By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
On a Thursday evening in February, parents and kids piled into the pews of a barren brown-brick church on East Ann Arbor Avenue in Oak Cliff. This wasn't a religious service, but there would be preaching, and the adults in the room were focused intently on the man at the pulpit: former Cowboy and NFL Hall of Famer Deion "Prime Time" Sanders.
This steepled building was the planned home of "Deion's school," as it's often called. Officially it's Prime Prep Academy, a charter school scheduled to open to students from sixth grade and up in August. A campus in Fort Worth is scheduled to open at the same time.
Sanders wore a determined face, and his presentation was made even more grave by his deep, raspy voice and lingering silence at the end of sentences. "We're not up here playing," he said, fighting an enemy who was not immediately obvious. "We're not up here lying. We're not up here falsifying. ... Because we're not trying to sell you anything, because anything we present to you is absolutely free.
"The technology you're going to see is free," he went on. "The after-school program that you're going to hear about is free. Everything we present to you is ab-so-lute-ly ..."
The crowd was finishing his sentences now, and the room reverberated with parental hope. In this neighborhood, and ones like it across Dallas, any alternative is an alternative worth exploring.
"Everybody in here is dealing with something, but we're in here for one common goal, and that's our babies," Sanders went on, hinting that there might be people out there who didn't share that goal. "Just in case someone is in here to show up, that man" — he pointed to a big dude in back — "is going to escort you out, and we'll have other people scattered throughout the audience strategically placed, just in case you want us to focus on you. We've got some players in the house.
"We do understand," he said, "and we do underscore, there's some folks in here who came for the wrong reason. But I don't care, I never did care, and I really, really don't care, because I know my goal, I know my mission, I know my calling, and I'm right where I want to be. This is not about one dime for me because I'm not making a dime off your kids; they're getting this for free. Do you understand what I'm saying? This is not about me whatsoever."
It was a lovely sentiment, just what parents need to hear. But like other Prime Prep declarations, it would prove shaky. Aided by one nagging watchdog, journalists had by then raised the first of several red flags about the school, ranging from nonexistent corporate donations to blatant moneymaking schemes orchestrated by its founder, who even tried to lease the school property for profit. Meanwhile, not long after Sanders' this-isn't-about-me pledge, news would surface that he was in talks to star in a reality show about his role at Prime Prep.
What that role is remains unclear. He's described as a co-founder on Prime Prep's online "history" page, but his name doesn't appear in any official capacity in documents relating to the school, and he's not on the board of directors. Whatever his role is, and whatever missteps the school has made, the parents he preached to were ready to turn their kids over to "his" school.
"This is so fabulous," a woman in the audience said, verbalizing the promise that filled the room. "It's unreal. I can hardly wait."
After the town hall, Sanders emerged from behind the mic and spoke briefly with the Observer. But when the questions turned specific, he started to deflect. "That's a D.L. question," he said, and passed the practical matters to a decidedly less famous guy across the room.
D.L. Wallace, Prime Prep's founder and chief executive officer, manned the podium for most of that night, looking the part of bespectacled headmaster in a white dress shirt and tie, pleated suit pants and a crisp matching vest. He sold the school with the pitchman enthusiasm of Billy Mays hocking OxiClean, and what he lacked in specifics, he made up for in vague enthusiasm, promising the "best of everything."
"We're going to develop a PRIME philosophy that begins with preparation," Wallace said, making sure to remind the crowd of Sanders' involvement.
Most of his lecture focused on free computers the school would provide, but Wallace also promised arts, Advanced Placement classes, gifted-and-talented classes, special education tailored to students' needs, healthy lunches and a positive environment for character development. More recently, he and Sanders have said that the school would field a class 3A football team, and Sanders has bragged that area coaches are worried about Prime Prep siphoning off top players — although so far no coaches have publicly expressed concerns.
Prime Prep's Dallas campus, at that church building on Ann Arbor, will serve sixth to 12th grades; its Fort Worth campus will serve kindergarten to fifth grade. Both campuses will cater to inner-city students seeking an alternative to traditional public schools, and each can accommodate as many as 750 students.
As Sanders stressed, it all comes for free. Charter schools are publicly funded and regulated by the state; they are intended to serve as hubs of innovative education, independent of school districts and subject to looser guidelines. Like all public schools, they're paid by the state for every student enrolled.
After the town halls, in a brief phone conversation, Wallace would tell the Observer only that he's received hundreds of applications from prospective teachers and students. Otherwise, he said, he was too busy to answer questions. He then declined multiple interviews over the course of several months.
