Dateline Texas

The Kids are Alright?


There’s a siege on in Waco – but this time, there’s no fortified compound or armed federal agents. And there are unlikely to be any literal casualties, with the possible exception of the Emma L. Harrison Charter School. The Harrison Charter School, which opened in 1998, is a project of the East Waco Community Center, and has recently attracted the unwanted attention of the Texas Workforce Commission, local courts, and the Texas Education Agency.

The T.E.A. monitors charter schools (quasi-public schools that utilize state funding and operate on the basis of a charter, or agreement, between the school and the state Board of Education) to ensure that the schools are meeting educational standards, maintaining student performance levels, and otherwise meeting the terms of their charter. The Harrison Charter School’s problems began with the Texas Workforce Commission. In late February and early March, the T.W.C. placed liens on the school because of unpaid employee taxes. In late March, the Teacher Retirement System, which also had not received mandatory payments, issued its own liens. And it’s not just the state getting stiffed; the school did not meet payroll on February 5 or February 20, and met only half the March payroll.

Meanwhile, the T.E.A. conducted a financial audit. According to Associate Commissioner Pat Pringle, the school had received over $600,000 in state funds, and was operating with a $275,000 deficit. The audit found $338 in the school’s bank account. Moreover, the school had an account outstanding with a single food vendor for over $31,000, and non-payment had also endangered the employee and building insurance policies.

After briefing the Board of Education, the agency appointed a master for the school. Pringle said the master basically “has the authority to direct the school, to overrule the Board [of Directors], and to make day-to-day operational decisions for the school.” In short, the master takes over. As Harrison’s master, Commissioner Mike Moses appointed Bob Browning, a professor at Stephen F. Austin and a former school superintendent. Browning could not be reached for comment.

As of the first of April, Browning was “still assessing the situation,” said T.E.A. spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliff. He met with agency officials and the school’s administration in late March, and the state released a support check for $52,036. Browning sent a large portion to the Teacher Retirement System as a “substantial partial payment,” said Ratcliff. The following day, however, the System placed a hold on any further state funding, citing the large sum still owed, and Browning was trying to resolve similar problems with the Workforce Commission as well.

Unfortunately, late payments to the state and its employees are not all of the Harrison Charter School’s troubles. In early March, the T.E.A. conducted its routine child nutritional audit. A spokesman said they found “some fairly significant problems relating to more than a few different areas”: the school “wasn’t keeping track of important paperwork,” and “some meals weren’t nutritionally balanced.” That vague official summary belies an apparently serious problem; in February, the Waco Herald Tribune reported that the school was reduced to receiving donations from the local Caritas food bank, which even deferred charging the twelve cents per pound normally billed for nonperishable items. “I can’t call it nutritional,” said one food bank worker, “but it’s sustaining. In some cases these kids will go home from school and not get a thing, so sometimes a doughnut is better than nothing.… Caritas doesn’t need to go in the hole. On the other hand, if you have hungry children, somebody needs to feed them, and I don’t know who or how or when somebody can step in and take care of them.” The state expects the problems with the children’s meals to be addressed by mid-April.

In the meantime, the Harrison School’s difficulties have even spilled over onto another school, the East Waco Charter School. Concerned that people might confuse it with the Harrison Charter School and its parent organization, the East Waco Community Center, East Waco has decided to change its name, said school Director Willa Jones. If the Board of Education approves, the East Waco Charter School will become the Audre and Bernard Rapoport Academy (the Rapoport Foundation, based in Waco, strongly supports elementary education).

As for the Harrison School, the changes there will not come so easily. A handful of parents whose students attend the school came to Austin the last week in March; their state representative, Democrat Jim Dunnam, arranged a meeting with the T.E.A. According to Dunnam’s office, “All we’ve tried to do is ask T.E.A. to try to keep the school open for the rest of the academic year.” There are no guarantees of even that modest goal. Asked if the agency’s decision to release the school’s March payment implied that future checks would be forthcoming, Ratcliff balked. “I guess I’d have to say the April check is a question mark at this point.” Even with Browning as master, the obstacles could prove insurmountable. Said Associate Commissioner Pringle, “We’re obviously very concerned. This just isn’t a healthy situation.”