The Varnett Public School
The Varnett Public School is a state charter school network headquartered in the Varnett School Southwest Campus in Houston, Texas. The system has three campuses with more than 1,600 students. The school was founded as a private school in 1984 and became a public charter school in 1998.
Ericka Mellon of the Houston Chronicle wrote that the school system "was a standout among schools serving mostly poor, minority children." In 2015 the founders of the school were indicted by federal prosecutors, accused of embezzling $2.6 million of school funds.
The Varnett School opened in 1984. M. Annette Cluff and her husband, Alsie Cluff Jr., started the school. Annette and her husband started the school, then a private school, so they could give their son, then in preschool, a better education. Annette Cluff served as the owner of the school system.
In the 1990s, after voters rejected a Houston Independent School District $390 million bond package, superintendent Rod Paige contracted with Varnett, River Oaks Academy, and Wonderland School to house 250 students who could not be placed in HISD schools. The schools were paid $3,565 per student. This was 10% lower than the district's own per pupil cost. In 1998 Varnett received its open enrollment charter from the state, and it converted into a public state charter school.
In 2009 Varnett had three campuses with over 1,400 students in grades pre-Kindergarten through 5. In 2010 Varnett the three campuses had 1,700 students. During that year 300 or 400 children were on a waiting list. In 2010 the East Campus won the National Blue Ribbon Award.
At one time Annette Cluff won the Pinnacle Award. an award from the Houston Citizens Chamber of Commerce which honors African American entrepreneurs.
In 2012 1,730 students attended Varnett schools. That year a spokesperson of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) stated that the agency was investigating issues at the Varnett School system and in the Rhodes charter school system. Since March 2012, during a review of issues not specified, the TEA withheld the accreditation of the Varnett school system. In August 2013 the TEA released a report stating that the school system conducted business out of the view of the public, had conflicts of interest, and spent millions of dollars in manners it considered questionable. The school responded through an attorney, Rusty Hardin, stating that it did no wrongdoing.
In August 2014 the Cluff family resigned from positions related to the operations of the school.
On Thursday July 16, 2015 federal prosecutors announced a 19-count indictment against Marian Annette Cluff and Alsie Cluff Jr. It accused them of embezzling $2.6 million from the school system.
Dr. Margaret Stroud serves as interim superintendent. Previously Annette Cluff served as the superintendent and campus director of the system. Her husband, Alsie Cluff Jr., was the operations manager. Alsie Cluff III the son of Annette and Alsie Jr., served as the assistant operations manager. Melissa Cluff, the daughter of Annette and Alsie Jr., is the assistant director of a kindergarten program. At one time a daughter in law of Annette and Alsie Jr. used to work for Cluff.
Varnett did business with companies owned by the Cluff family. In the 2008-2009 school year the school paid over $1.5 million to Cluff-owned businesses. The school paid $822,000 to Texas School Bus Co. Annette Cluff said that the insurance carrier for Varnett School did not permit the Varnett School to own buses, so she had to create a separate school bus company. According to Annette Cluff, the state's charter agreement, which came into effect when Varnett became a public school, allowed the practice. The school also paid $786,400 to rent buildings from the Varnett Academy Inc., a Cluff company. In Texas traditional school districts and charter schools are permitted to do business in this manner as long as the people who would directly benefit from such arrangements do not vote in the matters, and all of the requirements for bidding are satisfied.
The Texas Education Agency records state that for the 2008-2009 school year, Annette Cluff's annual salary was $252,000, while Internal Revenue Service records state that her annual salary was $372,961. TEA records state that Alsie Cluff Jr.'s annual salary was $166,800, Alsie Cluff III's annual salary was $68,900, and Melissa Cluff's annual salary was $48,000. Annette Cluff says that the individuals received high salaries because "[m]y people have to wear multiple hats" because "[w]e don't have the big administration building with lots of staff," like a traditional school district would have. As of 2012 Cluff's salary was $264,600, which would place her among the most highly paid school superintendents in the State of Texas. That year, the principal of Lamar High School in Houston, which housed two times the combined total of students in the entire Varnett system, had a salary of $127,000. Alsie Cluff Jr. had a salary of $175,166 during that school year. By 2012 the salaries of the Cluff's had increased by 32% in a three year period.
All campuses are in the City of Houston.
- East Campus
- Northeast Campus
- Southwest Campus
- The Southwest Campus includes the administrative offices of the entire system. The headquarters was under construction in 2009. The headquarters houses the administrative divisions, including communications, curriculum, human resources, registration, and transportation. It also serves as a meeting space for the board of directors. The building houses a break room, a conference room, and a kitchen. Annette Cluff said that she had always envisioned having a headquarters facility built on the property of one of the campuses.
- Mellon, Ericka. "Houston charter school leaders accused of embezzling $2.6 million meant for kids." Houston Chronicle. July 16, 2015. Retrieved on August 15, 2015.
- "About Us." The Varnett Public School. Retrieved on November 22, 2011.
- Mellon, Ericka. "Two Houston charter schools face state investigations." Houston Chronicle. May 12, 2012. Retrieved on August 21, 2013. Archived March 27, 2013, at the Wayback Machine.
- "Varnett Public School in Houston pays not only officials but also their bus, property firms." The Dallas Morning News. December 18, 2010. Retrieved on November 22, 2011.
- Hodge, Shelby. "Ivy EACF scholarships are funded in style." Houston Chronicle. Thursday March 6, 2008. Retrieved on November 22, 2011.
- Eggers, William D. "Alternatives House Student Overflow." Bridge News at the Lakeland Ledger. Friday October 3, 1997. A9. Retrieved on November 22, 2011.
- "Varnett Public School builds administrative headquarters." Houston Business Journal. Friday June 19, 2009. Retrieved on November 22, 2011. Archived February 28, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
- "People in Business." (Alt) Houston Chronicle. Sunday December 5, 2004. Business Page 7. Retrieved on November 22, 2011.
- "Varnett school earns National Blue Ribbon award." Houston Chronicle. Friday September 10, 2010. Retrieved on November 22, 2011.
- "Business calendar." Houston Chronicle. Sunday June 12, 2011. Retrieved on November 22, 2011.
- Mellon, Ericka. "State finds millions in questionable spending at Houston charter." Houston Chronicle. August 20, 2013. Retrieved on August 21, 2013.
- "Contact Us East Campus." The Varnett Public School. Retrieved on November 22, 2011. "Address: 804 Maxey Road, Houston, TX 77013" Archived April 25, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
- "Contact Us Northeast Campus." The Varnett Public School. Retrieved on November 22, 2011. "Address: 8305 Mesa Road, Houston, TX 77028" Archived April 25, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
- "Contact Us Southwest Campus." The Varnett Public School. Retrieved on November 22, 2011. "Address: 5025 South Willow Drive, Houston, TX 77035" Archived April 25, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
- "Directions." The Varnett School. Retrieved on November 22, 2011. "Administration Office 11211 Clematis Lane Houston, TX 77035" Archived April 25, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
- "Contact Us." The Varnett Public School. Retrieved on November 22, 2011. "Address: 5025 South Willow Drive, Houston, TX 77035" Archived January 6, 2014, at the Wayback Machine.
- The Varnett Public School
- Investigation of the Varnett Public School. Texas Education Agency, August 2013.
- Indictment of the Cluff family members - U.S. Department of Justice