OK. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am not an impartial observer. This is especially true when I talk about the charter school fiasco in Washington County.
And after more than 60 posts about this mess, numerous trips to the county and conversations with dozens and dozens of locals, I am more convinced than ever that this is a scam, a disaster, a travesty and an injustice being forced on good and decent people who happen to live in a forgotten part of Alabama.
Earlier this week I spent the morning in the courthouse in Washington County listening to lawyers argue the merits and demerits of Woodland Prep charter school.
There were probably 75 people there. If a single one was a supporter of the charter school, none of the locals knew who they were. This has been typical from the outset.
When the charter commission approved this application in May 2018, residents had sent postcards to commission members urging them to vote no. All they got was a tongue lashing from some commission members for being proactive.
And though the national reviewer said this application should be denied, the charter commission ignored them. Attorneys for the charter argued at length that opponents should have registered their complaints with the charter commission–but none of them have seen how the folks in Washington county have been treated when they have tried to do so.
As they cited the charter law, pro-charter attorneys conveniently ignored the section that says the commission should not approve “weak” applications. nor did they mention the section that says the commission should consider the quality of the local school system, which is a B in this case, or that they should consider local support for the charter. which is non-existent.
On two occasions people in the county have chartered a bus and brought 60 people to Montgomery, one time to attend a state school board meeting and another to attend a charter commission meeting.
In addition, locals got nearly 3,000 names on petitions opposing the charter and presented them to the charter commission still, the commission pays no attention.
It was interesting to me that one of the pro-charter attorneys was state rep. David Faulkner of Mountain Brook. I wondered if he had ever set foot in this county before. It is worth noting that he voted in favor of the charter law in 2015, the very law.he is now making money on.
As he talked about how the charter will be funded, he failed to mention that the charter will divert $2.2 million from the existing system and was dismissal of time lines that govern local school systems. Obviously he is clueless about how school finance works. when local budgets are made and the implications that such a diversion could have on teachers, bus drivers, lunch room workers, etc.
Another charter attorney said they now have 132 students registered, which may, or may not, be the case since no one will present a list for verification. But when Woodland Prep met with the charter commission last September, they said they had 130 signed up. So they have gotten TWO more since then? (Their contract with the state says they will have 260 K-8 students enrolled when they open.)
The charter commission gave Woodland Prep a one-year extension last June. One of the attorneys said they are going to ask for another extension.
Circuit Judge Gaines McCorquodale did a good job, was in no hurry and asked good questions. At one point he asked if there was a transcript of all discussions Woodland Prep has had with the charter commission. He was told there is. THAT IS A JOKE. Minutes of meetings are anything but thorough. They don’t even show when the commission has elected officers.
The charter attorneys were asking that the hearing be “sealed.” In other words, that nothing be made public. Their argument was that the Alabama Education Association, which brought the suit on behalf of three local plaintiffs, had encouraged people to attend the meeting to unduly influence the proceedings.
The judge quickly dismissed this request saying that he welcomed public participation in his court room.
The other motion by the charter is to dismiss the suit entirely. The judge will rule on this in the near-future.
This has gone on far too long. It has been Chinese water torture since May 2018 for citizens of Washington County and their school system. Drip. Drip. Drip. And while Montgomery bureaucrats continue to say they do not know who has authority over the charter commission, one thing is very clear. What is right is right and what is wrong is wrong.
We desperately need some people in Montgomery to figure this out and then show the political courage to take action. If they are not willing to, they should be replaced.
Yep, as of 5:23 p.m. on Jan. 21 I have now survived for 77 years and am now starting on my 78th. (I looked at my birth certificate to get the time.)
I am truly, truly thankful for the dozens and dozens and dozens of emails, phone calls and Facebook messages I received. From friends I’ve know more than 50 years, from folks I only know because they read this blog, a card from someone in Nebraska, several from those who made snide remarks about being so old. (The kind of remarks I would make to them I’m sure.)
And how did I spend my day? In a courtroom in Chatom, AL listening to lawyers arguing the merits and demerits of the effort to put a charter school in a community that does not want it AT ALL. (More on this later.)
The night before was spent with my friends Betty and Butch Brackin in the metropolis of Leroy, AL. Betty is Federal Programs Director for the Washington County school system and Butch is a retired educator and baseball and football official. And a master at grilling steaks on the grill, which a partook of with gusto.
