Coconut Grove charter school owner accused of bilking taxpayers

Manuel Alonso-Poch isn't just one of Miami's best-connected lawyers and a major donor to bigwigs such as Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and his daughter, school board member Raquel Regalado — he's also been trumpeted lately as the business-savvy savior of the long-threatened Miami Marine Stadium.

So what the heck is going on over at the Academy of Arts & Minds, the Coconut Grove charter school he cofounded in 2003?

The academy's Parent Teacher Student Association sent a searing letter last month to Dade officials alleging fraud and malfeasance, including a governing board made up of relatives and lackeys that pays Alonso-Poch inflated rent.


Manuel Alonso-Poch

Alonso-Poch says the complaints are hooey: "For a group of misinformed, ignorant parents who don't trust anything to attack my hard work is very offensive."

He started the school from scratch eight years ago with his partner, Ana Renteria, and has built it into an "A" school focused on creative arts. Lately he has earned headlines with a plan to build a marine exhibition center next to the languishing, graffiti-tagged stadium on Virginia Key.

But some parents say they've uncovered troubling practices at the academy, including

• a "rubber-stamp" governing board that includes Alonso-Poch's cousin and numerous business associates;

• a lease that pays Alonso-Poch $86,000 a month for a building worth only $3.4 million;

• a lucrative food services contract awarded to his own company;

• tax returns that fudge the school's cash flow.

Alonso-Poch denies the charges and provided the school's financial statements. He says his governing board is independent (but admits his cousin holds one seat) and neither he nor Renteria makes money from the school.

The rent is fair, he says, and the food services contract went through a standard bidding process. "We happened to make the best offer," he says.

What's more, the parents who are complaining don't represent the 450 students at the school, he says. "It's all innuendo and no facts."

Dade school officials are reviewing the letter. Alonso-Poch says he hasn't heard from investigators yet.

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