Inside the Florida school that told teachers not to get vaccinated

David and Leila Centner run their private school the way they see fit — even if that means flouting coronavirus safety protocols and spreading misinformation about vaccines.
David Centner, left, and Leila Centner, left of center, cut the ribbon at the Centner Academy’s grand opening in the Design District on Aug. 21, 2019.
David Centner, left, and Leila Centner, left of center, cut the ribbon at the Centner Academy’s grand opening in the Design District on Aug. 21, 2019. [ CARL JUSTE | Miami Herald ]
Published May 1, 2021

MIAMI — Long before Miami’s Centner Academy ignited a national uproar by telling teachers not to get COVID-19 vaccinations, contrary to all credible scientific advice, the school’s husband-and-wife founders were determined to do things exactly as they pleased, for better or worse.

It began with the academy’s first open house when David and Leila Centner asked guests not just to wipe their feet but to swaddle the soles of their shoes in Saran wrap. And it continued with an impassioned pledge to mold students into “emotional ninjas,” and with the coverings over the windows to ward off potential radiation from 5G cell towers. (“No adverse health effect has been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies,” according to the World Health Organization.) Then there were the non-disclosure agreements required of employees who wanted to quit or parents who wanted to withdraw their kids. And the efforts to persuade staff how to vote in the presidential election. And the invitation to anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to address the school community. And the constant exhortations against wearing masks.

Through it all, Leila Centner, who runs the school’s day-to-day operations, was omnipresent, and teachers feared she was watching them over an expansive camera system, one current and three former employees said.

So when Centner sent an email last week warning staff at the private school’s two campuses not to take the coronavirus vaccine — in the process spreading misinformation about the drugs’ safety and raising questions about whether the school is violating the rights of employees to seek healthcare — few involved with the school were surprised.

“She was always talking about doctors that seemed fringey. And there were all these weird emails: Are masks really good for youth’s mental progress?” said Greg Tatar, the parent of a first-grader. “They screamed Republican, Trump, anti-COVID. All the weird news that you would see between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Fox.”

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist, spoke at the Centner Academy.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist, spoke at the Centner Academy. [ Instagram ]

Despite Centner’s eccentricities, Tatar had been pleased with the education his son was getting, with chiropractors, mindfulness coaches and a personal chef preparing organic, gluten- and sugar-free meals. Yelling and time-outs were banned. The school prioritized emotional well-being, language immersion — in Mandarin, French, Spanish, Italian and German — and physical health and nutrition.

But dissuading people from getting a vaccine approved by federal health authorities went too far. “It is our policy, to the extent possible, not to employ anyone who has taken the experimental COVID-19 injection until further information is known,” Centner wrote in an email to parents Monday.

Fearing that the health-conscious school might actually infect them and their children with a dangerous virus, parents bombarded the news media with complaints. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that COVID-19 vaccines are “safe and effective” and that millions of Americans have gotten them “under the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history.”

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter

We’ll break down the local and state education developments you need to know every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

“People believe her because she’s in a position of power,” Tatar said. “I really don’t want her to fire all the teachers with common sense and keep the teachers that are believing and feeding into this fake science news. ... What she’s doing is completely insane and unreasonable and dangerous.”

It could also be illegal.

Mark Richard, an attorney who represents the United Teachers of Dade and United Faculty of Miami Dade College, said a policy that bars employees from taking the vaccine could violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, as it interferes with the right to get medical treatment, especially for employees who are at higher risk.

“It would be like a cancer patient not getting chemotherapy,” he said.

Labor and employment attorney Lowell Kuvin agreed that the ADA would cover employees’ right to be vaccinated.

“I think it would be definitely an easy lawsuit to bring. It’s tantamount to saying we don’t want people to work for us who have diabetes because they have to take insulin shots,” he said. “What’s the difference?”

The school has received public funds, including an $804,000 COVID-related Payroll Protection Program loan in April 2020 that doesn’t have to be paid back.

