Florida

Putting Education Reform To The Test

Loopholes In Florida Law Mean Little Oversight of Charter Business Deals

Sarah Gonzalez / StateImpact Florida

The Academy of Arts and Minds in Coconut Grove used to be a shopping mall. But no one was buying space. That's when the owner of the property started up a charter school and now rents the property to his school. The campus still looks like a shopping mall with wrap-around balconies. Classrooms have floor-to-ceiling windows, much like a store front.

This story is a collaborative investigation between The Miami Herald and StateImpact Florida. Read the Herald’s story.

People who want to start up their own charter school must go through a rigorous application process. But after that initial hurdle, the school founders get a lot of freedom over how to run their publicly-funded schools and who to hire. And because of loopholes in Florida statues, a lot of taxpayer dollars can end up in the hands of one person.

Progress reports in Miami-Dade county schools have already been issued. But students at the Academy of Arts and Minds in Coconut Grove didn’t get a grade in biology, because they haven’t had a biology teacher for the first six weeks of school.

Sarah Gonzalez / StateImpact Florida

Academy of Arts & Minds students Darcy Morenza (10th), Toni Robotham (11th) with her little brother Brandon, and Darlene Valejjo (10th) on Open House night.

And on Open House night, parents want answers.

Parents introduce themselves as Janeysi’s mom and Hannah’s mom.

But Sharon Blate, the new biology teacher, doesn’t know who Janeysi and Hannah are.

“I have no idea who is in my class. I have not even seen the list yet. At a quarter to six was the first time I walked in here,” said Blate.

The school district has been rewarding Arts & Minds for being a high performing school by allowing it to increase enrollment.

Over the past eight years, Arts & Minds has grown to 450 students—six times its original enrollment

And the school’s had trouble keeping up.

Teachers were not hired on time and there aren’t enough textbooks.

“I don’t even see technically a whole class set,” said Mrs. Blate as she examined her new classroom. “I don’t even know if there’s more [books] to go home.”

Parents aren’t surprised. They have started complaining to the district about how the school is run.

Last month, the school district cited Arts & Minds for charging inappropriate fees for textbooks and classes, though the school hasn’t cashed the checks it collected.

Carlos Hernandez, a parent, says it doesn’t feel like decisions are made in the best interests of the students, “but rather the best interests of the founder, who is also the landlord, who is also the school lunch provider, who is also the operator of the management company.”

“If there are areas where profits are made, yeah, I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

- Manuel Alonso-Poch, Academy of Arts and Minds Founder

The founder is Manuel Alonso-Poch.

He charges $900,000 a year in rent for leasing his property to the school.

Another $150,000 for serving kids lunch.

And he recently got a $90,000 no-bid contract to manage the school’s finances.

In total, Alonso-Poch can collect more than $1,000,000 a year in taxpayer funds directed to the school.

Some parents say it seems like Alonso-Poch started the school just to sell it a bunch of services.

Sarah Gonzalez / StateImpact Florida

Wine bottles, pasta and candles are displayed in the windows of a now locked-up restaurant in the heart of the Academy of Arts & Minds campus. Student Darcy Morenza (10th) says it makes the school look "classy."

But Alonso-Poch rejects the idea.

“It’s been a labor of love. A labor of a lot of personal and financial investment. If there are areas where profits are made, yeah, I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

He’s personally donated more than $2,000,000 to keep the school afloat, and he hasn’t been charging rent every month.

And at a time when education spending is being cut, Alonso-Poch says having so many roles at the school allows him to fill in the gaps in state funding.

“It’s rare that you have someone in the situation that I am at to be a guardian of the school and whenever the need arises, wave rent for example. Or make a contribution.”

Charter schools around the country are known for having overlapping business ties.

And Marcus Owens, the former department head of the IRS’s tax-exempt division, says that has given charters a reputation at the IRS for having a high potential for corruption.

Charter Schools Earn A Reputation at the IRS

“Certainly when the IRS comes across charter schools it looks closely at those relationships, and in fact it’s one that the IRS identified well over 10 years ago in the charter school area as a potential abuse area.”

A loophole in Florida statutes creates this potential for abuse.

Applicants for a charter don’t have to disclose their business plans in the application.

“The IRS identified… the charter school area as a potential abuse area.”

- Marcus Owens, former department head of the IRS

And once a charter is approved by a school district, the district hands over millions of dollars to a governing board—a governing board hand-picked by the founder.

Tiffanie Pauline oversees charter schools in Miami-Dade County. She says the school districts can’t tell charters how to spend their money or who to hire.

