MIAMI Seven months ago, Rudy Crew's peers named him the nation's top school superintendent, bolstering a long-standing reputation as an education innovator. Student achievement in Miami-Dade County's schools has improved during his four-year tenure and the district is consistently a finalist for the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education.
But this week the school board effectively fired Crew by voting to buy out the remainder of his contract, with critics saying the hype never matched Crew's actual deeds leading the nation's fourth-largest school district. The district's $5.5 billion budget is in shambles, and there is a racial undertone in the nasty and sometimes comical war between Crew, an African-American, and the mostly Cuban-American board.
The televised school board meetings became so tense and explosive that they are one of South Florida's hottest reality shows, drawing record audiences as the former New York City schools chancellor and his supporters exchanged barbs with his detractors.
"He is viewed highly as a respected authority in the field of education," said Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, the organization that honored him last winter. "Maybe it would be best for him if he was not as outspoken, but that's who he is."
Crew's critics say he mismanaged the budget, spending money on programs whose results were never worth the investment or the administrators' high salaries. They say he also neglected to build ties with communities in the district.
"He's alienated the real people out there who are feeling the cut in services," said Renier Diaz de la Portilla, one of Crew's most outspoken board opponents. "This is about performance. It's not about ethnicity."
Crew this week called the district "the most horrific political landscape."
The board nominated Associate Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho to replace Crew, but Carvalho has also been asked to lead the Pinellas County schools and has not yet declared his decision.
Before Crew arrived, students in Miami-Dade were among the lowest-ranked in the state in reading and math proficiency, classrooms were overcrowded and a 2001 state review found the district had overpaid for property by millions of dollars.
But what Crew's critics on the board refer to most are the district's financial woes. During the last school year, the district spent $64.2 million from its reserves, leaving just $4.9 million.
While Crew and others point to the rising costs of diesel fuel, food and a $65 million reduction in funding from the Florida Legislature, detractors blame him.
"He's mismanaged this district into the ground," Diaz de la Portilla said.
Board meetings have gotten so tense, that members have erupted into yelling matches. In one recent session, Crew tried to get in a word as member Marta Perez complained to the board.
"No, you may not (speak) because I have the floor," she said.
"Do not talk to me like a dog!" Crew shot back.
Under pressure to make a clean break from previous administrations, a search committee began looking across the nation for its next superintendent after decades of promoting from within. It nominated Crew.
The New York native had a charismatic, no-nonsense approach to cleaning up troubled districts and vowed to resuscitate Miami's failing schools by putting them directly under his control. The district offered Crew a $295,000 salary and a bonus of as much as $50,000 in his first year. A Miami businessman promised a $240,000 home loan.
"His intellect, his understanding of education, his experience," recalled Betsy Kaplan, a former board member who supported Crew's hiring. "We thought he was the best applicant."
Almost immediately, Crew put the district's 39 lowest-performing schools in a "School Improvement Zone" where students were kept an hour longer each day and given intense reading instruction in small groups, among other opportunities. He also tried to lure the best teachers to these schools by increasing their salaries.
"Dr. Crew made an effort and a plan to bring equity to our community," said Rev. R. Joaquin Willis, a member of the program's board and a pastor in Liberty City, a predominantly African-American community where many of the targeted schools are located.
Other initiatives followed: An academy where mothers and fathers could take courses on child development, nutrition and financial development; the opening of 29 new or replacement schools; and the creation of 84,000 new classroom seats.
The programs won Miami-Dade national recognition and helped increase the number of competitive grants the district received.
But locally, even those who supported Crew say he didn't spend much time in the community. Those frustrations came to a head in 2006 when a Cuban-American parent sought to have a book called "Vamos a Cuba" pulled from library shelves because of its cheerful portrait of communist life.
Crew followed the recommendation of two committees that voted against banning the book and proposed a compromise that would have placed a disclaimer inside. But some in the Cuban community felt that didn't go far enough in showing sensitivity to exiles.
"Since that day forward, the Cuban community has been adamantly against Dr. Crew," said Manny Anon Jr., an attorney who tried to unseat one of Crew's board supporters after the controversy.
Other disputes followed, including the resignation and conviction of a state representative who used a racial slur to refer to Crew and then threatened another representative who complained.
Academically, there are signs Crew's initiatives have worked.
When Crew was hired, 49 percent of Miami-Dade students were proficient in reading; last school year, that number was 60 percent. Math proficiency has risen from 54 percent in 2004 to 67 percent today, according to state figures.
Other indicators are less optimistic: A study of the school reform program found that while there was significant growth on average at each grade, the program's effect on academic achievement after one year appeared small. Overall, the number of failing schools increased in 2006-2007 before declining during the last school year.
In an interview with The Associated Press a few days before his ouster Wednesday, Crew said he was ready to leave. He called Miami, "the most horrific political landscape to try and navigate any of these ideas through."
"The fights are not over whether or not one kind of strategy for teaching math is better than another," he said. "It's really much more smaller than that. It's human. It's, 'I want to be board chair.'
"Step back and ask yourself what kind of governance structure would, if it's gotten better...why would you lose your job over that?" Crew said.