The Department of Education (DE) reached an agreement with the Neighborhood Association for Inter-Cultural Affairs – Puerto Rico Inc. (NAICA-PR) to operate a charter school on the island as a subsidiary of the South Bronx Charter School for International Cultures & the Arts (SBCSICA), despite findings from the Comptroller of that state regarding financial operations of the school, that as of this date it does not have a place to establish itself in Puerto Rico and that one of its incorporators has been accused of embezzling funds in another nonprofit organization he chaired in the Big Apple.
NAICA-PR, incorporated in March 2020 by the chief of operations of NAICA in New York, Richard Izquierdo Arroyo, will run the Public School Alliance for International Cultures and the Arts in a Dual Program (EPACIAD for its acronym in Spanish), according to the contract signed with the DE.
In 2014, New York Comptroller Scott M. Stringer found that the South Bronx charter school administration failed to properly document or improperly authorized $130,000 in expenditures.
In 2010, Izquierdo Arroyo pleaded guilty to embezzling $115,000 from SBCC Management Corp., a nonprofit organization he chaired that managed low-income residential buildings that operated with state and federal funds.
Some of the money embezzled from the organization went to his grandmother’s campaign, former New York state legislator Carmen Arroyo, for whom he was chief of staff, according to the New York City Department of Justice. The agency also explained that the now-incorporator of NAICA-PR also used money from the nonprofit organization for personal expenses such as buying clothes and shoes, restaurant bills, and stays in luxury hotels where he sought massages, cocktails, spa treatments, and room service. He served a year in prison for the embezzlement and had to repay the $115,000.
“This sentence is a just punishment for a corrupt nonprofit executive who turned his back on the elderly and disabled tenants his organization was supposed to serve and chose to enrich himself. Ricardo Izquierdo Arroyo stole more than $100,000 in public funds to pay for personal luxuries,” said Preet Bharara, who was the prosecutor for the Southern District of New York.
According to Puerto Rico Act 2 of 2018, known as the Anti-Corruption Code, NAICA-PR had to submit a sworn statement informing “if any president, vice president, director, executive director, or member of a board of officers or board of directors, or people who perform equivalent duties for the legal entity, has been convicted or has pleaded guilty to any of the crimes listed in Section 6.8 of Act 8-2017,” which includes embezzlement of public funds. Neither the DE nor representatives of the organization were willing to respond to the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) if this information was submitted to inform about Izquierdo Arroyo’s conviction 12 years ago.
On its Instagram page, NAICA-NY has been actively promoting the activities in New York City of the Government of Puerto Rico, Governor Pedro Pierluisi, and the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA).
According to the Puerto Rico Department of State’s registry, NAICA-PR has the same director, secretary and treasurer of the organization established in the Bronx at the end of the 1970s, Elvira Barone, Carmen Aquino and Linda Duke, respectively.
The purpose of the nonprofit organization is to “provide social services… manage and operate homeless shelters, manage and operate schools, and provide educational services in disadvantaged communities.” The entity was registered in Puerto Rico as a community-based organization and did not report any revenue in 2020 or 2021. Neither the organization nor the Department of Education were willing to answer questions about the economic capacity of this corporation to develop and operate an educational institution for children in Puerto Rico.
Evelyn Hey Vega, director of the South Bronx Charter School and who will oversee the EPACIAD’s academic division, signed the contract with the DE. The agency allocated an annual budget of $2,275 to each student at the new “alliance” school. According to written statements sent by the DE’s press officer, Alex Ramos, the school would start with an enrollment of 50 students. Neither DE Secretary Eliezer Ramos Parés, nor any other agency official, were available for an interview with the CPI regarding this agreement.
Another source of income to operate the school comes from a grant from the Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit organization that finances charter schools in the United States that want to expand operations. To date, it has funded more than 1,000 schools in 34 states.
The EPACIAD’s Governing Board is chaired by the former chancellor of the University of Puerto Rico’s (UPR) Río Piedras Campus, Gladys Escalona de Motta, who told the CPI that she came to the Board because she knows the former legislator, Carmen Arroyo, and had visited the South Bronx Charter School.
Another Governing Board member of the charter is Daphne Domínguez, director of the UPR’s University Facilities Conservation Office, who is identified as a member of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Also on that board are Angie González, in charge of operations and human resources; Marisela Reyes of finance; and María Ojeda, retired UPR professor who will work with the curriculum.
