Flunking Out

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

Those are the students Renaissance has tried to attract. The middle. The branch campus in Arlington, however, was bottom-feeding. As a result, it never quite fit in.

Operating inside a sharp, 55,000-square-foot former office complex on North Belt Line Road in Irving, Renaissance's reputation as a top-notch charter school came despite many shortcuts to make financial ends meet. The school purchased a $250,000 computer data network to link the school's four campuses to the Internet, but the tricky system is run by a baby-faced guy who looks as if he should be in high school. Actually, he and his three full-time assistants range in age from 19 to 24, and Jones admits the salaries he pays them take their ages into account.

"That's part of it -- bringing in people who cost less," he says. Renaissance may well be the most resourceful school in Texas -- for better or worse. Instead of buying triple-beam balance scales, the school had students make some from scratch out of drinking straws, a small plastic cup, and a wooden base. Jones reasons that the students understand more about the science by building the instrument. "We cannot provide the same levels of educational opportunity that a traditional school has. What we lack in that, we make up in depth of understanding."

Deborah Lott, principal of the Renaissance Charter School in Arlington, is still a believer in charter schools -- despite horrendous problems at Renaissance, and provided that the state provide better oversight.
Mark Graham
Deborah Lott, principal of the Renaissance Charter School in Arlington, is still a believer in charter schools -- despite horrendous problems at Renaissance, and provided that the state provide better oversight.

He calls that the "constructionist view of education."

In another effort to cut costs, the school has its students bring sack lunches rather than feeding them a hot meal. Jones says the school meets federal requirements of providing a free meal to underprivileged students by serving breakfast instead of lunch. He maintains that no student goes hungry at lunch as the Renaissance family will pitch in to provide a free meal.

Also to save money, Renaissance opted to ditch school buses in favor of providing kids a reduced-price bus pass with Irving's city transit. Jones says few kids take advantage of the option, choosing instead to drive to school themselves, carpool with friends, or commute with their parents, some of whom work in nearby Las Colinas.

Renaissance's annual budget is more than $4 million, Jones says. The school receives about $300,000 in federal grants and $150,000 in corporate donations a year. He says corporations are hard-sells because they prefer to give to traditional public schools, where their benevolence is rewarded with greater visibility.

Traditional public schools have other financial advantages. They can pay for their facilities through voter-approved bonds, while charter schools must pay for them out of their operating budgets. Jones says 18 percent of Renaissance's budget is for rent payments.

"Running a charter school is a tremendous, tremendous -- and I underline tremendous -- financial challenge," he says.

Sometimes resourcefulness in the face of financial challenge leads to questionable tactics. Renaissance operates on a four-hour school day at its XLR8 Learning Center, a branch campus for high school students who have fallen behind in their studies. One group of students attends in the morning and another in the afternoon. That means only one shift of teachers needs to be hired for two shifts of students. It's a cost-saver.

"The idea is that I can have two shifts of students in there and therefore double our income," Jones says. He is oblivious to the fact that the strategy is repulsive to charter school operators like YES' Barbic, whose students attend school for nine and a half hours each day.

Beginning next month, Renaissance will operate four Irving campuses inside nearly 100,000 square feet of building space. In addition to the main campus and XLR8, it has an elementary school and a fine arts academy. During Renaissance's first three months of operation in 1996, students sat on donated chairs and at the cheapest folding tables Jones could buy at Sam's Club.

In spite of the modest beginnings, word of Renaissance spread so fast that student attendance leaped from about 300 its first year to 950 last year. Jones projects enrollment at 1,200 this coming year.

But like any business that grows too fast, Renaissance experienced pains. The first mistake was a decision to open the branch campus in Arlington. Charter schools must operate within specified geographic boundaries, and Arlington falls outside the legal limit for Renaissance. Jones says that Renaissance officials thought TEA had approved expanded boundaries and that the school only realized its mistake in March.

That was about the same time the Arlington students were writing their letters to TEA. At the Board of Education meeting in May, Jones said he was unaware of the dire conditions. Lott says he is lying.

"Don Jones was fully aware of what was going on, because I was in constant contact with him letting him know what the status was," she says.

Although Jones denies he knew of the problem, he is accepting responsibility for it. "This is the most significant problem we've had. The problem should not reflect on Renaissance as a whole, but instead it identifies the weakness in my ability to carry out my duties effectively."

Still, he has an explanation that sounds a lot like plausible deniability.

Jones says the Renaissance board wanted to close the Arlington school a few months after it opened because enrollment was less than half of what was projected as necessary for the venture to be cost-effective. In addition, the school was housed temporarily at Tarrant County College and was about to get uprooted. Jones says, however, that the passions of Lott, her staff, and the parents of the students persuaded him to keep the school open. He says he told them to find a new building where the school could operate for the remainder of the year.

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