Former teachers and current parents told the Herald that the vaccine scandal fit into a pattern of behavior by the Centners that they described as straight out of a “cult.” They said the couple failed to impose adequate health and safety precautions during the pandemic like enforcing the usage of masks and continually spread medical misinformation that bordered on indoctrination.

The Herald interviewed 10 former and current teachers and parents critical of the school. Few wanted to go on the record, but they corroborated each other’s accounts. The teachers feared retaliation; the parents worried they could face legal action or their children would be ostracized in school.

“She turned the school we all loved into her own conspiracy theory platform,” one father said.

Children from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami at an “All in for Smiles” day of fun event surround Leila Centner, co-founder of the David and Leila Centner Family Foundation, in December 2019.
Children from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami at an “All in for Smiles” day of fun event surround Leila Centner, co-founder of the David and Leila Centner Family Foundation, in December 2019. [ David and Leila Centner Foundation ]

Still, many other parents and teachers rushed to defend the academy, a $15,000- to $30,000-per-year haven for those who believe the antidote for the virus lies in nutrition and wellness and that masks are ineffective. They celebrated the freedom they found in the choice to wear a mask, or not, or to get a vaccine, or not, saying they were more scared of the shot than the virus. And they lauded Leila Centner as a visionary with the guts to make her views known.

“This is one of the only schools where there’s been no masking, no social distancing,” said one parent who didn’t want his name published. “Compared to all other schools in the area and around the country, it provided a nice option for us because the social benefits … outweighed the risk of COVID.

“This woman is a hero,” he added.

The Centners made a fortune when their New York-based company, Highway Toll Administration, was acquired by a billion-dollar private equity firm in 2018.

They relocated to a penthouse condo in Miami Beach and immersed themselves among South Florida’s power players, contributing $1 million to President Donald Trump’s re-election fund, as well as tens of thousands to Gov. Ron DeSantis and local Republicans and Democrats. Leila Centner joined the board of the Adrienne Arsht Center Foundation, and the couple made a major donation to a women’s homeless shelter in Miami.

But their goal was always to open a school fit for their young daughters. The local options simply weren’t up to par.

“Tour after tour after tour, none of this is really doing it for me,” Leila Centner told the Herald in 2019.

Now her dream is under attack.

Through a spokeswoman, Centner defended asking her employees to not get vaccinated — or risk losing their jobs.

Her answers were based on what public health experts say is dangerous misinformation that the COVID-19 vaccines are not safe or effective.

She said no teachers or families had left as a result of the policy. She also denied allegations of monitoring staff through cameras or using non-disclosure agreements for families and teachers withdrawing from the academy, which has almost 300 students between its preschool in the Design District and an elementary and middle school in Edgewater.

Centner Academy is the first happiness school in the U.S.,” Centner wrote. “We draw on the latest research in the fields of mindfulness, emotional intelligence and the science of happiness.”

In an email, David Centner said that the school never encouraged students not to wear masks but said “many students and teachers complain of headaches, dizziness, and nauseousness, and other ailments while wearing masks all day …. [and] we made a decision to not strictly mandate” their use.

The cameras, he said, are for security.

‘It’s a cult’

One teacher showed up excitedly to her first day of training at Centner Academy in August 2020.

Then she saw few people wearing a mask or practicing social distancing.

Some of her new colleagues, who lived in houses provided by the Centners, said they were nervous to use masks — for fear of crossing their bosses.

“It really felt like a cult. ... It still keeps me up at times because it was so disturbing,” said the teacher, who quit soon after. “Leila Centner is single-handedly responsible for forcing people in the Miami community to not wear masks for money and power.”

When a Herald reporter toured the campus in 2019, Leila Centner said the preschool in the Design District had 135 cameras, with many placed in classrooms. The large number of cameras led teachers to fear they were being watched.

Centner didn’t just keep an eye on her school — she also seemed to want to control what employees thought and who they voted for, several former teachers said.

