"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Texas Charter School Operator Blazes Trail of Corruption

Here's a headline and intro from a recent story about the El Paso School of Excellence, one of four charter schools operated by the Rylie Faith Family, Inc (article via KFOX14):

El Paso Charter School Reportedly Threatened To Be Closed

According to the superintendent of the El Paso School of Excellence, a local charter school, the owner of the charter has threatened to take action that would essentially close the school.

Superintendent Jack Ammons told KFOX the family that owns the charter has threatened to return the charter back to the state.
Yes - the family that owns the charter is now threatening to shut down one of their privately run schools after more than ten years of shoddy bookkeeping, nepotism, cheating, and corruption. This isn't your run-of-the-mill charter scandal - it's almost as if they're trying to vie for the title of "America's Most Corrupt Charter School" chain (although the Imagine Schools folks probably have that title safely in their hands).

Let's go back ten years. Believe it or not, it was a full decade ago that the TEA had to step in and start regulatin' charters run by the Rylie Faith Family, which was founded by Don and Karen Belknap. Here's a clip from a 2005 article about the schools (with my bolds):

In 2000, as problems escalated at the Rylie charter schools, the state dispatched a retired public school superintendent to sort it all out.

Jack Ammons found the schools $400,000 in debt and operating without a budget. Family members and friends of the founders populated the payroll. There was no coherent curriculum, and no urgency to improve.

"They were basically running a $5 million ... [business] with just a checkbook," Dr. Ammons said. "And they were spending [taxpayer] money like it was their own."


Rylie Faith Family, the nonprofit organization that operates Inspired Vision, A+ Academy and two charter campuses in El Paso, received a little more than $8 million in public funds last year.

Rylie Faith Family co-founder Karen Lewis Belknap said recently that the schools' early mistakes were the result of inexperience in accounting for public money.

"Charter schools want to do it right," said Mrs. Belknap, who began the charter with her husband, Don. "We're not just out here trying to scrape the system. We're finally at the point now where we're getting the advice we need."

Today, the schools are ready to stand on their own again, Dr. Ammons said. Finances are stable, achievement is improving, and former public school administrators are in charge.


School records show that the Belknaps and their children collected $420,000 in pay and reimbursements from the schools between September 2000 and August 2002.

The Belknaps hired friends and family, they said, because they couldn't get anybody else to work for them.

"We hired the most educated people we could find, and that was family," Mr. Belknap said. "Why would we fire them just because they're kin?"

More than three dozen family members and parishioners of the Belknaps' church were on the payroll in 2002, including a cousin who was in charge of special education. Her previous work was as a cashier at Kmart and McDonald's, records show.

Despite all the problems, the Belknaps continued to apply to start new schools. In May 2000, state officials gave them permission to open two more schools. [Ken's note: seriously?]


State education officials launched an investigation of the charters' books in 2000 and installed Dr. Ammons in a position advising the Belknaps. The results of the investigation were turned over to the Dallas County district attorney's office, but no charges were ever filed. The management problems continued, however, and in 2003, the state shut down the original Dallas school, leaving the family with two schools on three campuses.


Among the most important changes at the Rylie schools has been the infusion of professional educators into the operation. The Belknaps hired a retired public school superintendent, Gerald "Rosie" Rosebure, to run the daily operation.

A new principal replaced the Belknaps' son, Brenton, who for years ran the 870-student A+ Academy despite having no administrative or managerial experience. Dr. Rosebure has also hired a respected public school business manager to oversee the organization's finances.


Despite the housecleaning and newfound optimism, questions remain over how the reorganized schools will operate in the long term. For instance, Don and Karen Belknap serve two roles under Dr. Ammons' reorganization. Not only do they report to Dr. Rosebure as employees, they also hired him as members of the schools' board of directors.

"Sometimes when we sit down for a meeting, we're not sure who's the boss," acknowledged Dr. Rosebure.

Dr. Ammons said the schools have come a long way, but their operation is not perfect. He said he may recommend releasing the schools from his supervision in the next couple of months.

A little while later, Dr. Ammons released the schools from his supervision. But just a months down the road, TEA began investigating the schools for financial mismanagement and Dr. Ammons returned to the schools along with another TEA advisor, Karen Case, in an attempt to right the ship. When the results of the audit were finally released, it was pretty darn clear the Belknaps were up to their usual tricks (via the Dallas Morning News):

A state audit has found rampant financial mismanagement at three family-run Dallas charter schools – including fictional renovations, imaginary travel and hundreds of thousands of dollars unaccounted for.

