Questions raised over charter school's finances

September 25, 2010 5:53:26 AM PDT
Where is taxpayer money going and how is a taxpayer-owned building being used? Those are the new questions complicating the battle over Benji's Charter School in northeast Houston. Benji's Academy has had its charter suspended because of concerns about money mismanagement and out of a concern over the health and safety of its students. Now the city of Houston is investigating the school's use of its city-owned building on in northeast Houston.

Digging into Benji's financial problems, we found two leases for the same property. So while the school says it's working with TEA to reorganize, it appears it has more explaining to do about where state money went.

Benji's Academy is still in operation even though the state has ordered it to close. The Texas Education Agency says it doesn't know how Benji's spent $3 million of taxpayer money, and a lease agreement obtained by Eyewitness News raises even new questions.

"Well this may have been one of the reasons why it's missing," former Harris County Tax Assessor Paul Bettencourt said.

According to the agreement, the school has been paying a non-profit called Benjis Special Educational Academy Inc. $9,000 a month to use the land and the building on which it sits.

The problem is it doesn't own the land; according to tax records, the city of Houston does.

"You can't have a private entity doing a lease transaction on taxpayer-owned land," Bettencourt said.

We asked Bettencourt to take a look at the documents.

"What you've got here is multiple red flags," he said.

Not only is Benji's Inc. leasing land it doesn't own, but according to the Secretary of State's website, the school's superintendent, Theola Robinson, founded both the group and the school's board.

"The question is what does this other group do with the money? Who are they paying and why?" Bettencourt said.

Robinson did not return our calls. In response, a representative for the school told us simply, "We don't know of any fraud or misuse of funds." But he also didn't know about the lease agreement.

The city of Houston is now exploring legal options and here's why: Dating back to 1996, the city has had an agreement with the school, leasing the land for $1 a year. According to the mayor's office, officials started negotiating last year to raise the rent to almost $2,300 a month, but the school never paid that amount and the city never tried to collect.

"It tells you there's been no oversight of this," Bettencourt said. "This is not what should happen to taxpayer owned property."

The mayor's office tells us they just learned of this other lease. Again, they are still exploring their legal options and will work to develop a strategy that addresses both taxpayer concerns as well as the needs of the students at Benji's Academy.

On Wednesday, the education commissioner suspended Benji's Charter for non-financial reasons. The TEA says it's concerned about student health, safety and welfare because of how school officials reacted the first time the TEA tried to close it. It says they didn't forward the important information it sent for parents, encouraged students to defy TEA orders by coming to school and lied to students about why the school was being closed.

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