Late last month, Miami-Dade school district officials scolded the Academy of Arts & Minds charter school for charging fees to students to attend basic classes in violation of state law.
But when the schools governing board met the next day, the fee issue was not mentioned. And when a parent began reading from the districts warning letter to the school, two board members walked out.
The tense meeting was the latest skirmish in a growing dispute between a group of parents and the leadership of the Coconut Grove charter school, which, despite high academic scores, is burdened by shaky finances and high staff turnover. Just last week, the schools principal resigned the second principal to quit in six months.
At the center of the controversy is Manuel Alonso-Poch, the schools founder and its de facto leader. Alonso-Poch, a real-estate lawyer, is the schools landlord, its spokesman, its food-service provider, its most generous donor and thanks to a recent $90,000-a-year no-bid contract its financial manager.
He runs it all, said Kevin Sawyer, who resigned as principal on Sept. 30. He said he resigned over health reasons, and because of clashes with Alonso-Poch over a lack of textbooks and supplies. Its beyond madness.
Now several parents have written letters asking the Miami-Dade school district to examine Alonso-Pochs many ties with the publicly funded school, which they describe as a conflict of interest. Meanwhile, the parents say, the first weeks of school at Arts & Minds were marred by a lack of books and teachers.
My son has not had a math teacher but for two days. Were in what, the fifth week of school? Sherri Myers, the head of the schools parent teacher student association, complained at a Sept. 23 meeting of the schools governing board.
The parents have also challenged the independence of the charter schools governing board which includes Alonso-Pochs cousin and a phantom board member who lives in Peru.
Alonso-Poch defends his many roles with Arts & Minds, and he says the controversy is being over-blown by a small group of disgruntled parents who dont speak for all the parents at the school. He said new books have been ordered, and new teachers have been hired.
Its a very successful school, Alonso-Poch said, pointing to the schools A rating last year from the state Department of Education. He called the school his labor of love, and he resents being portrayed by parents as an educational profiteer.
The essence of our intentions is to make sure we have the best school in Dade County, he said.
Charter schools such as Arts & Minds are funded with taxpayer dollars, but they are run by independent governing boards. The school district may close a school if it has a poor academic or financial record, but otherwise has little power over a charter schools day-to-day operations.
Myers and other parents want the current Arts & Minds board replaced, and they requested a parent representative on the board. One parent, Carlos Hernandez, filed a lawsuit this summer accusing the school of failing to turn over public records.
We want the board to fully comply with the laws. We have evidence that that has not occurred, Myers told the board last month. The school today is not in the condition it was a year ago.