The Ax Falls

Known as the mayor's hatchet man, Louis Erste found the blade turned on him.

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Seven months after a demotion and pay cut, Louis J. Erste needed money. So the recently divorced, recently remarried father of eight made a proposal to his employer, the Cleveland Municipal School District: He would leave his $90,000-a-year "adviser to the CEO" post to work as a $250-per-hour consultant for the district. His fees, he assured them, would "not exceed $300,000."

It might seem odd for a demoted administrator to make such a brash proposal. Yet Erste had an institutional history going back five years, his feet firmly planted in the district long before CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett arrived. He was the go-to guy in this year's teacher contract negotiations. Many regarded him as the mayor's man in the schools.

That's why it must have been a shock to get Byrd-Bennett's October 19 letter, in which her reasons for rejecting the proposal were coldly clear.

"The services that you propose to perform do not justify the significant financial commitment you have proposed," she wrote. The following day, he was escorted from his office, not to return.

Schools spokesman William Wendling said the district simply couldn't afford Erste's consulting, and he cautioned against reading too much into the mechanics of the dismissal.

"That's the way we do all senior folks in the organization," he says.

No one knows that better than Erste.

The administrator who spoke loftily of social justice got some of the poetic variety instead: He left the same way he made others leave. And his last two years in the Cleveland schools will be remembered less by what he did than by what he did to others.

"There were a lot of cheers when he left," says Richard DeColibus, president of the Cleveland Teachers Union. "It was like, 'Well, you did it to a lot of others. Now it's your turn. How do you like it?'"

A former foreign policy researcher, Erste, 43, came to the schools in 1995 on loan from the Citizens League and worked as a self-employed consultant until getting hired as chief of staff in June 1998. At that point, his salary nearly doubled from $60,000 to $110,000, according to divorce records. Erste soaked up the other benefits of a top school administrator, too, including five weeks of paid vacation and a $500 monthly car allowance.

He came to the district at an unsettled time. After years of academic and fiscal floundering, it was on the brink of being transferred to mayoral control. Mayor Michael White assured the public that the 77,000-student district was in for a complete overall. Heads would roll.

The mayor chose Erste to wield the ax.

Days before taking control of the district in September 1998, the mayor said he would not honor the contract of interim superintendent James Penning, a respected administrator with three decades in the system. Penning had agreed to lead the district eight months earlier on the condition that he would assume a post at the same salary after the takeover.

Surprisingly, White denounced Penning's contract, which entitled him to a $600,000 buyout, as a "dirty little backroom deal." Former State Superintendent John Goff countered that the mayor knew the contract's terms prior to its consummation. White, however, was unyielding. Erste got Penning's job. One of his first orders of business was to fire more administrators.

In a 1998 Plain Dealer opinion piece, Penning said his former staffers "were dismissed like common criminals."

Erste has said nothing of his own ouster. He politely declined to be interviewed, saying he doesn't know why his contract was terminated.

While his firing left some gleeful, it left others wondering. Was the mayor's confidence level in Byrd-Bennett so high that he felt he no longer needed a watchdog in her inner circle? White himself offered no insight, saying through spokesman Brian Rothenberg that "the whole notion of my micromanagement style is a myth created by the media."

One thing's for certain: Erste didn't lose his job to a stronger candidate. The adviser to the CEO position, Wendling says, will not be filled.

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