Hidden audit shows big budget hole at union for Miami Dade schools lowest-paid workers

By William Gjebre, Florida Bulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Superintendent of Schools Alberto Carvalho and AFSCME, Local 1184 President Vicki Hall at a meeting in November 2016.

An embattled union representing the lowest-paid Miami-Dade public schools employees is facing new problems that include a $210,000 budget deficit, possibly driven by compensation paid to a handful of top union officials.

The shortfall at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1184 is a huge hole in a budget that in past years has typically ranged from $200,000 to $250,000 – funding primarily collected from union dues.

The large deficit was disclosed in an audit by AFSCME international headquarters in Washington, D.C. that’s dated May 2, yet only made public this month.

A former union official who ran for president of the local said the suppression of the audit could have cost him the May 18 election.

“Why did the international allow someone to run for office with a $200,000 deficit?” said Terry Haynes, a former union vice president who was defeated by incumbent Local 1184 president Vicki Hall.

Aside from the union’s budget issues, Haynes said, there was a lack of disclosure of information by Local 1184 regarding union finances as well as failure by the union to obtain approvals of the full executive board. Increased expenditures in light of the union’s precarious financial problems are not justified, Haynes added.

Terry Haynes, former senior vice president of Local 1184 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

Hall, Local 1184 president since May 2015, did not respond to an email and phone calls for comment on the audit and related issues. Jeffrey Taggart, director of accounting and auditing, AFSCME international in Washington, whose office conducted the audit under his signature, also did not respond to a request for comment. Andy Madtes, executive director of Florida Council 979, which oversees AFSCME locals in the state, maintained that the audit is a matter between the international and Local 1184 and does not fall under the council’s purview.

AFSCME international “does not comment on an internal issue,” said Mark McCullough, a spokesperson for both the international and Local 1184. He would not discuss what measures have been taken by Local 1184 to address the financial and other issues referenced in the audit.

‘A deficit of $210,667’

“The 2016 and 2017 annual budgets approved by the Executive Board do not provide the net income/net loss,” the audit stated. “Total budgeted income for 2017 less the total budgeted expenditures for 2017 results in a deficit of $210,667. Additionally, the expenditures on the annual budgets do not total correctly.”

Audit information, as well as an apparent union tentative budget document for 2017, provides some answers to the funding imbalance.

“The 2016 budget for payroll was $121,620 and the 2017 budget payroll is $146,820,” the audit stated. Those numbers, however, appear to be far less than the actual union payrolls for 2016 and apparently for 2017.

The audit stated that Hall’s total compensation and payments for 2016, funded by union dues, were $116,572, including $50,915 in union salary (called “allowance”) and another $10,276 in reimbursements; $43,443 from her district annual salary as a bus driver, and $11,938 for fringe benefits, unused sick time and vacation pay. The union’s agreement with the Miami-Dade public schools system calls for the union to reimburse the district for Hall’s district salary and other benefits so she can do union business.

During 2016, Haynes, at the union’s request, was also on full-time release from his district job as a custodian, and his total compensation and payments were $68,944, including $44,373 from his district salary and another $12,958 for fringe benefits, unused sick and vacation time; $11,150 in his union salary, and another $463 in union reimbursements.

In addition to the $185,516 in compensation for Hall and Haynes, the union in 2016 paid allowances to 12 other union officials for about $50,000 — or a grand total of $235,516.

Local 1184’s budget totals for 2017 were not identified in the audit. But Haynes provided a document he said was a working tentative union budget for this year that showed the union’s income from dues, normally the main funding source, would amount to only $159,523 for the year. Haynes said that as far as he can recall the 2017 union payroll was not reduced from the previous year.

A drop in membership dues coming?

The tentative budget document Haynes provided projected that Local 1184 would collect a total of $974,590 in dues for the 2017 budget. Most of that is sent up to the Florida Council and AFSCME international. Local 1184’s $159,523 share of the total is 16.4 percent of the total.

In the last reports to the state of Florida regarding yearly dues from members, Local 1184 stated it collected $1.128 million in 2015 and $1.182 million in 2013. This indicates Local 1184 is facing a drop in membership dues for 2017.

The audit report was also critical of Local 1184 in other areas, noting that certain cash allowances and increases for officers were not approved by the membership and that the local bought 14 new cellphones for its executive board members at a price that was higher than what had been approved.

The issue of union finances is the latest controversy surrounding the union. Haynes had criticized Hall for failing to challenge the school system when the School Board approved two contracts totaling $1.8 million outsourcing lawn service work usually done by union employees.

Haynes also was critical after it was learned that the school district gave Hall a $16,000 pay hike, raising her base annual salary to $42,000 from $26,000, two months before the November 2015 outsourcing contract was approved.

Controversy continued at the end of the May 18th union election when member votes were being counted. Haynes said his unofficial count had him leading when an election committee official left the area and returned with papers in hand. Shortly afterward, he said, Hall was declared the winner. “They stole the election,” he said.

Haynes contested the election, but AFSCME international denied it saying he filed the appeal too late.

Haynes said he believes that the international, despite its claim of opposing outsourcing, did not support his call for a new election because “they want her [Hall] there” rather than someone like himself who speaks up about problems.

Miami-Dade Schools gives fat, multi-year lobbying contract to Trump-connected lobbyist

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Lobbyist Brian Ballard

Seeking an edge in Republican-dominated Washington politics, Miami-Dade public school officials awarded a federal lobbying contract to an influential Florida firm whose chief officer played a significant role in the election of President Donald Trump last fall.

On the recommendation of Superintendent of Schools Alberto Carvalho, the Miami-Dade School Board on Wednesday awarded a contract that could pay Ballard Partners up to $540,000 over five years beginning July 1. The initial three-year contract pays up to $324,000 and can be extended for two years and pay up to an additional $216,000.

The firm, which earlier this year opened an office in Washington D.C., will “provide federal legislative consulting services to assist in advocating the Board’s interest before the South Florida Congressional Delegation, federal legislative committees, and the Executive Branch, including the Secretaries of Education, Commerce, Health and Human Services and Justice,” according to the school board’s agenda item on the matter.

Brian D. Ballard, president of the firm, was a key factor in the awarding of the contract, especially with his link to Trump. He has represented Trump on business matters in the state – on and off – for at least 10 years.

Ballard declined to discuss business matters in which he represented Trump. “I don’t talk about my clients’ ” business, he said.

“I think his relationship with the administration is value added,” said Iraida Mendez-Cartaya, MDCPS associate superintendent, Intergovernmental Affairs, Grants Administration and Community Engagement. Her office requested the issuance of proposals for firms interested in representing the school district in Washington.

“You know it’s about relations and who can open doors … and this specific firm outlined expertise,” Mendez-Cartaya said.

Asked about the role his relationship with Trump played in the selection, Ballard said in an earlier interview that he’d leave speculation for others to address. But he added, “I think it can prove to be value added. I think I can work with this administration.”

The Trump connection

Ballard Partners’ website spells out the connection, especially its most recent involvement leading to Trump’s election. “Brian’s political portfolio includes significant roles in presidential campaigns including the historic election of President Donald J. Trump. He was an integral player in the President’s successful Florida campaign serving as Chairman of the Trump Victory and leading the campaign’s finance efforts in Florida.

Brian Ballard is listed as Trump’s Florida Finance Chairman in this campaign fundraiser announcement

“Brian also had the honor of serving as a member of the Electoral College casting his vote for President Trump. The President-elect appointed Brian to serve as Vice Chairman of the Inaugural Committee and as a member of the Presidential Transition Finance Committee.”

Ballard’s other presidential campaigns involved John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 when he chaired the Florida Finance Committee for those two Republican Party nominees.

The selection of Ballard by the Miami-Dade school district marks its reentry into the national political scene with a lobbying firm to represent it. The district has been without a federal lobbying firm for nearly 10 years, having cut the expenditure due past fiscal hardships; district staffers took on the work during that time.

Ballard Partners beat out four other firms for the contract. Ballard Partners has offices around the state, including Tallahassee, Coral Gables, Tampa, Jacksonville, Orlando and West Palm Beach.

Speaking of representing the Miami-Dade and its new Washington offices, Ballard said, “It’s exciting for us.” Representing Miami-Dade schools, he said, “can be an important public service.”

“We have a track record of success and expect to be successful,” Ballard said. Aside from ties to Trump, Ballard said many of the Washington legislators served in Tallahassee, adding, “We have a relationship [with them].”

While the company will be a new player, Ballard’s Washington staffers are veterans of Florida and Washington politics. They include Sylvester Lukis, with more than 40 years of experience in representing clients in Florida and Washington; Otto Reich, former ambassador to Venezuela; Susie Wiles, who was a key player in Trump Florida campaign; Dan McFaul, who has been involved in Washington politics for 20 years, including serving as a staffer on Trump’s transition team; and Robert Wexler, who served as a Democratic member of Congress from 1997-2010 and in the Florida Senate for six years.

Using ethics loophole, Sen. Lauren Book votes to give her nonprofit $1.5 million

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Sen. Lauren Book’s page on Florida Senate web site.

Broward State Sen. Lauren Book voted “yes” last month to approve a state appropriations bill that included $1.5 million for Lauren’s Kids, the nonprofit she founded and leads as its $135,000-a-year chief executive officer.

A gaping loophole in Florida Senate ethics rules allowed Book to cast her vote despite her apparent conflict of interest. The same loophole also meant she didn’t have to disclose her conflict publicly.

Senators are forbidden by ethics rules from voting “on any matter” in which they or an immediate family member would privately gain – except when it comes to votes on the annual General Appropriations Act. Abstaining senators must also disclose the nature of their interest in the matter, according to the 335-page Florida Senate Rules and Manual.

“Legislators are allowed to vote on issues that may benefit their profession,” said Ben Wilcox, research director for the nonpartisan watchdog Integrity Florida. “But it becomes questionable when it is a direct appropriation to an entity that a legislator controls and that would directly benefit that legislator.”

Lauren’s Kids, whose chairman is prominent lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father, has in a just few years become one of the Florida Legislature’s most favored private charities. Since 2012, Lauren’s Kids has bagged more than $10 million in taxpayer-funded handouts.

Gov. Rick Scott went along with the latest $1.5 million appropriation for Lauren’s Kids while approving Florida’s $83 billion 2017-18 budget earlier this month.

How that appropriation came to be is a story itself. Lauren’s Kids only asked for $1 million.

Where did extra $500,000 come from?

But more than six weeks after the Florida legislative session ended, nobody is answering questions about how Lauren’s Kids snagged that additional $500,000. Not Sen. Book. Not Ron Book. Not Sen. Bill Montford, the Tallahassee Democrat who sits on the education appropriations subcommittee and sponsored a funding request for $1 million on the nonprofit’s behalf on Feb. 22. And not Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Kendall, who sponsored the bill in the House. Each did not respond to detailed requests for comment.

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee and Rep. Jeannette Nunez sponsored funding requests for Lauren’s Kids in the state Senate and House

Lauren’s Kids spokeswoman Claire VanSusteren, however, provided a written statement on June 12 summarizing how Lauren’s Kids intends to use the funds and defending the organization’s mission to increase reporting of child sexabuse incidents.

“There is no investment greater than in our children’s safety, and research shows that school-based education is an extremely effective vehicle for prevention and early intervention,” the statement read. “Lauren’s Kids is proud to partner with Florida educators to help arm students with knowledge about personal safety and accessing help.”

VanSusteren did not respond to a follow-up list of questions emailed on June 15 that again requested an explanation of how Lauren’s Kids’ funding request got bumped up from $1 million to $1.5 million between April 27 and May 8. That’s when House and Senate members went into conference committees to hash out the final budget bill. Sen. Book was a conferee for the appropriations conference committee on health care and human services. Montford was a conferee on the committee for education.

Wilcox said Sen. Book should be forthcoming about the additional $500,000 Lauren’s Kids received. “At the very least, she should be as transparent as possible on how that funding was decided,” he said. “It already doesn’t look good to the public given it is a dicey relationship for her in the first place as a sitting legislator who is also a recipient of taxpayer dollars.”

Lauren Book, 32, is a freshman legislator from Plantation. She assumed office just seven months ago after running unopposed and has quickly ascended the state’s political ranks. She is the Democratic Leader Pro Tempore and chairwoman of the Senate environmental preservation and conservation committee. She also sits on the appropriations, health policy and rules committees. Her father’s clients contributed significantly to her campaign and political action committee.

In March, Sen. Book told Florida Bulldog she was advised by Senate counsel “that it is proper that I do not abstain on these matters unless the funding directly inures to my benefit, which it will not.” Sen. Book, who was sexually abused by her nanny in her early teens, said she resigned from the board of directors of the foundation that raises money for Lauren’s Kids and that her salary was restructured to “ensure that no public dollars were used to compensate me for my work.”

At the time, Sen. Book said the Florida Department of Education requested that the Legislature provide $1 million in funding for Lauren’s Kids to continue its “Safer, Smarter” curriculum, a program that teaches students, teachers and parents how to spot signs of child sex abuse and the importance of reporting sex crimes against children.

Lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father. Photo from the documentary “Untouchable” by David Feige

The curriculum is made available to children at all grade levels in public and charter schools in all 67 Florida counties, but school districts are not required to teach it. For instance, Indian River County Public Schools and Orange County Public Schools do not use the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum, according to spokespersons for both districts. Miami-Dade Public Schools, the largest school district in the state, uses “Safer, Smarter” at only 80 out of 392 schools, said spokesman John Schuster.

“The curriculum is implemented as classroom guidance lessons facilitated by the school counselor or school social worker,” Schuster said. “The counseling professionals choose the classes where the students will receive the curriculum.”