It was the coldest night of this winter so far with the weatherman in Mobile saying it would be 24 by morning. But as I snuggled down in bed, a dinner conversation kept running through my mind. Betty told of an eighth-grader who lives with a disabled father and for all practical purposes is homeless. I wondered what his circumstances were on this very cold night.
I rambled back into my drive at 4:30 this afternoon. The mail had a ticket from the City of Montgomery telling me that their “eye in the sky” recently caught me running a red light and that for $60, I would be a free man.
Damn. Didn’t they know it was my birthday?
But even with that, it was the best 77th birthday I’ve ever had.
Editor’s note: The proponents and opponents of Woodland Prep charter school in Washington County square off in circuit court in Chatom this Tuesday, Jan. 21. This is a date long anticipated by those who oppose the school and one the proponents have tried to postpone as recently as last week. And on the eve of this court hearing, it is worthwhile to review how we came to this juncture, The following article, published last July, recounts how this all unfolded.
It’s reasonable to think there might be some controversy about any new school. Maybe where it is located, what it is named, who the principal may be, what courses will be taught?
But seldom do you expect the wholesale turmoil that hit rural Washington County, AL when locals learned that a handful of folks wanted to open a charter school. In a close-knit county of only 17,000 souls, news travels fast, people choose sides and lines are drawn.
Add in the fact that the new school went off to Texas and hired someone with a controversial past and the pot nears the boiling point very quickly.
However, to fully grasp how this all came to be, it is important to understand, as best we can, Washington County and its people.
In The Beginning
The county has been around longer than the state of Alabama. St. Stephens, on the county’s northern border on the Tombigbee River, was the Alabama territorial capital before there was officially an Alabama. Sitting atop a limestone bluff, it was a trading post, steamboat landing for cargo headed downstream to Mobile and the place where official territory business was conducted.
As was much of Alabama, many early Washington County settlers were descendants of Scots-Irish, a fierce, independent people. Larger in land area than Rhode Island, timber has long been its principal commodity. In fact, in 1870 local farmers only produced 1,200 bales of cotton, a far cry from the thousands of bales produced 100 miles north in the state’s Black Belt region.
Demographics underscore this fact. Only 25 percent of Washington County is African-American, as compared to Black Belt counties such as Wilcox, 72 percent; Perry, 69 percent; and Lowndes, 74 percent. A stark reminder that in 1850, cotton and slavery were synonymous.
To add more context, jump the Tombigbee and go a few miles into adjoining Clarke County where the War of Mitcham Beat took place in the 1890s. This was an honest-to-goodness shooting war that grew out of unrest between tenant farmers and merchants. At least a half dozen citizens were killed by vigilantes.
As with much of rural Alabama, politics in Washington is conservative to say the least. The election of Ronald Reagan basically switched the county from D to R when it comes to national politics. Bill Clinton was the last Democratic presidential nominee to win the county in 1996.
John McCain beat Barack Obama here in 2008 with 65 percent of the vote. Mitt Romney got 66 percent in 2012 and Donald Trump got 72 percent in 2016. In 2017 when Democrat Doug Jones won Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat, he lost the county to Roy Moore 35-65.
So, what does all of this have to do with trying to put a charter school, Woodland Prep, on highway 17 between Chatom and Millry?
A helluva lot actually.
Without understanding who the 17,000 residents of the county are, the DNA that runs through them, how they react to things that are not familiar, etc. is burying your head in the sand and living in a fantasy world.
And from all indications, the Alabama Charter School Commission failed miserably to do their homework about the community and its nuances. Their first misstep was ignoring how the idea for this charter came to life. Normally one would think that some parents, disappointed in how a child is doing in school, come up with the idea of seeking an alternative education path.
This was not the case in Washington County.
Instead, the notion was largely conceived by a wife who could not come to grips with the fact that her husband, a teacher for many years, failed to always conduct himself professionally and because of this, the school board was forced to take action.
Though a native of the county and extremely well thought of by locals, an outsider sees her as someone who became overly zealous and to some degree, took advantage of both her job and longtime friends in an effort to avenge what she considered a wrong.
