Prime Prep Academy, the charter school co-founded by former Cowboy Deion Sanders, recently accepted more than 1,100 students for its inaugural school year, and hundreds of those students are slated to attend its campus in Oak Cliff.
The question is whether that campus will even be available to the school.
State law requires Prime Prep to provide certificates of occupancy -- city documents certifying a building's compliance with applicable regulations -- for both its Dallas and Fort Worth campuses before students flood through the doors. But records show that Prime Prep doesn't have those certificates, and the records raise questions about whether the school can get them in time -- questions that, as has become pattern, the school can't or won't answer.
When Sanders met with parents at a church campus on Ann Arbor Avenue earlier this year, he assured them the campus belonged to Prime Prep.
"We own this building," he said, and then explained the relationship with a charter school that was currently using some of the space. "[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."
Actually, records show that the campus is owned by Full Gospel Holy Temple, whose officials did not return several calls. Life School operates mostly out of a campus adjacent to the church, although officials there said it does lease a gym and weight room on the future Prime Prep campus. Its lease is up in the next few months, Life School officials said, at which point Prime Prep is supposed to take over the space.
But Prime Prep doesn't hold the certificate of occupancy on any of the buildings on its own alleged campus. And because the main space -- an auditorium and classrooms -- hasn't been used recently as a school, city officials say Prime Prep will have to apply for a special zoning permit to operate one there. That zoning process typically takes over three months, commonly takes four or five months or more, and requires city council approval.
Getting the certificate for a second, smaller classroom building could prove difficult as well. If a facility is used for education, it can continue to be used for that purpose by a new organization as long as no more than six months lapses without use, Phil Sikes, the city's Assistant Building Official, told Unfair Park. Life School, which holds the certificate of occupancy for three of the four buildings Prime Prep claims to own, used the secondary classrooms until about six months ago. That means Prime Prep could soon need to apply for the more complicated zoning permit for that building too.
Sikes said that if Prime Prep could make a good case for why it should not have to undergo the arduous zoning process, an exception could be made. "It's going to depend what they present to us as evidence," Sikes said. But he called plans to open in August under such circumstances "ambitious."
Even if Prime Prep does get city approval to use the Oak Cliff campus, there remain questions about its arrangement there. Life School officials told the Observer it was renting the gym from not from Full Gospel church, the building's owner, but from Pinnacle Commercial Property, the real estate company owned by D.L. Wallace, Sanders' business partner and Prime Prep's co-founder.
It's unclear why Pinnacle is serving as the landlord for a building it doesn't own, but the arrangement recalls a controversy surrounding Prime Prep's Fort Worth campus. In the school's original charter application, it included an agreement to lease space at Fort Worth's Charity Curch from Pinnacle Commercial Property, which claimed to own Charity Church's building. That meant Wallace stood to profit from the rent his own nonprofit school would pay.
And why would the church let a real estate company collect rent on its space? Perhaps because the church's bishop, FR Mays, happened to have a side gig as an executive with Pinnacle Commercial Property. (Mays has denied any familiarity with the school or the real estate company, despite records connecting him to both.)
Perhaps there's an explanation for why Life School is paying rent to D.L. Wallace, and whether Prime Prep plans to pay him the same rent. Whatever it is, we won't likely know for a while. Sanders and Wallace have refused to be interviewed, and the Texas Education Agency, which regulates charter schools, says it doesn't need to know the details of the school's facilities arrangements until August, when the school opens its doors.
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