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Published in Print: June 16, 2004, as In Search for Leaders, Private Dollars Add Up

In Search for Leaders, Private Dollars Add Up

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When the Miami-Dade County school district recently agreed to help incoming Superintendent Rudolph F. Crew get a home loan backed by private donations, the sweet deal left a sour taste in the mouth of school board member Marta Pérez.

"I don’t think it’s good public policy," Ms. Pérez said in an interview last week. "Certainly, this person [who donates the money] will have some leverage over the superintendent."

Ms. Pérez was one of two of the board’s nine members who opposed the contract, under which Mr. Crew’s loan will be paid back by Paul L. Cejas, a wealthy former school board member and onetime U.S. ambassador to Belgium. Mr. Crew starts his job in Miami on July 1.

Her opposition underscores the concerns that can arise when private money is offered as an enticement to public school officials—a rare practice that could become more tempting as districts vie for superintendents.

A Florida state ethics panel that approved Mr. Crew’s home loan this month made clear that any such deal must be closely scrutinized.

Leaders in the District of Columbia faced similar questions this spring, after proposing that private donors contribute money to augment the salary offer for a new schools chief—a job for which Mr. Crew was a candidate. (Last week, it appeared the post might be offered to former Long Beach, Calif. Superintendent Carl A. Cohn.)

The plan "raised a certain level of discomfort among some in the District government," said Tony Bullock, the press aide to Mayor Anthony A. Williams of Washington. He added that it was unclear whether private funds might be used to put together a package for whoever becomes superintendent. "It’s an idea that needs a lot more thoughtful discussion," he said.

Rare Practice

That discomfort helps explain why so few school districts have used private contributions to compensate superintendents, said William J. Attea, who heads Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates Ltd., one of the country’s largest superintendent-search firms, based in Glenview, Ill. None of the 400 searches the company has conducted since 1987 has involved such an arrangement.

But Mr. Attea sees why some districts may feel pressed to consider going beyond public dollars to recruit a leader. "What the public wants is they want million-dollar talent to take the job for $100,000," he said, "and it’s not going to happen in this day and age."

Miami-Dade’s home-loan offer grew out of the intense competition to hire Mr. Crew, a former chancellor of the New York City schools, who had been courted in recent months by several school systems. ("Miami-Dade Snares Sought-After Leader," May 26, 2004.) The school board of the 363,000-student Florida district picked Mr. Crew last month from a field of four finalists chosen through an extensive national search.

Crown Victoria

Michael Krop, who chairs the Miami-Dade County school board, said other districts interested in Mr. Crew had discussed providing a house. Mr. Crew could not be reached for comment, but papers filed with the Florida Commission on Ethics said he plans to keep a house in California, where he has worked at a foundation since 2001, so his family can stay there.

"It was not our idea," said Mr. Krop. "We just had to deal with it at the time if we were interested in hiring Mr. Crew."

In its job agreement with Mr. Crew, the school board pledged last month to assist him in getting a home loan that would be paid back "by donations entirely from non-school revenues." Later, it was announced that Mr. Cejas, who served on the board in the 1980s, would personally cover the cost of a loan of $150,000.

Under the terms of the deal, Mr. Cejas will pay back a quarter of the loan each of the next four years. If Mr. Crew quits before 2008, he will have to pay off the rest of the mortgage. The arrangement could cost Mr. Cejas an estimated $240,000, once interest on the loan is figured in.

Mr. Cejas, who was unavailable for comment, is a well-known philanthropist in Miami. A native of Cuba who came to Florida as teenager, he built his vast wealth as a health-care and investment-company executive. Also a major contributor to Democratic candidates, he was appointed ambassador to Belgium by President Clinton.

The state ethics commission approved the deal, so long as no contributions came from individuals or organizations that might "lobby" the school system.

Mr. Cejas, 61, has told the local press that he might accept donations for the loan from others, but not from anyone with a business interest in the district.

That assurance wasn’t enough for Ms. Pérez. "We don’t know if Mr. Cejas has friends who do business with the school district," she said.

Even without the loan, she complained, Mr. Crew’s compensation package is too generous. The contract pays him $295,000 in his first year, plus the chance to earn another $50,000 in bonuses. It also pays for a new car every two years, specified as "a Crown Victoria or comparable vehicle."

Vol. 23, Issue 40, Page 12

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