Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Miami state Rep. Erik Fresen unfazed by charter school conflicts of interest

State Rep. Erik Fresen
State Rep. Erik Fresen El Nuevo Herald

If Erik Fresen was ... say ... a county or city commissioner, a blatant conflict of interest would keep him from voting on charter school funding issues.

As my Herald colleagues Christina Veiga and Kristen Clark reported Sunday, laws governing ethical behavior would bar local officials from even discussing proposals at public meetings that have a direct or indirect financial impact on their interests. Or their families’ interests.

The Fresen clan has a lot riding on charter school construction funds. Erik Fresen earns $150,000-a-year as land consultant for Civica, an architecture firm that specializes in charter school construction. Civica has designed a number of schools for Academica, the largest charter school management company in Florida. Fresen’s sister and brother-in-law just happen to be Academica executives.

But state Rep. Fresen’s ethical deportment in the state Legislature is governed by such tepid regulations that the chairman of the House Education Budget Committee can get away with sponsoring legislation that would deliver a windfall to the family business.

The Miami Republican has fast-tracked a bill that would not only limit what school districts spend on their own capital projects, it would also force districts to share their construction money (even when that money was derived from local property taxes) with charters.

No worries. All that conflict-of-interest stuff only applies to local elected officials.

He has argued that his legislation was designed to rein in out-of-control construction spending by school districts (a characterization hotly disputed by the state’s school superintendents). Fresen, however, hasn’t had much to say about charter school building scandals. Last month, The Associated Press reported that since 2000, about $70 million in state money spent on charter school construction and building improvements had essentially disappeared when the schools failed. Out of that lost $70 million, the state Department of Education recovered only $133,000. The balance of those taxpayer-funded capital improvements now belongs to private interests.

The charter school movement has long been rife with conflicts of interest. Back in 2000, the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, the research arm of the Florida Legislature, warned about “business transactions between charter schools and its administrators, board members, and related family members that frequently caused potential conflicts of interest.”

In 2008, OPPAGA tried again. “In recent years several examples of charter school board members encountering potential conflicts of interests have been noted. For example, the Auditor General has reported irregularities and instances of board members receiving personal gains,” the report stated. “There have also been numerous news articles questioning alleged conflicts of interest between governing board members and charter school operations.”

In 2011, a Miami Herald investigation revealed how for-profit charter school management companies were doubling as landlords for the schools. And how some charter school board members were entangled in a conflicted relationship with the management companies.

That very same year, Rep. Fresen was pushing legislation that would limit zoning restrictions local governments could oppose on charter schools. Conflicts? What conflicts?