The city of South Miami and the University of Miami School of Law’s Center for Ethics and Public Service are working together to collect facts regarding what the City Commission calls a “racial disparity” at Somerset Academy South Miami Charter School.
Last year, the Commission instructed City Attorney Thomas Pepe to investigate the matter. According to an email correspondence from Iraida R. Menendez-Cartaya, an associate superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, to City Manager Steven Alexander, just 1.1 percent of the school’s students are black. About 17 percent of South Miami residents are black, according to the U.S. Census, and the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) neighborhood surrounding the 5876 SW 68th St. address is predominantly black.
Menedez-Cartaya’s most recent information at the start of the investigation had five black students, four Asian students and 413 Hispanic students out of 475 total students attending the school. School Attorney, Charles Gibson disputed those numbers.
Since Nov. 19, 2014 the school has updated numbers of 453 elementary school students, including four black students and four Asian students. The middle school has 152 students, including three black students and one Asian student.
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“(Gibson) stopped communicating when I asked him a direct question about the articulation agreement,” South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard said. “I asked him at his long presentation…how they allow students to transition from elementary school without the lottery? Articulation agreements allow that. He said they had one. I asked for copy of that. He goes silent.”
In an email correspondence with Stoddard, Gibson stated that the school, which opened in 2009, had an articulation agreement with the School Board. That meant students attending Somerset Academy Elementary School South Miami would have “enrollment preference” when trying to enter Somerset Academy Middle School.
Following a public records request, the School Board sent Pepe the only articulation agreement it had on file from Somerset. The School Board clerk responded with an articulation agreement document from the principal of Somerset that was not sent to the School Board until Dec. 11, 2014 and has never been approved by the School Board .
“I don’t know whether or not that agreement has been approved or not,” Pepe said. “But according to Somerset, they have been giving a preference to their children since the school opened. In other words, they have been giving preference to their elementary school for admission into their middle school since the beginning of the program. That’s an interesting development.”
Stoddard said Gibson committed an “ethical violation” by “lying” about the agreement.
“Somerset disagrees with the characterization of a racial disparity because there are other schools in the immediate area who have the same racial demographics as Somerset, (Sunset Elementary, Coral Gables Elementary, and Carver Elementary),” Gibson said in an email.
Alexander said that although he has received revised statistics regarding the number of black students at the school, the numbers are still “way below the level that (they) were informed.”
“It did show that there was only a handful of African American kids in that program,” Alexander said.
The city is still “gathering facts” and working with Catherine Kaiman, a lawyer, lecturer and practitioner-in-residence at the University of Miami.
“We are in communication with (Miami) because they have resources with regard to issues concerning discrimination that we don’t have,” Pepe said. “We are discussing these issues to see what opinions they have regarding what’s happening with regard to Somerset Academy.”
“We are working together to explore the issues and to determine whether or not the treatment of the residents of the city of South Miami by Somerset Academy was proper or improper.”
Stoddard said the collection of information could lead to a “possible lawsuit,” involving charter violations.
“They don’t have as many African American students as the county or neighborhood distribution would have,” Stoddard said. “It seems pretty apparent that their lack of recruitment of the community has led to that.
“They seem to recruit heavily in kindergarten and into preschool. You have to pay to get into their preschool. Folks of higher means may have an advantage to getting in.”
Registration information is available on the school’s website, somersetsomi.com, which states that the enrollment period has been extended until Jan. 30. Gibson said the date of the enrollment lottery has not been determined.
The city has requested more information from the school board to do further analysis and to “figure out if (they) have a case,” according to Alexander.
“The School Board didn’t have an agreement with them for that so theoretically there should have been a reapplication for that, where new students would have the opportunity to enroll into the school at the middle school level,” Alexander said. “From what we can tell, that was never allowed by the school because they allegedly had this articulation agreement that, again, the School Board doesn’t have any record of. It’s a pretty big disconnect.”
Charter schools are tuition-free public schools run by someone other than the school district. Gibson stated in his Oct. 21 presentation to the Commission that there are about 14,000 students in Somerset’s network of schools. Gibson also said at the meeting that when combining the elementary school and middle school total of 600 students, 3 percent of the student body is black. Between 25 and 50 kindergarten slots are available each year, according to Gibson.
Pepe and Alexander began the investigation after an Aug. 11 meeting of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency.