The Miami Herald reports that the U.S. Department of Education’s Inspector General is reviewing the business practices of the Academica charter chain, a for-profit and highly profitable charter chain.


Ironically, at the same time, the charter-friendly Florida legislature is considering legislation that would weaken district oversight of charter school corporations. The charter industry makes substantial campaign contributions to political candidates, and Academica has family members elected to important positions in the legislature. Academic controls a real estate portfolio estimated to be worth more than $100 million. The rapper Pitbull’s new charter is part of the Academica chain.


The Education Department’s Inspector General Office is auditing the South Miami-based Academica Corp. as part of a broader examination of school management companies nationwide. The audit will be complete this summer, department spokeswoman Catherine Grant said.


A preliminary audit report obtained by the Herald/Times identified potential conflicts of interest between the for-profit company Academica and the Mater Academy charter schools it manages. One example the auditors cited was the transfer of money from Mater Academy to its private support organization, which shares the same board of directors.


Asked about the potential conflicts of interest raised in the report, Academica attorney Marcos Daniel Jiménez, in an email to the Herald/Times, touted the charter-school network’s academic record and commitment to its students….


Under current law, school districts have the authority to negotiate contracts with new charter schools. HB 7083 would mandate the use of a standardized contract, meaning school districts would give up most of their leverage…..


Academica oversees almost 100 charter and virtual charter schools in Florida, according to its website. It also manages schools in Texas, Nevada, Utah, California and Washington, D.C.


The preliminary audit report homes in on the Mater Academy family of schools in Miami-Dade County.


Academica President Fernando Zulueta founded the original Mater Academy in 1998, and was a member of its governing board until September 2004, auditors wrote.


The auditors found that three of the schools in the Mater network — Mater Academy, Mater High and Mater East — entered into leases with development companies tied to the Zulueta family. Two of the leases were executed while Zulueta sat on the Mater board.


In addition, Mater Academy hired an architectural firm from 2007 through 2012 that employs Fernando Zulueta’s brother-in-law, state Rep. Erik Fresen, the report said.


“We identified four related-party transactions, two of which indicated, at a minimum, the appearance of conflicts of interest between Mater Academy and its CMO [charter-management company],” the Mater Academy in Hialeah Gardens and its nonprofit support organization, Mater Academy Foundation.

“Mater Academy shares the same board of directors with the foundation and based on our review of the board of directors meeting minutes at Mater Academy, there is evidence of Mater Academy’s board of directors transferring public funds to the foundation,” the auditors noted….


Charter-school critics said the inspector general’s findings were a reason to push back on HB 7083, the bill that could weaken the power of school districts over new charter schools….


Jeff Wright, of the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union, agreed. “If an audit like this is going on, the Legislature should not give charter schools more opportunities to game the system,” he said.


But Rep. Manny Diaz, the Hialeah Republican sponsoring the bill, said his proposal would not open the door to questionable business practices.


“This is not about opening up the Wild Wild West,” said Diaz, who left his job with the Miami-Dade school district last year to become dean of an Academica-managed private college. “We want there to be controls [over charter schools]. We just want to make sure the controls are uniform and transparent.”


The bill, which also would require school systems to share underutilized facilities with charter schools, is scheduled to be heard on the House floor Monday. The Senate version (SB 1512) has been watered down, and now does little more than clarify that military commanders can help establish charter schools on their bases.