A charismatic Cuban-American with gelled-back curly hair and a goatee, 43-year-old Ernesto Perez, the head of a company called Florida Education Centers, is one of the most politically influential for-profit college owners in Florida. His schools, which operate as Dade Medical College, have campuses in Homestead, Miami, Miami Lakes, Hollywood, West Palm Beach, and Jacksonville.
But investigators are examining Perez's role in an alleged sweetheart land deal, and the state has put Dade College's nursing programs on probation.
"I don't know how they are still in business," says Maria, a student at Dade Medical who asked that her last name be excluded. "The teachers aren't prepared for class, and the administration is a mess."
Adds her classmate Ruben: "The professors are inexperienced and disorganized. You are basically on your own."
Perez grew up in West Little Havana in the '70s. He dropped out of Coral Gables Senior High to become a rock star. Onstage, he was Rhett O'Neil, the frontman for a hard-rocking band called Young Turk. In 1989, the group signed a six-figure deal with BMG Geffen. But after a show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, that year, they returned to their hotel, where a 15-year-old girl engaged in consensual sex with some of the band members. But under Wisconsin law, consensual sex with a minor is still considered rape. The four Young Turk members were arrested. Perez pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery. He served six months in a Wisconsin jail after a failed appeal and today declines to discuss the matter.
The band broke up, and in 1999, Perez opened a school teaching people massage therapy and x-ray-machine technique. Today, Dade Medical offers degrees in nursing, physical therapy, and other medical specialties; employs more than 500 people; and has an enrollment of more than 2,000 students. The two-year tuition ranges from $16,000 to $60,000. Dade Medical targets Hispanics and African-Americans who cannot get accepted at traditional colleges and universities, Perez says. "Forget about having a good GPA. We're taking people who only have GEDs."
Federal records show that 84 to 91 percent of Dade Medical's pupils pay for their education with Pell Grants and federal student loans. In fiscal 2010-11, Dade Medical collected $15 million in revenue from federal student aid programs. Over the past four years, the school's growth has allowed Perez to buy new locations, acquire another college, and establish corporate headquarters in a posh office space in Coral Gables.
During the past four years, he has been appointed twice by two governors to serve on the Florida Commission for Independent Education, which sets the rules and regulations for his industry. Perez and his wife have recently donated at least $100,000 to 21 PACs and candidates of both parties, including Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, New Jersey U.S. Rep. Bob Menendez, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. Heck, Perez has even put some politicians on the Dade Medical payroll, such as state Sen. Rene Garcia and Nelson Hernandez, a councilman in Miami Lakes.
The CEO admits he raises cash for politicians. "Whether you're running a hot-dog stand or a national conglomerate, you need access to these individuals if you want to engage the political process," Perez says. "But if you look at the amount of money we've contributed [to elected officials], we don't get a lot in return."
But investigators for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office and the Miami-Dade ethics commission are investigating Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman for allegedly pushing a sweetheart deal for Perez in 2011. He allegedly helped Perez buy 3.5 acres of city-owned land for $328,000 — roughly one-third of its value. Though the mayor abstained from the Dade Medical deal vote, he did not disclose that his wife's real estate agency would receive a commission or that she had represented the college in other purchases.
Maria, who's enrolled in nursing courses, says she has taken out nearly $48,000 in federal loans. Yet she has attended classes where professors simply conduct PowerPoint presentations or read from a book. And if students complain to the administration, they are made to feel as if it's their fault, she says.
Last month, the Florida Board of Nursing placed Dade Medical's Miami and Hollywood nursing programs on probation. In Hollywood, only 38 percent of the Dade Medical students who took the license test in 2012 passed. In Miami, only 46 percent did. State law requires for-profit schools to have passing rates close to the 89 percent national average. According to the Board of Nursing, 79 of 128 nursing students at Dade Medical's Homestead, Hollywood, Miami, and Miami Lakes campuses have failed since January 1.
Perez acknowledges the abysmal numbers, yet he proclaims Dade Medical will be off probation within a year. "Obviously, our passing rates are not where they need to be. But let's look at the positive side. In the last three years, we've helped 350 nurses get state certification," he says. "Our students are people who can't get into traditional schools... Obviously, it is more difficult to train those students."