Data lacking on curriculum results

Schuster said Miami-Dade Public Schools does not track or have any data confirming that the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum has resulted in the reporting of child sex-abuse incidents that would otherwise go undetected. “These reports are made directly to the Department of Children and Families and are anonymous,” he said. “We have no access to this reporting information.”

In VanSusteren’s June 12 statement, she defended Lauren’s Kids work by citing an unverified and questionable  2015 poll the organization commissioned that concluded one in three girls and one in five boys will be victims of sexual abuse by the time they graduate 12th grade. By applying those statistics to the overall public schools student population in Florida, there are “at least 540,000 child victims currently enrolled Florida’s K-12 schools,” the statement read.

VanSusteren insisted 95 percent of child sex abuse is preventable through education and awareness, and that the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum works. “Students who receive education about personal safety and accessing help in unsafe situations are three times more likely to speak up if they are being harmed,” VanSusteren said. “The funds allocated to Lauren’s Kids during fiscal year 2017-2018 will be used to continue our work to bring life-saving resources to Florida classrooms – as recommended in the Department of Education budget, as well as the Governor’s budget.”

However, the Florida Department of Education did not make the funding request for the curriculum, said department press secretary Audrey Walden. She explained the Legislature and the governor must first approve the funding and the department then disperses the funds to Lauren’s Kids and other nonprofit groups that get state money. Organizations must apply to the department and provide a breakdown on how the funds will be spent.

In its March 31 application, Lauren’s Kids stated it would spend $800,000 to print and distribute educational materials and maintain two websites associated with the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum; $100,000 to produce a digital conference; and two separate $50,000 expenditures for an evaluation survey, online training modules for teachers and principals and an educational fair.

“Please note that the department does not require schools to use the curriculum referenced,” Walden said. “It is implemented in schools at the discretion of each school district.”

According to an online legislative database used to track the Lauren’s Kids appropriation, Sen. Montford sponsored a $1 million funding request the same day that Kelly Mallette, governmental affairs director for Ronald L. Book P.A., lobbied the subcommittee on behalf of Lauren’s Kids and three other nonprofits the firm represents.

Montford, who is also the chief executive of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, has sponsored previous funding requests for Lauren’s Kids. He sits on the appropriations, health policy and rules committees alongside Sen. Book.

According to Montford’s 2016 campaign finance reports, Ron Book, his wife Patricia and his law firm each gave $1,000 to the senator’s re-election effort. Ronald L. Book P.A. also contributed $2,500 in 2014 to a now-defunct political action committee chaired by Montford.

On the House side, the re-election campaign of Rep. Nunez, who sponsored a $1 million funding bill on behalf of Lauren’s Kids, also got $1,000 contributions from Ron Book, his wife and his law firm. Montford and Nunez did not respond to four messages left with their legislative assistants the week of the June 5-9 special session.

Miami-Dade Schools, union push costly private loan program for lowest paid workers

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Terry Haynes, senior vice president of Local 1184 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

A union representing the lowest-paid Miami-Dade Public Schools employees has endorsed a proposed private loan program for its members that would charge 24 percent interest with the school district collecting loan repayments by deducting them from employee paychecks.

The proposal, which did not go before the Miami-Dade School Board for public discussion and approval or review, has drawn criticism from an outspoken union official who will seek to become president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 1184, in a May election.

“The interest rate is high” for the union employees and “puts them in harm’s way,” said controversial Local 1184 Senior Vice President Terry Haynes. Haynes was suspended by the loca’s executive board last month but reinstated March 28 by AFSCME’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C. following an investigation.

Critical of the union and the school district for backing a contract change that allows for a private company to set up the loan program, Haynes said, “If they want to do something, why not something more manageable” than 24 percent interest? “If we have people going out for those loans,” he said, “it means they are not being paid enough.”

The loan program proposal arises from a modification to the labor contract that was agreed to by the school district and the union Jan. 31. The change allows for the union to have another payroll deduction slot for “other economic services” to be used by “entities or businesses” as designated, with the school district being held harmless under the plan.

Vicki Hall, Local 1184 president who signed the agreement on behalf of the union, Hall did not respond to requests for comment, including a question about what benefits the union might receive for backing the BMG loan program. Union draft documents about the program, however, state that BMG would provide financial literacy training to union workers; support union membership drives and make an unspecified contribution to the union.

But Tom McCormick, chief growth officer for BMG Money Inc., said in an email, “We do not plan on offering any incentives to AFSCME based on any milestones.”

Two school district officials — Vivian Santiesteban-Pardo, assistant superintendent in charge of Labor Relations and Compensation, and Jose Dotres, Chief Human Resources Officer, who signed the “Memorandum of Understanding” on behalf of the district – also failed to return calls for comment.

A new payroll slot

But in a district email response, Santiesteban-Pardo said that in September the union had requested the payroll department to “add a payroll slot for Loans at Work, a program offered through BMG Money… The Union has not presented the District with the agreement in order to begin the program. The terms and conditions of the program are subject to the agreement between BMG and AFSCME. At this time, no other union in M-DCPS has requested a payroll slot for BMG Money.”

A draft letter from AFSCME Local 1184 backing the BMG loan program states: “Sometimes when savings aren’t available and neither banks nor credit unions can help, these expenses can create true financial hardships in our lives…

“Though the interest rate is somewhat higher than what our more fortunate members might pay, 23.99%, it is definitely reasonable in comparison to payday loans that charge anywhere from 200%-400% APR… The availability of the [BMG] LoansAtWork program is in the best interest of our members – another tool in times of need.”

Haynes, however, said there is something wrong when only the lowest-paid employees are being offered the loan program at what he considers a high rate. The union should not be a party to this, he said, adding he told Hall it was not good for union employees.

The school district will, in effect, become a “collection agency” because loan repayments will be made through the district’s payroll deduction system, said Haynes.

BMG’s McCormick declined to comment on any talks with the district and Local 1184, but did discuss his company’s program.

“BMG Money’s LoansAtWork program is a fixed-rate, fixed-payment employee emergency loan program,” McCormick stated. “When facing an expected expense, too many good people with good jobs are left with few options except predatory payday lenders… Payday lenders in Florida offer short-term loans with absurdly high interest rates of 265% and repayment terms that make the loans exceedingly burdensome on borrowers.”

But a Tallahassee-based consumer group that strongly opposes predatory payday lending says BMG’s 23.99 percent interest, while considerably lower, is no bargain, either.

“I would say it is a pretty high interest rate,” said Alice Vickers, director of the Florida Alliance for Consumer Protection. “I certainly would call it not very risky [for BMG] with an interest rate that high and guaranteed repayment through paycheck deduction…I advocate they lower the rate.”

BMG Money

BMG Money Inc., incorporated in September 2009 in Delaware, began operations in Florida in 2010 and has an office on Brickell Avenue. The company’s majority shareholder is an affiliate of Banco BMG S.A. of Sao Paulo, Brazil, according to bid documents it presented to Broward County government, where the company is under consideration for establishment of a loan program for county employees.

