Cashing In On Kids

Miami-Dade school district to restore funds to charter school

Nearly three weeks after withholding funding from a troubled charter school, the Miami-Dade school district agreed to give the Academy of Arts & Minds in Coconut Grove a portion of its monthly check.

But in agreeing to release the $146,943, district officials issued a stern warning: If Arts & Minds doesn’t provide all required services to special-education students by Wednesday, the School Board will take the first step to close the school.

“The district will continue to insist that the school meet its obligations to comply with the charter school contractual agreement, School Board policies and federal and state law,” Miami-Dade district Deputy Superintendent Freddie Woodson wrote in a memo to the school.

Arts & Minds must also provide information about fees charged to parents for basic classes like reading and math over the past five years. School district officials say such fees violate state law.

School founder and manager Manuel Alonso-Poch did not return calls late Friday.

Arts & Minds was one of two Miami-Dade charter schools that had its funding yanked last month after failing to comply with the district’s rules for charter schools. Arts & Minds had failed to update the specialized education plans for some special-needs and gifted students, according to a memo Thursday from the school district.

“The school’s egregious failure to provide required [special-education] services creates a serious potential to detrimentally impact a fragile student population and violates federal and state law and statutory ethical standards,” Woodson wrote.

In an Oct. 19 letter to the school district, the principal at Arts & Minds, Jorge Suarez, said he had updated the education plans for most of those students flagged by the school district.

The school district’s action has created a financial strain at the school: Teachers did not receive their paychecks on Friday, according to a school source. Even before the funding was withheld, the school relied on loans from Alonso-Poch, who is also the school’s landlord.

The school district is also withholding funds from the Balere Language Academy over questions about the school’s finances. The district has required Balere to provide additional records to justify its spending before releasing $79,000 to the school.

Balere is facing foreclosure of the school’s property and was investigated earlier this year over allegations that the school was being advertised as a nightclub on weekends. The school now has less than 90 students.

Marlon Hill, an attorney for Balere, said school administrators are working with the school’s accountants to provide all the records to the district by Tuesday or Wednesday.

“We believe our documentation will demonstrate that all school funds have been used properly,” Hill said.

Without the regular funding from the school district, Balere has struggled to stay open.

“I think we’re on our last breath here,” Hill said.

Charter schools are publicly financed, but run by independent governing boards. Local school districts do have the power to close failing charter schools — and to make sure that all charter schools abide by their contracts and state and federal law.

Arts & Minds, which enrolls 460 students, has had problems complying in the past.

Parents have also raised concerns about a shortage of teachers and textbooks, and questioned Alonso-Poch’s role at the school. In addition to serving as the school’s manager and landlord, Alonso-Poch is also the school’s food-service provider. His real-estate company draws almost $1 million from the school annually in rent and fees. His first cousin Ruth “Chuny” Montaner is the chairwoman of the school’s governing board.

The Miami-Dade district also is planning a forensic audit.

School system officials will still withhold some of the school’s funding — though only a fraction of the $185,000 it originally held back.

Arts & Minds can get all of the funding when it is in full compliance, charter school officials said.

Last week, Arts & Minds cancelled its governing board meeting and sent an email to parents saying Arts & Minds had been unfairly singled out.

“The academy is not the only school in Miami-Dade with special services deficiencies, but the only one whose funding has been withheld for that reason,” school officials wrote.

The email urged parents to contact the Miami-Dade School Board and Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

“If parents don’t speak up and ask the school system to support A&M, the school will be at risk of closing,” school officials wrote.