The Rise and Crashing Fall of Girls and Boys Academy
Margot Woods thought Girls and Boys Academy was going to be the better choice for her daughters Benita, 16, and Amina, 9.
During the 2014-15 school year, students at the Girls and Boys Preparatory Academy, a Houston charter school in Harris County, were taken over to Fort Bend County by school van on a Saturday to do volunteer work for the Fort Bend Democratic Party.
As a student wrote in a letter furnished to the Texas Education Agency: “The superintendent Fred Taylor forced all athletes to pass out political literature October 18, 2014, for Ron Reynolds who was running for an office. I don’t even know who Ron Reynolds is! When I said, ‘how are we supposed to campaign for someone we don’t know, Mr. Taylor in an abrasive tone said act like you know! During this incident Mr. Taylor said the hours we worked were supposed to be for the application to college. Mr. Taylor stated that we had to work 1000 hours of community service. As a side note, no one took notes of how many hours and who was working.”
A teacher and coach at the school also objected, saying in his letter that he was told by Taylor that in order to get uniforms for the team, the athletes would have to participate in community service. “I am told we will be campaigning for Ron Reynolds and the rest of the Democratic Party. This is not what I signed up for! It goes on for several weeks. Making calls from the Democratic office, knocking door to door and passing ou[t] pamphlets without parental consent. The final week before the election candidates argue over two van loads of minors because neither party had adequate help for their campaign.”
“There was a group of students from various schools, and Girls and Boys Prep was one of them,” Reynolds confirmed to the Houston Press. “They did volunteer. They were volunteering for my campaign and several other of our local Democratic Party candidates.”
How helping out the political campaigns of state Rep. Ron Reynolds and other Democratic candidates in Fort Bend in a decidedly partisan effort could be filed under the heading of “community service” for high schoolers defies all common sense and makes you wonder what else was going on at that school.
Well, as it turns out, a lot. And then again, not enough.
Incorporated in 1995 as one of the first-generation charters in the state, the Association for the Development of Academic Excellence dba The Girls and Boys Preparatory Academy began operating in 1996 as a high school, with more grade levels added later. Ultimately, it became a pre-K-through-12th-grade operation with two campuses in the Sharpstown and Brays Oaks areas, an ambitious enterprise for anyone.
It ultimately sank under the weight of those ambitions in a manner both very public and profound this August as television crews and other media gathered at 8282 Bissonnet, the site of its elementary campus, in the days before this school year was due to start. Stories surfaced of confounded parents and bewildered students looking for a last-minute place to land despite all the empty assurances they’d been given that Girls and Boys would stay open.
Essential academic records required to transfer students to other schools and to prove they’d taken certain courses couldn’t be found. Two Texas Education agents stood by saying they couldn’t talk about anything because the investigation was still going on, but they retrieved what records they could while stoically enduring complaints that TEA had done next to nothing to help the situation, despite the fact that people hadn’t been shy about sending complaints the agency’s way for more than a year.
Asked about the delayed response, Debbie Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the TEA, said, “We had so many closures last year. Sometimes when people bring us allegations, it can look like nothing is happening, but we are looking into it. It takes a long time.” And, she said, the TEA in most cases has no enforcement power. “Sometimes all we can do is ask.”
One bit of enforcement power that the Legislature finally did grant TEA was Senate Bill 2, the so-called three strikes rule. In December 2014, the TEA notified Girls and Boys that its charter was being revoked after it had not met basic standards either academically or financially for three years in a row. Girls and Boys flunked the test for financial accountability in the 2011-12 year, didn’t meet academic standards in 2012-13 and failed again financially in 2013-14. But still, parents say, they were told by school officials it would stay open.
Former and most recent board president Peter Clark says when he arrived in March 2014, the school was in a $600,000 hole. Even when the revocation order came through, he says, school officials thought that if they wiped out that debt, the state would reconsider. He says when he realized the revocation order was final, the school tried unsuccessfully to find a viable charter to partner with.
The debris left behind is massive, with bills still coming in. The school has unpaid bills with Harris County for patrol services with a balance due of almost $24,000, another $5,225 to Red Hawk Fire and Security, and $4,504 owed to Verizon by early September. Newmark Learning is still hoping for the $3,023 it says it’s owed.
In early August, the Internal Revenue Service sent Girls and Boys a bill for $157,835 in back taxes and interest for the period ending March 31, 2015. According to Clark, that bill has been whittled down considerably, and in fact a mid-September bill showed the balance was $7,148. But that latest bill also contains, for the first time, the words: “Notice of intent to seize (“levy”) your property or rights to property for the still remaining unpaid taxes.” Clark says he is working with Regions Bank to sell off the land the school owns to another school.
