Arts & Minds founder says bankruptcy 'means nothing' for school

In the year since a Miami-Dade school district investigation found a bevy of problems at the Academy of Arts & Minds, the high-performing but oft-scrutinized performing arts charter high school has looked to turn a new page.

It appears the next chapter includes bankruptcy.

Manuel Alonso-Poch, the school’s founder and landlord, filed for Chapter 11 protection this month for the corporation that owns the Commodore Plaza, a three-story, mixed-use building in Coconut Grove that houses the school. He insisted the legal move won’t affect the school or its 400-plus students.

“It means nothing for Arts & Minds,” he said.

The case, however, illustrates the complicated financial relationship between Alonso-Poch and Arts & Minds. Among the creditors in the bankruptcy proceedings: the holder of the $7 million Commodore Plaza mortgage, and a neighbor who purchased a delinquent mortgage on a nearby parking lot that has little to do with the school but happens to be owned by the same Alonso-Poch corporation, Commodore Plaza Parking.

It’s the dispute over the parking lot that Alonso-Poch said forced him to file for bankruptcy on Sept 6, four days before a judge ordered he pay a $727,000 bill or see the lot auctioned off. The lot in dispute lies between the Arts & Minds building at 3138 Commodore Plaza and the GreenStreet Cafe .

Sylvano Bignon, the owner of Greenstreet, purchased a bank note on the lot recently amid foreclosure proceedings and paid off a six-figure lien placed on the property after the Miami-Dade appraiser’s office said Alonso-Poch had improperly filed for a charter school tax exemption.

“The property has a lot of equity in it. So we’ve been forced to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in order to allow us time to refinance the debt on the parking lot,” Alonso-Poch said. “It has nothing to do with the school building or the school.”

Bignon said he has no interest in the school building. But an attorney for CP Miami, the holder of the Commodore Plaza loan, said the company is seeking a resolution to the case. And the issue has caught the attention of the school district, which according to spokesman John Schuster “will monitor and await the outcome of the bankruptcy proceedings to determine the next steps, if any.”

Bignon also said parents and students who frequent his cafe began talking about the bankruptcy after it was first reported in the South Florida Business Journal.

“Putting the school through this isn’t fair,” he said. “With everything that happened to the school in the past, it isn’t a good thing.”

Despite being the recent recipient of top grades from the state, the last few years have been rocky for Arts & Minds. Some parents said in 2011 that their kids went weeks without a teacher, or were required to pay fees for basic classes in violation of state law. The accusations helped launch a school district probe that concluded last year. Investigators said Alonso-Poch had improperly filed a charter school tax exemption on the parking lot and had conflict-of-interest issues due to his multiple roles as founder, manager, landlord and food service provider of the school, and his cozy ties with the board of directors.

The governing board of the school disputed most of the district’s conclusions and said the 12 parents who complained were planning a “takeover of the school.” They called the services rendered by Alonso-Poch’s companies the “best and least costly in the market.”

Arts & Minds representatives have since met with the district’s Office of Management and Compliance Audits to try and work out their issues. District auditors intend to follow up on their findings this year.

New board chairman Richard Dunn, a former Miami city commissioner, said the school has moved on from the controversy. While the board was watching the bankruptcy case, he said it’s too early to worry that the school’s operations will be harmed.

“It’s nothing that I’m overly excited or worried about. Certainly you have to be concerned. I mean, I’m concerned about our school and keeping the performance up,” he said. “We’re going to be responsible. We’re going to make prudent decisions.”

But as Alonso-Poch goes, so too goes the school. District auditors said the founder and manager kept the school afloat from 2008 to 2011 through a combined $2 million in donations and rent forgiveness. But he’s also collected millions in rent payments from the school - which budgeted $776,000 in rent this year.

Alonso-Poch said the relationship has worked out well for the school and its students.

“There’s nothing hidden here. It’s totally transparent,” he said. “The school is doing better than ever. That might be an interesting story, how the school is doing these days.”

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