With the city investigating whether the school is racially imbalanced, Somerset Academy South Miami Charter School Principal Kim Guilarte-Gil answered questions from local government officials, prospective parents and community leaders Tuesday on this and other subjects.
“I think it was a successful meeting in the sense that we put our message out there,” said Guilarte-Gil after the meeting. “Like I said over and over again, I wish that we could service more kids. ... Unfortunately, our hands our tied. We just can’t because we don’t have the space.”
The meeting was at Gibson-Bethel Community Center near the school, which is located at 5876 SW 68th St. The school, which opened in 2009, is inside the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), a predominately black neighborhood.
Last year, the South Miami commission instructed city attorney Thomas Pepe to investigate a “racial disparity” at the school. The city has been working with the University of Miami School of Law’s Center for Ethics and Public Service to collect facts on the matter.
“I’m very dissatisfied from what I heard tonight,” said Velma Palmer, a former South Miami commissioner. [The school] “has taken no responsibility to correct the disparity that they have created. They should at least address the situation going forward. This is our community, and putting a school here and excluding us is awful.”
Guilarte-Gil repeatedly said that the school needed more space to enroll more students. The principal referred to a “moratorium” that the city has that keeps the school from adding more students. In 2001, the commission passed an ordinance to include charter schools in its land development code, which states that all schools (K-12) ... “can have a maximum student capacity of 150 students per acre.”
“If you don’t want us here, then we are just going to operate where we are and educate our kids,” school attorney Charles Gibson said. “We really don’t want to spend our resources. Municipalities can play a whole bunch of games. ... If they truly don’t want us, they can make it very difficult for us.”
South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard took issue with Guilarte-Gil’s claim that the school needed more space to enroll more students of color.
“I don’t see why more space would help,” he said. “They don’t have a basic solution to the problem. If they double the amount of kids in the school and they have five black kids, maybe they would go to 10. It’s not a solution at all.”
South Miami resident Kelsey Toomer, who has two children at the school, enrolled his son and daughter when the school was in its infancy.
“I feel some more of the kids from the neighborhood probably should be there,” Toomer said. “I don’t know if we can do it by race and say we just want so many blacks, because then you don’t have as many of the other races in there. I do feel that we should open more slots for the neighborhood, maybe not race-wise, but for the neighborhood.”
As of Nov. 19, the school said it had 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.
Stoddard recently filed a Florida Bar complaint against Gibson, alleging Gibson presented erroneous facts over an enrollment agreement between Somerset’s elementary and middle school.
The matter pertains to email correspondence that took place between Stoddard and Gibson from Oct. 22-28, 2014. In the emails, Gibson told Stoddard that Somerset had an articulation agreement with the Miami-Dade School Board, meaning that students attending Somerset Academy Elementary School South Miami would have “enrollment preference” when enrolling at Somerset Academy Middle School.
“It appears that [Gibson] was not being honest with me and it needed to be resolved,” Stoddard said. “Mr. Gibson is afforded by the Bar an opportunity to write a formal response, which they will send to me. I have not yet received that. I don’t like it when someone in their position gives me information that is inaccurate.”
After South Miami filed a public records request, the school board sent Pepe, the city’s attorney, an articulation agreement document from Somerset’s principal. But Somerset did not send the document to the school board until Dec. 11, 2014, and the board has not approved it.
“In his capacity as a Mayor, he filed a Bar complaint against me saying that I lied to him on two occasions,” Gibson said. “One was that there was no articulation agreement. The other was failure to produce an articulation agreement. He said it was in his capacity as a government official, investigating whatever he was investigating. The Bar sent me a complaint saying that I had to respond to that. Saying that I violated some type of ethical duty to him. Which ... I don’t have a duty to him.”
Gibson said the emails were his attempt to “reach out and diffuse the situation” in a “friendly and cooperative” manner.
“With the articulation agreement ... that’s where maybe I wasn’t as clear,” Gibson said. “If there is some fault, it was my fault. Because we are such a large network, there are numerous articulation agreements.”
The school will host another meeting from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Feb. 3 at Gibson-Bethel Community Center, 5800 SW 66th St. The enrollment deadline for fall admission is Feb. 6. Gibson said the date of the enrollment lottery has not been determined. The school has about 10 to 15 lottery slots available annually, depending on how many siblings of current students enroll.
“I think that if we reach some type of agreement for more space, I think we could have more because it’s a larger population pool,” Gibson said. “We could open up more. We could add more classes and do that.”
But the school’s argument that it didn’t have enough space to enroll more black children didn’t sit well with Palmer.
“Not having enough room is a poor excuse,” Palmer said. “They have not stepped up to the plate. I am going to be pressing the city to go forward as much as I can and will do my part with the directors and school board. This is my community. They come here and they get a lot of benefits. The park they are playing in is our park. We are supporting them. Everything comes through the city of South Miami. What do we get in return? Zero.”