Miami Herald reporters Kathleen McGrory, Scott Hiassen and Shiaa Sen continue to reveal for Floridians that state charter schools are far from the institutions of virtue their advocates want them to believe. The audit by the Miami-Dade school district of one charter school will sound familiar to Florida’s charter school watchers:
Auditors examining the cash-strapped Academy of Arts & Minds criticized the charter school for a series of no-bid contracts with companies tied to the school’s founder, attorney Manuel Alonso-Poch, according to a draft report obtained by The Miami Herald. Alonso-Poch is the “controlling force” at the school, auditors found, acting as the school’s landlord, financial manager, food provider, spokesman and occasional legal advisor.
Alonso-Poch’s real-estate company, which owns the school property and leases the building to the school, also wrongly received a school-related tax exemption on a portion of a parking lot that was not used by the school, the audit found. The Miami-Dade Property Appraiser is now demanding more than $182,000 in back taxes on the parking lot, records show.
Auditors also chided the school’s volunteer governing board as “subservient,” and said the board failed to adequately oversee the contracts between the school and Alonso-Poch’s companies. The board’s chairwoman, Ruth “Chuny” Montaner, is Alonso-Poch’s cousin, and board member Cecilia Holloman has worked with Alonso-Poch in the past.
Alonso-Poch, Montaner and Holloman could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
One person long listed as a member of the school’s board is Jorge Guerra-Castro, who lives in Peru. When contacted by The Herald last year, Guerra-Castro said he had no formal relationship with the school and didn’t know why he was listed on the board.
Also on the school’s board are Percy Aguila and Ignacio Ortiz-Petit, both of Miami.
While the audit recommends a series of reforms for the charter school — including rewriting the no-bid contracts — the school district cannot force Arts & Minds to take any action to fix the problems, said Helen Blanch, the school district’s assistant superintendent for school choice. Though Arts & Minds receives more than $3 million a year in public funds, the charter school is independently managed with little oversight from the school district.
“At the end of the day, they haven’t done anything illegal,” Blanch said. “School districts should have the authority to oversee things like business practices and governance structure.”
However, auditors warned that the school’s relationship with Alonso-Poch could run afoul of Internal Revenue Service rules prohibiting nonprofits from operating “for the benefit of private interests.” A charter-school operator must be a recognized nonprofit under Florida law.
This probably isn’t what Floridians have in mind in a charter school “choice” option. But there’s more worrisome details in the Arts and Minds saga. Amid the Miami Herald story is evidence that Jeb Bush’s school grade formula is tragically flawed.
Though Arts & Minds has achieved academic success — the school received an A-rating from the state last year — it has also been mired in financial problems. Auditors said the school would have faced potential closure in each of the four past years were it not for $1.9 million the school received from Alonso-Poch in donations or forgiven rent.
The school district also temporarily withheld funds from Arts & Minds last year after finding that the school was not providing required services for special-needs students. And district officials also accused the school of charging illegal fees to students to attend many classes.
The audit was sparked by complaints from a group of parents who feared the school’s board was ignoring financial problems and surrendering too much control to Alonso-Poch, who is not a member of the school’s board. The parents also complained that the school did not have enough textbooks for the students, and the school did not have enough teachers for several weeks last year.
Though some of the complaining parents were pleased that the audit confirmed their worries, some said they were frustrated that the school district can’t take stronger action to change the climate at the school.
“So long as the board is allowed to stay, it will be business as usual at that school,” said Carlos Hernandez, whose daughter attended Arts & Minds before transferring last year. “The ones who will end up paying the price are the children and parents.”
How can a school be an “A” school without having enough teachers and textbooks? And parents be upset? But to Jeb Bush, the only policy-maker who matters, that school grade is the only thing that matters.
There hasn’t been any good news of late for Bush and his acolytes. The coalition of parent groups and local school boards who’ve joined recently is one which won’t be suppressed by spin. Floridians are beginning to see that Bush’s school grade formula is superficial and one in which is driven by a high-stakes test regime that’s narrow in scope but disturbingly broad in consequence.