Monday, July 23rd, 2018

Kelchner: In praise of whistleblowers

Posted on February 12, 2012 in Perspectives
By Kit Kelchner

Photo by Dalton Kelchner

When former NFL great Deion “PrimeTime” Sanders announced with great fanfare he was founding a charter school for underprivileged youth in Texas, one man took exception to the emotional and lofty speech coming from the man with the million-dollar smile. Texas resident Lawrence Smith is a former business associate of Sanders, and the pitch to the Texas State Board of Education sounded eerily too familiar.

Smith had been an investor in Sanders’ and his associate D.L. Wallace’s athletic recruiting directory, Prime Time Players. When the arrangement failed, Smith and the other investors sued. Call him a cynic, call him a man with an axe to grind, but Lawrence Smith felt obligated to ensure that the life savings of others wouldn’t evaporate in another celebrity gambit. The name “PrimeU Prep Academy” induced flashbacks, so he began to investigate.

In the few months Smith has spent reviewing the charter’s application and the Texas legal code, he’s turned up the makings of a scandal, perhaps even outright fraud. Smith researched the application and found numerous discrepancies and conflicts of interest. For example, Smith’s research uncovered a shell company lease arrangement. The school would have leased property from Pinnacle Commercial Property Group, owned by Wallace. This would have netted D.L. Wallace $10,000 per month. Upon discovery, this arrangement was stricken from the application.

Smith’s impassioned letters argue that the charter school, as it stands, appears to be a questionable money-making platform.

He and others are arguing that the school is weakest at its primary function: education. Another review of the application shows a cut-and-paste academic plan borrowed outright from other charters around the country. The school’s $10 million per year budget is supposed to be partially funded with donations, but Texas Observer reporter Patrick Michel found that most of the companies listed as corporate sponsors for the project claim they haven’t pledged money to the school, even though the application process requires a signed letter of intent for donors to be listed. Smith was deeply concerned that the board has shown preferential treatment to Sanders simply because of star power and did not hold his organization to the same rigorous and thorough-going application process normally required.

“Listen, there is an education crises in our country as well as our state,” Smith wrote in his last letter on the situation. “Teachers are being laid off and school districts are greatly underfunded. Over 150 school districts are suing the State of Texas at this moment for this very reason.”

As it stands, the charter was approved but is under review. It may be that Smith has changed the momentum of the game. I’ve often heard, when discussing the Occupy movement with friends, that “nothing will come of it.” In a compelling photo from the Occupy movement, a protestor holds up a sign that reads, “This is what democracy looks like!” Many people are resigned to doing nothing, let come what may.

But that type of attitude doesn’t work for a person who has been burned, like Lawrence Smith. Sometimes democracy looks ugly. Sometimes democracy looks like zealotry too. No one is asking Lawrence Smith why he won’t leave well enough alone. And a good thing too, because his efforts may have made the difference.

Kit Kelchner is a philosophy and health sciences major in his senior year.

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