School leaders at Benji’s Special Educational Academy defied a state order to close today and welcomed students to class anyway.
A state appointed board of managers had voted to shut down the Fifth Ward charter school effective today, but the school founder and chief executive Theaola Robinson told parents Tuesday night to bring their children.
Several school buses dropped off students at the campus this morning, as did parents.
“I didn’t feel like I was breaking the rules,” said Carolyn Smith, who has three children ages eight, 10 and 12 at Benji’s Academy. “I just feel like everything is going to be OK.”
Smith, who lives in North Forest, said her children have attended Benji’s for two years and she praised the educational program, not mentioning the school’s 2010 state rating of academically unacceptable.
The school’s founder refused comment this morning, kicking a reporter off her campus.
“If you want to talk to my parents you have to talk to me first,”said Robinson, who was paid a $120,000 salary in 2009.
State Rep. Harold Dutton, flanked by Houston City Councilman Jarvis Johnson outside the school, blasted the state’s decision to shut down the school. Dutton said he will request a temporary restraining order in court today asking a judge to keep the school open.
“I think TEA is on a mission to destroy charter schools that are run by black folks,” Dutton said.
Benji’s founder is black and the school serves mostly black children from low income families.
Debbie Ratcliffe, a TEA spokeswoman, said this morning that Benji’s is “no longer a public school.”
“It’s, at best, an unaccredited private school today,” she said. “There is no state money flowing to the school so I don’t know how they’ll pay teachers.”
Asked whether the agency planned to take further action to ensure the school is shut down, Ratcliffe said, “It’s probably not a fight worth having today. But the textbooks they’re using are state books. The desks they’re using have been purchased with state funds. All of that is something that will have to get resolved over the coming days.”
A handful of other charter schools have tried to remain open after the state has ordered them closed — with teachers working for free — but the students typically stop coming over time, Ratcliffe said.
The TEA still has its appointed board of managers and a superintendent over the school to help wind down business operations. The superintendent appointed earlier this month, Rick Schneider, the former superintendent of Pasadena ISD, stepped down late Tuesday because he fell ill with the stress, according to Ratcliffe. For now, Ron Rowell, a TEA senior official who is familiar with the school, is the interim superintendent.
The TEA announced Tuesday that the board it assigned to oversee Benji’s Academy two weeks ago decided the school must close immediately because it had no money to pay its staff, its creditors, the state’s Teacher Retirement System or the Internal Revenue Service.
Ordering a closing during the school year is rare — classes have been in session about a month — but Ratcliffe said the board deemed it necessary.
Ratcliffe said the agency’s appointed conservators — a second one was assigned in mid-2009 — had trouble obtaining information from school officials. Earlier this month, Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott usurped the school board’s authority by appointing his own three-person board of managers.
“We knew the situation was dire when we appointed that team, but every day they’ve been in place they’ve uncovered additional alarming problems,” Ratcliffe said. “Based on our best information at the moment, the school only has $800 in the bank and owes far more than that. It can’t pay the teachers. It can’t pay gasoline for the buses. It apparently last week had to turn away the vendor that provides milk.”
In addition, she said, the charter school owes two banks about $350,000 plus tax money to the IRS.
Susan Morrison, an Austin attorney who represented Benji’s, said the TEA has drained the school’s resources.
“TEA has withheld money and just strangled them,” she said.
The TEA’s Ratcliffe countered that the school received $3.3 million in state funding this year, with the most recent payment of about $248,000 sent in late August. The agency has put a hold on some funding — requiring the school to send documentation to prove the spending was valid.
In the last five years, Benji’s has failed to meet federal academic standards every year except one. Its state accountability rating has jumped between “acceptable” and “unacceptable.” The TEA also found that the student population at the school — which the State Board of Education approved as a charter in 1998 — turns over significantly from year to year, as do the teachers. The most recently reported average teacher salary was $35,201.
Chronicle reporter Sarah Raslan contributed to this story.