Banco BMG S.A., according to Bloomberg Private Business Information, “provides commercial and credit, financing, and investment products and services primarily in Brazil.” It also provides “salary account deductible loans … personal direct debit loan accounts for civil servants, retirees … and pensioners,” according to Bloomberg.

In its short time in Florida, BMG has been busy. In its documents to Broward County government, BMG stated it has 42 governmental or public entity clients, all in Florida, and has issued “over $107 million of loans to employees who otherwise would have fallen victim to predatory payday loans.”

Among the 42 clients are Broward County Public Schools and the cities of Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach. The loan programs with these other government agencies were offered to all employees working for those agencies after being reviewed and or authorized by the governing bodies.

BMG’s bid documents to Broward County give a glimpse of how the loan program operates: Loans do not compound, do not require credit reports, do not require fees, will be “unsecured” (not require the backing of homes, cars or savings as collateral), will be in amounts from $500 to $5,000, will be repaid through payroll deductions over six to 24 months, and can be paid back early without penalty. BMG also provides financial literacy training for borrowers.

The controversy involving the loan program is another sharp difference between Haynes and Hall. Led by Hall, Local 1184’s executive board on March 7 suspended Haynes from his duties as Senior Vice President, but on March 28 he was reinstated by AFSCME’s headquarters after an investigation.

Haynes said he was told by Hall that he was suspended for talking to a reporter for the FloridaBulldog. In an article appearing one day before his March 7 suspension, Haynes questioned why Hall received a huge annual pay hike from the school district two months before the School Board began approval of two contracts totaling $1.8 million, over a five-year period, to outsource lawn service normally done by union employees. Haynes linked the pay boost to the two contracts that the union failed to challenge at the time of School Board approvals.

Miami-Dade schools gave union boss fat pay hike before outsourcing work

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Superintendent of Schools Alberto Carvalho and AFSCME, Local 1184 President Vicki Hall at a meeting in November 2016.

The Miami-Dade public schools administration gave a 60 percent pay hike to the president of the union that represents the district’s lowest-paid employees months before the school board approved one of two contracts that outsourced lawn maintenance work traditionally performed by union workers.

A top official of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1184 is questioning why president Vicki Hall got such a large pay increase and linked it to the two contracts that went unchallenged by the union before they were approved. The raise brought Hall’s annual school district salary from $26,141 to $42,000, records show.

“Why would they change her pay status … and give her a $16,000 increase? I tie it to the two contracts,” said union senior vice president Terry Haynes, adding that Hall’s pay raise exceeded promotion provisions of the labor contract by more than $14,000.  “She cut deals” related to the district’s outsourcing contracts, he said.

AFSCME officials have complained that the outsourcing, which could pay private firms up to $1.8 million over five years, violates the union’s labor agreement with the district and will result in loss of work for employees represented by the union. The controversy has exposed sharp differences between Hall, who was elected president of the local in May 2015, and Haynes, the local’s second in command.

Hall was asked to comment on her salary hike and how it came about. “You want me to incriminate myself,” she said before hanging up.

Re-contacted again a few days later, Hall declined to comment.

In an earlier interview several months ago,  Hall maintained that “no deals” were made and that she was “still a bus driver.” She also said that her annual salary increase was only from $36,000 to $42,000 – numbers different than those provided by the school district.

The union also provides Hall a separate salary stipend for her service as president, and reimburses the school administration for her school district salary so she can carry out union duties full time. The union represents about 7,900 employees, including custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, maintenance employees and some staffers at WLRN, the public radio and TV station whose license is owned by the Miami-Dade School Board.

A comparison

By way of comparison, Haynes said the district never gave longtime union president Sherman Henry a large pay increase or a better pay grade. Instead, Haynes said, Henry got the same increases negotiated for all union employees. Henry retired from the school district two years ago after serving as union president for 24 years.

Superintendent of Schools Alberto Carvalho, who union officials say backed the two outsourcing contracts, did not respond to a call for comment. School Board Attorney Walter Harvey did not return calls for comment, or to an email asking him whether the outsourcing contracts violated the union’s labor agreement with the district, as union representatives contend. Chief Human Resources Officer Jose Dotres also would not comment.

School district Chief Communications Officer Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, however, maintained that the outsourcing contracts don’t violate the board’s contract with AFSCME, and that an agreement has been reached with the union to clarify outsourcing procedures. She added that the settlement resolves all grievances filed about the two contracts that outsourced lawn service.

The settlement, signed by Hall and district officials, calls for the district to do what the district’s labor agreement called for it to do: give notice to the union when it plans to outsource work, outline the scope of work and allow the union time to decide if it wants to challenge.

Union officials complained that had not been done. “I think downtown is in control’’ of the union, said Haynes, who disagreed with both the settlement and any claim that it resolves two grievances he filed about district outsourcing work.

School district officials refused to provide Hall’s annual salary on Jan. 1, 2015 and on July 1, 2015 when she and union members received a union-district negotiated pay increase. Andrea Williams, executive director in the Office of Labor Relations, said the district only provides hourly rates for 10-month school bus drivers; Hall’s official job with the district on those dates was that of a 10-month bus driver.

An analysis of school district information, however, shows that as of July 1, 2015, Hall’s salary was $26,141 a year. Three months later, Hall’s annual salary jumped 60 percent to $42,000 after the administration changed her status to a 12-month school bus driver. The change put Hall on a more lucrative salary schedule.

According to Haynes, Hall’s salary should have increased only by about $1,600 a year under promotion provisions in the district’s labor contract with AFSCME.

Outsourcing followed union president’s big raise

In November 2015, two months after Hall’s salary hike to $42,000, the first of the two lawn maintenance outsourcing contracts was approved by the School Board. The five-year contract authorized 11 companies to provide lawn services totaling up to $1 million. The type of work includes tree, palm and shrub trimming, pruning and stump removal, according to board records.

The contract was approved two days after the union withdrew a related previous grievance and a request for arbitration. The union filed the grievance in June 2014 after discovering that a private firm was doing lawn service work at Krop Senior High School in North Dade.

According to documents provided by the school district, the district paid about $273,000 to the companies it contracted with to outsource lawn services. the district contacted with as of Nov. 29, 2016. The union did not file a grievance at the time the contract was approved.

The other contract, for up to five years, was approved by the School Board on Feb. 3, 2016. Thomas Maintenance Service will be paid up to $800,000 to mow vacant lots and clear fence lines.

According to documents provided by the school district, nearly $82,000 was paid to Thomas Maintenance as of last November. The union did not file a grievance at the time that contract was approved, either.

Haynes accuses Hall of failing to take a strong stance against the district’s efforts on outsourcing. “It’s her responsibility to watch board items” and guard any actions detrimental to employees represented by the union, he said.

