rudy_crew.jpgMIAMI _ A fight over the future of Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Rudy Crew broke down largely along ethnic lines Monday as the School Board narrowly voted down a move to oust the embattled district chief, and also failed to pass a separate item that would have turned the superintendent's job into an elected, rather than an appointed position. The board did pass an item calling for the appointment of a special counsel to review the personnel matter further.

At issue: a budget out of balance, painful cuts to programs and a contentious battle over stalled raises for Miami-Dade teachers, plus what some board members say has been the failure of the superintendent to respond to board members' requests, in a manner some of them say constitutes "gross insubordination" and a breach of his contract, an argument contested by the board's legal counsel.

During a marathon session that lasted late into Monday night, during which charges of racial and political grandstanding were tossed back and forth, the school board voted 5-4 to reject a motion to fire Crew. The item, the sixth on the docket for a session that began at 1 p.m. and continued until after 9 p.m., had been offered by School Board Member Renier de la Portilla, who some Crew supporters accuse of making Crew a plank in his re-election platform. His opponent, Spanish-language TV reporter Angel Zayonm, has also vowed to show Crew the door. 

Voting in favor of keeping the superintendent were the two African-American school board members, Solomon Stinson and Wilbert "Tee" Holloway, along with Dr. Martin Karp, Evelyn Langlieb Greer and School Board Chairman Agustin Barrera.

 "If we terminate the contract," Greer said, "we will find ourselves in an interesting position. We will have terminated the Superintendent of the Year, and we will be subject to the ridicule that sometimes we richly deserve."

Greer was referring to Crew's designation as superintendent of the year by the American Association of School Administrators, which chose Crew for the honor from among thousands of others around the country.

 De la Portilla's motion to fire Crew was supported by three other Cuban-American members of the commission, Perla Tabares Hantman, Ana Rivas Logan, and Dr. Marta Pérez, a longtime Crew opponent, leading some community members who turned out to support Crew to charge that race was a factor in the drive to oust Crew.

 "My tongue-in-cheek comment to you is that if your name was 'Cruz' we wouldn't be here today," said Dr. Walter T. Richardson, pastor of Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in Perrine, and one of the dozens of community leaders, activists and private citizens who turned out to support Crew. Others included Miami-Dade NAACP President Victor Curry and Miami-Dade NAACP First Vice President Brad Brown, local educators and clergy, and U.S. Congressman Kendrick Meek.

Hantmann took particular offense at that remark, noting that she had voted to hire Crew over a fellow Cuban-American candidate. And she and other board members decried the use of race to cloud what she called an issue of financial mismanagement. Hantmann expressed her reluctance to support what she called a "premature" move to oust Crew, with whom she said she has a good working relationship. But she said she ultimately had to support the ouster because of the fiscal issues.

 Rivas Logan detailed what she called repeated acts of insubordination by Crew, which she said included hiring unqualified staff at inflated salaries, failing to inform the board of personnel changes, and even allegations of verbal abuse of female staff, including the use of "the F word" in the workplace.

She said Crew had repeatedly failed to provide reports and plans requested by the board, including plans for implementing programs to expand Internet access and utilize the Miami Metrozoo for educational field trips, and she pointed to spending excesses that she charged had "bankrupted the district." Also included were charges that Crew spent as many as three months of the past year out of the district on speaking engagements, and "promoting his book."

Addressing charges by Rivas Logan and others that Crew has mismanaged the $5.5 billion budget for the nation's fourth largest school district, and that he was to blame for stalled teacher salary hikes, Curry said board members were blaming Crew for the results of budget cuts that have devastated the county under the leadership of Republican state houses and governors.  In an earlier press conference, the NAACP president charged that the county was engaged in "systematically trying to remove African-Americans from positions of authority in the county," and warned of "consequences and repercussions" if Crew was ousted, hinting at potential boycotts.

Crew's detractors, including Abel Iraola, a junior at Hialeah High School, who spoke as acting president of the Miami-Dade Student Alliance, decried the notion that race had anything to do with Crew's predicament.

 "To intentionally make this a race issue is an embarrassment to our county and a testament to the lack of progress in our community, Iraola said.

 Christian Williams, a senior at Miami Senior High School and acting vice president of the student organization, agreed. Williams, who is black, said Crew had "failed to live up to the expectations of his office" and said "this is not a racial issue. It's an issue of someone not doing their job."


And Shawn Beightol, a chemistry teacher at Michael Cropp Senior High School who is running for the school board against Karp, scolded Crew's supporters, saying "I would remind you that this room sounded very different when it was heard how the Northwestern fiasco had been brushed under the carpet," referring to the scandal over a star football player's sexual liaison with a 14-year-old schoolmate, and the school's failure to report the incident to police.

Crew, for his part, read a statement defending his fiscal management of the district and calling the proceeding a "ridiculous witch hunt" and a "high-tech lynching" of his reputation, recalling the charge made by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his 1991 confirmation hearing. And he hinted that the ongoing battle over his job could make it difficult for him to continue.

Earlier in the evening, school board members also voted down – by the same narrow margin – a bid by School Board Member Rivas Logan to ask the county commission to place an item on the November ballot making the school superintendent an elected, rather than an appointed, position. Such a position would require a candidate to run countywide; a tough proposition for an Afircan-American candidate.

That proposal produced sharp debate, as School Board Member Evelyn Langlieb Greer said the board shouldn't rush to return to a system that voters tossed out in 1957 amid fears of cronyism, constant electioneering by the superintendent before and after attaining office, and the possible tug of special interests who might fund a potential superintendent's campaign.

"You have to ask, ‘Who benefits?’" Greer said. "Let's face it. In this community it's the business people who fund elections. Let's say you have interests that want to privatize the bus service or the cafeteria services. How difficult would it be for them to put up a hard drawn businessman (for election) to do it?"

Other board members questioned whether an elected superintendent would meet minimal educational qualifications. If passed, the measure would not have affected Crew, as it would have been implemented in 2010.

The school board did approve the appointment of a special counsel to advise them further on personnel matters regarding Crew, amid worries expressed by some board members that the current counsel "works for" Crew, and thus was in an untenable position. Acting board counsel Luis Garcia issued a detailed, five-page opinion leaked to the media over the weekend stating that the board lacked grounds to fire Crew for cause, and would have to pay him the $700,000 remaining in his contract if it chose to fire him. And some board members worried that Crew could have appealed the firing, and possibly sought damages based on the "smearing his good name and reputation."

Crew and the board narrowly avoided having to deal with such questions, at least for now.

Pictured above is Miami-Dade School Superintendent Rudy Crew.