In mid-August, the Municipality of San Juan received a request from Izquierdo Arroyo to temporarily use the facilities of the Casa Dominicana in Santurce to place kindergarten and first grade students who enroll in EPACIAD. His request went to the legal division, which requested additional documents to accept it. However, the Department of Education told the CPI in written statements that after signing the contract, NAICA-PR requested the concession of the Lola Rodríguez de Tió School in Hato Rey. While that school, which closed in 2006 is being refurbished, the organization requested to start operations on Sept. 26, renting a structure next to the Young Men Christian Association (YMCA) in Santurce. The rental agreement has not been signed because the YMCA is awaiting a visit from the DE personnel to assess their facilities.
Meanwhile, the Puerto Rico Real Estate Assessment and Disposal Committee (CEBDI, in Spanish), chaired by the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (AAFAF, in Spanish), approved a proposal for a five-year lease of the Jesús María Quiñones School for NAICA-PR, located 750 meters from Casa Dominicana, which the DE closed in 2018.
Municipality of Coamo Wants Three Charter Schools
Seven schools operate in Puerto Rico under the charter model and only one, the Escuela Bilingüe Cacica Yuisa of Loíza, is managed by a municipality.
Through the organization Liga de Ciudades, Coamo Mayor Juan Carlos García Padilla, proposed to the DE to convert the Susana Rivera, Ramón José Dávila and Román Colón Correa schools into charters. The Liga de Ciudades is an organization formed in 2019 by the then mayors of Coamo, Hormigueros, Ponce, San Sebastián, Toa Baja and Villalba to “promote the administrative, political and fiscal decentralization of tasks and resources to local governments.”
Although in early August, García Padilla received the approval notice from the DE for the three charter schools, “we recommended to the mayor that he withdraw the proposal this year because it would be disrespectful to the school community. The expectation was to start in August, but we don’t want to be part of the Department of Education’s chaotic school years beginnings, so the proposal was withdrawn,” the Liga’s Executive Director Cristina Miranda Palacios explained to the CPI.
The mayor’s idea to run three schools was not discarded, as the Liga received a $980,000 three-year grant from the Charter Growth Fund for design and planning.
The Mayor’s proposal raises concerns among teachers from the Román Colón Correa School who spoke with the CPI under the condition of anonymity. They pointed out that although García Padilla met with the faculty and presented his proposal to manage the campus, he did not include data or precise information on the transition process.
The DE’s disclosure of information about the school budget is also lacking. When nonprofit organization Caras Con Causa took over the Rosalina C. Martínez School in Guaynabo, it was unclear how the transition from a regular school to an alliance or charter school would take place. The change represented a 21% loss of student enrollment and a 55% funding cut at that school.
Another teacher at the Román Colón Correa school expressed confusion about how her accrued retirement benefits would be affected if she decided to change from being a Department of Education employee to a municipal official. “It could be good for beginners [new teachers], but what would I gain or lose [if I decide to stay as a municipal employee]?” said the teacher with more than 20 years of experience.
In general, the educators described their school as a unify school community, with a stable enrollment despite the challenges of the pandemic, and where there are no vacancies to fill.
“I know that charter schools cause a lot, a lot of wariness,” the director of the Liga de Ciudades admitted. “We are not worried about privatization because the school would continue to run under the municipal government, which is public,” she added.
Miranda Palacios said one of the problems with the Department of Education’s current budgeting system is that it works like an inverted pyramid “in which most of the funds stay in the central office and what’s left trickles down to the schools.”
She said that many times the mayors act as the secretaries of Education in their municipalities because they are the ones who end up providing transportation, security, and maintenance services.
For the 2021-22 school year, the Susana Rivera, Ramón José Dávila, and Román Colón Correa schools in Coamo served 1,427 students with an overall budget of $5,220,432. The Liga’s director said the reason for choosing these schools as charter schools is to cover education at all levels (elementary, middle, and high school) “to develop a coherent system, because our schools are part of the same system but don’t necessarily communicate with each other. You go from one level to another school, and it’s starting from scratch. We want it to be a continuous system,” she explained.
As established by Act 85 of 2018, known as the Educational Reform, up to 112 educational institutions may operate under the Alliance or Charter Public Schools model.
The statute makes a distinction between municipal schools and charter schools. The difference is that the municipalities can operate their own educational system, approved by the Municipal Legislature, separate from the DE’s control. The municipal governments can participate under the Alliance Public Schools model, but they would fall under the DE’s parameters for this type of school.
The interim director of the DE’s Alliance Public Schools Office and former director of the educational region of Humacao, Sol I. Ortiz Bruno, confirmed that two proposals for new charter schools were pre-approved in July for Kids & Growth and National Talent School, but they must submit their financial plans for final approval.