By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
So Wilkerson came along and said he would buy the building for $1.6 million. Not only did he agree to keep the school, but he promised to maintain Christian values and vastly improve the property, adding amenities such as televisions in every classroom, Wilson says.
"He comes in with that aura, 'I'm a Baptist minister,' and all this other stuff, and he just really oversells himself. He really wows people," Wilson says.
Wilkerson's daughter Kristin "Kristi" Newton was installed as chancellor (and later as administrator) and his wife as bookkeeper and other family members in key school positions. Newton is shown on the school's Web site to have received a bachelor's degree from Faith Baptist College in 1993 at the age of 20. Wilkerson's son Keith claims to have earned a bachelor of arts from Louisiana Christian and bachelor's and master's degrees from Faith Baptist. The degrees are supposedly in education and business administration.
Wilkerson agreed to take on Liberty High School and started a sports program that would include basketball and football teams. He said the new nickname for the team would be "The Storm," just like in Wisconsin. Financial problems began to arise almost immediately, Wilson says.
Wilson says he didn't understand where the tuition money was going and why payroll was too costly so early in the year. He questioned Wilkerson about it, but Wilkerson just said there were too many bills, Wilson says.
The school limped through the 2000-2001 school year, but teachers were starting to leave, and students were, too. At the end of the year, it became apparent that the brief Liberty/Eastlake partnership was going to be dissolved and that most of the high school students who filled Eastlake's halls would be gone by the next year. School board members were leaving and being replaced regularly.
This year, on September 19, with most high school students gone, Wilkerson sent the faculty and staff a letter that said the paychecks that were due the next day would not be delivered until the 25th. Teachers were frequently quitting or getting fired. Tempers flared at school board meetings, and only about half of the more than 300 students in elementary and high school remained.
"We missed the payroll on October 1, the first week in October. He wanted to blame it on the teachers," Wilson says. "The problem is that we have this high school; we have a bunch of football players that are not paying tuition. We've had to hire teachers and support staff for them. He said, 'That's not our problem. I already paid their tuition for a whole year.'"
Wilkerson says his family donated $450,000 in cash to bring in students that did not have money for private school. "Not just basketball players. I didn't know that they played basketball, but I gave. All this money that we've given was to bring in students that couldn't afford to go to private school," he says. "If you've got an empty seat, it doesn't cost anything to bring a student in." By mid-October Wilkerson had apparently tired of Wilson and asked for his resignation. Wilson says he was happy to leave the mess behind.
"It was a big relief to me," Wilson says. "It didn't matter, though. I wasn't getting paid. I still haven't gotten my last paycheck."
Charles Wilkerson says today that he has no part of school operations at Eastlake. Although he is aware of the school's financial problems, he also seems to be distancing himself. He says he is pastor of Eastlake Baptist Church and that the church and school are being set up as a nonprofit corporation that will own the church and school building.
"You'd have to talk to the people who run the school. It's not my school. It's a separate corporation," he says. "Why don't you talk to the school? I don't run the school. I've never run the school...I'm the pastor of the church that sponsors the school."
Bill collectors are reportedly hounding the school for money with secretaries being told to "take messages" rather than put calls through to administrators. Utility workers came to shut off the water recently because the bill hadn't been paid. They left the water on after learning children were in the building, a former employee says.
The school owes for all sorts of bills, from teachers' salaries and leased equipment to school credit accounts, several sources say. Wilkerson says the books are looking better and that once the building is sold, they will have about $500,000 to get the books balanced.
On Friday, another teacher and employee left Eastlake, and fewer than a dozen of the original 47 faculty and staff who had started the 2000-2001 school year remain. The employee had asked in writing for her overdue paycheck and was fired for "insubordination and an un-Christian-like attitude."
Wilkerson says he doesn't know anything about the firing and reiterates that his role in the school is limited.
"Again, I don't run the school. I haven't been involved in that," he says. "I don't have a vote on the school board. I have a voice." While the school may be in choppy financial waters, and it must move to an undetermined location at the end of the year, no part of Eastlake school is nearing closure, he says.