Haynes criticized the union’s withdrawal of the Krop High grievance. “She ordered the grievance pulled in a deal cut with Labor Relations,” he said.

“I told her not to pull it because it can result in a pattern,” Haynes said.”The grievance should never have been pulled because they may try to do it again.” And they did, he added.

In the interview months ago, Hall had a different version. She said that in November 2015 she ordered the Krop grievance withdrawn because she was given assurances from an official in Labor Relations that the union would be notified in the future of any outsourcing proposals.

It was “based on a good faith” promise, Hall said.

Two Miami-Dade charter schools loaned $900K in taxpayer funds to sister schools

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Keys Gate Charter School in Homestead. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Keys Gate Charter School in Homestead. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Two Miami-Dade charter schools illegally transferred taxpayer funds by lending a combined $912,094 to sister schools outside the county, the top lawyer for the Florida Department of Education has determined.

As a result, Miami-Dade Public Schools auditor Jose Montes de Oca is recommending the district initiate efforts to recoup the money even as a representative for one of the charter schools claims no law was broken.

On Dec. 6, Montes de Oca will brief the school board audit and management committee on what steps the district can take to recoup the funds used for the loans.

In an Oct. 21 letter to school district attorney Walter Harvey, education department general counsel Matthew Mears said Keys Gate Charter School in Homestead and BridgePrep Academy in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood were prohibited from making loans to affiliated schools not in Miami-Dade.

“Funds that are appropriated to a local school district are for the education of the students within the school district,” Mears wrote. “For this reason, the transfer of appropriated funds across district lines, with or without interest, is not authorized.”

Colleen Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Florida Charter Educational Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns Keys Gate disputed Mears’ conclusion that the $700,000 loaned to Clay Charter School in Middleburg, Florida, is illegal. Keys Gate and Clay are operated by Charter Schools USA, one of the country’s largest charter school management companies, under a contract with the foundation.

“We have not received any direction or concern regarding this issue,” Reynolds told Florida Bulldog. “However, we believe we are in full compliance with the law.”

Florida Department of Education general counsel Matthew Mears.

Florida Department of Education general counsel Matthew Mears.

Juan Carlos Quintana, a principal with S.M.A.R.T. Management, the company that developed and operates BridgePrep Academy, did not return three phone calls and an email message seeking comment about the $212,094 loan given to an unidentified affiliated school in another county. Two other Miami-area charter schools under the BridgePrep name also had loaned a combined $18,949 to sister schools outside the county, but those funds have already been paid back, according to a Sept. 12 Montes de Oca memo to the audit committee.

The dispute over the use of district school funds for loans initially arose in May when Montes de Oca notified the school board’s audit and management committee about the problem following his review of annual financial statements for 2015 submitted by Keys Gate and BridgePrep. At the time, Keys Gate had loaned Clay Academy $750,000 with zero interest. Since then, the loan was paid back, but Keys Gate issued another loan for capital improvements at Clay Academy. This second loan is for $700,000 with a five percent interest rate and a term of five years, according to Montes de Oca’s September letter.

Opinon sought

The school board attorney sought an opinion from Mears after Keys Gate officials informed Montes de Oca that the loans were acceptable under state law, according to a Nov. 30 letter by the school district auditor.

Mears’ response that the loans are illegal prompted Montes de Oca to recommend that the money be returned. “The district administration plans to formally notify these schools of the state’s guidance and that the loan funds must be repaid,” Montes de Oca wrote.

Charter school watchdogs told Florida Bulldog the loans illustrate a total disregard for taxpayer funds diverted from public schools to private educational institutions. Lisa Guisbond, executive director for Citizens for Public Education, an organization that advocates against charter schools and standardized testing in Massachusetts, said Keys Gate and BridgePrep should be held accountable for the mishandling of school district funds.

“It seems bizarre that a charter school would have an extra $750,000 to loan out when so many public schools are scraping by to meet the needs of their students,” Guisbond said. “That kind of blows my mind. It’s outrageous, even.”

Carol Burris, executive director for the New York-based Network for Public Education, said Keys Gate and BridgePrep should not have given out the loans in the first place.

“In the case of these charter schools, their allegiance to their sister charters was greater than their allegiance to the children of Miami-Dade County they are supposed to serve,” Burris said. “They put the needs of the charter schools ahead of the needs of the kids. That is a problem.”

It’s a good thing both schools were caught, she added. “Hopefully, it will discourage other charters from doing the same,” Burris said. “And I hope the citizens of Miami-Dade have all of their tax dollars returned.”

Rubio’s ambition tied to hundreds of millions of dollars in losses for South Florida schools

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio

Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach public schools have lost hundreds of millions of dollars since 2004 when the Florida Legislature changed the way schools are funded – an action linked to the political ambitions of Republican Party presidential candidate Marco Rubio.

The New York Times reported Oct. 21 that then-State Rep. Rubio bargained for political support to become speaker of the Florida House in exchange for not opposing measures that diverted funds from large school districts like his home county of Miami-Dade to smaller districts upstate.

Rubio served as Florida House Speaker from 2006-2008. According to The Times, he secured the position in 2003 with backing from upstate legislators after he agreed not to oppose measures that would reduce funding to heavily populated areas with higher property tax bases like Miami and increase spending in less dense, rural regions in the state.

Rubio, 44, now a first-term U.S. senator and serious Republican challenger for his party’s presidential nomination next year, did not respond to requests for comment left with his campaign and his Senate office. The Times, however, reported that Rubio previously said there were no tradeoffs in his successful effort to become Speaker of the House, and that he had complained that there was excessive spending and waste of funds by the Miami-Dade school district.

The changes that have cost South Florida’s school districts so much included alterations to the school funding formula that determined student allocations. One change to the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) involved the addition of an “amenity factor” to the so-called district cost differential, or DCD, which at the time sent more money to large districts due to their higher costs of living.

Another change involved so-called “compression or equalization” funding in which school districts rich in local property taxes – like Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach – saw funds above a statewide average taken away and given to less property-rich districts. Under this take-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor arrangement, school districts in South Florida became known as “donors.”

The changes, signed into law by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, were effective starting in the 2004-2005 school year.

At the request of FloridaBulldog.org, Miami-Dade Public Schools compiled a list of the cumulative gains and losses from then until now due to those funding changes at school districts in each of Florida’s 67 counties.

MIAMI-DADE THE BIGGEST LOSER

Miami-Dade County Public Schools was the biggest loser of state funds, with an eye-popping total loss of slightly more than $1 billion.

Broward County Public Schools took the second biggest hit, ranking 66th among Florida’s 67 county school districts with total losses from 2004 thru 2015-16 due to the funding changes of $509 million.

Palm Beach Public Schools was third with losses of $335 million, and ranked 65th among the counties, according to the list. Even Monroe County schools lost big: $30.5 million, ranking 63rd.

The Miami-Dade School’s study also found the biggest winner from the funding changes was Duval County, with a cumulative gain of $309 million since the 2004-2005 school year. Hillsborough County ranked second with a $271 million gain and Polk County was third with a gain of $225 million.

Federick Ingram

Federick Ingram

Fedrick Ingram, the recently elected vice president of the Florida Education Association and outgoing president of the United Teachers of Dade, said the funding loss in South Florida impacted teacher salaries and resulted in some program cuts.

“He (Rubio) could have assisted the local area … but supported more funds for the north (schools districts), ‘’ Ingram said. “He chose personal ambition.”

School districts in Broward and Palm Beach confirmed that they, too, suffered significant cumulative losses as a result of the changes to the funding formula and the district cost differential since 2004. They calculated their total losses to be millions of dollars lower than what Miami-Dade found.

Broward County Public Schools lost approximately $346 million since 2004 as a result of the changes, according to the district’s public information office. An official with knowledge of financing at Palm Beach County Public Schools said that district lost $189 million through last year as a result in the changes.

The Times story outlined how Rubio, after being elected to the House in a special election in 2000, set out to curry favor with House Republican leaders, leading to his ascent to House speaker after making the alleged deal.

While the Legislature was in session in 2004, the Miami-Dade School Board attempted to thwart the funding changes. Records show that on April 14, 2004 the board instructed staff that its top issue was to “preserve” the existing favorable district cost differential.

But a month later, with the change apparently by then approved by the Legislature, the Board instructed staff to hire lawyers to sue to stop it. The legal effort was later joined by the Broward and Palm Beach school districts.

SCHOOL DISTRICTS’ CASE TOSSED OUT

The courts, however, dismissed the case about June 2005. But not before legal costs rose to $620,000, the Miami-Dade School Board was later informed. Broward paid $150,000 and Palm Beach, $125,000.

It didn’t take long before Miami-Dade and other large districts felt the pain of the funding cuts.

Then-Miami-Dade Superintendent Rudy Crew outlined the financial impact of the changes at the March 12, 2008 School Board meeting.

“The continuation of the loss of the DCD has meant that between 2004 and now this district has lost approximately $200 million,” said Crew, according to the minutes. He went on to discuss a series of budget cuts that included layoffs and furlough days.

Two months later, at its May 5, 2008 meeting, the school board was informed that the losses were worse than originally thought.

“Another impact has been equalization of local millage where the state adopted a policy that deprived Miami-Dade and other like counties of general revenues coming from general revenue taxes – sales taxes, explained then-Associate Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, according to the minutes.

“The impact of that on Miami-Dade over the past four years, beginning in 2005-2006, with a $10 million hit progressing all the way to 2007-2008, current year, to the tune of $67 million, and projected to become $18 million next year,” Carvalho said.

Adam Hasner, a former Florida legislator who was a part of Rubio’s Tallahassee team, did not return calls for comment. The New York Times story reported Hasner praised Rubio for looking out for the entire state rather than just his home county.

But that stance also appears to have helped Rubio achieve what only two other South Florida politicians have accomplished in the last half-century: capturing the powerful post of Speaker of the Florida House.

While Miami-Dade school officials fumed about the funding cuts, at least one education watchdog cheered the changes. Charlotte Greenbarg, who for years has closely monitored education in Miami-Dade and Broward, said the funding change was necessary because the large districts had wasteful spending practices.

Miami-Dade, Greenbarg said, was top heavy with high-paying administrators, many of them earning more than $100,000 year while teachers were paid much less.

Growing chorus of Miami-Dade teachers denounce pay deal by Carvalho, union

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org teachersalary2

As Miami Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho blames Tallahassee legislators for failing to overhaul the standardized testing system used to evaluate student and teacher performance, a growing chorus of disgruntled rank-and-file teachers accuse him, the school board and the teacher’s union of breaking state law governing their employment contract.

In recent weeks, at school board meetings and on social media, dozens of teachers have denounced the agreement negotiated in August by the school district and United Teachers of Dade, alleging the terms do away with significant pay raises they were due in 2014.

During last year’s legislative session, Gov. Rick Scott signed off on funding that allows school districts to implement a new system for doling out raises based on teacher work performance. Broward County Public Schools, for example, approved the new system in March.

A Facebook group called “#Teacher Strong MDCPS Employees, you are worth more,” has amassed more than 3,500 members in less than two months and has become a place for teachers to vent. A majority of the commenters are teachers at Miami-Dade Public Schools.

Sarah Hays Duffort, a teacher at John A. Ferguson Senior High in southwest Miami-Dade, is one of the more vocal critics. She said in an interview that many educators feel disillusioned under Carvalho, the American Association of School Administrators’ 2014 national superintendent of the year.

FRUSTRATION

“We are frustrated,” Hays said. “We are bearing the brunt of this management.”

Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho

Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho

In late August, district officials said they reached a deal with the union that includes about a three percent salary increase and another one percent healthcare salary savings to teachers and educational support personnel. At the time, Carvalho issued a statement praising its terms.

“This historic agreement represents our investment, both intellectually and financially, in the value of our teachers and the work they do,” Carvalho said then. “Despite years of economic challenges and tax shortfalls, we were still able to negotiate an agreement that dignifies and honors the teaching profession.”

But a sizable representation of the teacher’s union didn’t agree, and 40 percent of its members voted against the contract last month only days before the school board approved it.

Hays, two other teachers interviewed by FloridaBulldog.org, and scores of their colleagues on Facebook contend the contract is illegal under a state law approved in 2011 that divided teachers into two categories and created different pay raise schedules for tenured and non-tenured employees.

Under the law, teachers hired before July 1, 2014 are grandfathered into a salary schedule that bases salary increases on their tenure. Those hired after that date qualify for raises based on work performance, including how their students fare on standardized tests. The teachers who object to the new contract say it does not differentiate “grandfathered” teachers from non-tenured teachers and that the three percent pay increase is considerably less than what the law requires.

School district officials insisted the teachers’ contract is legal and fair.

“Current amendments to state law define what constitutes a ‘grandfathered salary schedule’ and the district adhered to said requirements in negotiating the present labor contract,” said School Board Attorney Walter Harvey in an email response to Florida Bulldog. “As stated in the agreement with UTD, the new salary schedule will serve as both the grandfathered and the performance pay salary schedules.”

Jose L. Dotres, who heads the district’s Human Capital Management Office, said by email that the new agreement evens the playing field.

“The new salary schedule provides [Miami-Dade Public Schools] the ability to negotiate increases that value all teachers,” Dotres said. “Because salaries are negotiated on a yearly basis with UTD, teacher compensation will generally increase rather than remain at current levels.”

Miami-Dade school teacher Sarah Hays Duffort

Miami-Dade school teacher Sarah Hays Duffort

Teacher Hays lacks confidence in the school district’s assurances. She said that under the school district’s interpretation she would be considered a non-tenured teacher whose work performance determines the size of her raise even though she has worked six years for the district. The reason: she was hired on a year-to-year basis and is not classified as a permanent employee.

