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Bahamas trips and champagne -- a sign of how a charter-school company prospers

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas On a sun-drenched weekend in September, a group of South Florida charter school principals jetted off to a leadership retreat at The Cove, an exclusive enclave of the Atlantis resort. A Friday morning meeting gave way to champagne flutes, a dip in the pool and a trip down a waterslide. The evening ended at the casino.

Leading the toast by the pool: Fernando Zulueta, the CEO of Academica Corp., which manages the principals’ schools.

Zulueta had reason to cheer. During the past 15 years, Zulueta and his brother, Ignacio, have built Academica into Florida’s largest and richest for-profit charter school management company, and one of the largest in the country. In Miami-Dade and Broward counties, Academica runs more than 60 schools with $158 million in total annual revenue and more than 20,000 students — more pupils than 38 Florida school districts, records show.

Academica’s schools consistently get high marks for academic achievement, with some schools earning national recognition. Mater Academy Charter High in Hialeah Gardens is considered among the nation’s best high schools by U.S. News & World Report, and recently won the College Board Inspiration Award.

And despite recent cuts in state funding for public and charter schools, Academica’s schools have prospered financially: One of its chains of nonprofit schools has assets of more than $36 million, the company says.

Academica’s achievements have been profitable. The South Miami company receives more than $9 million a year in management fees just from its South Florida charter schools — fees that ultimately come from public tax dollars.

But the Zuluetas’ greatest financial success is largely unseen: Through more than two dozen other companies, the Zuluetas control more than $115 million in South Florida real estate — all exempt from property taxes as public schools — and act as landlords for many of Academica’s signature schools, records show.

These companies collected about $19 million in lease payments last year from charter schools — with nine schools paying rents exceeding 20 percent of their revenue, records show.

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Leon Elledge

I visited Miami two years ago, after almost 40 years living in the north and midwest and Texas. I was shocked at the changes.

I graduated from Miami Edison in 1960.
At that time it was a top tier school. The sports programs in Miami High, North Miami, Miami Beach High, and Coral Gables were in their glory. Miami Tech offered a great vocational program. Even Jackson, though having a few bad apples, was a mid range school. Yes teachers wee under paid: Taxes were, by standards of the period, gwowing too fast. It was, inspite of this, a grand place to grow up.

What have you done to my town? Seven times as many people, traffic that rivals Califorinia, and home prices that would make anyone shudder. Now I read that education is an industry with this kind of profit. I am blown away. When did you guys give up on education? What happened to planned growth?

I live in New Port Richey Florida now and can't imagine it will ever sink to the level of Tampa, let alone Miami. I was very displeased that profit and growth in Miami has reached this level. I wish all of the students and residents of Dade County the best, but can't see how you will ever recover from this sell out of education and over expansion of government.

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