There are lawsuits, with the expectation of more to come, certainly, in a financial mess this massive.
This April, the firm of Rogers, Morris & Grover, which had represented Girls and Boys since 2009, sued the school for $125,355 for what it says are unpaid legal fees for work it did from May 1, 2013, and May 1, 2014. It’s also asking for interest and attorneys’ fees. Constellation New Energy Inc. won a default judgment on September 8 against Girls and Boys, with $4,185 in principal and $1,255 in contingency fees for the Austin firm Barnett & Garcia.
And there is blame, massive and vitriolic, spewed forth by a number of factions, that takes in a former principal, two former superintendents and board members alike. Political consultant Fred Taylor, who was a board member (and, at the same time, a full-time middle school teacher in Houston ISD) and who stepped into the executive director’s role in July 2014, complains he’s been demonized. Taylor and longtime board member Gideon Obadan and Clark insist they did the best they could. They lay the blame at the feet of previous superintendent Dr. Victoria Dunn and former principal Anthony Madry, who, in irony of ironies, invited Taylor to the board. Toss in a mix of local politics, and the result is a rat’s nest of confounding tales and allegations.
And in every case, those involved console themselves with the notion that they were only doing this for the children.
Margot Woods was at Girls and Boys in August trying to get records and to talk with the TEA investigators. Hers was a familiar litany: She thought her kids weren’t getting enough attention in the public schools and Girls and Boys offered a warm, nurturing environment.
“We thought it was going to be a good deal. But the teachers changed; there wasn’t much stability.” Despite this, Woods was one of the true believers, thinking the school would go on for Amina, now nine. Her older daughter Benita, a 16-year-old special ed student, had already been told to leave about a month before it closed. As of September, Amina had found a new home at Best Elementary in the Alief Independent School District and is thriving, her mom says. But because of missing records, Benita, who should be in eleventh grade this year, was placed in tenth at Hastings High School.
TEA’s Ratcliffe says records shouldn’t be missing from the school. But she acknowledges that in some cases, “we’ve encountered schools that are failing academically or financially and they’re just not doing the record keeping they’re supposed to. The files couldn’t be found because there were simply no files.” Parents still looking for records can go online at the TEA website and request them — there’s a chance they might be among the documents TEA transferred to its offices after the school closed, she says.
As for the debts, Ratcliffe says, “It’s not uncommon for a closed charter to owe the IRS or the teacher retirement system because they start using that money to pay their other bills,” adding that the IRS comes first in any payback. Under charter close-down proceedings, a charter is directed to pay all creditors. In the case of Girls and Boys, a TEA investigator has determined this is unlikely, Ratcliffe says.
Fred Taylor, who denies he’s contemplating a run for Missouri City mayor, is a former Houston ISD special education teacher who works as a political consultant for, among others, attorney Randy Bates, a candidate for the Texas House of Representatives. (Bates’s law firm, Bates & Coleman, began representing Girls and Boys after the school’s connection with the Rogers, Morris & Grover firm was severed.)
Taylor portrays himself as “someone who tried to clean up the mess,” but several former employees don’t see him that way. According to them, Taylor boasted that he had “friends in the Legislature” and could get the coming shutdown of the school stopped dead. Taylor, who at first didn’t want to comment to the Press but then did answer some questions, denies that.
Taylor says he was just trying to work some deals to have the school taken over by another charter, and says he would have succeeded if Commissioner of Education Michael Williams hadn’t said no.
He denies telling students and staff to campaign for Reynolds, insisting that was a rumor spread by the employee he fired, Anthony Madry. “I have been completely unfairly portrayed,” Taylor says.
Taylor says he worked for the district for only a short time and that “one person cannot take control of a board.” Employees, however, say that almost immediately after he joined the board, Taylor insinuated himself into the running of the school, directing personnel to come to him about financial matters rather than Superintendent Dunn, telling the business office he would authorize expenditures instead. Before he was ever superintendent, they say, he acted as one — even though school board members are not supposed to have anything to do with the day-to-day operation of any school.
Clark points out that it was on Dunn’s watch that the three strikes occurred and the school found itself in so much debt. “From the other board members, it was just that the superintendent they had in place just was not handling the business correctly.”
A former counselor agrees the school had been in turmoil for a while. Because of nonpayment of rent in 2013, the school was kicked out of where it had been and relocated to the India House, where students were in one room together, she says. High-school kids were added into the mix of elementary classes. “I have to tell you, there wasn’t a lot of teaching going on,” the counselor says. “The elementary kids were sometimes witnessing things they shouldn’t be.”
