Prime Prep Academy ordered to release documents to The Dallas Morning News

By Jeff Mosier
The Dallas Morning News
Originally published Dec. 21. 2014

The Texas attorney general’s office has intervened to force Prime Prep Academy to release public documents it has withheld from The Dallas Morning News for months.

The troubled charter school had 10 business days to provide all the documents to the attorney general, but it appears Prime Prep will miss that Friday deadline. Edwin Flores, the school’s attorney in this matter, said he forwarded all documents he’s received, but some still haven’t been produced by administrators.

The information requested from Prime Prep included noncontroversial documents that are routinely released by local governments, which have 10 business days to produce them. Those documents requested included a full copy of the school’s budget, board meeting minutes, a campus lease and a copy of a recent lawsuit settlement.

The oldest of the dozen requests were sent to Prime Prep officials in mid-August. The newest one was sent in October. In some cases, Prime Prep representatives said they were working on the request, while others received no response.

“We acknowledge that you are owed these documents,” Flores said. “They’ve [administrators] sent me what they’ve been able to get. We’re going to continue to supplement those responses as soon as I receive them. … At every opportunity, I’ve sought to obtain those documents and am hoping they’ll be turned around with some alacrity.”

Flores, a former Dallas ISD trustee, said he’s not the custodian of documents and can’t retrieve the information on his own.

Superintendent Ron Price and board President T. Christopher Lewis did not return phone calls requesting comment.

Increase in complaints

In response to the attorney general’s letter, Prime Prep has released some documents or partial documents to The News and to the attorney general.

Prime Prep is facing possible closure by the Texas Education Agency early next year related to its dismissal from the National School Lunch Program. The school also had a pending lawsuit by a board member claiming that Prime Prep routinely violated the Texas Open Meetings Act.

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said most governments understand their duties to release public documents. But she said there’s been an increase in reports of noncompliance by charter schools.

“Sometimes they’re new to it so they don’t realize all that it entails,” she said. “But charter schools receive public money, and they must respond to the open records requests.”

Charter schools receive their funding from the state and must comply with open records and open meetings laws, just like a traditional school district. In the 2013-14 school year, Prime Prep received nearly $3.8 million worth of taxpayer money.

The school received nearly $175,000 in donations during 2014, according to documents officials just released. Nearly $164,000 was given by Sanders, whose reality television show often shoots at the school.

Shannon said the increasing number of complaints could also be a result of the larger number of charter schools and the additional scrutiny they are receiving. She said she’s expecting some legislation to be introduced in 2015 dealing with charter school’s transparency and open government issues.

 

Ignoring requests

Prime Prep’s original founders, Sanders and D.L. Wallace, had no experience running a school. Wallace resigned last year after a falling out with Sanders, who was fired.

The current superintendent is Price, who spent a dozen years on the Dallas school board.

Ignoring selected open records requests has been routine at Prime Prep since its earliest days. An attorney representing The News threatened to sue the school in May after some requests had been neglected for as long as seven months.

However, school officials have not withheld all documents requested under the Texas Public Information Act. The school does release some documents but ignores other requests.

Flores, the school’s attorney, said he has not asked school officials for an explanation about the open records delays, which were common in the previous and current administrations.