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Stierheim vows fundamental change

Fed up with construction delays, spiraling costs and poor workmanship, Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Merrett Stierheim is pushing to rebuild the district's construction program. It could be the toughest job he's ever taken on, he says.

Already, Stierheim has called on his staff to hold architects and contractors more accountable for their work. He has built a planning unit and has called for an advisory committee of engineers, architects and developers. This week, Stierheim will lead a construction retreat with industry experts and officials from other school systems. "We've got to improve the operation, without question, " he said.

But Stierheim has met resistance at almost every step: from a state-appointed advisory board with controversial demands, from some School Board members who complain that change hasn't come fast enough, from district staffers reluctant to share information, and even from his own appointees, such as businessman Joe Arriola, brought in as volunteer chief business officer.

Stierheim and Arriola clashed over how to restructure the district, and Arriola, well connected in the business community, resigned last year.

"I found unqualified people running almost every job [in construction], " said Arriola, a vocal critic of the district and now Miami's city manager. "But you cannot break the bureaucracy over there." Stierheim says he'll try.

In 15 months on the job, he has cut administrative jobs, seen the district through an $81 million budget shortfall, and reduced the use of cellphones and overtime. Now, he says, he is ready to tackle construction and maintenance.

Miami-Dade County isn't alone in its struggle. A grand jury in 1997 found that Broward County's school construction program was riddled with "questionable actions" and "lapses in ethical practices." The Broward district has made changes, but a recent state attorney's investigation found ongoing problems with mold and mildew.

Stierheim hopes Miami-Dade County will give him the chance to fix the construction program.

"I'm trying to change the culture of an organization that has taken decades to build, " he said.

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