What little is known about Wallace is gleaned from brief online bios and other slivers of information related to businesses he's started, including Sports Groove LLC and Prime Time Player, both sports-related ventures involving Sanders. Until recently he served on the University of North Texas College of Education Development Board, the school's fundraising arm. He said during town halls that he's a Baylor alum; according to the school's registrar's office, he's a semester short of graduating.
One of his former businesses, DFW Business Training Center, is "the first fully interactive sales school," according to Wallace's website. A former client of that business showed up at the Fort Worth town hall to learn about his latest venture.
"He's an incredible entrepreneur," the former student, Alex Burns, said. He taught her "transfer of confidence" as a way of doing business. "You cannot transfer what you don't have," she said. He also covered the value of adding acronyms to a sales pitch — like, say, PRIME — with consumer confidence-building keywords attached to each letter.
But it's another of Wallace's "Prime" businesses that sent a former investor into an obsessive year-long quest to reclaim his investment, and to bring as much scrutiny as possible upon Wallace and Sanders' latest endeavor.
Lawrence Smith sits at the dining room table of his quaint Arlington home, surrounded his recent life's work: an alphabetized binder of documents, plus loose legal filings strewn about the white tablecloth. His Dell laptop sits open, ready to heed his inevitable impulses for further research.
On the other side of the floral centerpiece sits his childhood best friend and co-plaintiff, Derwin Williams, who's in town from New Jersey to give a deposition in their lawsuit against Wallace and Sanders.
Both men are dressed in athletic clothing, ready for a high school track meet they're headed to that afternoon. Smith is broad-shouldered and burly and speaks unfiltered; when he's mad, it comes across more like excitement. And when he's discussing Wallace, he's always excited.
It started in May 2008, Smith says. At a friend's suggestion, he attended a gathering hosted by Wallace to introduce potential investors to a new business venture. The meeting was held at Charity Church, the future home of Prime Prep's Fort Worth campus.
Wallace pitched his next big idea: PrimeTimePlayer Pages, a recruiting publication to tout student-athletes. For the low price of $199, Smith claims, Wallace offered the men the chance to be independent representatives of the project, a status that would allow them to recruit students and earn a cut of the commission. He also offered them shares of the company. Smith and at least six others all bought in, paying anywhere from $199 to $25,000 for a slice of PrimeTimePlayer Pages, they claimed in a lawsuit against Sanders, Wallace and his businesses. (The defendants denied the claims and filed a counterclaim accusing Smith and his fellow investors of harassment.)
"You walk away from this guy feeling like he is just the most ethical and honest person you want to meet," says Al Williams, one of the investors. "He's smooth, I'll tell you."
Smith had mentored and coached students for most of his life at the local high school, he says, and he had experience investing small amounts here and there. PrimeTimePlayer Pages was the perfect intersection of those interests, with the bonus of a local hero's name brand. "Think about it. It's Deion Sanders," Smith says. Sanders even showed up to deliver the keynote at an AAU basketball tournament where the new reps were dispatched to sign up athletes, the group's lawsuit claimed.
Smith signed on, investing $3,000 for a share of the business and $199 to be a rep, he claims. But almost two years passed without the book being distributed to colleges and parents as promised, Smith says, and the 500 colleges to which the book was supposed to be delivered knew nothing about it. So in February 2010, Smith compiled statements from investors and sent them to Sanders. According to Smith, Sanders called and said he was unaware of the complaints. He promised to "take care of it" and call back in a few days. That was the last Smith spoke to Sanders.
But the recruitment book wasn't the only deal Smith had brewing with Wallace. Around the same time, Wallace was working with the University of North Texas to establish a charter school. Texas law caps the number of charters that can be issued at 215, making approval highly competitive, and the state wasn't approving new charters at the time. But there's no cap on schools sponsored by universities, a historically infrequent arrangement.
Lee Jackson, the University of North Texas chancellor, remembers the potential partnership well. The idea was brought to the school by someone he trusted to understand education issues, he says, although he won't say who. "I plant a lot of seeds, and they don't always sprout," Jackson says.
Jerry Thomas, the dean of UNT's education school, says the school negotiated with Wallace in 2009 for about a year. He had intended that the charter would be a "laboratory school" where his students could participate and student teach. When the location was planned for Fort Worth, Thomas decided it was too far from campus, and the arrangement fell apart.
