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Crew's Blues

The tumultuous rise and fall of a big-city superintendent. Is this an impossible job?

November/December 2008

On the national stage, this was a very good year for Rudy Crew. His peers named him National Superintendent of the Year for improving education in Miami-Dade County, Florida, the fourth-largest school system in the country. His school district was a finalist for the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education, which recognizes the most improved urban school system in the country.

Yet 2008 also saw Crew’s career screech to a halt in Miami. The school board unceremoniously dumped its high-profile, outspoken leader on September 11

Crew’s 58th birthday and two years before his contract was due to expire. Critics call him negligent, insubordinate, and incompetent.

Lauded by national experts and demonized at home, Crew is the latest in a long line of urban superintendents who have been shown the door not long after being hired, their reform efforts quickly fading in their wake, replaced by the incoming plans of yet another short-term leader. Instability has become such the norm in big-city school systems that many commended the fact that Crew’s short time in Miami—four years—was at least one year longer than the national average tenure of an urban schools superintendent.

But for others, Crew’s experience in Miami underscores how tricky and treacherous the job can be. If a nationally recognized, longtime educator like Crew can’t rise above the fray, it raises the question, Who can?

Racing to Make Changes
“The average tenure is a crime, so it’s stupid to even compare it to that,” says Charles M. Payne, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago and author of So Much Reform, So Little Change (Harvard Education Press, 2008), which explores the persistence of failure in today’s urban schools. “At least for the bottom quartile of children, Crew left Miami-Dade a better system than it was when he came,” Payne says. “You just can’t turn your nose up at that. I’m afraid this is another one of those many cases where you’ve seen someone do a good job for the thing we want the most in our schools and that doesn’t seem to matter.”

Reflective but still smarting, Crew agreed to speak with Scholastic Administrator not long after his firing. He admits he knew his time there was limited, which is why he immediately created the School Improvement Zone, a targeted school district comprised of 39 consistently low-performing schools. Crew stipulated that failing schools in the Zone operate longer school days and a longer school year; Zone teachers received higher pay. The model, given a three-year commitment, was a scaled-up version of a small Chancellor’s District that Crew established in New York City, where he spent five years in the late 1990s as schools chief before a vouchers dispute with then-mayor Rudy Giuliani triggered his departure.

“I’d seen this movie before,” Crew says. “The sad part about it is it played out somewhat similar to what I expected. These districts don’t give themselves time for stabilization, and they simply go from one round of a very turbulent fight to another ... transition from one superintendent to the next. Just when you get four to five good years of knowing how a system functions and what schools need attention and knowing it literally can improve, you kind of hit a wall. You just run out of political currency to be able to get any further.

“If your intentions are true, then you have to run very fast in order to be able to realize any of them—because I can guarantee, you will run out of partners.”

No Honeymoon Period
In 2004 crew was wooed to Miami, where his $400,000-a-year salary made him the highest-paid superintendent in the country. Prior to his appointment in Miami-Dade, Crew served as director of district reform initiatives at the Stupski Foundation, a private philanthropic foundation created to support the improvement of public education. When he arrived in Miami, he faced a district mired in corruption and cronyism. As one example, then-governor Jeb Bush had appointed an oversight board to supervise the district’s handling of construction projects.Upon his arrival, Crew fired dozens of principals in struggling schools and overhauled the construction process. He added roughly 84,000 new seats in the district and reduced school crowding.“There’s no such thing in urban American schools as a honeymoon period,” Crew says. “You sort of take the system by storm. It requires enormous amounts of physical energy on the front end and an enormous amount of political savvy on the back end.”

Under Crew’s watch, Miami-Dade’s 353,000-student district narrowed the achievement gap among Hispanic children and their white classmates in reading and math at all grade levels. This year, Miami-Dade’s low-income black and Hispanic students outperformed their peers in Florida districts serving students with similar income levels. About 17,000 students now take advanced placement courses, up from 13,500 before Crew arrived. The district has halved the number of F-rated schools and earned an overall B grade from the state, up from a C the year before Crew’s tenure started. The number of A-rated schools jumped from 142 to 171 based on results from statewide mandated testing.

