Following an eight-month investigation, the Texas Education Agency announced yesterday it will move to shutter Prime Prep Academy, the charter school co-founded by Deion Sanders. It has been, let us say, a long time coming.
The official death knell is that the school is no longer eligible for free or reduced-price lunch programs, due to misspent federal funds intended to feed the kids. Almost as an afterthought, the state's investigation also cites the school's failure to comply with Texas's Education Code as well as "serious unsatisfactory financial performance."
Prime Prep opened in 2012, serving elementary, middle, and high school students with campuses in Fort Worth and Dallas. It would (and should) take a book to run down everything shady that's happened in the last two years—Amy Silverstein's Dallas Observer piece from February is a good start—but let's at least go over the highlights.
The school was founded by Sanders and Damien "D.L." Wallace, who handled the logistics while Sanders mostly brought the star power. It went poorly from the very beginning:
The initial charter application claimed corporate partnerships that didn't exist, plagiarized other schools' applications and included a scam by Wallace to pay himself rent with taxpayer money. State regulators caught the problems and approved the charter anyway.
Prime Prep was always intended to be about sports—Sanders and Wallace pitched it as a way for the top local (and not-so-local) athletes to get into college. But the school's stated mission backfired almost immediately. Because many of the athletes, recruited from Sanders's sports camp and leagues, transferred from other schools, they ran afoul of University Interscholastic League eligibility rules. In the first season, four top basketball recruits were declared ineligible, as was the entire Prime Prep football team.
Prime Prep grads have had trouble achieving NCAA eligibility, which sort of defeats the entire purpose. Last year, Jordan Mickey and Karviar Shepard had to win appeals in order to play in college, after allegedly being misled by Prime Prep about the school's academic standing. Just this week, Prime Prep product Emmanuel Mudiay announced he will play professionally in Europe rather than for SMU, amid whispers that his eligibility would be in question.
Things weren't much better for the rest of Prime Prep's students.
Parents expected Prime Prep to be a polished college preparatory school, as the name suggests. Instead, Henderson says, they found the lights in the hallway were dim and sometimes flickered, reminding her of a less odorous Abercrombie & Fitch. The paint on the walls was peeling away. A sign on the side of a building, attached by duct tape, warns visitors that a side door is broken.
More than 100 computers were stolen from one campus, just months before the school was evicted for a dispute over rent. The school was sued for holding illegal board meetings. Administrators were fired and hired with such frequency, at one point the superintendent said he didn't know who had access to the the school's bank account or paid the bills—though it appeared Wallace's wife had control of the checkbook.
The two campuses opened with a total enrollment of 1,100, a number that dropped to 489 by this past spring.
Everything occurred under the cloud of a power struggle between Sanders and Wallace. Sanders attempted a coup to oust Wallace as CEO, and called him a "snake." Wallace alleged that Sanders "tried to strangle" him, while later, the school's CFO claimed separately that he too had been physically assaulted by Sanders.
Money appeared to always be the issue for Sanders. Before Prime Prep's first school year was out, he was clamoring for a higher salary.
His attorney included in the letter a list of demands such as "Mr. Sanders must have an equal say on all financial allocations" and "Mr. Sanders' pay should be equal to yours." At the time, Wallace's annual salary as CEO was $120,000 while Sanders was taking in $40,000.
And then there's the secretly recorded audio of a meeting between Sanders and Wallace, in which Sanders threatens to break Wallace's neck and agitates for a raise.
"I'm going to get more money, or there ain't going to be no school, that's just flat out how it's going to be," Sanders tells Wallace in the recording.
He admits he doesn't really need the money. "Forget me, because what I do with the money I'm getting, I turn around and stipend my coaches," he says, apparently referring to the small stipends usually paid to high school sports coaches. "Because God has blessed me, I don't really need it. But I'm going to get it because it's mine and my name is on the building. OK, that's just fair."
He adds: "I don't know who you can look in this eye in this room, and say, 'I'm going to give myself 120 Gs and I'm giving Prime 40.' You can't justify that."
Wallace doesn't reject the request, but he wants to know what official role Sanders wants to take on.
"Now you tell me then: What position?" Wallace asks.
"Position?" Sanders responds incredulously.
"HNIC," Sanders shoots back. That's "Head Nigga in Charge."
In October, superintendent Rachel-King Sanders (no relation) fired Sanders in the wake of the assault claims against him, than rehired him the same day after he publicly made up with Wallace. The next month, Wallace resigned under pressure. The month after that, King-Sanders, hailed as the only administrator with an actual educational background, was forced out by Sanders's allies on the board.
After the news of Prime Prep's impending shutdown broke yesterday, Sanders took to Twitter to lay blame.
Prime Prep has until the end of the month to appeal the shutdown recommendation by the Texas Education Agency, and it will be an uphill battle if only because the school won't be able to provide free or reduced-price food to the 67 percent of its students who are eligible. You can pocket, embezzle, and "misplace" lots of money before things start getting hairy; you can't take food out of needy kids' mouths.
Sanders vows to fight and to keep Prime Prep open, but no matter the outcome it won't be a lost cause for him. At least he got a one-season reality show out of it.