Cashing In On Kids

Charter school in Coconut Grove draws controversy

Late last month, Miami-Dade school district officials scolded the Academy of Arts & Minds charter school for charging fees to students to attend basic classes — in violation of state law.

But when the school’s governing board met the next day, the fee issue was not mentioned. And when a parent began reading from the district’s warning letter to the school, two board members walked out.

The tense meeting was the latest skirmish in a growing dispute between a group of parents and the leadership of the Coconut Grove charter school, which, despite high academic scores, is burdened by shaky finances and high staff turnover. Just last week, the school’s principal resigned — the second principal to quit in six months.

At the center of the controversy is Manuel Alonso-Poch, the school’s founder and its de facto leader. Alonso-Poch, a real-estate lawyer, is the school’s landlord, its spokesman, its food-service provider, its most generous donor and — thanks to a recent $90,000-a-year no-bid contract — its financial manager.

“He runs it all,” said Kevin Sawyer, who resigned as principal on Sept. 30. He said he resigned over health reasons, and because of clashes with Alonso-Poch over a lack of textbooks and supplies. “It’s beyond madness.”

Now several parents have written letters asking the Miami-Dade school district to examine Alonso-Poch’s many ties with the publicly funded school, which they describe as a conflict of interest. Meanwhile, the parents say, the first weeks of school at Arts & Minds were marred by a lack of books and teachers.

“My son has not had a math teacher but for two days. We’re in what, the fifth week of school?” Sherri Myers, the head of the school’s parent teacher student association, complained at a Sept. 23 meeting of the school’s governing board.

The parents have also challenged the independence of the charter school’s governing board — which includes Alonso-Poch’s cousin and a phantom board member who lives in Peru.

Alonso-Poch defends his many roles with Arts & Minds, and he says the controversy is being over-blown by a small group of disgruntled parents who don’t speak for all the parents at the school. He said new books have been ordered, and new teachers have been hired.

“It’s a very successful school,” Alonso-Poch said, pointing to the school’s A rating last year from the state Department of Education. He called the school his “labor of love,” and he resents being portrayed by parents as an “educational profiteer.”

“The essence of our intentions is to make sure we have the best school in Dade County,” he said.

Charter schools such as Arts & Minds are funded with taxpayer dollars, but they are run by independent governing boards. The school district may close a school if it has a poor academic or financial record, but otherwise has little power over a charter school’s day-to-day operations.

Myers and other parents want the current Arts & Minds board replaced, and they requested a parent representative on the board. One parent, Carlos Hernandez, filed a lawsuit this summer accusing the school of failing to turn over public records.

“We want the board to fully comply with the laws. We have evidence that that has not occurred,” Myers told the board last month. “The school today is not in the condition it was a year ago.”

The board’s vice chair, Cecilia Holloman, said the board has the school’s interests in mind, and described the parents’ campaign as a “witch hunt” aimed at taking over the board. She said she sees no conflict with Alonso-Poch’s multiple roles with the school, and calls his influence “a blessing.”“They have every right to complain,” said Holloman, who also worked with Alonso-Poch at another nonprofit. “At the end of the day, they are parents. They are not decision-makers for that school. Six or twelve parents are not going to run that school.”

Alonso-Poch and the board have said they would consider placing a parent on the board — but only someone “loyal” to the school.

“They’re like babies that want to be on this board,” Alonso-Poch told a parent group after the Sept. 23 meeting. To Hernandez, he said: “Why don’t you go build your own school?”

Alonso-Poch did just that in 2003, when the real-estate lawyer bought a four-story shopping mall in Coconut Grove’s Commodore Plaza and turned it into Arts & Minds, the first performing-arts charter school in Miami-Dade County. The high school has sent several students to prestigious arts schools and the Ivy League.

Arts & Minds received about $2.4 million in tax dollars in the 2009-10 school year, records show. But the school has long depended on money from Alonso-Poch to stay afloat.

Alonso-Poch says he has donated more than $2 million to the school over the past eight years — some in cash, some in forgiven rent — and at times has had to pay the mortgage on the school building from his own pocket.

But Alonso-Poch has profited, too: The school pays more than $77,000 a month in rent to Alonso-Poch’s company, records show, though Alonso-Poch said the mortgage costs about $45,000 a month. All of the property devoted to the school is not taxed.

