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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Two Miami-Dade charter schools lose funding

From the Miami Herald

By Kathleen McGrory and Scott Hiaasen

Two troubled Miami-Dade charter schools have had their funding cut off by the school district — an extraordinary measure that could threaten the schools’ ability to survive.

The school district is withholding more than $185,000 from the Academy of Arts & Minds charter school in Coconut Grove because the school has failed to provide some services for children with special needs — a violation of state and federal law. Last month, the school, which has 460 students, was also slapped for illegally charging fees to students for basic classes.

The district also withheld $79,000 from the Balere Language Academy in South Miami Heights over questions about the school’s finances and staff. Last year, the school district found that the school, which now has 85 students, was in a “deteriorating financial condition,” requiring the school to draft a plan for recovery.

Cutting off the school’s funding “is a good way to kill it, even though it’s showing signs of recovery,” said Marlon Hill, an attorney for Balere. “It’s overbearing.”

Charter schools receive the bulk of their income in monthly payments from the school district based on the number of students enrolled. School districts monitor the charter schools to ensure that they comply with their charters, or contracts, which govern how the schools operate.

Without these monthly payments, the charter schools will likely struggle to keep the doors open, said Lynn Norman Teck, a spokeswoman for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, a lobbying group and membership association. She said some Florida charter schools have had compliance issues in the past, but continued receiving their monthly checks.

“The consortium wants its member schools to do things right,” she said. “But we don’t feel that funds should be withheld.”

School district officials said it was a necessary move, particularly in the case of Arts & Minds.

“The Academy of Arts & Minds has violated federal and state law and materially breached the charter school contract with the School Board by repeated failure to provide services to special education students,” the school system’s charter school administrator, Tiffanie Pauline, wrote in a letter to the school.

District officials said they would likely disburse the funds to the schools when they are in full compliance.

The school’s founder and landlord, Manuel Alonso-Poch did not return calls from The Miami Herald, nor did governing board spokeswoman Cecilia Holloman.

Both Balere and Arts & Minds were buckling under financial strains even before the school districts actions this month, records show.

Balere is facing a foreclosure lawsuit on its school building, and the school has about $136,000 in outstanding debts, including $99,000 owed to a previous landlord.

Last month, Balere was also under investigation after advertisements surfaced indicating that the school was being used as an adult-themed nightclub on the weekends. The school’s principal, Rocka Malik, has denied that the school was doubling as a club — though a phone number on the ads comes back to her husband’s business.

The latest controversy arose in early October, when the school district asked Balere for copies of the school’s audited financials and supporting documentation, citing “serious concerns as to the completeness and validity of the information provided.” District officials said the school had missed the annual deadline for submitting the information — a breach of its contract.

Hill said Balere is doing its best to provide the information.

“I don’t see the district bending any extraordinary corners to help with compliance,” he said.

He said the school’s teachers are still receiving paychecks and the funding cuts have not affected the classroom. But Malik, the school’s principal, “will be donating back her salary to the school,” Hill said.

At Arts & Minds, school district officials said the school had failed for weeks to provide evaluations and update education plans for more than two dozen students with special needs, as required by law and the school’s charter. In addition, two students were denied services from a speech language pathologist, school district officials said.

The district gave Arts & Minds until Oct. 5 to make the necessary changes.

When the charter school did not respond, district officials withheld the money that was supposed to be disbursed on Oct. 15.

Later that week, Arts & Minds Principal Jorge Suarez wrote a letter saying the school was in partial compliance, and that plans had been made to carry out the remaining student evaluations.

Arts & Minds was already reeling from complaints by many parents that the school did not have enough books or teachers when school started in August.

Several parents have also questioned the school’s management: The school’s governing board recently agreed to hire its founder and landlord, Alonso-Poch, to also be the school’s manager under a $90,000 no-bid contract. The chairwoman of the school’s board, Ruth “Chuny” Montaner, is Alonso-Poch’s cousin — though she did not vote on the management contract.

Two principals have resigned from Arts & Minds in the past six months. One of those principals, Kevin Sawyer, who resigned in late September, said the school still owes him his final paycheck.

“It’s not right,” he said.

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