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El Paso Charter School Doesn’t Make the Grade

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A troubled chain of charter schools is in hot water again. The Rylie Faith Family charter schools run by Karen and Don Belknap of Dallas are threatening to give their charter school in El Paso back to the state.

Judging from their history of questionable accounting practices and nepotism they should also return millions in taxpayer money to the state while they’re at it.

If the El Paso School of Excellence closes more than 400 pre-K through fifth grade students will have to enroll in other schools and 45 employees will be out of work. This will be tough on families, especially if the school closes in the middle of the school year.

Back in 2005 and 2007, the Dallas Morning-News wrote about the couple’s history of hiring relatives and misspending state funds.

The DMN found that the Belknaps and their children “collected $420,000 in pay and reimbursements from the schools between September 2000 and August 2002.”

That’s some significant cash. The story goes on to explain the Belknap’s philosophy about hiring “kin.”
“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.”

The Texas Education Agency has been monitoring the Belknaps’ charter schools for a decade issuing corrective actions and even installed Jack Ammons a retired school superintendent to manage the schools.

Ammons told the Dallas Morning-News “They were basically running a $5 million … [business] with just a checkbook,” he said. “And they were spending [taxpayer] money like it was their own.”

This was back in 2005. It’s 2010 and Ammons is still trying to correct the shoddy business practices going on at these schools. The Belknaps other charter school in El Paso – a middle school – was recently closed due to low attendance. There were 35 students enrolled at the school.  

The middle school was run by Karen Belknap’s brother, a Pentecostal minister.

Another interesting item from the 2005 DMN story is that the state requires that the Belknap’s pay Ammons for his oversight.

“Adding to the tension was the fact that the state ordered the Belknaps to pay Dr. Ammons for his counsel – $400 a day plus expenses. Dr. Ammons estimated that his work with the Belknap charters have cost the schools – and taxpayers – about $80,000.”

This was five years ago! The Belknaps who also run charter schools in Dallas receive millions in state taxpayer money every year.  In 2007, they’d received $38 million in the past eight years, according to the Dallas Morning News. These millions apparently are also being spent on Ammon’s oversight of their schools for the past decade.

I’m not knocking Ammon’s expertise. But when does the Texas Education Agency say enough is enough?

How long do taxpayers support poorly run charter schools? El Paso families shouldn’t be left scrambling to find another school in the middle of the school year for their children. And taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for schools that don’t make the grade.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.