Putting Education Reform To The Test

Feds Include Florida’s Largest Charter School Management Firm in Audit

Academica president Fernando Zululeta, at a 2011 meeting in the Bahamas with company leaders. Florida's largest charter school management company is under federal investigation.

Staff Photo / Miami Herald

Academica president Fernando Zulueta, at a 2011 meeting in the Bahamas with company leaders. The company is included in a national federal audit of charter schools.

UPDATE: The U.S. Department of Education audit is a broad review of charter schools across the country and not limited to Academica or the Mater Academy network it manages, a fact confirmed by the federal agency.

Academica disputes the U.S. Department of Education’s initial findings and said they have responded to the agency.

We’ve updated the headline for clarity.

ORIGINAL POST: The U.S. Department of Education is investigating the business practices of Florida’s largest for-profit charter school operator, according to a Miami Herald scoop. The federal agency is concerned about conflicts of interest between Academica Corp. and the Mater Academy network it manages.

From the story:

The auditors found that three of the schools in the Mater network — Mater Academy, Mater High and Mater East — entered into leases with development companies tied to the Zulueta family. Two of the leases were executed while Zulueta sat on the Mater board.

In addition, Mater Academy hired an architectural firm from 2007 through 2012 that employs Fernando Zulueta’s brother-in-law, state Rep. Erik Fresen, the report said.

“We identified four related-party transactions, two of which indicated, at a minimum, the appearance of conflicts of interest between Mater Academy and its CMO [charter-management company],” the Mater Academy in Hialeah Gardens and its nonprofit support organization, Mater Academy Foundation.

“Mater Academy shares the same board of directors with the foundation and based on our review of the board of directors meeting minutes at Mater Academy, there is evidence of Mater Academy’s board of directors transferring public funds to the foundation,” the auditors noted.

Academica was at the center of a 2011 Miami Herald investigation of charter school business deals. You can read that series, Cashing In On Kids, here.


  • Stargazer

    This should not come as a surprise. Based upon past news reports, this man is in the habit of doing this with his other schools, i.e., Somerset Academy and all its branches. It’s about time charter schools come under closer scrutiny!

  • FC White

    Charter “schools”, it is now becoming clear, are a major scam that a lot of us fell for back 10 or 15 years ago.

    I’m embarrassed to admit that yes, I was one of those people—or saps—who bought the whole bill of goods they were selling, Hook, Line & Sinker. I’m more angry at myself than anyone else. How I could accept what they were saying…I’m still not sure.

    Look, back in 2004, I had some problems with some of the teachers at my son’s old public school, the one he attended from Kindergarten to 4th grade. That’s when I decided it was time to pull him out And when I went in to speak with them, I was treated pretty poorly.

    A guy I worked with recommended I try his kid’s charter school as a possible alternative. His daughter had struggled in the same school my son was at, and now, according to him, she was doing great at this charter school. So I thought I’d give it a try. No harm talking, right?

    The entire horrific story—starting the very first week when my son was LOCKED IN A CLOSET for “only” 7 minutes—is much too long to tell here, and almost too painful to write about.

    But, I unwisely decided to “Stay The Course” at this “academy” that treated the kids like well-trained mammals and seemed to almost enjoy “breaking” the spirits and will of these students. And this was supposedly a school with “high standards” and listed “kindness” as one of their “virtues”!

    Meanwhile, the “CEO” as he called himself—instead of principal—seemed to like that title better. And it seemed he thought as long as I have this title, I might as well pay myself like a CEO for a Fortune 500 company; he was making over $300K a year running this sham of a school! And he walked down the halls as if God prayed TO HIM!

    Since then, I’ve learned a lot about these BUSINESSES that call themselves Charter “Schools”. Most are pretty shabby and mediocre. But a large number are seriously corrupt, major ripoffs of our taxpayers and need to be shuttered as soon as possible.

    Parents, please don’t fall for their slick brochures and pretty websites and smooth talking PR trained people; the day to day reality is absolutely terrible.

    And what’s most sickening is that they’re doing this with OUR money!

    • procharters

      you can not condemn all charter schools because of one bad experience. my children attend a charter school and it is fantastic. we are self managed..not managed by a “charter management company” and all our funding comes from fun raisers that we, the parents, coordinate. the head of school doesn’t make an outrageous salary, but one fitting to a principal. the article above is based on management company that is clearly on the shady side. there are many great charter schools out there that are honest and truly care about education.

      • FC White

        “…and all our funding comes from fun raisers that we, the parents, coordinate.”

        Really? Are you claiming that you receive NO public funding? If so, then you are NOT a “charter school”; you are a private school, and if so, I say more power to you. Private schools—where ZERO public funds are involved—are fine; I went to one and my kid may go to one down the road.

        BUT, if you’re receiving ANY public money, than you ARE a charter “school” and you shouldn’t be claiming that ALL your money comes from “fun raisers” (SIC). Correct?

      • ReBelle

        Charter schools are held to federal or even state standards, so just because you think it’s great does not mean your children are learning everything that children in quality public schools are learning and may actually be years behind academically.

      • ReBelle

        You’re either completely ignorant or a liar! Charter schools are FOR PROFIT PRIVATELY OWNED BUSINESSES! You’re FUND raising so the owners can keep more profit!

    • ReBelle

      That’s because they all started with Jeb Bush. Once he passed the law allowing vouchers for private schools in Fl. as Gov. Then his idiot brother took Jeb’s “No (rich) kid left behind” and took the voucher program nation wide. What we didn’t know then was Jeb had started what is now the largest charter school corporation in the nation which encompasses charter schools under many different names. The bush family hold almost all of it’s stocks.

  • ReBelle

    Charter schools also do not have certified teachers, teaching classes either. They may have 1 or 2 as consultants, but probably not. You don’t even have to have a college degree to be a teacher at a charter school.

    • Barbara R

      They certainly do have certified teachers! Certification is an absolute requirement. 100% of the charter school teachers are certified.

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