By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
In June, a Miami-Dade School Board audit skewered a Coconut Grove charter school for an incestuous relationship with its founder and landlord, powerful attorney Manuel Alonso-Poch. It found Alonso-Poch was charging the Academy of Arts & Minds a suspiciously high rate for rent and had rigged its board to award contracts to his businesses.
Seven months later, Alonso-Poch is apparently still at it. A new report from the board's auditor, Jose Montes de Oca, offers evidence that Miami-Dade County Public Schools is all but powerless to address sketchy charter schools in the system.
In his new report, Montes de Oca writes that Alonso-Poch's efforts to correct the problems "fall short" and "there remains a likelihood that the nonprofit board will continue to be controlled by for-profit-related parties."
The well-connected attorney vehemently disagrees. "The board has always been independent," he counters. "Any conflicts that existed were dealt with appropriately and according to law nine years ago when the school began to operate."
In June, the school board found "conflicts of interest" at the school, including a "subservient" board whose chairwoman was Alonso-Poch's cousin and which also included his business partners. With the board's blessing, one of Alonso-Poch's companies won a $140,000-per-year food service contract; he also charged $860,000 annually in rent, a sum the auditor found "irregular."
The board warned the school could lose its nonprofit status without reforms.
Those changes haven't come yet, at least according to Montes de Oca. The auditor says he hasn't been able to verify a new lease supposedly signed in July reducing the school's rent to $516,000 a year. He also notes the academy has done nothing to change its board. "We continue to have serious concerns [about] the processes proffered for determining the composition of the governing board," he writes.
Alonso-Poch — a major donor to Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and his daughter, school board member Raquel Regalado — disputes that. "The auditor never found anything illegal or unethical," he says. "[He] believed there were some conflicts of interest. We completely disagree with that."
Truth is, there's not much else the school board can do. The audit committee, which met earlier this month, says it will ask the Office of the Inspector General to step in if Alonso-Poch hasn't done more to fix the academy's conflicts by March.