I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, May 8, 2015

Lifestyles Of The Rich and Reformy

Back in 2013, I told the story of Joe Bruno, a former accounting and health care executive who is now heads a non-profit that is one of the biggest sources of capital for charter school construction.

This picture was taken at the 2013 National Charter School Conference; apparently, charter school advocates thought that the misogynist rapper Pitbull was a fine choice for a keynote speaker that year.

To Pitbull's right is Fernando "Ferny" Zulueta; the two are partners in the SLAM Charter School in Miami. According to a series of reports by the Miami Herald, Zulueta runs the "richest charter school management firm" in Florida, Academica, a for-profit company with annual revenues of $158 million at the time of the reports. Zulueta also controls, along with his brother, Ignacio, more than $115 million of South Florida real estate that is exempt from property taxes as "public" schools.

Bruno's firm, Building Hope, is a major source of capital for Zulueta and other charter school profiteers. Bruno works essentially as a mortgage broker: he gathers up both governmental and private, non-profit funds -- both of which are subsidized by taxpayers -- and disburses those funds to firms like Zulueta's to be used for charter school construction.

Considering taxpayers both provide the capital (either directly through the government or indirectly through the tax code) and pay for students to attend these charter schools, this is a sweet deal for all involved. As I said back in 2013:
Also: while we can debate the relative merits of charter schools, one thing is quite certain: any notion that the charter industry is "all about the kids" needs to be dismissed, because there are adults who are clearly making a lot of money off of charter expansion. And it's not just people like the Zuluetas: Bruno himself, according to Building Hope's 2011 tax return, earned $388,709 in compensation and another $56,865 in benefits for a year's work. In contrast, the average Florida teacher salary is $45,723.
Tax forms for 2013 from Guidestar show Bruno made $386,576 in salary $57,668 in benefits that year. To be fair, Bruno likely made much more when he was a partner at one of the big accounting firms or running his own outfit. Still, this is a lot of money, and it allows for a very opulent lifestyle, even if you already have a good chunk in the bank.

Don't believe me? Let's ask Joe Bruno himself how life's been these past few years:
Joe Bruno and his wife, Cynthia Marini Bruno, have never been known to do something on a small scale.
The grand entrance to their Potomac estate starts when custom-designed, wrought-iron gates tipped in gold slowly glide open and reveal a spectacular fountain and stone steps reminiscent of Villa D’Este near Rome.
Inside, guests are welcomed into a breathtaking foyer with an ivory marble floor set with diamonds of multi-hewed marble and, overhead, a colorful two-story crystal chandelier hand-carried home from Venice.
“We’ve had some great parties in this house while our daughters were growing up and with our friends from the charter school world and from the Italian American groups we belong to,” says Joe Bruno, a Ferrari-driving entrepreneur who since 2004 has served as president of Building Hope, a nonprofit that provides business, technical and financial assistance to public charter schools. “There’s a story behind every painting, every collection and every piece of furniture.”

Oh, I'll bet there is, and I'm sure Bruno's "friends from the charter school world," like Zulueta and Chavous and Pitbull, just love hearing them. It sounds like the party never ends at Casa de Bruno:
Next door in the pub, which has lanterns created from 1800s London streetlamps, is a portrait of Joe Bruno as “The Godfather” complete with a rose in his lapel and a cat on his lap, a gift from Cynthia Bruno for his 50th birthday. Outside the pub, along a hall connected with multiple arches overhead, are treasures such as a Sicilian wedding chest from the late 15th century. The nearby powder room brings on a fit of mirth from the Brunos, who describe an evening when they were enjoying dinner outside and discovered that the full-size window in the powder room didn’t provide much privacy for their guests. Now a mirror fills part of the window, which has etched glass for extra protection. Overhead is another glittery chandelier, this one hand-carried by the Brunos from Rome.
Again, you don't live like this on $400K a year; Bruno obviously made his big bucks in his previous life. But it looks like every little bit helps:
In spite of their obvious love of their home, the Brunos plan to sell it to downsize. Besides, they have a near-replica of the property, although about half the size, in a condominium in Florida.
However will they manage?

Let me step back a minute from my snark and look at the big picture. A wealthy guy like Bruno is using taxpayer funds to help wealthy guys like Zulueta and Pitbull expand their charter school empires. Just like the wealthy Andre Agassi is using taxpayer funds to make money building charter schools. Just like the wealthy Vahan Gureghian uses taxpayers funds to run and expand his charter school chain. Just like the wealthy Andrew Tisch and Michael Milken count on taxpayer funds to expand their virtual charter business.

Apparently, this is just fine with folks like Kevin Chavous, the fourth chartery fellow in the picture above and one of the most prominent supporters of charter school expansion. It doesn't appear to bother Chavous in the slightest that taxpayers funds are being lavished on these reformy plutocrats; no, Chavous is far more concerned about the conflicted interests of those greedy, unionized teachers:
In essence, teachers are striking over salary issues, work hours and teacher evaluations. I agree that many of our teachers are underpaid and I have always respected the collective bargaining process and the right to strike, but I have to agree with the Mayor Rahm Emmanuel on the need to upgrade or elevate the discussion on what collective bargaining for teachers means in 2012 as opposed to 1962. 
In nearly every aspect of education in America, strangely, the interests of children are always secondary to the interests of adults. All of the major education decision-makers instinctively weigh adult considerations before thinking about the impact on kids and their academic achievement. Just as the auto industry in Detroit refocused their priorities from their workers' interests to improving the quality of their cars, we must also shift the paradigm to achieve effective outputs and deliverables for kids. [emphasis mine]
I have to wonder if this thought ever crossed Chavous's mind as he sat in Joe Bruno's Palace on the Potomac, sipping bubbly in the wine tasting room. 

As New Jersey's former Acting Commissioner of Education, Chris Cerf, famously said:
"This is a $650 billion sector, second only to health care."
Cerf left public service to pursue his own edu-preneurial dreams; he understands, as well as anyone, that education is the last vast, untapped part of the government that can be milked by privatizers and "sector agnostics." All it takes to shift monies away from middle-class teacher salaries and public school construction/refurbishment, and into the pockets of folks like Bruno and the rest, is a narrative of failure, spawned by standardized testing, and a smokescreen of righteous indignation from folks like Chavous to keep America from seeing what is actually being done with our tax money.

We are living in the age of the Education-Industrial Complex, surrounded by a new generation of Howard Hugheses, ready to reshape policy in an effort to maintain their lavish lifestyles. 

Everybody fine with that?

It's time to put kids first...

No comments: