Benji’s Special Education Academy

Supporters of Benji's Special Educational Academy on Wednesday lost their first battle in federal court to stop the closure of the Fifth Ward charter school.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison declined to issue a temporary order that would halt the Texas Education Agency's decision to shut down the school…

Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the TEA, said Education Commissioner Robert Scott was moving forward with the process to revoke Benji's charter.

"We agree that closing a school once the school year has started is far, far from ideal, but there were so many health and safety concerns, as well as financial concerns, that we couldn't let it drag on," Ratcliffe said.

A TEA-appointed board of managers voted Sept. 13 to suspend operations at Benji's because, it said, the school was nearly bankrupt.

Supporters of Benji's have said the school could stay financially afloat if the TEA would release the state funding it was due in September.

A bank statement recently obtained by TEA officials showed the school had only $12.61 in cash, Ratcliffe said.

A new concern for TEA officials is the upcoming TAKS test, which begins Oct. 19 for high school seniors who have failed the exam. The principal at Benji's is refusing to give TEA officials the test booklets that were mistakenly delivered to the school, and they are concerned about a possible security breach, according to Nancy Juren, a state attorney representing TEA…

Benji's founder and chief executive officer, Theaola Robinson, has continued to keep the doors open for students despite the state's closure order.
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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…

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…

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 [Paul, former Harris County Tax Assessor] said…

…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."…

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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