Hardly the foundation from which one embarks on such a complex challenge as starting a school from scratch, with little funding and no expertise.
Enter Soner Tarim
Somewhere along the way, this lady heard of Soner Tarim, who began the Harmony charter chain in Texas in 2000. She connected with him and apparently came to believe that no one in the country knows more about charters than he does.
Tarim is controversial and not held in high esteem by many in Texas. His most recent effort to get state approval for four new charters in Austin was resoundingly turned down by the state school board.
During his presentation before the Texas board he had a hard time keeping his facts straight and was tripped up on several occasions by school board members who had done their homework.
But obviously the good folks wanting a charter in Washington County drank his Kool Aid and did little background checking. Apparently neither did the staff and members of the state charter school commission.
The fact that Tarim is affiliated with the highly controversial Gulen Movement, has simply added another degree of complexity to the entire episode.
Unfortunately, this story took a tragic turn in June 2018 as the lady in question sat reading her Bible on her front porch one Sunday morning when her husband shot her in the head. He then killed himself.
The county was stunned. Suddenly the charter effort was without its primary mover and shaker.
And there was no one to be questioned as to why the application submitted to the Alabama charter commission, which Tarim says he largely prepared, was so riddled with inaccuracies and false claims.
For example, from the outset, proponents of the charter have declared that 900 students a day leave Washington County to attend private schools. But no one can verify where this number came from and a look at census data and other sources indicate that it is totally without credibility.
When Woodland Prep supporters were quizzed about this at a June 7, 2019 state charter commission meeting, their answer was that the lady who first used the number had access to lots of data and since she is no longer alive, they don’t question it.
The State Charter Commission, etc.
Alabama passed its charter law in 2015. It set up a 10-member commission to govern charters. Four named by the governor, one by the Lt. Governor, three by the Speaker of the House and two by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate.
Though members may serve up to six years, only two of the original ten remain. Presently, five of these members are serving terms that expired May 31, 2019 and there is an additional vacancy due to a member’s resignation in March 2019.
Judging from their actions involving Woodland Prep, as well as an overall lack of professionalism and attention to details, many feel that wholesale change in membership is due.
A very meaningful measure to see how a community feels about its schools is to compare school system demographics to community demographics. The fact that both the school and the country mirror one another in Washington County is insightful. African-Americans make up 25.1 percent of school population and 24.6 percent of county population. Whites are 63.0 percent of school population and 65.5 percent of the county.
This, coupled with the fact that there are no private schools in the county, speaks volumes about how the public feels about its school system.
By comparison, the Montgomery County school system is 78.5 percent African-American, while the county is only 57.3 percent. There are about 40 private schools in Montgomery.
Once again it is obvious the charter commission didn’t bother to do its homework.
It is impossible to believe that this board and its staff conducted adequate due diligence. How do you ignore the red flags in the application? How to you take unsigned “support” letters at face value? How do you maintain that there is not substantial local opposition to this school? How do you disregard the financial impact a charter will have on the existing public school system?
And how in the world do you pay the National Association of Charter School Authorizors thousands of dollars to evaluate charter applications and then ignore their recommendation to deny the Woodland Prep application?
(Interestingly enough, NACSA also recommended that the application for LEAD Academy charter in Montgomery be denied, but it too was approved. And surprise, surprise, both of these charters signed management agreements with Soner Tarim.)
Why has the state superintendent refused to conduct a wholesale investigation into this entire affair? Why has the state school board not demanded that he do so?
Too many have shirked their responsibility to put school children first. We have been told over and over that the charter law sets the commission above anyone’s jurisdiction.
However, the first and only real allegiance to education anyone in Montgomery, be they politician or bureaucrat, has is to help children and those local schools who teach them. When they are in harm’s way, you do what is right.
Besides, who is going to stop you? Is there an education policeman who will arrest you?
You don’t hide behind some legal ambiguity; you don’t try to placate this one or that one. You just do what is right. Period.
If you are the charter commission your allegiance is not to some guy from Texas who is more interested in money than in educating children. It is not to the money that people like Betsy DeVos and Alice Walton send to Alabama to fund political action committees. It is not to a think tank created by Jeb Bush.
You have a higher mission than to just plop down charter schools across the state’s landscape as it they were convenience stores.
