Superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s nonprofit under investigation

Christel Deskins

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s nonprofit foundation is under investigation by the Office of the Inspector General for Miami-Dade County Public Schools regarding a solicited donation from K12, the company that provided the district with an online platform that bombed and was ultimately scrapped during a tumultuous first two weeks of virtual […]

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s nonprofit foundation is under investigation by the Office of the Inspector General for Miami-Dade County Public Schools regarding a solicited donation from K12, the company that provided the district with an online platform that bombed and was ultimately scrapped during a tumultuous first two weeks of virtual schooling.

Inspector General Mary Cagle, who works on the third floor of the school district’s downtown headquarters, notified School Board members of the investigation in a memo late Wednesday.

Cagle is looking into a $1.57 million donation made to the Foundation for New Education Initiatives, a nonprofit Carvalho created in March 2008, a few months before he became superintendent. At the time, Carvalho was the associate superintendent in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, Grants, Marketing and Community Services under Superintendent Rudy Crew. Carvalho now chairs the nonprofit.

K12, according to both the company and Carvalho, made the donation to give teachers an incentive to schedule their online class sessions by midnight before the Monday, Aug. 31, start of school. K12 provided scant training, leaving teachers to create their own training sessions over WhatsApp and TikTok during that weekend.

That donation, which Carvalho said was deposited in the FNEI account, was to be intended for a $100 gift card for every teacher who qualifies, he noted.

“By way of this memorandum, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) advises that we will begin a review of the transfer of approximately $1.57 million dollars from K12, a virtual instruction provider, to the Foundation for New Education Initiatives, Inc. (Foundation),” the memo read. “This Board’s discussion on Monday, September 14, of those funds, which are slated for disbursement by the Foundation to Miami-Dade County Public Schools teachers, raised some concerns that the OIG believes should be reviewed.”

The memo continued: “It is the OIG’s mission to provide oversight and transparency crucial to the operations of the District and the Board for the benefit of the public. As always, we are confident that the Superintendent and the District will cooperate fully with the OIG as we carry out our review.”

Marie Perikles, deputy general counsel for the OIG, said she could not comment beyond the memo sent to the School Board.

“We’re just beginning,” she said.

The Herald reached out to the school district and Carvalho for comment. A school district spokeswoman sent a statement on the behalf of the foundation’s executive director, Ann de las Pozas, who is not an employee at the school district but whose address is listed as an office on the ninth floor of the district headquarters.

De las Pozas told the Herald that she was made aware of the K12 donation the morning of Sunday, Aug. 30. She said she understood the donation was for eligible teachers. She said she was not involved in any contract discussion.

De las Pozas said she welcomed the investigation and looked forward to an objective response from the OIG.

“The foundation is set up to support the school district,” she said, adding that the foundation does not lease space from the school district. “We’re in the business of trying to support schools and students in need.”

De las Pozas said she doesn’t know what kind of gift certificates were supposed to be given to teachers, nor did she know if teachers would still get the gift certificates while the foundation is under investigation.

The investigation follows a late-night discussion at Monday’s special School Board meeting, a spillover meeting to take care of the rest of the business the board couldn’t get to after its 14-hour board meeting that began last Wednesday and ended after 3 a.m. Thursday. Hours of public comments were overwhelmingly against the K12 platform, over which ties to K12 were ultimately severed, and led to board members postponing the rest of the agenda until Monday.

School Board Chair Perla Tabares Hantman raised questions about the donation at Monday’s meeting. Hantman is obligated to serve as the vice chair of the foundation and said she did not know about the donation until an email was sent out Sunday, Aug. 30, to teachers from their principals notifying them of the incentive.

She said Carvalho explained to her that the arrangement was made late that Saturday, Aug. 29, “and that’s why we were not advised, or I was not advised since I am the vice chair of this foundation.”

Teachers woke up Sunday morning to this email in their inbox sent by their principals:

“As a gesture of gratitude for their extraordinary commitment to provide students with an optimal schooling experience from day one, the Foundation for New Education Initiatives, through a K12 donation, is recognizing teachers who schedule their Class Connects by 11:59 p.m. today with a token of appreciation valued at $100,” the email read. “Teachers are also reminded to continue scheduling their Class Connects beyond the first week of school to ensure continuity of learning.”

Carvalho told the board that the $1.57 million was deposited into the foundation’s bank account on the evening of Sept. 8. He said the foundation is “a separate entity from the school system, as you know.”

Carvalho said that because the gift certificates are being distributed by the foundation as a “pass through” and not through the district’s payroll, it was not a labor issue. He said he discussed the issue with the district’s labor attorney.

Hantman said she wanted to get an opinion in writing from the School Board’s attorney.

“Sometimes good things and good deeds have consequences we might not expect them to,” she said.

School Board Vice Chair Steve Gallon followed up: Was there an issue with accepting a donation that would benefit teachers while K12’s contract was pending?

”Sometimes it’s not what it is, it’s what it looks like,” he said.

Gallon then called Carvalho out on a discrepancy: Carvalho said at the meeting that every teacher would qualify for the $100 certificate. Gallon pulled out the correspondence that was sent from principals to teachers that clearly contained an incentive.

“From the very beginning, to me was all meant all, all teachers,” Carvalho said. “If there was a message that originated in K12 as an incentive as a motivator, that’s regrettable. It was always meant at least from my side and staff’s side as benefiting everybody.”

But K12 didn’t send that email — principals did.

The Herald has reported the donation as an incentive. If the donation was meant to give a $100 gift certificate to all teachers, the K12 donation of $1.57 million would have fallen short. There are about 19,200 teachers in the district.

Board member Lubby Navarro also wanted an opinion sent to the board to make sure no School Board policies or procedures were violated.

“I expressed my concern regarding that announcement that now a company who was still under possible contract with the School Board making a donation in the midst of a failed attempt to even deliver us what we were supposed to receive for our students and our teachers,” she said. “There’s something there that’s not right and I would like to get to the bottom of it.”

She continued: “I just don’t want to send the wrong message to the community, hey you can wave in the air a couple million dollars to appease a fourth largest school district in the country and all things will go down quietly, we won’t sign a contract. That to me, there’s just something wrong there about it.”

Navarro pointed out that School Board members must abide by strict rules. She is bringing a proposal to the School Board’s Oct. 21 meeting regarding procurement policies and vendor donations.

“None of us on the School Board are able to receive any contributions when there’s contracts pending before board action because it could be seen as quid pro quo,” she said. “And I take that stipulation very seriously.”

School Board attorney Walter Harvey sent School Board members a memo late Thursday to follow up on board members’ requests to have a legal opinion in writing. He said after Monday’s meeting, his office discussed the matter internally and “obtained certain correspondence and documents, began legal research and contacted outside counsel concerning the issues raised.”

Harvey wrote that because the Inspector General initiated an independent review, his office will conduct a legal review “that does not duplicate, interfere, impact or impair the work of the OIG concerning this matter.”

In addition, he wrote, his office will fully cooperate with the Inspector General and provide any requested documents or support needed to assist with the review.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that the Foundation for New Education Initiatives, Inc. was founded by Carvalho in March 2008, a few months before he became superintendent.

Herald staff writer David J. Neal contributed to this report. This is a developing story that will be updated.

Colleen Wright returned to the Miami Herald in May 2018 to cover all things education, including Miami-Dade and Broward schools, colleges and universities. The Herald was her first internship before she left her hometown of South Miami to earn a journalism degree from the University of Florida. She previously covered education for the Tampa Bay Times.

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