Flunking Out

Charter school scandals are teaching Texas a tough lesson -- one the state should have known four years and $77 million ago.

"To be honest with you, the black market on school records isn't very good," says Brooks Flemister, who runs the agency's charter school division. "I don't know anything about it."

Sherwin Allen has worked in education for about 30 years in Dallas, Arkansas, and Arizona. He held positions ranging from teacher to principal and assistant superintendent. None of those posts, however, dealt directly with school finances. He is now assistant superintendent of Children First Academy of Dallas and director of Children First Academy of Houston. They are charter schools with a combined enrollment of about 180.

He wants the Board of Education to take P.O.W.E.R., H.O.P.E., L.O.V.E., and F.A.I.T.H. out from under the Life's Beautiful umbrella to allow them to operate independently. His thinking is that the emancipation would free the schools of the debt, which belongs to Life's Beautiful. But TEA lawyers have warned the board that it's not that easy to absolve debt. If the assets transfer, the debt probably would too.

Christopher Barbic, founder of the YES College Preparatory School in Houston, says it takes more than good intentions to build a successful school.
Phillippe Diederich
Christopher Barbic, founder of the YES College Preparatory School in Houston, says it takes more than good intentions to build a successful school.

Further muddying the situation, Life's Beautiful ceased to exist. According to Allen, the board voted a few months ago to dissolve the corporation.

Allen attributes the problems of Life's Beautiful to the untimely death of Terry, which he says led to an internal power struggle that crippled the organization. He says she erred by hiring a staff for the schools before knowing how many students would be enrolled. But he holds TEA auditors responsible for making a bad situation worse.

"The only time you know there's a problem is when the auditors come and say, 'You have a problem.' Then it's left to the auditors' discretion to make you or break you," he says.

Alma Allen, the Board of Education member, finds Sherwin Allen's comments ludicrous.

"They have to blame somebody," she said, "so they blame the auditors."

Grendolyn Carol Harper is listed as the chief executive officer of Impact Charter School in southwest Houston. Her name -- even her signature -- is right there on the charter application that the Board of Education approved last year.

There's one problem, though. Harper says it's all news to her.

At a state board meeting in May, Harper revealed: "I am not the CEO of Impact Charter. I did not know I was the CEO. I've never attended a board meeting. I've never been to Impact Charter. I cannot tell you when the school opened. I cannot tell you how many students are at the school."

But the signature? "That is not my signature. It was forged. I gave no one permission to put my signature on any type of document."

As board members' jaws dropped, TEA auditors braced themselves for yet another investigation of a charter school. The audit is not yet final.

Efforts by the Dallas Observer to reach Harper were unsuccessful. Impact Charter School director Amy Moten, the other player in this soap opera, declined to be interviewed. Harper had told the board in May that Moten is not telling the truth when she says Harper gave her permission to put her name on the application as CEO.

"Why would I give her permission [to put my name] on an application, an application that is full of grammatical errors -- and I'm an English instructor," Harper said with exasperation.

If it wasn't bad enough that the Board of Education approved a charter school with a CEO who didn't know she was CEO, it awarded a school based on a written application that featured this jumble of grammatical mumble: "Impact Charter target grade level 3 year old -- fourth grade...Our focus will be that of Intervention by reaching the children at earlier age will prevent failure of later years."

Moten sheepishly told the board that the application was completed right at deadline and therefore not proofread.

The bizarre Impact episode illustrates how lax the charter school screening process has been in the past.

Not since awarding the first 20 charters has the board demanded the CEOs or other key officers of proposed schools to come before them for face-to-face interviews. Instead, the board has relied on a 45-member application-review committee, appointed by board members and the education commissioner, to grade the written applications. Only now, at a time when embarrassing audits of charter schools threaten the entire movement, is the board leaning toward supplementing the committee evaluation with a return to in-person interviews.

In addition, the board wants to expand the written application to better assess the financial aptitude of a proposed charter holder. The proposed new application, for example, would require school officers to reveal any bankruptcies and the charter holders to disclose liens against them. The state also would require a rundown of lawsuits involving the applicants.

These are responses to the fiasco at the Harrison school in Waco. The Waco Tribune-Herald reported this month that at the time the state granted that charter, the Texas Workforce Commission had a lien against the East Waco Community Center, which held Harrison's charter. The newspaper also reported that Ida Nell Smith Pinkard, the school's chief officer until she resigned three days before the state revoked the charter, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 1992 and had been sued in the past for defaulting on rent.

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