They said they felt pressured into joining a WhatsApp group chat called “Knowledge is Key” where Centner shared conspiracy theory videos and social media links to bunk science, like a video by anti-vaccine advocate Rashid Buttar. (David Centner denied anyone was pressured to join the group.)

One teacher said Leila Centner told staffers to vote for Trump because “Biden wants to vaccinate everyone.”

Two weeks after school began in September, a mother of two Centner Academy students said Centner approached her and told her that the mask she was wearing was ineffective and that she was inhaling chemicals.

The parent said she received constant emails about anti-mask discussions.

“It’s a cult,” the mother said. “It’s nowhere near a school.”

Centner’s opposition to masks seemed to stem from an immersion in far-right media and conspiracy websites.

Her Instagram is full of misinformation and debunked conspiracy theories about COVID-19.

One of her posts suggests that “thousands of women are experiencing the sloughing of their uterine linings” from being around vaccinated people. (There is no scientific evidence to back that claim. Vaccines are not contagious.)

Instagram has flagged several of Centner’s posts for spreading “false information.”

In Tallahassee, Democratic state Sen. Jason Pizzo proposed an amendment Thursday that would outlaw companies, governments and educational institutions from preventing people from getting vaccines. The measure failed on a tie vote.

Last week, Leila Centner sent staff a Google form asking whether they’d been vaccinated. One teacher said she and colleagues spoke to a lawyer about filling out the form. The lawyer said not to do it.

“It’s only 37 more days,” said the teacher, who plans to leave the academy at the end of the school year.

Coming back home

In August 2019, South Florida’s wealthy, prominent and well-to-do stepped inside the brand new and upscale Centner Academy, the bottom of their shoes carefully wrapped in plastic.

Leila and David Centner clinked champagne glasses with friends and local notables, including a then-Miami Beach city commissioner and the president of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce. The elite crowd was treated to a glimpse of what life would be like at “The Happiness School.” They meditated, heard from Harvard’s “happiness professor” and enjoyed a performance from a musician playing a traditional Chinese stringed instrument known as an “erhu.”

Centner Academy’s three-story preschool is located in the Design District, Miami’s upscale luxury shopping mecca.
Centner Academy’s three-story preschool is located in the Design District, Miami’s upscale luxury shopping mecca. [ DANIEL A. VARELA | Miami Herald ]

It was all for a school — a 16,000-square-foot, royal blue three-story building on the edge of the Design District, Miami’s luxury shopping mecca — that the Centners built to be worthy of their barely school-age daughters, who dazzled that day in matching Dolce & Gabbana outfits.

Centner Academy would provide the kind of education Leila Centner wished she had gotten.

She even splurged on glittery granite bathrooms (“When they go to the bathroom I want them to feel like royalty,” she once said) and painted stairways (“I didn’t want the stairwell to be yucky either”).

For her husband, returning to South Florida was a homecoming.

David Centner graduated from Miami Sunset Senior High and worked at Frankie’s Pizza. Then he found love in New York City — The New York Times featured David’s flash-mob proposal to Leila Samoodi, a businesswoman originally from California.

Together, they ran a highway toll company until they sold it to a private equity firm. It was time, they said, to return to Miami and “warm and real people.”

“Miami has proved to be the perfect location for our new home,” the Centners said at their ribbon-cutting.

They entertained lavishly, cared for by a coterie of roughly 10 servants, including chefs, housekeepers, personal assistants and a butler, according to two people who know the couple. Leila Centner also has her own private security team, one former academy staffer said.

Even before officially arriving in Miami, the Centners got to work on a blueprint for a school. Leila worked on the vision and strategy while David handled the marketing, public relations and technology. Neither has a background in education, but said they instead hired professionals.

They had grand ambitions, like working with former presidential hopeful New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker on a $40 million teacher’s village with 251 units of workforce rental housing. But the deal fell through for reasons the couple wouldn’t specify, pointing to a non-disclosure agreement.

