In the 2010-11 school year, these four chains had 44 South Florida schools with about 19,000 students.
Each network of schools is run by a nonprofit corporation, which in turn is run by a volunteer governing board. These boards set policy for the schools, and also approve the management contracts and property leases including the land deals with the Zulueta companies. While the teachers and principals work for the nonprofits, Academica routinely vets personnel and recommends principals from within its stable of schools.
In addition to the principals, the governing boards have also included people tied to Academica or Zulueta in other ways.
For example, the current head of the Somerset Academy board is Andreina Figueroa, a lobbyist who represents the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, a pro-charter association that includes Zulueta as an officer. Since 2010, Figueroas consulting firm has earned more than $110,000 representing the consortium in Tallahassee, state records show.
Figueroa said she does not believe the arrangement with the consortium poses a conflict. She said she has worked for the consortium as a subcontractor through another lobbying firm, and that contract ended in August.
My work advocating for charter schools does not create a conflict with my role as a Somerset board member, Figueroa said in an email to The Miami Herald. My desire to be involved as a board member stemmed from my personal experience as the sister of a charter school graduate and as a charter school parent.
In the past, the Miami-Dade school district has criticized the board arrangements at some Academica schools, saying the principals dual roles created weak governance and potential conflicts at one school network.
In 2007, school district auditors asked the Miami-Dade state attorneys office to investigate a 2003 construction contract to build the Mater Academy Charter High facilities after learning that the contractor, Alejandro Remos, also served on Maters board when the $5.8 million contract was approved, records show. It was unclear from prosecutors records whether Remos voted on the contract.
Auditors called Remos two roles a serious conflict of interest. Remos denied wrongdoing, and no charges were ever filed.
Around the same time, school district auditors also questioned the ties among Mater High, the Zulueta brothers, and the schools corporate landlord.
Since 2004, Mater High has leased its property from a company called School Development HG II LLC, records show. At the time the lease was approved, Zuluetas brother was the managing member of a Panamanian company that owned the land company, records show.
The Zuluetas denied any wrongdoing in the Mater deals, and dismissed the districts investigation as flawed. They said that they had no ownership stake with the land company at the time the lease was approved though they control that company today and they said the lease costs were fair.
Two years later, a Miami-Dade prosecutor interviewed a former Mater board member, Ruth Jacoby, about her knowledge of the Zuluetas land deals, records show. When asked about another Zulueta lease approved by the Mater board while she had been a member, Jacoby replied: I dont know anything about it.