An attempt to make a charter school out of Neva King Cooper Educational Center, which enrolls about 100 special education students in Homestead, didn’t go well for school administrators.
In February, Principal Alberto Fernandez and Assistant Principal Henny Cristobal recommended the conversion. A vote never took place. But after the process started, a series of allegations were made against them, according to a review of the case by the Department of Education’s office of inspector general.
Among them: That they intimidated others on the charter vote, used district resources for the vote and tampered with witnesses in an ongoing internal probe against them and Patricia Ramirez, a placement specialist there.
As a result, all three were reassigned, pending the outcome of an investigation. Their respective new jobs are to sort mail, inventory auto parts in the district’s motor fleet and scan documents.
The employees have countered with their own complaint: unlawful reprisal.
The DOE has reviewed their complaint, but is waiting to make a final ruling because the Dade district hasn’t taken its own final action.
Fernandez and Cristobal declined to be interviewed for this report, through their attorney, Robin Gibson. They hired him early on when exploring the charter conversion because Gibson has experienced in converting schools. He also chairs a fundraising nonprofit for a charter group in Lake Wales.
In a legal filing, Gibson said high-level administrators acted as “sentinels” to monitor any activity of converting to a charter. “This kind of intense and never-before-undertaken surveillance resulted in placing staff members on edge and was further considered by them — and plaintiff — to constitute intimidation by District officials.”
John Schuster, a spokesman with the Miami-Dade district, said it was “premature” to comment on the Neva King Cooper case because it is ongoing. “There are a lot of things we’ve been looking at in the past — the condition of the school, the cleanliness and allegations of school personnel using school resources to advance private interests,” Schuster said.
District administrators, including Assistant Superintendent Milagros Fornell and administrative director Ava Goldman, defended the district’s actions in interviews with state inspectors. They said district administrators placed there while the vote was being explored were there “to help.” Fornell said she recommended further investigation based on information from Goldman, that “a number of faculty and staff at NKCEC were concerned school administrators may retaliate against them if they cooperated” with the internal probe.
Tom Peterle, parent at Neva King Cooper, said he wanted to discuss the pros and cons of a charter school for his son, who is 13 and has severe developmental delays. Peterle said the school’s discussion was one-sided, focused on the negatives of charter conversions, and said it was painful to see Fernandez and Cristobal demoted. “I think the way they were treated was criminal,” he said.