School & District Management

Miami Board Buys Out Leader’s Contract

By Catherine Gewertz — September 11, 2008 5 min read
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Four years after the Miami-Dade County, Fla., school board waged an intense campaign to woo and win a nationally renowned superintendent, Rudolph F. Crew, it has ousted him from his job on a wave of criticism about his management style and financial acumen.

In a meeting Sept. 10, the school board of the nation’s fourth-largest district decided to buy out the remaining two years of Mr. Crew’s contract for $368,000 in salary and benefits.

The contract, which pays Mr. Crew $325,000 a year plus benefits, entitles the board to fire him for cause with no payout. But relations between him and the board had soured so profoundly that both sides agreed to negotiate a deal to avoid protracted wrangling over whether the district would be justified in doing so.

At the same meeting, the board offered the superintendent’s job to Alberto Caravalho, its associate superintendent for intergovernmental affairs, who also has been offered the superintendency in Pinellas County. Mr. Crew’s last day in charge was to be Sept. 12.

For much of his tenure, Mr. Crew had the support of five of the board’s nine members. But an August election that ousted one of his key supporters tilted that balance, making his imminent departure more inevitable. Mr. Crew said that much of his trouble came from his refusal to “curry favor” with the school board.

“A fair analysis of this is that I didn’t run in the political lane, out of preference for running in the academic lane,” he said in an interview. “I just paid the price for it. I knew this price would be paid. This isn’t something I didn’t anticipate.”

Superintendent of the Year

In 2004, Mr. Crew was being courted by several other districts when Miami-Dade nabbed him with a lucrative compensation package. Then an education consultant, he had led the school systems in New York City; Tacoma, Wash.; and Sacramento, Calif. (“Miami-Dade Snares Sought-After Leader,” May 26, 2004.)

Mr. Crew’s work in Miami garnered national attention. This year marks the third time the 341,000-student district is a finalist for the Broad Prize for Urban Education. The American Association of School Administrators named Mr. Crew the 2008 National Superintendent of the Year.

During his tenure, the graduation rate has inched up, and thousands more students are taking Advanced Placement classes. When Mr. Crew arrived, the district had earned a C from the state. For the next two years, it earned B’s, then a C, before getting a B again last year. His three-year initiative to funnel intensive help to 39 low-performing schools is widely credited with improvements there. But critics argued that the results were too modest to justify the $100 million-plus price tag. (“Miami ‘Zone’ Gives Schools Intensive Help,” Oct. 17, 2007.)

Some said his management style undermined his effectiveness.

“From my vantage point, Dr. Crew is a man who would be excellent at running a corporation,” said Linda Lecht, the president of the local education fund that has supported district initiatives for more than 23 years. “His style is very take-charge. He knows what he wants to get done, and he forges ahead to accomplish it. That’s admirable.

“But, in this community, you’ve got to sell your plan, bring many different people in, and make them all feel part of the plan,” she said. “It can be frustrating and take more time, but it’s what it takes to make lasting change here.”

Ana Rivas Logan, a member of the Miami-Dade school board, said Mr. Crew erred seriously by not explaining his plans and building support for them among Miami’s Hispanic community. “We are 65 percent of the county,” she said. “He never sat down with us, never engaged. The Hispanic community feels totally neglected.”

Mr. Crew, who is African-American, said his work was “politicized” by board and community members.

“I didn’t pay homage to what they call ‘the community,’ meaning the Cuban community,” he said. “I was too busy trying to pay attention to the children of the larger community. ...In my book, it’s the Haitian community, the African-American community, the Jamaican community, and it is in fact the Hispanic community, but not just Cubans; there are Nicaraguans, Puerto Ricans, and lots of other people here.

“There is a racial tension that exists here in Miami that they defined me as being against the Cuban community.”

Mr. Crew’s handling of the district’s budget has incensed board members. In the past two years, his administration reported overspending the $5.5 billion annual budget by more than $45 million one year and $66 million the next, forcing the board to draw its rainy-day fund down to $4 million. Financial experts had advised keeping $150 million in that fund for emergencies. To balance its fiscal 2009 budget, the district had to cut more than $200 million, including more than 2,000 jobs.

“His inability to give us a balanced budget was one of his real downfalls,” said Ms. Logan.

‘A Bigger Ditch’?

Even Mr. Crew’s critics say that some of the financial trouble was driven by high food and fuel prices, the soaring cost of employee benefits, big cuts in state funding and the collapse of Florida’s housing market . But even some of his backers suggest he should have pared back expenses to match the darkening fiscal outlook. Mr. Crew said those dynamics “created a bigger ditch than anyone would have anticipated.”

“If I had been smart enough to see that was what we were talking about, I would obviously have made the corrective actions,” he said. “I accept that as criticism; I didn’t see that coming.”

And even those who see the school board as too politicized and micromanaging say Mr. Crew undermined his standing by being too stingy with fiscal information when board members requested it.

“During my tenure, and certainly during Rudy’s, we had a difficult board to deal with,” said Merrett R. Stierheim, a longtime municipal manager who served as the district’s superintendent from 2001 to 2004. “But you’ve got to have a handle on the budget. A series of revelations about shortfalls are just guaranteed to drive members of the school board crazy.”

Daniel A. Domenech, a former Fairfax County, Va., superintendent who is now the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based AASA, said few urban superintendents can escape community anger, especially when tough economic times necessitate cutbacks.

“Every time they make a decision, there’s an element of the population that is not happy with that decision,” he said.

“If Rudy Crew decides he wants to continue to be a superintendent,” Mr. Domenech said, “there will be a lineup of school districts that will be seeking his services. He is recognized, well known, accomplished, and respected in the field as an educational leader. That’s why Miami went after him to begin with.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 2008 edition of Education Week as Miami Board Buys Out Leader’s Contract

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