Education

Centner Academy Founders Gave More Than $1 Million to GOP in 2020

Centner Academy
Centner Academy Photo by Centner Academy
The founders of a Miami private school that recently barred vaccinated teachers from interacting with students spent mountains of cash supporting GOP candidates last year, according to campaign-finance data.

Husband and wife David and Leila Centner, the co-founders of Centner Academy in Miami's Design District, made national headlines this week when the New York Times reported on an internal email from Leila Centner that warned teachers their employment would be affected if they choose to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The email said teachers who have already been vaccinated would be kept away from the student body until the end of the school year and warned that teachers who get vaccinated over the summer might not have a job waiting for them in the fall.

The email referenced "reports...of non-vaccinated people being negatively impacted by interacting with people who have been vaccinated," including the alleged disruption of women's menstrual cycles. Not surprisingly, Leila Centner did not supply any evidence or research to back up such false claims.


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) assert that COVID vaccinations are safe and effective after evaluation in clinical trials involving tens of thousands of participants. The CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently lifted their pause on the rollout of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after a safety review determined that the blood clots reported in some women are very rare.

Meanwhile, a review of Federal Elections Commission campaign-finance data reveals that Leila and David Centner have made several large donations to conservative causes since they opened their school in 2019. The Centners reportedly made their fortune after selling their previous company, Highway Toll Administration LLC, a toll-collection tech company, for an undisclosed amount in March 2018.

Since then, the two have financially backed the Republican Party and former president Donald Trump, whom Cornell University researchers have deemed "the single largest driver of misinformation around COVID." Many members of Trump's party have downplayed the coronavirus, and some polls now show that nearly half of Republican men and a third of Republican women don't intend to get the COVID vaccine.

In 2020, the Centners donated over $1 million in campaign contributions that benefited Republican committees and political campaigns in 21 states, including Florida, New York, and Arizona. Records show that Leila and David Centner gave $500,000 apiece in July to the Trump Victory fund, a joint fundraising committee for Trump.

The $1 million to Trump Victory was then transferred to Republican Party accounts in other states, as well as to the Republican National Committee (RNC), which received $548,800 of the donation, according to FEC data. The Trump Victory fund reportedly funneled $75 million in contributions to state Republican parties and to the RNC in a move that is currently under scrutiny by federal regulators.

Campaign-finance records show the Centners made a few political contributions to Republicans before their July splurge on the Trump Victory fund, though none nearly as large.

The Centners donated $2,800 apiece in February 2020 to a campaign fund for Terri Hasdorff, a Republican candidate who ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in Alabama and lost in the primary. The couple also donated $5,400 apiece to then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott's 2018 U.S. Senate run. (Scott won that race and now serves alongside Marco Rubio in the Senate.)

Leila Centner also donated $10,000 to the Democratic Executive Committee of Florida in October 2020. The donation appears to be the only contribution from Leila that does not match an identical donation from her husband.

The Centners did not respond to emails and phone calls from New Times requesting comment on their political donations.

Just a few months before the Centners made their hefty donations to Trump Victory, their school — which charges nearly $30,000 a year in tuition for middle-school students — received nearly $1 million in federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans.

According to a database of companies approved for PPP loans, Centner Academy was approved for an $804,375 loan through JP Morgan Chase Bank on April 10, 2020. The school reported having 70 employees and said $750,000 of the loan would be spent on payroll.

Leila Centner, who according to the New York Times frequently shares anti-vaccine posts on Facebook, has come under fire in the past for using her platform at the school to support her ideological and political views.

In October, some parents of children attending Centner Academy became incensed when she hosted a forum at the school for Esteban Bovo, a conservative candidate for the nonpartisan Miami-Dade County mayoral seat last year. Parents criticized Centner for using the school to support a political candidate of her choice and for using the school's email list to invite parents to meet the candidate. Centner told parents that she was using the school building after hours and that they could not tell her what events to host in her own building.

At the time, Centner did not disclose to parents that she donated $50,000 to an electioneering organization that backed Bovo earlier that year.
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Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos