Deion Sanders' Charter School and the Making of a Prime Time Scam

A businessman and a bishop used Cowboys' Hall of Famer Deion Sanders' name to drum up interest in a charter school. Then they tried to score from the deal.

"I have no involvement with them," he says, and has never even met Wallace or Sanders. "I don't have a take on it, one way or the other."

Tom Wilson is also included among Prime Prep's supporters. He's the superintendent of Life School, so it makes sense that Wilson might support his new neighbor. But a Life School spokeswoman said that Wilson supports Prime Prep only in that he supports the charter school movement. She made clear that Life School has "no opinion" of Wallace's ability to "operate a charter school."

These latest discrepancies are among the few that Smith didn't include in dozens of emails he sent to the TEA, which he bombarded with increasingly alarmed correspondence in the months after first hearing about Prime Prep.

Prime Prep founder D.L. Wallace neglected to mention how he tried to profit off the school.
Patrick Michels
Prime Prep founder D.L. Wallace neglected to mention how he tried to profit off the school.
Records show that Charity Church's bishop tried to lease the church to Prime Prep, with the rent checks going to his real estate company.
Naomi Vaughan
Records show that Charity Church's bishop tried to lease the church to Prime Prep, with the rent checks going to his real estate company.

"Some of you view me unfavorably as a meddler or an instigator or even a troublemaker," he once wrote to Karen Johnson, assistant legal counsel for the TEA. "I am none of those things and paradoxically I am all of those things."

Smith rattles off names and positions of TEA officials as though they're characters on a long-running television series. He warns them tirelessly: "I would hope the TEA do the right thing, and stop covering up this matter. It's only going to get worse, and make the TEA look incompetent, biased, and invalid. ... Know this, this matter is not going away!"

Charity Church, the future home of Prime Prep's Fort Worth campus, is a neat brick building, with sparse but well-kept landscaping. On a beautiful Sunday in April, music pours from its doors as pastors mill outside, leading people to the source of the uplifting melodies.

"Good morning ... may I have the privilege to escort a queen to her throne?" a suited man with a gold cuff around a thin ponytail says, leading visitors past the "Support Prime Prep" yard signs flanking the sidewalk. Boxes of them are just inside the door for people to take home and plunge into their lawns.

As the service carries on, an imposing and sharply dressed figure stands outside the church. It's Bishop F.R. Mays, leader of Charity Church.

"Good to meet you; thank you for coming!" Mays says. His voice spikes with excitement, even at meeting a stranger who immediately identifies herself as a reporter. The large, commanding church leader, dressed sharply in a navy and purple pinstripe suit, seems happy to gush about Prime Prep, which will occupy the school building next to the church and will use the church as an auditorium.

"We're doing a tour on the — on May the 31st, I think it is. We'll do a tour, an open house for everybody to come," he says. "And we did our hiring — we did interviews Tuesday and Thursday. We interviewed 40 people Tuesday and 55 people Thursday. We were here all day. We had over 700 applications — for teachers. ... We're enjoying it. We're getting excited. The neighborhood's excited."

As the conversation wears on, those "we's" will disappear suddenly from his vocabulary. But Mays' name is part of a small recurring cast of characters who appear throughout the school's application — and in the most damning emails Smith sent to the TEA.

As he reviewed the school's application, Smith noticed that Wallace and Mays were proposing a similar sweetheart deal between their real estate company, Pinnacle, and the new charter school. In documents included in Prime Prep's application, Pinnacle Property claimed to be "the sole owner" of the buildings that make up Charity Church. And the company intended to lease that property to the school for as much as $10,500 a month, with an option to buy the property for as much as $1,250,000. The lease was signed by Mays, who was listed on the contract as "president" of Pinnacle, and Wallace, listed as CEO of Uplift Fort Worth, Prime Prep's dubiously named sponsoring organization.

But once again, Pinnacle — the company run by Wallace and Mays, according to state records — had agreed to lease a building it didn't own. The property, which is appraised for $3,500,000, is owned by Mays' Charity Church, records show. With this arrangement, Wallace and Mays were in position to profit handsomely on the deal once state money began rolling into the charter school's accounts.

"This is about money, period," Smith says. "M-O-N-E-Y."

The arrangement at Prime Prep's Dallas campus is less clear but could be similar. At the town hall in February, Sanders made it sound simple.

"We own this building," he said. "[Life School] is renting from us. Their lease is up because we're assuming the building now. We don't need to rent it out, because now we have a school, so that's how it goes."

But it's more complicated than that. Life School actually operates out of a separate campus next door, on property it owns. Prime Prep's building, county records show, is owned by a church called Full Gospel Holy Temple. (Several messages left for Full Gospel officials went unanswered.)

Life School does use Full Gospel's gym, a school spokeswoman says. It subleases the gym from Wallace's Pinnacle Properties. That lease is up in the fall, the spokeswoman said, when Prime Prep will take over the gym. Whether the school will pay Pinnacle the same rent that Life Schools did is unclear; no lease details for the Oak Cliff campus were included in the school's application.

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