Education News

State: Houston Charter School Spent Millions On Questionable Items, Like Cruises

This month the Texas Education Agency finished an investigation into a charter school here in Houston. The final report finds the charter school spent millions of dollars on questionable items like cruises and spa services.

State investigators examined how a charter school here in Houston was spending public money from 2009 to 2011.

They found the Varnett Public School paid

  • $742 for spa services at the Mandarin Hotel;
  • $3,000 for Broadway and Las Vegas show tickets; and
  • $130,000 for hotels, cruises and travel packages.

That’s just some of the questionable spending in the final report.

Overall, investigators question how the school managed more than $5 million in federal money.

“We consider these findings to be very serious,” says DeEtta Culbertson with the Texas Education Agency.

Investigators also found the charter school board violated public meetings rules. The board once met a Carnival cruise ship.  Another time they met at a hotel in New Orleans. They often had meetings over the phone.

Investigators also cite conflicts of interest in real estate deals and bus contracts that personally benefitted the superintendent.

Culbertson says the state has “referred the report to appropriate federal authorities and our enforcement office is reviewing it to see what next steps the agency will take.”

She says the education commissioner could revoke the school’s charter, which would force it to close down as a public charter.

Meanwhile, the school’s attorney Rusty Hardin has written a letter to the state.

He denies the school or its leaders ever acted with “unlawful intent” though he says there were some “innocent mistakes.”

The Varnett Public School opened as a charter school in 1998. It currently runs three campuses in Houston and enrolls about 1,700 students.

Charter schools in Texas receive public tax dollars but are run by independent boards, not traditional locally elected school boards. They also have more flexibility on state rules.


Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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