Instead, the Centners bought a few homes in the nearby Buena Vista neighborhood for their school staff to live in at a discounted rate.

Brain program

The academy started off as a small school of 18 students aged 2½ to 6 midway through the 2019-2020 school year. Grade levels were based on personal growth rather than age.

Every day started with “I am” statements and “positive brainwashing” to instill confidence. Parents had to attend mandatory nutrition workshops and workshops on conscious parenting. Students learned Dr. Seuss in Mandarin while essential oils wafted in the air.

Key to the Centners’ operation was focus on the brain. In November 2019, Leila Centner spoke of children who were overdiagnosed and overmedicated. She talked about reversing autism. Every student admitted to Centner Academy went through a “brain program” where their development would be assessed.

The Design District building, home to the preschool, bursts with color and light. Doors open and lock with a fingerprint.

“If I was a kid, what would I want?” Centner said. “Colors have vibrations.”

Atop the building sprawled a 3,000-square-foot rooftop playground with a mini-soccer field, a biking/jogging track and an obstacle course.

But the Centners hoped for more. They wanted a school that went through 12th grade, eyeing a 28,000-square-foot Edgewater building once home to the Aspira charter school. In March 2020, they officially announced a partnership with the Metropolitan International School of Miami and absorbed its students.

Eventually, the Centners bought out MET, hiked the tuition by roughly $10,000 and unveiled a temporary new name: Metropolitan International Centner Academy.

One student attends on a government-funded, tax-credit scholarship.

Another 30 or so attend on a scholarship paid out of the David and Leila Centner Foundation, according to Leila Centner. She said those students were from the nearby Buena Vista neighborhood.

‘Would I send my kid there?’

Despite the controversy, some parents and teachers applaud what the Centners have accomplished.

“We are letting our children be the leaders and the researchers and the investigators. They write the narrative,” said Zeinette Diaz, a Spanish teacher whose son attends the academy’s preschool. “As teachers, we are the support. We are not standing in front and telling them ‘ABC.’ We are letting them experience on their own and learn how things work and use data to prove their hypotheses.”

But Diaz said she’s not ready to accept the overwhelming scientific data showing that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. Getting COVID-19 earlier this month at an Easter party where some people weren’t wearing masks didn’t change her mind.

“I have not taken the flu vaccine for years,” she said. “I decided not to feel fear. … I trust my instincts.”

She said it is Leila Centner’s decision to believe what she chooses and run the school accordingly.

“Who am I to say that she’s incorrect just because it’s not scientifically proven?” Diaz said. “If she wants to believe that the apple is purple, I might not agree. But other people have to understand that this may not be the right school for them, at least until she changes her opinion.”

Leila Centner stands with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Miami-Dade County mayoral candidate Steve Bovo.
Leila Centner stands with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Miami-Dade County mayoral candidate Steve Bovo. [ Instagram ]

Mara Gonzalez, the vice principal of the preschool campus, called the controversy “absurd.”

In recent days, the academy has received 150 inquiries to join the school, Gonzalez said.

“I don’t understand why the backlash on our philosophy. I don’t understand why people can’t see that we’re not doing anything wrong,” she said. “We’re not firing anybody. We’re not imposing our beliefs on anybody. We’re just educating our staff and our faculty. We are keeping the health and well-being of our students our priority.”

Abby Mellinger, who worked as the school’s digital marketing director and documentary filmmaker from late 2019 to March 2020, said she understood why some staffers and parents might see the school as a cult.

“It can come off like that. But in reality it just comes down to that’s their narrative,” Mellinger said. “It’s different, it’s weird, it’s very holistic and all about mindfulness. Just like any other organization, they have their own brand and ethos.”

Still, she wondered, “Would I send my kid there?

“I don’t know.”

Miami Herald staff writer Ana Ceballos and McClatchy DC staff writer Ben Wieder contributed to this report.