By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
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.
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 email@example.com