I made my first visit to Washington County concerning the Woodland Prep charter last April. From the get-go, something did not seem right.
What in the world is a guy from Texas doing in tiny Chatom, Al wanting to open a charter school in an area where school age children are drying up and blowing away?
And why is it that every time his name pops up about Washington county, it is news in Turkey?
Why is a company out of Springville, Utah spending $90,000 to buy12 acres in the middle of nowhere that is valued at $19,000 on the tax rolls to build a $6 million school.
It is all as unreasonable as David Bronner, the head of the Retirement Systems of Alabama announcing he will build a 36-hole golf complex halfway between Millry and Chatom.
The economics make no sense whatsoever. And never doubt that this is ALL ABOUT economics. Soner Tarim did not become a millionaire living in a 6 bedroom house in Sugarland, Tx because he is driven by a desire to help kids in places like Washington County..
Tarim is a conman–a damn good one. He is also controversial and connected to the Gulen charter school movement. Some in Turkey consider him a terrorist and a threat to the ruling party in Turkey.
(In june he told the Texas school board that he can not go back to Turkey. but he did not tell them that if he does, he will be arrested.)
He opened his first charter in Houston in 2000. Built this into a chain of more than 50 schools called Harmony. There have long been concerns about how all the money generated by Harmony was being spent.
American Charter Development, the folks buying the land and building the school, also has a questionable background. One linked to Chinese investors and EB-5 visas. (Tarim’s wife is Chinese)
Tarim and Harmony parted ways in 2017. No one seems to know why. But one has to suspect that it was not an amiable breakup. You don’t walk away from being CEO of a multi million dollar company without something amiss.
So when Tarim tried to get back in the charter business in Texas in June, the folks who know him well, the Texas state school board, told him NO.
So why does this guy show up in Chatom, Al?
Because charters are brand new to this state where no one knows who he is and he can easily pull the wool over people’s eyes. And lo and behold, he finds the chair of our state charter commission, Mac Buttram, who has already enjoyed the perks of a trip to Turkey sponsored by a Gulen friendly group, eager to help him.
(Buttram told the charter commission on June 7 that he had been to Turkey. He also said that he had questioned Tarim about any connection to Gulen which he denied. Surprise, surprise.)
Unbelievably, our charter commission has been complacent throughout this whole episode.. When the national reviewer the state had used since 2015 said Woodland Prep should not be approved, they were ignored by the charter commission.
(In June Tarim told the Texas board that the National Association of Charter School Authorizers don’t know what they are doing. Yet in the last 10 years they have reviewed 500 applications. Tarim also said that folks in Alabama did not know what they were doing until he showed them how to grade the application that he says he prepared.)
The charter commission DID NOT do their due diligence. i am told that the commission made ONE phone call to Texas to vet Tarim.
They allowed themselves to be lead around by the nose. They should be embarrassed. It is very hard to believe they have taken their jobs seriously.
The mess in Washington County WAS NEVER about education. It has always been much, much bigger than this.
This Thursday, August 8, the state school board will vote on who fills six of the 10 positions on the charter commission. They can take a HUGE step in the right direction with well-chosen votes. There are no “incumbents” for three of these seats.
The clear cut choices for these are Paul Morin of Birmingham, who serves as the state’s after-school programs coordinator for Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act; Sydney Rains of Mobile, executive director of the Southwest Alabama Partnership for Training and Employment and Jamie Ison of Mobile, a former member of the House of Representatives..
As to the three slots where incumbents are being re-nominated, the decision is more difficult. (For each open seat, even one with an “incumbent”, two names go to the state school board where they choose one. So the three members being re-nominated each has an alternative nominee.) I have not been able to get much info on the alternatives so a judgment as to how well they might do is difficult.
However, we already know the “incumbents” have totally botched the Woodland Prep situation and because of this, my gut says don’t keep them around to cause the kind of harm to another community they have caused in Washington County. Maybe their “challengers” won’t be any better but it is hard to believe they could be any worse.
I say roll the dice and put six brand new people on the state charter school commission. And then as soon as they take office, take them all to Washington County so they can get a first hand look at the consequences of uninformed decisions.