But before it did, Smith claims, Wallace presented him with an opportunity to profit from the publicly funded, nonprofit school. The opportunity came in the form of a "revenue-sharing agreement." For a $25,000 initial investment, Smith would earn $174,600 over a three-year period. The revenue would come from rent paid by UNT to the school's landlord, a company called Pinnacle Commercial Properties Group, which lists Wallace as its CEO.
Smith provided the Observer a copy of what he claims is this agreement, along with a chart outlining the potential payout. It doesn't mention the school, but it outlines the terms of the revenue-sharing agreement as Smith describes. It includes details about the property, which match those of the building in Fort Worth where Smith says the UNT charter school was supposed to be housed: Charity Church.
That church, it so happens, is the same church where Wallace and Sanders plan to house the Fort Worth campus of Prime Prep. Records show that the church's bishop, F.R. Mays, is an officer of Pinnacle Commercial Property Group, and that the church and real estate company share an address. But not only would it have been illegal for investors to profit off of a UNT charter school, records show that Pinnacle never owned the building in the first place.
Smith, unaware at the time that charters were tax-funded, nonprofit operations, claims he invested $2,500 in the school up front. He never got a refund when the school fell apart, he says. All told, Smith says he invested $5,500 in Wallace's businesses. In 2010, he and six fellow investors sued, accusing Wallace and Sanders of fraud, negligence, deceptive trade practices and more. They asked for amounts ranging from $188,000 to $400,000, including money owed on investments, lawyer's fees and retribution for "mental anguish."
The case dragged on until last week, when Smith and his co-plaintiffs filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit. It was a case of David versus Goliath, Smith says, only in this version Goliath had NFL money. Fees were racking up and it became "financially tough on the plaintiffs to go forward." But they can and may re-file a similar lawsuit. "We're standing by exactly what we presented," Smith says.
It's been more than two years since Smith cut ties with Wallace. After a year of relative silence, he read a news story last fall in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about Prime Prep Academy's charter school application.
"That just blew me away," Smith says. He called his lawyer to tell him that his old business pals were at it again. Then he called the Texas Education Agency, the state department that regulates charter schools, and requested a copy of the Prime Prep application, which would be approved by the state board of education a month later.
"I said I've got to alert them because I know this guy," Smith says. He paged through the application and began to recognize names, addresses and business tactics: Charity Church, Pinnacle, D.L. Wallace, Deion Sanders.
"Sure enough, my intuition was right," he says.
Poring over the documents, Smith found that Prime Prep Academy's application included a "sales/marketing" agreement with PrimeTimePlayer, a company whose officers include Wallace and Chazma Jones, both Prime Prep board members. The school would pay the company thousands of dollars for its services, plus a commission on "all monies derived from corporate, local business and private donor sponsorships."
The application also claimed that the school had locked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate donations, from companies including Bank of America, Walmart and the NFL Network. But representatives from several companies listed told the Austin-based Texas Observer that they'd made no such donations.
And while the school was dubbed Prime Prep, its sponsoring nonprofit corporation was called Uplift Fort Worth, despite or perhaps because of the existence of a well-regarded chain of charter schools called Uplift. (The original Uplift has asked Wallace's group to make clear that the two organizations are separate.)
In recent weeks, the Observer also discovered even more discrepancies in the school's application, this time in a list of community members who communicated support. It includes LeRoi Phillips, the assistant athletic director and head basketball coach at Dallas County Community College District. Phillips, who was listed in the school's application as DCCC's head athletic director, says he has no idea how his name ended up there. He'd served on the board of Life School, a charter school adjacent to Prime Prep's Oak Cliff campus, and was asked to serve on Prime Prep's board. But he refused.
"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.
"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.
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."
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.
Meanwhile, the school plows ahead toward an August opening. According to its website, it's hiring employees and is about to enroll students. Prospective parents remain hopeful at the prospect of an alternative.
"Parents are very excited about it and can't wait. It's excitement for what it can be," says Sharlene Benjamin, whose 14-year-old son attended Sanders' summer football camp. As for the reality show, she says it "should be interesting," and elaborates on exactly what reality will look like.
"It's all about your abilities as a child, and what you put your mind to doing. ... It has to be about school. Let's keep it what it is. Isn't that what Prime Prep Academy is — school? Yeah," she says, reassuring herself as she continues her hopeful future projection.
"Even if it's about the athletics, it'll still show you the academic side of that," Benjamin says, although she admits she can't be sure. Until Prime Prep opens, no one can be sure. "I really don't know," she says.