Parents walked toward the corner of Ponce de León Street in Río Piedras, from Amalia Marín Street or José Gándara Avenue, to drop off their children dressed in khaki shorts and navy-blue polo shirt bearing the logo of the new Alianza Paradiso College Preparatory School, on Wednesday, their first day of school.
“Divinitus Inspirata Discite Quid Est” reads the badge embroidered on the boys’ shirts and the overalls worn by the girls.
On the Facebook social network, the executive director of the charter school that does not have a signed contract with the Department of Education (DE) nor completed the location consultation process to run a school there, Robert Acosta, welcomed the new students. “Today we welcome all our students of the 2023-2024 school year #conocetuescuela (meet your school),” he wrote.
On Tuesday morning, in the Ponce de León building, workers hung location consultation signs for the school that began operating on Wednesday in a structure classified for commercial tourist use. There, Acosta’s executive assistant, Doralba Rivera, was unable to show the agreement to the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish), which she said was signed “in the summer,” because she did not have the document handy. The agreement is “the formal, binding understanding between the Secretary [of Education] and the certified educational entity, which authorizes the entity to operate and administer an alliance public school,” according to the charter school regulations. “We’re ready, we have a permit for use and an agreement,” Rivera said.
The document she shared with the CPI is not the agreement, but a June 22 notification, signed by former DE Secretary Eliezer Ramos Parés, stating that Paradiso College Preparatory was approved as a certified educational entity and that “we will work soon on the granting of the formal agreement.”
The interim director of the DE Office of Alliance Schools, Sol I. Ortiz Bruno, confirmed in writing that the agency has not yet signed the contract or charter agreement to Paradiso College Preparatory. However, she indicated that they could operate without it, although they will not receive state funds until it is signed. The official did not specify if other Alliance Schools have started classes without the contract, nor if this is a requirement for them to apply for subsidies from the U.S. Department of Education.
How Did Paradiso Get to Río Piedras?
Until April 30, 2022, the building on the corner of Ponce de León Ave., across from the University of Puerto Rico, belonged to Goram Inc., registered by gynecologist Julio González, and publicist Elliot Ramírez. That day they sold the property for $400,000 to Act 60 beneficiary investor Kira Golden, who bought it through PR Flips LLC, registered in August 2021.
Paradiso College Preparatory LLC was registered with Robert Acosta as resident agent and Brenton Nevárez as authorized person in September 2022. In January 2023, Paradiso College Preparatory Services Holdings LLC, Paradiso College Preparatory Real Estate One LLC, and Paradiso College Preparatory Real Estate Two LLC, all for-profit, were registered. The first identifies Nevárez and Acosta as administrators, while the latter two identify Paradiso Services Holdings as administrators. With Paradiso College Preparatory Real Estate Two LLC, on March 30, 2023, Nevárez bought the building on Ponce de León for $525,000.
As Acosta stressed in written statements, “we bought and closed on March 30 from Kira Golden, and we have nothing to do with her.” But in July 2022, PR Flips Series Two LLC, and PR Flips Series Three LLC, which are active, were registered with Golden and Nevárez as administrators.
Charter schools, according to Act 85 of 2018, must operate through nonprofit organizations. In late April 2022, David Frontera, Lucy Torres Roig and José Torres registered the Corporación para el Desarrollo de Escuelas Alianzas de Puerto Rico LLC. According to the documents corresponding to the operational plan of the school submitted to the DE to open Paradiso College, Frontera, Torres Roig and Torres are part of the Board of Directors of the alliance school. Frontera is identified as president, and he has been executive director of Future Engineering LLC since 2015, a technology company specializing in aerospace and defense engineering. Torres Roig is vice president and in charge of communications and government affairs. She has been a community educational consultant for the Banco Popular Foundation since 2018. Torres will be Operations Manager but is currently dean of the public school founded by Acosta, Springfield Lyceum College Prep, in the state of Massachusetts.
Paradiso’s executive director stressed via email that, “We have not yet received a dime from the government for this project, which will be paid for mostly by federal funds that would be lost if not used and to which no one else could access because they’re long and complicated federal grant processes.”
The CPI requested an interview with Acosta, but it was not possible to get it as of press time.