PAY FORMULA

State law requires school districts to come up with a formula that rates non-tenured teachers from “highly ineffective” to “highly effective.” Non-tenured teachers who score “unsatisfactory” and “needs improvement” can be placed on probation, while those who rate “effective” and “highly effective” would get annual raises of $2,500 and $3,500, respectively. Tenured or “grandfathered” teachers, on the other hand, would get salary increases based on the number of years they have worked for a school district.

Hays, who makes close to $42,000 annually, said she has no problem having her work performance evaluated, saying she has always received a rating of “highly effective.” But under the pay scale negotiated in the UTD contract, he says, she will get a meager salary bump of $837.

“I do a good job and I am fine with accountability,” Hays said. “I figured once they get the performance pay schedule in motion I will have some type of benefit. The problem is the benefit [of raises based on her performance] never comes.”

Thais Alvarez, a teacher at Norman S. Edelcup Sunny Isles Beach K-8 center who posts criticisms regularly on the Facebook page, said she qualifies to be grandfathered because she has been a permanent district employee since 2007. Alvarez said she has not received a raise in almost five years as they waited for the legislature and the school district to set up the new salary raise system.

“It’s a huge impact because teachers like myself were supposed to see greater increases in our later years,” Alvarez said. “I was anxiously waiting to get salary increases of $2,000 to $3,000. I thought it was worth the sacrifice because eventually my salary would go up.”

Alvarez said there are teachers earning $30,000 a year for as long as a decade who under the new system will see only a $600 increase under the deal, while others no longer can count on future earnings to put away for their retirement.

“While it is factually accurate that they are giving us a pay increase,” Alvarez said. “It cannot be called a raise when you factor in the cost of living, medical expenses and higher contributions to our pensions.”

Natalia Guevara, a Ferguson High chemistry teacher with a masters’ degree in public health, said she recently obtained a real estate license and plans to moonlight as a realtor to supplement her $49,000 yearly salary. A district employee on a year-to-year contract since 2009, Guevara said she maintains a “highly effective” rating for the past three years, but has yet to see a raise.

“Personally it is very disappointing,” Guevara said. “I bust my ass every day grading papers, running the science honors society, and getting the kids involved. If I am doing my job well, I should be rewarded.”

Carvalho’s contract “contrary to law” but Miami-Dade schools boss won’t fix it

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho

Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho

Nine months ago, a state audit concluded that Miami Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s generous severance package violated state law. Despite the finding, Carvalho has refused to amend his employment agreement to fix one of the problems identified in the audit, claiming he doesn’t have to do so.

The Florida Auditor General’s report determined that “contrary to law” Carvalho’s contract with the school board does not “prohibit severance pay should the superintendent be terminated for misconduct.”

Carvalho would not be interviewed. Instead, he responded to questions via school district spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, who said changing Carvalho’s contract to prohibit severance pay should he be fired simply isn’t necessary.

“Pursuant to the Superintendent’s contract, he is bound by all current Florida laws,” Gonzalez-Diego said.

The law, enacted four years ago, says government employees who enter into employment agreements cannot receive more than 20 weeks of compensation as severance pay and that all employment contracts contain a provision that prohibits severance pay if an individual is fired for misconduct.

Douglas R. Conner, an audit manager for Florida Auditor General Sherrill F. Norman, handles inquiries about the Miami-Dade Public Schools audit. He declined comment, saying “Our follow-up procedures on the findings noted in our report will occur during our next audit of the district” early next year.

The Miami-Dade School Board approved a seven-year extension of Carvalho’s contract on March 20, 2013. The contract’s terms remained the same as when it was first signed in 2008, including a severance package that would pay Carlvaho a lump sum for one year of his $318,000 salary should he be terminated without cause, according to the January report.

The auditor, however, concluded the severance deal “did not appear to be consistent” with the 2011 state law prohibiting school district executives from getting more than 20 weeks of compensation if they are fired without cause.

“Also, contrary to law, the agreement did not prohibit severance pay should the Superintendent be terminated for misconduct,” the report states.

CARVALHO FIXED ONE PROBLEM

Auditors brought the illegality to the school district’s attention last October and Carvalho quickly responded with a memo to both the auditor general and school board members stating he was modifying his employment agreement.

“I further agree…that any severance payment that I may receive may not exceed an amount greater than 20 weeks of compensation,” Carvalho wrote.

However, neither Carvalho nor the school board fixed the issue of prohibiting severance pay should he be fired for misconduct.

Gonzalez-Diego told FloridaBulldog.org that Carvalho’s contract specifies that severance will only be provided for termination without cause. “If he gets fired for cause, he doesn’t get anything,” Gonalez-Diego said. “He doesn’t get paid.”

Furthermore, Carvalho was not obligated to modify his contract but did so anyway, Gonzalez-Diego added.

“The Superintendent’s contract was negotiated specifically to be prospectively and automatically adjusted in accordance with any and all changes to Florida State statutes without any requirement for the contract itself to be amended,” she said.

“In an abundance of caution, the superintendent voluntarily executed a memorandum confirming his concurrence with the limitations placed on any severance as specified in any Florida statute.”

Critics cite the auditor’s findings as evidence that Carvalho gets preferential treatment even as he demands that rank-and-file educators accept onerous labor contracts.

“He is constantly calling us excessive for demanding pay we were promised,” said Shawn Beightol, a science teacher at John A. Ferguson Senior High School. “Yet he negotiated a salary agreement that would pay him an excessive amount of money for work he won’t do and that the auditor general deemed was illegal.”

Trevor Colestock, a library media specialist at Crestview Elementary, echoed Beightol. “Alberto Carvalho always claims financial urgency every time he bargains with teachers,” Colestock said. “But here the auditor general cited him for attempting to obtain what a reasonable person may assume is a golden parachute. Go figure.”

Beightol was among dozens of school district employees who attended the school board’s regular meeting earlier this month to protest the new labor contract negotiated by United Teachers of Dade and the school district. The teachers, many of who don’t have tenure, accuse the school district of failing to give them higher raises based on their work performance.

School Board member Raquel Regalado, who is running to unseat Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez in 2016, called the criticisms unwarranted. She noted Carvalho voluntarily adjusted his severance package in response to the audit.

“Alberto has done a fantastic job,” Regalado said. “It was the superintendent who amended his contract to be in accordance with state law.”

Connections, conflicts and $600K in deal criticized by Miami-Dade schools auditor

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Doral College executives, State Sen. Anitere Flores, left and Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.

Doral College executives, State Sen. Anitere Flores, left and Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.

Since 2013, a non-accredited college employing two Miami-Dade state legislators as its top executives has collected $600,000 in state charter school funds for offering high school students virtually worthless two-year degrees.

The arrangement has drawn criticism from Miami-Dade Public Schools Chief Auditor Jose Montes de Oca, who questioned charter school spending for Doral College’s dual enrollment program, according to a report presented to members of the school board’s audit committee in mid-March.

