A new commission of leaders in education, law, and business has been formed to advise the school board on ethics issues. Its vice chairwoman, Susan P. Mullane, a professor of ethics in the school of education at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, said there has been some corruption in board dealings, but she feels optimistic that practices will improve, because board members have shown a willingness to address the problems.

Vol. 21, Issue 37, Page 3

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