“School districts really don’t have the jurisdiction to say, ‘no, you can’t contract with them,’” Said Pauline. “We can’t go out and say, ‘you have to fire your management company.’ We can’t. We don’t have the authority.”

The governing board at Arts & Minds includes the founder’s first cousin and a former co-worker.

The district has launched an audit investigation to determine whether the board has a conflict of interest.

Miami Herald reporters Kat McGrory and Scott Hiaasen contributed to this report. Read their story about a charter school accused of doubling as a night club.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    There are hundreds of parents who fully support the Academy of Arts & Minds Charter High School in Coconut Grove. I submit this to explain what’s really happening at our school and address half-truths that have been reported in the media recently as a result of complaints by parents that incomprehensively keep their children enrolled in the Academy.
    The media has left out important facts that paint a slanted picture. This hurts a good school’s reputation and impacts our children. This is why we, as a parent, I feel obligated to send this letter.
    The article mentioned lack of books but it didn’t mention that an enrollment spurt caused the situation and it is being corrected. The Academy of Arts & Minds is an A+ school with a 98 percent graduation rate. Our grads have been accepted to some of the best colleges and universities in the nation. The school’s strong track record of academic success is why we chose to enroll our children at this school and it’s why we stay.
    The public school system in our state is going through tough financial times. Per student funding for public and charter schools was cut during the last legislative session. Charter schools have the added burden of working with even less funds because they receive, on average, $3,000 less per student than a school run by the district. Charter schools don’t receive any of the property taxes we pay toward public education either. It is particularly challenging to run an arts program today. Many schools – public and private — rely on fundraisers and fees to secure art supplies, drama or band equipment. Until education funding rises again, we will all be tapped to fill in the gaps. As A&M parents, we are happy to invest time and funds to make sure this wonderful program continues.
    I hope, for the stake of our children, that parents can work through their differences and begin moving toward a unified goal. The Academy’s founder, the governing board, administrators and teachers need our support. So do our kids. A&M is a wonderful school located in a beautiful city. Let’s keep it strong.

  • Anonymous

    I think you are incorrect in how charter schools are funded:

    “State taxes, federal fiscal stabilization funds, local property taxes, and lottery proceeds fund charter schools in the same manner as traditional public schools for current operating costs. Charter schools receive a per student share of state and federal funding and local property taxes levied for operating purposes by the school district that sponsors the charter school.”

    Before I comment further, what are the entrance requirements for the school?

  • SickOfLies

    It is so obvious that “intelligentmom” is alonso or on of his lackeys posing as a parent. Give me a break. This school is the “highest and best use” of a property that a real estate lawyer thought would do better as a mall than it ultimately did. The school was a mess until a real principal was hired in 2009 and turned the school around completely. It was because of him that the school earned it’s first-ever “A.” The principal has since left, but the school is still riding on the success of that one “A.” A lot of poor kids were disappointed this year to find that most of the teachers had left following the chaos that ensued last school year after SACS raised these very same questions and Alonso and his illegitimate “governing board” – I.e. friends and cousins – realized the jig was up and went on the attack. Authorities need to keep a close eye on operations such as these.

  • Not Fooling Me

    The school’s unbelievable rise from nothing into A+/successful graduate territory is not Manny Alonso-Poch’s doing. William Machado brought in strong faculty and steady leadership….then look what happened.

    Also, “intelligentmom” sounds an awful lot like a certain employee of Alonso-Poch who is often seen around the school doing not much of anything. She has a son that attends the school, giving her at least an outward appearance of impartiality. Is this true my dear?

  • Amy

    @intelligentmom,
    shut up.
    you’re clearly not a parent and clearly not intelligent.
    i didn’t have a teacher in physics or precalc the entire first month of school and i left
    it’s ridiculous; i’m a junior and had attended arts and minds since freshman year-its nothing like what it used to be and its all because of manny.
    stop talking about being an A school when Machado was the one that made that happen and since he’s not there anymore IT ISNT HAPPENING AGAIN SO JUST SHUT UP.
    “we have a 98% graduating rate” alright, guess you failed statistics too-we tend to have a senior class of 50 students every year, and the number gets smaller as the years go on-regardless, only half of them even tend to pass, and half of the who pass just go to dade so stop making shit up.
    BTW the whole fees situation is total bs; i payed over $150 every year and you guys couldn’t even keep a record of it and tried charging me again-oh yeah, you people sure are on top of everything right?

    every student at a&m knows how much of a bust the school is now, so if people wanna know the truth just as the kids-it’s never going to be like how it was and it’s really sad.

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