Academy of Arts and Minds Hasn't Fixed Conflicts of Interest, School Board Auditor Says

Back in June, a Miami-Dade School Board audit skewered a Coconut Grove charter school's seemingly incestuous relationship with its founder and landlord, Manuel Alonso-Poch. Seven months later, school board auditor Jose Montes de Oca claims Academy of Arts and Minds has done next to nothing to address its conflicts of interest with the prominent Miami attorney.

According to an update Montes de Oca gave the school board's audit committee on December 4, he claims the academy's "actions taken to achieve an independent board fall short, and there remains a likelihood that the non-profit board will continue to be controlled by for profit-related parties."

See also:
- Manuel Alonso-Poch, Would-Be Marine Stadium Savior, Faces Myriad Complaints from Charter School PTSA

Alonso-Poch vehemently disagreed with the auditor's assessment. "The board has always been independent," he says. "The board has responded that any conflicts that existed were dealt with appropriately and according to law nine years ago when the school began to operate."

In his June audit, Montes de Oca criticized the school's volunteer governing board as "subservient" and said the board failed to adequately oversee the contracts between the school and Alonso-Poch's companies. That could be because the board's chairwoman, Ruth "Chuny" Montaner, is Alonso-Poch's cousin. Board member Cecilia Holloman has worked with Alonso-Poch in the past.

For instance, Alonso-Poch's real-estate company, which owns the school property and leases the building to the school, charged $876,000 a year in rent. School district real estate experts described the lease as "irregular," noting that the precise space for the school is undefined, and other tenants also leased space in the building, according to the audit.

Montes de Oca also found Alonso-Poch wrongly received a school-related tax exemption on a portion of a parking lot that was not used by the school, the audit found. The Miami-Dade Property Appraiser is now demanding more than $182,000 in back taxes on the parking lot, records show.

The school board auditor began investigating Academy of Arts & Minds following complaints from parents and stories by watchdog Dan Ricker and Miami New Times last year about Alonso-Poch's alleged conflicts.

According to Montes de Oca's recent update, his auditors have been unable to verify a new lease agreement allegedly signed on July 1 in which the school is now paying $516,000 a year in rent. "It is unclear whether this lease was duly executed," Montes de Oca wrote.

In addition, Montes de Oca noted the academy has not done anything to change the make up of the governing board to eliminate the conflicts between Alonso-Poch and his relatives and friends. "We continue to have serious concerns that the processes proffered for determining the composition of the governing board," he wrote.

Alonso-Poch says otherwise. "The auditor never found anything illegal or unethical to have been done by the board," he says. "The auditor believed there were some conflicts of interest. We completely disagree with that. People are entitled to have a difference of opinion."

School Board audit committee members were not happy with Alonso-Poch's and the academy's lack of action, according to minutes of the December 4 meeting. They instructed Montes de Oca to "make one last attempt at meeting with the charter school representatives to satisfactorily address the concerns previously raised by the auditor" by March of next year, at the latest. If not, the audit committee will ask the Miami-Dade Office of the Inspector General to investigate the academy.

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.