The Texas Education Agency has forwarded its findings to the Dallas County district attorney's office for possible prosecution. Federal regulators have also been notified.

The schools – A+ Academy in Dallas and two Inspired Visions Academy campuses in Dallas and Mesquite – were founded by Don and Karen Belknap. They have been the target of numerous state audits and investigations into allegations of nepotism, sloppy record-keeping and loose financial controls.


Many of the most serious allegations in the new audit involve Tommy Thomas, who was the schools' superintendent for slightly over a year until last October. The audit raises concerns that he may have abused his position through a fraudulent reimbursement scheme. Among the findings of the audit:

•Mr. Thomas received more than $40,000 in "travel allowances" over a single school year. The allowances were never approved by the charter schools' board, auditors found, and Mr. Thomas did not provide "adequate documentation" he had actually spent the money.

•Mr. Thomas ordered his business staff to cut him a check for more than $17,000 for "certification stipends." According to his contract, he was due no such stipends.

•Mr. Thomas' wife – now ex-wife – is alleged to have received payments from the charter schools totaling $124,000 over a 13-month period. She also was appointed to the schools' board, in apparent violation of nepotism rules.

•Mr. Thomas was reimbursed more than $2,500 for furniture and the renovation of his office at the El Paso School of Excellence, a sister school run by the Belknaps. But that school's founder, J.L. Lewis, says there is no such office.


Additional findings

Some of the other findings in the audit:

•One of the two Inspired Visions campuses was moved to a new facility last fall, but apparently without proper permission from state officials. That could force the school to repay most of its state funding for the first few weeks of the school year.

•The organization that officially oversees the charter schools, RFFA Inc., improperly repaid a $200,000 debt of its since-closed charter school, Rylie Faith Family Academy. The money was provided with taxpayer-provided funds from the family's other charter schools, which the audit found was an "inappropriate use" of those funds.

•The schools regularly commingled funds between accounts and had only limited control of spending – including the use of presigned blank checks to pay bills when they came up.

•The Belknaps' family church operated out of the schools' administration building on Military Parkway and did not pay for the space or utilities – despite demands by the TEA in 2004 that the church pay those bills.

Despite all the corrective actions and the seemingly endless work by the TEA, the Belknaps have been allowed to keep their charter fiefdom (they did lose one charter a number of years ago). These days, however, it appears the Belknaps may be willing to surrender their charter instead of continuing their financial mismanagement and corrupt ways. Dr. Ammons - still working to get the charter into safe territory - closed the El Paso School of Excellence middle school due to low attendance and fired the principal, J.L. Lewis (the elementary school is still open). The most recent article about the Belknap's charter chain makes this claim:
Ammons said the threat to shut down the school was made following the termination [of J.L. Lewis].
Lewis is not only a Pentecostal minister, he's also the brother of Karen Belknap. Of course, Lewis didn't mention this fact when he was recently interviewed by KFOX14. That might make look like, oh, nepotism?

The good folks at the Texas Freedom Network were asking questions about the expansion of charters - all the way back in 2001. Check out this report, Broken Promises II: the Texas Charter School System at Five Years, which expresses concerns about financial mismanagement, nepotism, and shoddy academic practices. No matter your take on charter schools, it's awfully clear that a significant amount of regulation is necessary to prevent things like this from happening. No one gains from this scenario - well, except for the Belknaps and their well-connected pals.

At the end of the day, closing the El Paso School of Excellence mid-year (as would be the case if the Belknap's give the charter back to the State of Texas) only hurts children, families, and teachers at the school - and it'd dump students back into the public schools. The Belknaps? Heck, they'd have one less headache to attend to and their tax-funded piggy bank would dry up.

Hey - do you think another relative could hook 'em up with a job?


  1. I believe there is a federal "whistleblower" law that rewards people for reporting instances of fraud in situations where federal money is involved. Would this include charter schools? If so, this might provide a good source of income for someone who has the patience and the time to investigate a lot of these schools. I feel certain that many of them are engaged in illegal financial practices.

  2. First: whistle blower rules generally protect those within the agency who come forward. The risk of retaliation generally outweighs the potential financial payoff and the post-investigation protection is poor if the agency os "not guilty". So lerts say the potential financial pay-out in a charter wwere $100K and the probability of winning 10 percent. The expected value is $10K v. a 90% chance of losing and losing your job.

    With odds like these its no great surprise that disgruntled employys make up the bluk of whiste blowers. The rest are no doing it for the money, but because they have some ethical backbone.

