Coconut Grove Charter School Probed About Finances
Neighbors 4 Neighbors
COCONUT GROVE (CBS4) – At the Arts and Minds Academy charter school in Coconut Grove there is a parental rebellion amid an on-going investigation and staff upheaval.
The Miami-Dade School District is investigating complaints of students being charged illegal fees, a lack of teachers and books, needs of special education students going unmet, and a failure of the school to conduct required background checks on employees.
“In the last six months, we have had two very experienced, well-liked principals that have left the school and cited issues with management.” said Sherri Myers, President of the Parent Teacher Students Association (PTSA) at the school.
The departed principals have told school system investigators they’ve been asked to do things inappropriate if not illegal. In an email to parents, recently resigned principal Kevin Sawyer said his departure was prompted by issues of “honesty” and a “moral imperative.” His predecessor, William Machado, wrote parents saying it would be “dishonest” of him to follow some of the instructions he had been given by management.
CBS4’s News partner, The Miami Herald, was first to report that the school system sent the publicly funded charter school a blistering letter, saying it has “violated state law by charging students fees for instruction.”
A school flyer says students must pay “base activity fees” of up to $125. In addition to that, the school imposes a long list of individual class fees of as much as $60 per course.
Some parents say their kids haven’t received text books this year.
“I bought my son his algebra book,” said Elizabeth Barcellos. “I bought it online.”
In another scathing letter, the school system slammed the academy for “failure to provide services to special education students.” The letter went on to say the charter school was risking “termination of the school’s contract” as a result.
Larissa Bethel said her child has special needs that have not been met and that she has been unable to get an acceptable explanation.
“I just want straight answers to my questions about the education of my kid,” Bethel said.
Parents say some classes have been without teachers.
Nancy Krauss said her daughter went without a biology teacher until Monday.
“She had a substitute until yesterday,” Krauss said. “I have no idea whether or not she’s learned anything in the last seven weeks.”
The school has also been cited by the school district for failing to conduct required fingerprinting and background checks on employees, in violation of the Jessica Lunsford law, named for a little girl abducted and murdered by a sex offender.
At the center of the controversy is Manuel Alonso-Poch.
Alonso-Poch is the schools founder, owns the management company that runs the school, owns the food service company that provides breakfast and lunches to the students, and owns the building, collecting $77,000 a month in rent from taxpayers.
In the last school year, Alonso-Poch received some $6.000 per student in taxpayer dollars.
Some parents have come to Alonso-Poch’s defense, citing the school having earned an “A” grade.
“We can’t keep moaning and complaining and pointing fingers at the past if we’re going to move forward,” said parent Monica Munivar.
Detractors, though, say Alonso-Poch runs the school as his own and has stacked the board of directors in his favor, including a cousin, and a good friend who doesn’t even live in the country.
Alonso-Poch did not reply to repeated phone and email messages requesting comment for this report.
The chairperson of the academy’s board, Ruth Montaner, issued a statement Tuesday afternoon saying, “Any errors or omissions that are brought to the attention of the Academy’s administration by the District are always promptly addressed and corrected immediately. We continue to work with the District regarding any concerns the District brings to the attention of the Academy.”
But the school district’s concerns have not gone away.
Investigators have requested a forensic audit of the Arts and Minds Academy, including an examination for possible misappropriation of funds, missing inventory and equipment, payroll fraud and charter school malfeasance.
(©2011 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. CBS4 news partner The Miami Herald reporters Kathleen McGrory and Scott Hiassen contributed material for this report)