Academy of Arts & Minds

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 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... 

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COCONUT GROVE (CBS4) – The Miami-Dade School Board ordered a forensic audit to be conducted on the Arts and Minds Academy charter school in Coconut Grove, where questions have been raised about school funding. A group of angry parents demanded the district to get involved.

The decision, reached Wednesday afternoon, will include a search for misappropriated funds, missing equipment, and possible malfeasance in following state rules set forth for publicly funded charter schools.

The district had already started an investigation into complaints students were charged illegal fees for required classes. Some parents also claim the school lacks teachers and books, 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.

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...

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Whatever else in the way of criticism gets heaped on local school boards — God knows they catch hell — board members do tend to live in the general vicinity of the school district.

Which is to say, they don’t live in Peru...

Herald reporters Kathleen McGrory and Scott Hiaasen discovered that Jorge Guerra-Castro, nominally a member of the board overseeing the Academy of Arts & Minds, has lived in Lima (Peru, not Ohio) for the last six years.

Not that Guerra-Castro has knowingly ignored his responsibilities. Called by The Herald, he seemed taken aback when told that the charter school listed him as an “at large” member of the A&M board. Emphasis on “at large.”

“Very bizarre,” Guerra-Castro told The Herald. “I have no idea what’s going on.”...

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A parent of a local charter school in Coconut Grove started in 2004 and run by the buildings owner Manny Alonso Poch filmed a governance board meeting and the discussion allows the public to get an idea of what and how some of the 80 plus such schools are governed in Miami-Dade in the public  sunshine. The Arts and Minds Academy Charter School has been a frequent topic of the Watchdog Report since the school first went through and its creation was approved by the nation’s fourth largest public district because of this “related transaction” as it is called when a facilities owner also runs the school. In this case, the rent for the building jumped back in 2006 from $29,000 to $69,000 and currently now when maintenance is included is well over $80,000 per month. The school while academically doing well has gone through four school directors and has been the object of stories in The Miami Herald and Miami New Times along with other blogs. Here is what was sent to me last week by the person that took the video. >>> “I have uploaded the videos of the last 2 A&M Governing Board Meetings. The first meeting on 7/14 was adjourned when they realized I was videotaping. I showed them the law, explained, etc and they did not feel comfortable going forward. On the meeting on the 28th you will find a lot of interesting footage. If you do not have much time, at least view the Q and A portion. You will get a kick out of it. It is funny as they do not even know who is on their Governing Board and it is only a six member Board. All of the videos are ready. You can click on the following link and then look at all of the videos that were uploaded. There are a total of 8 (2 for the 7/14 meeting and 6 for the 7/28 meeting): You can also go to youtube and search aandmgbvideos and they will all come up. Videos 5 of 6 and 6 of 6 for the 7/28 meeting is the question and answer portion.”

>>> PAST WDR: MAY, 2011: Grove Arts & Mind Academy parents, in six page blistering letter to school district, light up school’s governance and criticize building owner and school founder Alonso-Poch

Parents of students at the Arts & Minds Academy located on Commodore Plaza in Coconut Grove fired off a blistering highly critical letter of complaint to the Miami-Dade Public Schools administration concerning how the charter school is being run and governed that seems to only benefit financially the building’s owner and school founder Manny Alonso-Poch. The May 2 six-page letter signed by the A&M PTSA Executive Board President Carlos Deupi and other senior board members and parents to Tiffanie Pauline, the Administrative Director of charter schools in the nation’s fourth largest school district. The letter details a long list of issues, including the fact that he owns the building the school is housed, and uses it for other activities including having his law office at the site. The school created in 2004 was flagged by the Watchdog Report back then because of the building ownership issue that is known as a “related transaction.” The original monthly rent paid by the school district was $29,000 but when it expanded in 2006, that same rent jumped to around $69,000 a month, and caught the eye of the district’s inspector general and the school board’s audit committee. Poch, an attorney, at a past school board audit committee meeting explained to audit board members why the new rent was fair, but his explanation did not fly and had audit board Chair Frederick “Buck” Thornburgh, an attorney noting there “was a lot of fairy dust in the room,” after the explanation he thought...

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“Coconut Grove charter school owner accused of bilking taxpayers.” Miami New Times (FL), 06/09/2011
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.

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...

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