MIAMI _ The Miami-Dade School Board on Monday voted to begin negotiations with School Superintendent Rudy Crew, seeking to buy him out of his contract.
During the special board meeting, which Crew did not attend, five of the eight members present – Chairman Agustin J. Barrera, Wilbert "Tee" Holloway, Martin Karp, Solomon C. Stinson and Vice Chair Perla Tabares Hantman voted to request that the board's newly hired special counsel, Murray A. Greenberg, the former county attorney, begin the process of mediation with Crew's attorneys.
Tabares Hantman supports ousting Crew but expressed concerns about the potential financial cost of a protracted legal battle. Greenberg is to report back to the board during its regular meeting on Wednesday.
Three members: Renier Diaz de la Portilla, Marta Pérez and Ana Rivas Logan voted against the measure, and instead voted to fire Crew “for cause.’’
During an often contentious meeting that one member characterized as a “witch hunt,’’ the three members of the minority peppered Greenberg with questions about how Crew could be dismissed without forcing the board to pay the balance of his contract, estimated at $700,000. That amount essentially includes his $350,000 annual salary for each of the two years remaining on his contract. The amount could be higher when the cost of Crew’s unused sick leave is factored into the equation.
Evelyn Langlieb Greer, a Crew supporter who lost her seat in the Aug. 26 primary, has been ill, and did not attend the hearing. Her replacement, Larry Feldman, opposes giving Crew any financial settlement.
De la Portilla pushed Greenberg to explain whether Crew could be found to have committed “gross insubordination,’’ the only available means to fire him under his contract. Greenberg repeatedly explained that proving “gross insubordination’’ would be difficult, and that Crew could opt for an administrative hearing to contest his dismissal, which could result in protracted, costly litigation that the board was likely to lose.
“The burden of proof would be on the board,” Greenberg said. “And the bar would be high.”
De la Portilla and Rivas Logan led the charge to find a way to extricate the board from Crew’s contract without forcing taxpayers to give him what De la Portilla called a “golden parachute.”
Some board members have charged that Crew has repeatedly failed to comply with board requests, and they blame him for the district’s budget woes. After De la Portilla asked whether Crew’s failure to show up for required physicals could be deemed a breach of his contract, Greenberg explained that even if Crew had “failed to comply with this request or that request,’’ that such failure might indicate “incompetence,’’ but that incompetence is excluded as a cause for dismissal in Crew’s contract.
Crew could choose to resign, in which case the board would be forced to pay him only for the 180 days during which he would be required to give notice. Crew has not indicated that he intends to do so. If Crew were fired for cause, and lost what could be a yearlong legal battle with the board, he would be due no compensation. Still, Greenberg made it clear that litigation would be a difficult path for the board, with little chance of success.
“Tell me, Mr. Greenberg, what is a legal witch hunt?’’ Holloway asked dryly.
“It’s not a term that’s taught in law school,’’ Greenberg responded.
Holloway lamented that some members of the board appeared to be more focused on going after Crew, and laying the blame for the unbalanced budget “entirely on the shoulders of one man, rather than on this board.’’
“Maybe that’s why this school district, instead of being one of the largest, we’re one of the largest laughing stocks.”
That comment drew sharp responses from Perez and Rivas Logan, who defended their attempts to remove Crew.
“I come from one of the most diverse, ethnically and in partisanship districts of anyone on this dais,’’ Rivas Logan said. “I don't think anyone here [with the exception of De la Portilla] can say that. My constituents voted me back in with 70 percent because they support my views.’’
Holloway shot back, “I was re-elected with 71 percent,’’ he said, before adding, “If we’re not the biggest laughing stock, then we’re the best soap in town.’’
Barrera and Tabares Hantman repeatedly expressed concern about the potential cost of litigation, even suggesting that perhaps “some community groups who brought Crew to Miami could contribute” to a paid settlement.
Barrera said that “the advantage we have today, that we didn’t have three days ago, is that we know Dr. Crew wants to leave.’’
According to the chairman, Crew indicated as much to him days earlier.
The meeting often descended into sniping, as when Barrera cut off De la Portilla as he attempted to push Deputy Superintendent Ofelia San Pedro to state that in order to make a settlement with Crew, “programs or personnel, possibly teachers,’’ could be cut.
“You would have a number of options,’’ repeated San Pedro, whose name has been mentioned as a possible Crew successor.
Members of the minority lashed out at the media, with Perez accusing reporters of “not covering the sins’’ she says have been committed by Crew, who was named Superintendent of the Year earlier this year by the American Association of School Administrators.
Since he was hired in 2004, Crew has frequently clashed with members of the board over budget and personnel issues, as the county struggled amid state budget cuts. He drew the ire of much of the Cuban-American community, as well as some board members, when he refused to support the removal of a book, Vamos a Cuba from school shelves, after a parent complained that it portrayed the island in a falsely positive light. The dispute led to public protests and a 2006 lawsuit that ended with a federal judge reinstating the book and 23 other titles also banned by the board.
If the school board is able to reach a deal by Wednesday, Crew's tenure could end as soon as this week.
Few at Monday’s hearing, however, seemed happy with the way the board was proceeding.
Karp, who has supported Crew, expressed particular dismay.
“By being here today, I think we’ve already lost,’’ Karp said. “I think what ever we do, we’ve lost in many ways.’’
Pictured above is Miami-Dade School Superintendent Rudy Crew.