“It was ‘hit the ground running,’” says Crew’s former spokesman, Joe Garcia, who left Miami-Dade in 2006 and now works for North Carolina’s New Schools Project.

Garcia recalls an early planning meeting in which Crew drew a sharp arc to illustrate how much work needed to be done in the first year.

“He said you have to climb the hill fast and hard that first year to get high enough so you have the public support to continue your work,” Garcia says. “If you drop below that line of parent-public concern, people start to mess with you. If you stay above it, that’s where real improvement starts to happen.”

Poisonous Politics
Outside the classroom, crew was on shaky ground. School board members accused him of mismanaging the district’s $5.5 billion budget and nearly depleting its reserves. He was blamed for sloppy oversight when the district came in over budget two years in a row. And tense relations on the board were strained further by Crew’s inability to connect with Miami’s powerful Cuban-American community. The relationship soured early on when Crew rejected demands to remove from school libraries a children’s book, Vamos a Cuba, that painted a sunny portrait of life in Cuba.

Crew quickly became fodder for angry exiles on Miami Cuban radio. At one board meeting, when a Hispanic board member severely criticized Crew’s proposal to balance the budget by reducing spending on bilingual education, Crew shot back, “Do not talk to me like a dog!”

The monthly board meetings, televised on the board-owned public TV station, became so known for their soap-opera drama—board members walking out, security guards escorting angry public speakers away from the podium—that the number of viewers doubled.

Racial tensions also poisoned the atmosphere. In 2006, Crew filed an ethics complaint alleging that Ralph Arza, a white Cuban-American member of the Florida House of Representatives, used racial epithets in English and Spanish to describe Crew, who is black. Arza, who sat on a key education committee, ultimately resigned from the legislature over the scandal. But Crew’s dealings with lawmakers—particularly Republicans—chilled.

On one Spanish-language radio station, La Kalle 98.3 FM, on August 6, an announcer read a make-believe horoscope for Crew, noting his stars looked bad and he had gained weight. It’s probably because Crew “likes fried chicken,” remarked a second announcer.

“I’m not sure he understood how ugly people could be,” says Judy Rizzo, executive director of the James B. Hunt, Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy in Durham, North Carolina. “He didn’t anticipate that level of distraction.”

Rizzo, who worked alongside Crew in Boston, Tacoma, and New York, said she came briefly to Miami at the beginning of Crew’s time there to help him set up his staff. “I told him, ‘Be mindful of the politics. You’re the wrong color in this town,’” she says. “In most urban school districts, nine out of ten kids are black. In Miami, it’s different. The power structure is different. ”
Crew’s opponents, however, say it was the superintendent who played up race. At one board meeting, while trying to fend off efforts to oust him, Crew complained he was the victim of a “high-tech lynching.”

“Whenever there is turmoil in this community, it’s easy to use the ethnic card,” board member Renier Diaz de la Portilla told a TV crew at the time. “Crew just hasn’t gotten the job done. Yes, we have fewer F schools than last year. But he’s had four years to turn this around, and it couldn’t get any worse.”

It’s been said that a successful superintendent must do three things: improve academic performance, deftly manage a bureaucracy, and maneuver through complex politics. Crew seemingly fumbled on the last challenge.

He infuriated several board members with what one Miami Herald columnist called his “father knows best” attitude. When he declined one board member’s requests for public records and failed to put one of her items on the agenda, she sued—and won—the right to receive the records. Crew antagonized another board member when he refused to attend a meeting she had called to discuss the budget. Board members also seethed when Crew withheld information from an early, critical analysis of Zone schools that found little impact on students’ academic achievement in the first year. (A three-year study of the schools is still under way and has not been released.)

“He certainly was a good educator, and he really got the construction department going, but I was very disappointed in his budget skills,” says Miami-Dade school board vice-chair Perla Tabares Hantman. “I also didn’t like that he disrespected the board’s wishes and failed to keep us informed,” she says. “That was a character flaw ... and there was too much turmoil and negativity in the community. It was not very accepting of him. This is a very diverse community. You need to work with it and at least try to be accepted.”