Municipality of San Juan Says That the Process Is ‘Highly Irregular’
Paradiso College Preparatory Real Estate Two LLC added a third floor to the Río Piedras building. The works began without submitting a construction permit to the Municipality of San Juan, for which the corporation was sued by the city council in May 2023. However, it got the permit for “a high-volume office” and paid $14,000 in fines, so the lawsuit became academic, Israel Alicea, administrator of the City of San Juan, explained.
“Everyone who is building then goes to that next phase, which is the single use permit. The location consultation process, where there must be public hearings, publications, and the [Río Piedras] Community Board would have to evaluate the application, is more complicated. If they present a permit that is inconsistent with what they requested permission to build, it could not be approved,” Alicea warned.
In May, Acosta made a virtual presentation to the Board of Directors of the Río Piedras Development Trust to explain how the Paradiso School would operate, not to consult the expansion of the building on Ponce de León that began to run as the charter school, the executive director of the Trust, Andrea Bauzá, told the CPI. The members said they asked Acosta for documentation, such as market or need studies, which were never provided.
“On August 3, the Community Board and the Río Piedras Development Trust, informed the representative of the corporation [Robert Acosta], the Municipality and the Department of Education, that the Río Piedras community opposes the installation of the Alliance Schools in the Río Piedras urban center,” according to a statement from the Board and the Trust.
Through written statements, Mayor Miguel Romero told the CPI that “on Monday, August 14, at around 5 p.m. a site consultation was submitted to the OGPe (Puerto Rico Permits Management Office) system. However, yesterday, August 15, a single permit granted by an authorized professional to operate administrative offices and four classrooms was uploaded to the system, which was issued without waiting for the completion of the site consultation process that the same proponent had requested a day before. This process is highly irregular.” The case was referred to the Municipality’s lawyers.
According to Special Act 75 of 1995 for the Rehabilitation of Río Piedras, which gave way to the Development Plan for the Special Planning Zone, “all projects proposed for the special planning area will be submitted to the Planning Board to award the proposal.” However, in August 2021, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi and Mayor Romero signed an agreement to transfer territorial planning powers. So now it is the Municipality that should receive the proposals for the development and rehabilitation of infrastructures in Río Piedras, instead of the Puerto Rico Planning Board. Paradiso did not submit the proposal to rehabilitate the Ponce de León building to the Municipality, according to the lawsuit that the city filed in May against Paradiso. Río Piedras is a suburb and college town of San Juan deteriorated during the last three decades mostly due to the construction of the metro and loss of population.
Who Is Affected?
According to Rivera, they expected around 150 students for the fifth through eighth grades on the first day of school, coming from nearby neighborhoods such as Venezuela and Buen Consejo, in Río Piedras. However, the academic plan that Acosta submitted to the DE projected an initial enrollment of 480 students.
Puerto Rico’s population drop, and the resulting decrease in the student population, was part of the DE’s arguments to close public schools. In Río Piedras, six schools, mostly at the elementary level, closed between 2003 and 2018. Currently, five public schools operate in the area, mostly at the high school level, with a total enrollment of 1,691 students.
Similar to public schools in Puerto Rico at the beginning of the school year, Rivera said they had hired around 20 teachers in Río Piedras, but there was still a shortage of educators to be hired. She didn’t say how many.
The two closest schools to Paradiso College Preparatory are Colegio San Ángel David, private school, and the Ramón Vila Mayo School. The private school has been operating for 21 years, and currently has an enrollment of approximately 200 students from kindergarten to 12th grade. Its director, Juan Román, believes the opening of the charter school will not affect their enrollment since “we already have our population, but it seems disgraceful and unfair to Vila Mayo because they’re proposing a middle and high school, and that is Vila Mayo’s enrollment. I think we will see more schools closed and unfortunately more unemployed teachers.”
At the Ramón Vila Mayo School, they expect an enrollment of 269 students this school year, “but we’re now competing with the charter, we have to compete because it’s already there and we cannot ignore it,” said the school’s principal María de Lourdes Márquez.
Márquez still has not received all the materials requested since last year at her school, and the structure needs repairs due to leaking roofs, new doors and windows, among other improvements whose bidding processes have not yet been published.
Paradiso College Preparatory opened another campus in Arecibo, East of San Juan, on the northern coast, where they also told the DE they expect about 480 students.