Coconut Grove

Charter Schools

Board, landlord out at controversial Coconut Grove charter school

 

dsmiley@MiamiHerald.com

The Academy of Arts & Minds, for years a poster child for alleged conflicts and instability allowed under Florida’s charter school laws, is under new management.

Last month, amid a previous landlord’s bankruptcy proceedings, CP Miami acquired the four-story Coconut Grove complex that hosts the performing arts school. The company, which already held a mortgage on the property, then signed a new 25-year lease with the academy’s board of directors with the intent of keeping the school as a tenant, according to attorney Isaac Marcushamer.

“We think we did the responsible thing as a lender and member of the community in taking the property back and operating it rather than continuing litigation that would put a cloud over the school,” said Marcushamer. “We hope the school would move forward and not be affected by this.”

While Marcushamer says a change in ownership shouldn’t disrupt the 350 students at Arts & Minds, it’s just part of a sweeping management overhaul at the school in recent weeks.

During that time, school founder Manuel Alonso-Poch not only relinquished his control of the building at 3138 Commodore Plaza but also terminated his contracts controlling the management and food service operations at the school.

And that’s not all. Shortly after ending the school’s contracts with Alonso-Poch and hiring a new management company, the entire board of directors promptly resigned this month without explanation, leaving $180,000 in debt owed Alonso-Poch as perhaps the only remaining links to a leadership group that drew repeated rebukes from the Miami-Dade school district over concerns of financial conflicts.

Neither Alonso-Poch nor members of the board returned calls and emails from a Miami Herald reporter. In his April 19 resignation email, board chairman Richard Dunn II wrote little in the way of an explanation for stepping down.

“It has been an honor, fulfilling and gratifying to serve on a board which governs humanity’s greatest individuals on the face of this earth, ‘Our children,’ for such a wonderful institution,” Dunn wrote.

While it’s unclear exactly what the changes atop the school mean for students and faculty, Alonso-Poch’s deeding of the property to CP Miami and the termination of his leadership contracts create a clean slate between the school and school district, which in recent years criticized a board of directors comprised of business partners and family of Alonso-Poch for being “subservient” to the school’s founder.

Board members consistently denied serving Alonso-Poch’s interests, and Alonso-Poch said he resented being made out as an education profiteer. But school district officials remained critical of the board and Alonso-Poch.

Tiffanie Pauline, the district’s assistant superintendent overseeing charter school operations, said the changes at the academy came as the school’s board sought to renew a contract with the district that expires in June. She said district committees that handle renewal discussions pressed the school during the process, hammering away at pretty much everything but the school’s typically above-average academics.

“We had so many issues. We could have terminated. But it would have been a hard fight because they’re strong academically,” said Pauline. “Instead, I think the committee saw the ability to put the heat on. We had a little bit of leverage because of the renewal. And we were successful.”

With Alonso-Poch’s EDU Management out as school manager, the board of directors hired SMART Management to run the school in one of their last directives as stewards of the Academy of Arts & Minds. Dunn also signed promissory notes last week worth $182,000 to companies of Alonso-Poch, and another $53,000 to Kelly Universal Services.

After learning that Alonso-Poch had relinquished control of the school, some parents who had been critical of the previous administration said they were pleased. Chuck Dorway, whose wife was among a group of parents who signed letters alleging conflicts and violations of law at the school, said he was glad to know Alonso-Poch was gone, even if his son no longer attends Arts & Minds.

“Now the focus can be on the education of children,” said Dorway, “instead of making a profit.”

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