South Miami

South Miami working with Somerset Academy SoMi over ‘racial disparity’

Since the start of his investigation into a “racial disparity” at Somerset Academy South Miami Charter School last year, City Attorney Thomas Pepe and the city of South Miami have attended public and private meetings, collected research, and spoken with school officials.

Finally the two parties are making progress.

“It looks like we are going to be able to settle this amicably,” South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard said. “We went over the numbers together and, with respect to their older schools, this one is really an outlier. The student populations at most of their schools mostly reflect the population of the neighborhood. This is really the one in their whole portfolio that doesn’t seem to do that. They recognize that.”

The city worked with the University of Miami School of Law’s Center for Ethics and Public Service to collect facts during its investigation.

The school, at 5876 SW 68th St., said it had 453 elementary school students, including four black and four Asian students, as of Nov. 2014. The middle school had 152 students, including three black and one Asian student.

About 17 percent of South Miami residents are black, according to the U.S. Census, and the neighborhood surrounding the school is predominantly black.

In January, Principal Kim Guilarte-Gil said that the school needed more space to enroll more students.

With both parties working on solutions to the issue, Pepe said there is no pending legal action.

“(There is) no litigation at this point and nothing has been filed,” Pepe said. “Hopefully SoMi school and City Manager (Steven Alexander) will be able to work out something that satisfies everyone.”

Alexander said that the school’s leadership is meeting with each commissioner separately over the last several months.

“I had a meeting with (Academica President) Fernando Zulueta and his No. 2 person and went over the performance of the schools and I told them my concerns,” Stoddard said. “They seemed very agreeable to working with me. They recently had a meeting with Commissioner Bob Welsh.”

Zulueta’s wife, Maggie Fresen-Zulueta, is vice president of Academica. Her brother is state Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, a former Academica lobbyist.

“I heard about it second hand from (Alexander) but my general understanding was that they expressed a similar sentiment to commissioner Welsh … that they were willing to work with us and try to resolve some of the issues,” Stoddard said. “It looks like things have taken a turn for the better. We are going to get some kind of resolution.”

Academica Corp., Florida’s largest for-profit charter school management company, manages more than 60 schools in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, including Somerset Academy SoMi.

The school has had several public outreach meetings in the wake of the investigation. Stoddard said that the conversations involved steps the school could take to legally improve upon the disparity.

“We proposed some ways they might do that,” Stoddard said. “There are restrictions with what they can do legally, in terms of the sort of preferences that they can give. But it looks like they might have an option to, they can’t do racial preferences, but they could potentially give preferences to people in the neighborhood.”

Somerset SoMi has a standard lottery process with an independent auditor. Applicants are assigned a number, based on when they apply, then chosen randomly, and are not asked their race.