"We were just appreciative. Here's a guy who's made a lot of money, that appears to be very sincere, that wants to see these two schools succeed and grow...When he doesn't pay the bills, then is when you realize you do have something to lose," Williams says. "We put a lot of personal money and five years of our lives into this, and there were a lot of others who did the same thing. It should have succeeded."
The two-story brick church and school building on Easton Road in East Dallas appears to be a pleasant and attractive learning environment. It seems quiet, but it has hardly been calm since Charles Wilkerson and company came to town.
Dr. Larry Wilson, who arrived at Eastlake as school administrator in 1993 and stayed until this fall, says the 20-year-old school was never a big moneymaker, but it was solvent while he was working there, and any financial problems were not insurmountable. The school was adding a grade every year and had added the eighth grade by fall 2000. Dallas First Assembly of God owned the property but had plans to build a new church at another location.
"Dallas First Assembly bought some other property, and they were going to move their building...They had no place for the school, and so when they were talking to Wilkerson, he had all this fantastic experience running schools and colleges," Wilson says. "He was willing to leave the school right here and take care of it, and it sounded like a win-win situation for everybody."
Wilkerson doesn't agree Eastlake's financial outlook was so rosy before he arrived and says he took on a great burden in deciding to keep the school open.
"It was losing $80,000 a year, and the year before it got $200,000 stolen from it. I've got their balance sheet," Wilkerson says. "They didn't have any money. I had to put $80,000 in the day we took the building over."
The Reverend Tom McMahan, whose church building and school Wilkerson purchased, says Wilkerson is not correct. The school made money some years and was a break-even operation at worst. What's more, he says, any money that was taken from the church was recovered by McMahan's church and had no effect on the eventual sale to Wilkerson. In fact, McMahan says, if the school was as great a liability as Wilkerson claims, no bank would have financed the operation as Wilkerson did.
Everyone agrees that if it weren't for Wilkerson or someone like him, Eastlake Christian School and Daycare would have to either move or close.
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.