“The agreements as approved and executed do not contractually guarantee that the high school will receive any benefit from the college in exchange for its payments of public funds,” Montes de Oca wrote. “We are also concerned about what will be the benefit that…students will receive by attending classes at the college.”

The chief auditor cited possible conflicts of interest involving members of the non-profit boards that run Doral College and oversee two participating charter high schools, Doral Academy and Sommerset Academy in Pembroke Pines.

The college and the two high schools have one thing in common. Each is affiliated with South Miami-based Academica, one of the largest charter school management companies in the nation. Academica runs 49 schools in Miami-Dade County, and dozens more in south Florida, California, Nevada, Texas, Utah and Washington D.C.

DO STUDENTS BENEFIT?

“We continue to be concerned that Doral Academy Charter High School’s governing board lacks independence from Academica, its for-profit management company,” Montes de Oca wrote in a Feb. 2 letter to school representatives and an Academica executive. “We also remain concerned as to whether these expenditures of the high school are driven more for the benefit of the college, rather than to maximize the best interests of the high school students.”

The auditor noted that Luis Fusté, vice-chairman of Doral Academy, and Andreina Figueroa, chairwoman of Sommerset Academy, served on the board of Doral College when agreements with the charter schools were approved for this school year and last year.

The principals for Sommerset and another Academica operated charter school also sit on the board of Doral Academy.

Academica representatives declined to comment, instead referring questions to administrators with the college and the charter school.

doralcollegelogoDoral College’s president is State Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, who served as ex-Gov. Jeb Bush’s education czar. She did not return two phone messages and two emails requesting comment.

However, State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, Doral College’s chief operations officer, defended the deals.

“The auditor is picking at something they don’t like that is perfectly legal,” said Diaz, a Hialeah Republican. “We strongly feel we are not only preparing [honor] students to get into Ivy League schools, but also providing access to students who may not be interested in going to college.”

Doral Academy Principal Douglas Rodriguez also dismissed the auditor’s conclusions.

“There is nothing inappropriate going on here,” Rodriguez said. “I’m surprised more people aren’t doing what we’re doing.”

Doral College was incorporated in January 2010, featuring a three-person non-profit board of directors that included Academica executive Victor Barroso, Doral Academy chairwoman Angela Ramos, and Sommerset principal Kim Guilarte-Gil. By September 2010, Barroso was no longer on the board. Ramos and Guilarte-Gil stepped down two years later.

Montes de Oca began raising concerns about Doral College’s reliance on charter school funds in December 2013 after reviewing Doral Academy’s annual financial statement.

Auditors flagged $400,000 in state funds the charter school provided to Doral College for start-up costs in 2012. Montes de Oca claimed Doral Academy’s board did not vote to approve the arrangement until four months after auditors started asking questions about the deal. Montes de Oca also told the School Board the deal “lacked transparency.”

In addition, the auditor questioned a lease agreement between Doral Academy and its landlord, School Development LLC, a company owned by Ignacio Zulueta, who along with his brother Fernando, also owns Academica. Their sister is Academica vice president Magdalena Fresen, wife of State Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, chair of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

The lease agreement had a provision to allow School Development to terminate Doral Academy’s lease early without requiring the landlord to repay $4.5 million in charter school funds that were used to construct new facilities on the nearly three acre campus, including the building that houses Doral College. After the auditor called attention to it, School Development eliminated the early termination clause.

The Zulueta siblings are major contributors to Republican candidates. Last year, the two brothers and their sister each gave the maximum $2,600 donation to the successful congressional campaign of Carlos Curbelo, then a Miami-Dade School Board member.

In 2010, the Zuluetas bundled $2,000 for Flores’ senate campaign and this year have given another $1,500 in support of her reelection.

DORAL COLLEGE HIRES SEN. FLORES

Doral College’s board hired Sen. Flores as president on April 15, 2011 while she was championing a successful bill to create online virtual charter schools. Since that law went into effect, Academica has launched a virtual education division that includes 19 of its charter schools.

In 2012, Flores also supported a failed bill that would have allowed school districts to convert underperforming schools into charter ones.

Flores is currently paid $150,000 a year by Doral College, according to her 2014 public financial disclosure form.

In 2013, Doral College hired Rep. Diaz as chief operations officer post at a salary of $76,250 a year. He has also been a vociferous charter school advocate. Last year, Diaz sponsored a bill that would have severely limited school districts’ control over privately managed charter schools. The bill died on May 2, 2014.

Diaz, a former Miami-Dade Public Schools teacher, coach, and school site administrator for 20 years, denied that his job at Doral College is tied to his support of charter school legislation that would ultimately benefit Academica.

“I don’t see any conflicts,” he said. “All these pieces of legislation are broad and affects everyone in the charter school industry.”

This session, Rep. Fresen, whose wife is an Academica executive, has pushed a controversial proposal that could force school districts to share millions of dollars in construction funds with competing charter schools.

During a tour of Doral College’s building at the Doral Academy campus with this reporter, Principal Rodriguez insisted his high school students in the dual enrollment program are getting a bona fide college experience.

“For instance, there’s a bioethics team that has participated in a national ethics bowl against schools like Florida State University and Clemson University,” Rodriguez said. “In the last three years, the team has only lost one match.”

Two Doral Academy seniors, Juan Infante and Miranda Murrillo, praised the dual enrollment program. “Even though I can’t use Doral College’s credits, I believe the courses gave me a big advantage with college admissions officers,” said Infante, who has been accepted to Harvard University. “It put me ahead of the curve.”

DORAL COLLEGE NOT ACCREDITED

Doral College’s current enrollment is 793 students, all hailing from 11 charter schools in Miami-Dade that are managed by Academica. Last year, 18 graduating high school seniors obtained associate liberal arts degrees from Doral College, Rodriguez said.

The problem is that those associate degrees don’t mean much because Doral College is not an accredited institution of higher learning.

The college is currently seeking accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Rodriguez said. He called auditor Montes de Oca’s concerns “a non-issue.”

Rodriguez also downplayed questions of conflict of interest. He said Academica’s owners exert no control over the boards of the 49 charter schools that rely on the management company.

But higher education and ethics experts called the relationship between the charter schools and Doral College highly unusual.

“I have not seen anything like this around the country,” said Adam Lowe, executive director for the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships. “I’ve never seen a college created for the exclusive purpose of crafting courses for high school students.”

Lowe said the inability of students to transfer credits from Doral College is a problem. “You have to wonder if the students will receive a valuable collegiate education,” Lowe said.

Robert Jarvis, an ethics law professor at Nova Southeastern University, questioned why the charter schools would need Doral College when there are accredited universities and colleges in the tri-county area.

“It certainly raises eyebrows,” Jarvis said. “It’s not like the Doral area is hurting for institutions of higher learning.”

Francisco Alvarado can be reached at falvarado@browardbulldog.org

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