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.

Meanwhile, the arrangement in Fort Worth, supposedly cleaned up by Prime Prep, remains murky. After TEA officials questioned the school about its suspect lease agreement, Prime Prep replaced the lease with a commitment letter from Charity Church stating that it would offer "its facilities to Prime Prep Academy at no rental charge." The letter is signed by Michael Felder, the church's senior pastor. Separately, the application claims that a $100,000 donation has been pledged by Pinnacle Property Group.

Back in Fort Worth on that April Sunday, it's questions about all this that seem to temper Mays' enthusiasm for, and even his familiarity with, Prime Prep Academy. He knows this, though: Nothing is being used for free. "They are leasing the church from us," he says. "There's no donation. Nobody's donating this church."

Mays says he hasn't been in touch with Wallace or Sanders; he works with the school's secretary, he says. "I just tell her what we're charging," he says. He declines to say how much. "No ma'am, he says. "Noo ma'am. Noo ma'am."

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.

Asked if he negotiated the lease with Wallace, he says, "They have a whole board and everything. It's called, uh, Uplift Fort Worth." He says he's not affiliated with Uplift in any way, despite just moments before rattling off the dates of the school's hiring process.

"I wouldn't even know the first thing about that," he says. "Two separate entities all together, separation between church and state, believe me.

"I don't know the people, I know the board," he goes on. Asked who the board members are, he responds, "I don't know that.

"I can tell you everything about Charity. I can tell you nothing about Prime Prep Academy. I can tell you nothing about Deion Sanders. I can tell you nothing about anybody else, 'cause I don't know them personally."

He must know something about Pinnacle Commercial Property Group, whose state filings have listed Mays as both CFO and COO. But Mays denies knowing anything about Pinnacle.

Beleaguered, he snaps his fingers as he racks his brain.

"What was his name? The little guy who was trying to sue our church. Tell him I said hello. And tell him I don't know anything about anything about nothing but Charity Church."

Presumably he means Lawrence Smith, but the name never does come to his mind.

"If you're suing churches, man, if you ain't right, something bad's going to happen," he says, adding something about "suing God.

"Wow, better be careful with that," he says.

Mays wanders aside to take a call. Once he hangs up, he bottom-lines the situation for the space Prime Prep claims it's getting for free. "I wouldn't know anything about the school," he says. "Rent the space, pay your bill, I'm fine."

The opening of Prime Prep is now four months away, and whether Prime Prep is, as Mays says, still on the hook to pay rent for its Fort Worth campus remains unknown. Through a spokeswoman, Ayana Young, both Wallace and Sanders refused to be interviewed by phone or in person for this story. When, at Young's suggestion, the Observer submitted a list of questions to the school, she claimed they were "too busy" to respond. When the paper tried to call Wallace and a board member directly, Young said she was "taken aback." The board member, Carl Dorvil, said he would be happy to talk with the Observer if Young would set it up, but she never responded.

TEA officials still don't know details of the school's facilities arrangements in Dallas, and they are in no hurry to find out. While charter school oversight has tightened in recent years, oversight remains lax, so throughout the process, the agency has duly responded to questions raised about Prime Prep — which could serve more than 1,500 students — with nothing resembling urgency.

When Lawrence Smith first blew the whistle on Wallace's lease deal with the school, the agency simply noted the problems and allowed Prime Prep to amend its application. The same went for the agreement between the school and Wallace's marketing company, PrimeTimePlayer. Since Sanders confirmed that he was developing a reality show around the school — think Waiting for Superman meets Friday Night Lights, he told KTCK-AM 1310 The Ticket — the agency has raised no questions about who would profit off the show or how it would affect the school's students.

The agency dismissed altogether the discovery of alleged corporate donations that didn't exist, and it's shrugged off all other concerns raised by Smith. It won't likely address them unless a school official is convicted of a crime, according to TEA policy.

Last week, the Observer asked the TEA for whatever documents exist to demonstrate where Prime Prep will educate students in Dallas, since no such details were included in the school's application. A TEA spokeswoman said that if it's not in the application, it was not provided to the TEA.

In fact, Prime Prep didn't even need to provide the eyebrow-raising lease agreement for its Fort Worth location. The only paperwork a charter school must provide the state is a certificate of occupancy for each campus, and it's due anytime before the school opens. The TEA has not received a certificate for the Dallas campus.

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