In addition, the school paid $147,000 in 2009 and 2010 to another Alonso-Poch company to provide student lunches. Alonso-Poch said his food-service company is “not a profit-making enterprise.”

“If there are areas where profits are made, I don’t see what’s wrong with that,” he said.

Alonso-Poch said the school is more expensive to run than a traditional school because it requires a theater, dance studios and other large spaces for performing arts, making it harder to balance the books at a time when public-school revenue is falling statewide.

“If this school doesn’t succeed, the only one who goes under is me. I mean financially,” Alonso-Poch told parents after the Sept. 23 meeting. “I have a personal guarantee on this mortgage.”

Holloman said the school’s board has never considered moving to another, cheaper location. “I think we’re kind of lucky to be here,” she said.

In July, the school’s board agreed to hire a company called EDU Management to run the school — a company Alonso-Poch created in April, state records show. Under the contract, EDU Management will receive $200 for each of the 450 students at the school.

Alonso-Poch now manages the school’s expenses — and makes the lease payments on the school’s behalf to his own real-estate company.

When questioned about the contract at a board meeting, Holloman first told parents that Alonso-Poch had no role with the management company — until Alonso-Poch corrected her. Holloman also told parents the company was hired after a “competitive” bidding process.

But in an interview last week, Alonso-Poch and Holloman said the management contract was not competitive, though they compared prices with other charter-management companies. They said the management company was created at the suggestion of the school district, to better clarify Alonso-Poch’s role with the school.

However, Tiffanie Pauline, who oversees charter schools for the district, said her office did not recommend a management company for Arts & Minds.

Some parents are supportive of Alonso-Poch, and worry that the controversy will damage the school’s reputation. “My child is happy there,” said Jacqui Huggett, whose son is a senior. “All this bad press isn’t helping.”

But several parents began noticing problems at the school last year. At a board meeting in January, the school’s former principal, William Machado, expressed doubts about the school’s practice of photocopying textbooks for the students, records show.

Holloman said Machado expanded the number of classes last year before ordering the necessary supplies, leading to the book shortage.

Tony Manning, who graduated from the school in June, said students had to purchase many of their own textbooks and were regularly given extra credit for bringing reams of paper. Manning, 18, dropped an Advanced Placement biology course after learning he would have to shell out $150 for the college-level text.

“That was the norm,” he said.

By April, Machado had resigned, citing his “disagreement” with management. He was replaced by Sawyer, who said he was not allowed to purchase textbooks and had no control over the school’s finances.

“I was building bridges with the parents,” said Sawyer. “But Manny Alonso-Poch and the governing board would not let me do my job.”

As administrators leave the school, parents have begun raise questions about the board.

As recently as July 28, the school listed theater instructor Jorge Guerra-Castro as an “at large” board member — though Guerra-Castro lives in Lima, Peru. Alonso-Poch said Guerra-Castro was one of the school’s original founders, and he remained as an honorary board member after moving to Peru six years ago.

But Guerra-Castro told The Miami Herald that he has never been formally affiliated with the school — and he was unaware of his purported board position until he was contacted by a reporter.

“Very bizarre,” said Guerra-Castro. He said he gave informal advice to Alonso-Poch when he was planning Arts & Minds, but Guerra-Castro never agreed to be on the board. “I have no idea what’s going on.”

Alonso-Poch’s response: “That’s shocking to me that he would say that.”

Dr. Jose Noy, a Miami physician, was also listed as a board member until July; however, Noy did not attend any board meetings for at least 2½ years, records show. Noy did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The questions at Arts & Minds have now drawn the attention of the Miami-Dade school district, which said it will examine the school’s practices in the coming months.

On Sept. 22, district officials cited the school for charging fees to students for basic classes such as English, social studies and math — classes charter schools, like public schools, must provide free of charge.

Arts & Minds now must account for all of the fees it collected since 2007. The school must reimburse any students who were wrongly charged, or the school’s funding could be withheld.

The school’s new principal, Jorge Suarez, said he believes all the fees were legitimate, but some were labeled incorrectly, making them appear improper.

Manning, the A&M graduate who now attends Florida State University, said he and his former classmates should be reimbursed.

“I want my money back,” he said. “I want justice to be served.”