According to the counselor, who like many others we talked with didn’t want to be named, after Dunn, supposedly frustrated by Taylor’s actions, resigned in May 2014, “there was a stop in supplies. No toilet paper. No soap.” According to former custodian Earlene Brown, in a complaint filed with the TEA, Taylor told staff that he would approve all requests for custodian supplies.
The fact that Madry, who is now operating a private infant-through-age-four center called Veritas, had been fired only added to the chaos. Parents grew very concerned, the counselor says. “People were taking their kids out of school left and right. Students did not get tested in certain areas. Test results were sent in wrong to TEA.”
The school was paying a lot in rent, so a plan was devised to save money by buying its own property. According to some, it was this step that finally overwhelmed the school. “They could pay for academic programs or for a new school, but they couldn’t do both,” one said.
Gideon Obandan, the longtime board president before Clark, remains a Taylor supporter and blamed academic problems on Dunn. He says when he began questioning the curriculum at Girls and Boys, he was not trying to micromanage. “I just wanted to make sure that they are teaching what they are supposed to be learning.”
He says he tried to get a curriculum coordinator, but she was fired by Dunn. He also insists it made good business sense to try to build Girls and Boys’ own school on new property. But everything went wrong, he says, when the school didn’t secure building permits for the modules it wanted to place on campus while construction was taking place.
“Now we are stuck with a construction site and paying the rent,” he recalled.
Superintendent Dunn declined official comment when we contacted her. But copies of correspondence she had with TEA include her allegations about continued misuse of Title I funds by Taylor and a long list of vendors who had not been paid by Girls and Boys acting under the orders of Taylor. The TEA response advised her: “Vendor payments are a local issue which must be addressed by the local education agency. The vendor may also want to seek legal recourse through their local civil courts.”
Even after Dunn resigned, she monitored the happenings at Girls and Boys. In a May 2015 email to the TEA commissioner, she referred to political volunteering, asserting in her letter: “The staff members felt that if they didn’t pass out the flyers, they might lose their jobs.”
She also claimed that students had “lost a year of instruction” through mismanagement of courses and teacher turnover.
Clark, a real estate developer, was named a consultant and point of contact for all construction work at the new campus at 11851 South Gessner when he arrived in March. He became a board member in July when Taylor became the director/superintendent, and board president in September 2014.
In a May 2014 letter to the Girls and Boys board, Carlos G. Price, the TEA-appointed monitor, noted that “the board voted to assign direct supervision of the business office to an individual board member,” and told the board to stop it. “Individual board members have no authority to conduct business on behalf of the entire board or for the charter school.” Those, he said, were the responsibilities of the superintendent or her delegated staff members. “It is my recommendation that the board cease from operating as individuals in the conduct of school business.”
Most early charter schools in Texas haven’t survived, Ratcliffe says. “In the early days, we call them generations 1-3, the emphasis was on giving them as much flexibility as possible and being as hands-off as possible. They had much simpler applications. We have learned a lot over the years. The applications are much more intense, the interviews are intense and we check their financial situation much more closely.”
Girls and Boys was established as a school designed to help at-risk students. At its height, it had 750 kids, 90 percent of whom were on free or reduced-price lunch, at least 85 percent of whom were African American in 2012, with almost 13 percent Hispanic.
Its problems were long in the making. “We’ve twice installed monitors and twice installed conservators at the school because of various problems there,” Ratcliffe says. Clearly, for years it bounced from campus to campus; it was having trouble paying its bills. As of August of this year, the Region 4 education service center was trying to collect on more than $15,000 in debt, dating back to 2013.
Girls and Boys was started during a time when, as now, “local control” sounded like a lovely concept. But as a charter operating directly with the state and its overburdened inspectors — it didn’t even get the minimal oversight a school chartered to a local school district would get — little attention was being paid to the school as matters continued to spiral out of control.
Yes, a school died. Probably it should have. Why it took so long points to a continued weakness in the governance of charters in Texas. So feel sad for lost hopes, discarded dreams and the educators who tried to make a difference.
But here’s the people you should really feel sorry for: the taxpayers if they’re left holding any of the tab, the vendors who provided services in good faith, and most of all, the children.
The children who should have been worth a lot more than the money their average daily attendance numbers generated and the thousands of dollars in federal grant money the school could tap into because of their families’ poverty. To be used or misused for what, we still don’t know.