Sen. Anitere Flores (R-Miami) never met a piece of legislation that benefited the for-profit charter school industry she didn’t like. Just pay no attention to the little matter that she works for one. This week’s revelations that the one she works for received a tax-payer funded grant marks the beginning of another episode in the shady relationships between Florida legislators and the for-profit charter school industry. Miami Herald reporter David Smiley reports:
Fledgling Doral College got a $400,000 windfall two years ago that helped the small start-up open its doors. The “grant” came from Doral Academy Charter High, a publicly funded school run by the same company.
The deal helped Doral College stay in the black and furthered a joint effort with the charter school to establish an in-house dual-enrollment program. But the transaction also caught the eye of Miami-Dade school district auditors, who have spent the last year questioning why and how a school funded by the state could hand hundreds of thousands of public dollars to an unaccredited, private college.
“The authority and legality of said expense is also not clear to us,” investigators wrote in an audit presented Tuesday.
Auditors say both the grant and a problematic lease they scrutinized are evidence of a larger issue created when the independent governing boards tasked with overseeing charters share close ties with the companies paid to run the public schools, often for a profit. In the Doral case, several board members of the school and college serve in various other capacities for charter school giant Academica, which manages both schools.
Academica president Fernando Zulueta declined to comment Tuesday when approached by a reporter.
But in a biting response to the audit, an attorney representing the school said the grant was a legitimate transaction between partners in education, which existed under the same company when the charter school first set aside the $400,000 for the college. The district’s critical audit, attorney Eleni Pantaridis argued, omitted crucial facts and was the flawed work of a biased investigator who “does not support the charter school system.”
“They’re picking and choosing the facts that benefit them and ignoring the facts that don’t,” she said Tuesday during a hearing
Smiley outlines how this gets to Flores:
Auditors, under the supervision of investigator Jon Goodman, began scrutinizing the deals about a year ago after a review of Doral Academy Charter High’s financial statements uncovered the grant and a lease agreement that auditors also investigated.
They said the lease allowed the school’s landlord to terminate the contract early and leave the school on the hook for $4.5 million in improvements to its facility, which is owned by Academica stockholders.
In the case of the grant, auditors were unsure of its legality — though they have shown no proof that it is illegal — and pointed out that Doral College is unaccredited and unable to provide dual-enrollment courses under Florida law. They also said the transaction, which essentially forgave a previous $400,000 loan, was approved by the chairs of the college and high school without going before the full Doral Academy Charter High board during a public meeting, as required.
Investigators also put together a flow chart, showing what they said was the intertwined relationships among the high school, Doral College and Academica, which manages 54 Miami-Dade charter schools and brought in $9.5 million in management fees during the 2011-12 school year.
The chart shows that some high school board members work as principals for other Academica-run schools and serve on the boards of other Academica-affiliated institutions. For instance, Luis Fusté, chairman of Doral College, is also the vice chairman of Doral Academy.
But Fusté said in a statement that his dual roles were easily explained: “The college program was originally under the same umbrella as Doral Academy High School and was created to provide seamless college access to its high school students.”
Investigators also included the Doral College president, state Sen. Anitere Flores, on their chart.
Flores, a Miami lawmaker, said she hadn’t yet read the audit and couldn’t comment on the $400,000 grant, though she noted Doral College is not the entity being audited
She dodged Smiley’s question with a lawyerly response, but she’s asking her constituents to accept quite a bit. Sen. Flores knowing was party to accepting a grant “to establish an in-house dual-enrollment program” for her school which she knew “is unaccredited and unable to provide dual-enrollment courses under Florida law?”
This isn’t the first time that Academica has received scrutiny. Nor is it the first time that such blurred lines became evident. A May 2012 Miami Herald report revealed similar questionable transactions within the Academica system.