“Death by 1,000 Cuts”
The situation left crew pining for the power he had wielded in New York, where he could remove board members for cause.
“Miami politics is immature,” Crew says. “There is ‘I didn’t get to be board chair so I’m going to try to hurt you’ or ‘I didn’t get the office I wanted.’ It’s the proverbial death by 1,000 cuts. It’s not an intellectually driven debate about substance.... It’s particularly horrendous here, but we’ve all become conditioned to being sound bites or fist bumps.”

Local media, the proverbial watchdog, only seemed to exacerbate the dysfunction on the school board, Crew says.
“They’re in some ways wired into the intrigue,” he asserts. “They just have an interest in wanting the blood-and-guts story. There’s no analysis or educating people of what the core issues are or how [the issues look] in other places.”

Earlier this year, reeling by state budget cuts and rising costs, the Miami-Dade district faced a $67 million shortfall. To make up for the losses, Crew slashed millions of dollars from the district’s central administration and its schools. He also withheld promised teacher raises, alienating one of his biggest allies, United Teachers of Dade, which had earlier granted him unprecedented cooperation on the Zone schools.

“Yes, Dr. Crew would still be here if he had honored our contract,” says utd president Karen Aronowitz, who warned teachers not to apply to Miami-Dade at an American Federation of Teachers 2008 biannual convention in Chicago.

“He was dismissive,” Aronowitz says. “What’s more critical to an education system than its teachers? We’re not some add-on.... It’s not just the money, but also the idea that somehow we’re impediments to the system.”

In the end, Crew became an election-year issue. His downfall came on the heels of a scrappy school board election in August in which his performance was a key debate. While anti-Crew voices still comprised a minority on the board after the election, the community and board had become so polarized that both Crew and his supporters agreed his time was up.

“There are board members who, no matter what the superintendent does, will never support him,” said the board’s chair, Agustin J. Barrera.

The board bought out the remainder of Crew’s contract for about $368,000. In the same meeting, the board hired his replacement, longtime Miami-Dade school administrator Alberto Carvalho, 44. (At press time, the appointment was bogged down in its own ethics scandal.)

The Revolving Door
Until crew’s dismissal this year, there were signs that the 15-year trend in abbreviated urban superintendent terms might be changing. After all, Beverly Hall has presided over Atlanta public schools for nine years. In Texas, Pascal Forgione, Jr., has announced he will retire in 2009 after 10 years as superintendent of Austin schools. Jerry Weast, superintendent of Montgomery County (MD) Public Schools, which has the third-highest graduation rate in the country, was first appointed in 1999.

“We can see places where there are long-term superintendents, and the systems are considered to be doing very well,” says Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, the organization that named Crew 2008 Superintendent of the Year.

“It starts with a board that recognizes that there needs to be a commitment made. It starts with making sure you do a diligent search so you match the right person to the needs of the community. And once you make a selection, you commit to that person,” Domenech says. “It’s going to take time and tough decisions have to be made, but you have to stick to it.”
For many national observers, Crew’s Miami Waterloo is a reminder that the pool of candidates for urban schools chiefs is steadily shrinking. Few are willing to take the risk associated with what Michael Casserly of the Council of the Great City Schools calls “a land mine of a job.”

“My phone is ringing all the time, but it has less to do with me than the fact that it’s slim pickings out there,” says the Hunt Institute’s Rizzo. “What happened to Rudy is a tale too often heard. People just say, ‘Another one bites the dust.’” She adds, “When a school board conducts a national search and picks an outsider, it’s usually because the district wants change. Then you start counting the days. By definition, change is going to upset somebody, whether you cut jobs or close schools. Boards are unprepared for that. Before you know it, they’ve had it with change. They want what they’re familiar with.”
As he contemplates what lies ahead, Crew offers this advice for other urban superintendents.

“The second you sign your contract, be prepared to have it taken away. Don’t ever rest on what you did yesterday or last year ’cause it’s never enough. What happened to me was a rogue wave. It didn’t happen because I turned my back on the sea. It happened because I was deep out at sea. But, wow, how important it was to get out that far.”

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