    But that's not why I'm p[osting. The point I wanted to make is that these kinds of acts are the ones that give every legitimate charter school operater, doing their level best to do well by doing good, following the law in good faith, A BAD NAME and a bad public image.

    The question is why they sit on their hands? First because they are no different from the rest of us, with a lot in the "respond to now" pile in the inbox.

    Second because they dont have enough information in their hands on the bad guy to feel 100% confident, if they are wrong they bring only bad feelibngs on their fir. If they are right the win has a negligible impact on their market.

    Third, "who will bell the cat?" All the mice know whatys best for them as a collective, but who will take the risk onm everyonbes behalf? No one. A "tragedy of the commons" in reverse.

    Why not a trade group? They work under the same set of problems, plus some members will be the bad actors. I tried for many years to push ethical and quality standards for CSR (at NAS) and SES providers (via edbizbuzz writing and relatiohships with Education Industry Association (EIA) leaders), and charter operators (duting my brief presidency of the short-lived national membership group), with very very modest success. Check out the SES provider guidelines at EIA, and figure out how self-enforcemenmt might work.

    I have long argued that there is no such thing as a "free market." Every place where buyers and sellers meet operates under a set of rules, established and enforced by government.The rules may be tilted to favor one side or another, but there are rules. The challenge is enforcement. In the charter makert specifically and the school improvement market, enforcement is lax becvause it remains politicized at the level of political appointees and vastly undermannned and seriously outgunned at the staff level. Take a look at my series on Imagine Schools and the case of one Massachusetts charter school in my former column at This Week in Education.

  3. I forgot to add....

    What about the policy wonks - they should be pushing ideas, not organizations? Don't they have an incentive to distinguish bad actors from their intentions? What gives with them?

    Three problems:

    First: Some find that the very allies they made during the political battles to create markets become the bad actors. They are reluctant to go after former comrades in arms, or to be seen as traitors to the cause.

    Second: Some have direct or indirect ties to the bad actors, and would prefer to keep those ties out of debate. More than one policywonk now in the market arena went from pure analysis, to advocacy, to "action-research," to become part of the "supply side."

    Third: Some take the tactical view that if they did condemn bad actors, market opponents will use it to advantage in debate over the market

    On top of this, there is a real "business" problem, that plays on every think tank or every stripe.

    Consider Education Sector's treatment of Tom Toch's draft report in CMOs. EdSectors annual budget is around $2 million. That's pretty much the "base cost" for a DC-based think tank with any hope of generating publicity.

    The revenue to support that kind of budget typically comes from a half dozen philanthropies with grants of $50-300K. These are the think tank's customers, called "sponsors." Sponsors are "buying" a point of view consistent with their agenda.

    As a result, all think tanks face limits on how far they can depart from a sponsor's agenda, the degree of latitude they might have,and how often they can do so.

    To start on an estimate, first consider the sponsors agenda. Then apply the three points I started with here to that sponsor. Determine the amount of money at stake for the think tank, the effect of losing it on the think tank's operations, and the ease with which that money might be replaced.

    This helps explain why a RAND can fire a multi-million dollar client. Indeed doing so ecvery so often boosts RAND reputation for independence.

    It also helps explain EdSector. The difference between Toch's draft and the final report - one many observers in the middle of the road considered small, defines the allowable scope of latitude. The fact the report was published rather than deep-sixed explains the extent of control exercised by CMO investor-grantors over the think tank. EdSector's willingness to perpetrate academic fraud offers some insight into the prospect for survival if Edsector staff had refused.

    Every think tank balances its need for credibility based on the perception of independence, against a set of funders buying a voice for their agenda. Most end up far nmore dependent on clients with a narrow view than they'd like. Some are captured. All rationalize that they and their sponsors simply share the same view, and they'd publish precisely the same reports if the were using their own money.

    Having been in think tanks and sponsored their work, I doubt it. The lockstep is not the natural attitude of the policy analyst.

  4. Why put down KIPP as a KULT? Harmony Science Academys are run by an Islamic Cult out of Turkey. Every heard of Fethullah Gulen? Wonder why he was exiled out of Turkey? Do your research and ALL OF THAT TEXAS EDUCATION MONEY GOING TO TURKEY'S LOBBYING EFFORTS.
    The next time your Congressman gets a free trip to Turkey by Gulen's Raindrop Turkish House - hiding behind Interfaith Dialog question where your money is going and why it is not going to educated related expenses. Not trips to Turkey, Not the Turkish Olympiads, Not Science or match contests OWNED by Gulen.