'A Different Direction': A-Rated Hialeah Charter School Favored By Politicians Set To Close

Nov 8, 2019

A Hialeah Gardens charter high school hailed by the likes of Gov. Ron DeSantis, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush is slated to close by the end of the month, and students are preparing to transfer to a nearby campus affiliated with a politically connected for-profit education company.

The LBA Construction and Business Management Academy's governing board plans to meet Tuesday to consider voluntary closure of the school, effective Nov. 29, according to a notice provided Friday to Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

The Latin Builders Association (LBA), a Hispanic-led professional membership organization for the construction industry, first opened the high school in 2012 to offer industry certifications and college credits in construction management, business and marketing.

LBA executive director and the school's governing board chair Erick Valderrama said in an email the school did not meet enrollment goals this year, despite its A rating from the state.

A placard faces the front door of LBA Academy, located on the second floor of a shopping plaza in Hialeah Gardens.
Credit Jessica Bakeman / WLRN

He also said the facility is subpar. The school currently operates out of a second-floor retail space in a Hialeah Gardens shopping plaza that also includes a Subway restaurant and a Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles storefront.

“Our only goal and primary responsibility is to provide our students with the best education possible and over the last two years, we've struggled to achieve that," Valderrama wrote in an email to WLRN. "It is now time to go into a different direction. Our future alliance with one of the charter school leaders will give us the ability to maintain our mission of training the future leaders of the construction industry and our community.”

He did not provide details about the "different direction" the school was heading in or name the charter school leaders he planned to form a "future alliance" with.

Several students leaving LBA Academy on Thursday afternoon said they had been informed this week the school was shutting down and they were being transferred to the nearby charter school Mater Academy in Hialeah Gardens. The students didn’t want to be identified by name for fear of getting in trouble. Many of them were wearing grey long-sleeved uniform shirts with the words “Mater-LBA.”

A spokeswoman for Mater Academy confirmed there’s a “partnership” in the works between the South Florida charter school network and the LBA.

“The goal of the partnership is to create academies within existing Mater schools that focus on: construction, design, and engineering,” said Lynn Norman-Teck, executive director of the Florida Charter School Alliance, who answered questions on behalf of Mater Academy.

Norman-Teck said Mater Academy Charter High School in Hialeah Gardens is not currently at capacity and would welcome applications from transfer students, including those attending LBA Academy.

Mater Academy is one of four prominent charter school networks affiliated with the South Miami for-profit educational service provider Academica. The Mater, Somerset, Pinecrest and Doral academy networks pay millions in taxpayer dollars annually to Academica for administrative services. Academica has close financial ties to several current and former state lawmakers who have crafted lucrative laws and budgets benefiting charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.

Read more: A South Florida charter school network now runs a small district 500 miles away. Legislators with close financial ties to charters helped make that happen.

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The vote on whether to close LBA Academy comes just months after the school entered into a formal business arrangement with Academica.

The school’s leadership recently terminated a management contract with Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which had been operating the school since its founding. This summer, the school entered a new agreement with Academica, in which the company charges LBA Academy $450 per student per year for services like staff recruitment and grant solicitation.

LBA Academy enrolled 135 students in 2018-19, according to the state Department of Education. Valderrama did not respond to a request for more recent numbers.

The school earned an A from the state this year, although its grade has fluctuated and it was D-rated in 2016. Its graduation rate in 2018 was 79.5 percent, compared to the Miami-Dade district’s 85.4 percent, according to the most recent available state data.

The school has enjoyed support from prominent Republican politicians. DeSantis addressed students on the school’s first day last fall, during his successful campaign for governor. The former congressman documented the visit on Twitter, hailing the school as an argument for expanding alternatives to public education like charters.

Rubio, Florida's senior U.S. senator and a Republican, delivered the commencement address at the school’s graduation in 2016. Bush, the former Republican governor and prominent charter-school advocate, is pictured with students at the school on the LBA’s website. Also in photos: former congressman and school board member Carlos Curbelo, current state Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr., and former state Rep. Michael Bileca.

Bernie Navarro, president of the mortgage lender Benworth Capital and current chair of the Miami Dade College board of trustees, was the founding governing board chair for the school and stepped down three years ago.