Flunking Out

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

"We really believed those additional students were going to appear," Jones says. "We were gambling. We were running a risk. We were investing in a hope that things would work out." Lott says the Arlington campus would have met enrollment projections had parents not pulled students from the school, frustrated because it had no permanent home.

As students hopped from building to building, a parent came across the vacant, gray stucco office building on East Abram Street, about two miles south of the Ballpark in Arlington. Jones says he left it up to Lott and the parents to work out a lease. During that time, the landlord did not provide heat or plumbing.

Lott says Jones took every opportunity during the school year to make sure a lease never was signed for an Arlington campus. Another of his cost-saving measures, she figures.

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.

"We would find locations and get the kids in there," Lott says. "People were kind enough to let us move in expecting that a contract would be signed, and then Don didn't sign it."

Lott says she has concluded that Renaissance viewed the Arlington campus as a cash cow since the state paid Renaissance Charter School for the 40 or so Arlington students and none of the money was invested in the branch campus. Now that TEA has discovered that the Arlington campus operated outside the school's boundaries and therefore illegally, it is taking back every cent it gave Renaissance to educate those students. Justice, according to Lott.

"The only reason Don Jones kept us was so he could collect funds from the state," she believes.

Lott says the Arlington school hopes to operate next year under a new charter holder. "I have to commend these young people," she says. "They have strong characters, and they want to come back in September."

Lott, a community activist in Arlington since the mid-1980s, broke her public silence about the plight of her students at the Board of Education meeting in May, an instinctive reaction to the claim by Jones that he knew nothing of the wretched conditions. After the meeting, Lott returned to silence. A call from the Observer caught her off-guard, she said.

"I want people to understand that charter schools are a positive alternative solution to education," she says. "I think the concept is excellent. My only concern is that persons who are allowed to run charter schools should be scrutinized very, very closely. That's why I kept so quiet about this for so long. I didn't want to damage the reputation of charter schools in general. I guess it comes to the point now where it's good we are talking about it. Maybe the State Board of Education can take some kind of measures to make sure something like this doesn't happen again."

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