And you understand that not all communities and school systems are identical. Washington County is unlike any other community in the state. Just as is Huntsville or Franklin County or Union Springs or Henry County.
There is not a farmer in the state who thinks corn planted on a worn-out red clay hill top will do as well as corn planted on rich bottomland. So why do we think what may work in one community will work in all of them?
We know that only about ten percent of all charter schools in the United States are in rural areas. Why?
Because most charters are business ventures, not educational ones. Do you think Soner Tarim would be involved in Washington County without a management contract that gives him 15 percent of all the revenue Woodland Prep will get? Do you think he woke up one morning in his six-bedroom house in Sugarland, TX with a burning desire to open a school in tiny Washington County because he was “called” to help their students?
Schools are a central part of the fabric of a rural community. The community often revolves around the school. Woodland Prep has the potential of taking $2.2 million away from the Washington County school system which struggles every day to meet its needs. People in this county resent that.
It will threaten the foundation of this system. Which community will want to close their school because a charter school took their funding?
In a system of only 2,650 students, would anyone in their right mind suggest opening another school with 260 students and diluting resources that now go to the seven schools in the system?
By and large rural communities look at outsiders with caution. Will Sonar Tarim ever be considered a member of this community?
These are all things the state charter commission failed to acknowledge.
Woodland Prep recently was given a one-year extension for their opening date because they could not meet enrollment expectations. The result? A community in continuing chaos. Teachers and bus drivers and custodians wondering if they will have a job a year from now.
It is a travesty that could have been easily avoided had charter commission staff and members done their homework and used some common sense.
But they didn’t. And Washington County is left twisting in the wind.
Last August the Alabama Education Association filed suit in Washington County alleging that Sonar Tarim, the Texas education consultant working with Woodland Prep charter school falsified information submitted to the state charter school commission.
The initial hearing on this suit is scheduled for Jan. 21 before Circuit Court Judge Gaines McCorquodale in Chatom.
But given the charter’s track record of evasion and misrepresentation of the facts, it came as no surprise when lawyers for Woodland Prep filed a last-minute motion to “dismiss, re-set the hearing, and seal the proceedings.”
In other words, they wanted to delay the start of the proceeding and then hide things from the public. An attorney told me that the effort to seal the proceedings in a civil action was highly unusual.
Among other things, Woodland Prep’s contention is that “the facts and filings in this case promotes scandal and defamation, poses a serious threat of harassment, and poses a risk of harm to persons who are not parties to this litigation.” This was based on the fact that AEA has encouraged the community to attend the Jan. 21 hearing.
Judge McCorquodale was not impressed and almost immediately denied the Woodland Prep motion.
It is high time to move forward with this suit and bring closure in some form or fashion to this whole sordid affair. The people of Washington County have been held in limbo since Woodland Prep was granted an application to move ahead in May 2018, in spite of the fact that the state charter law says that “weak” applications should not be approved and this application was approved, though the National Association of Charter School Authorizers recommended it not be.
Editor’s note: It is noteworthy that one of the lawyers defending Woodland Prep is David L. Faulkner, Jr. with the law firm of Christian & Small LLP of Birmingham. Faulkner is a state representative who voted in favor of the charter school law passed in 2015.
In an effort to focus attention on the opportunities in rural schools across the country, the Rural Schools Collaborative has launched its “I Am a Rural Teacher” campaign. And the first teacher to be featured is Haley Richardson, a native of Pickens County, a graduate of the first cohort of Black Belt Teacher Corps from the University of West Alabama and a second-year teacher at University Charter School in Livingston.
Go here to see Haley’s story.
Here are excerpts that caught my eye.
“Teaching is very different than I thought it would be, a lot people think ‘Oh it’s just an 8 to 3 job, when you go home you’re done,’ but teaching can be very tiring. It’s a non-stop job. You’re working all day, every day, and even by the time you leave here you’re still constantly working at home, whether it’s grading papers, coming up with ideas for the next day, or thinking about your students at home, and what can you do to make their experience at school better than it was today.”
But these challenges make the job meaningful too. Haley wants all her students to see her as someone who cares about them beyond the classroom. “If they don’t get anything else from me, I want them to know that I love them.”
For Haley, teaching is a great way to make an impact on her community. She believes being a rural teacher means “embracing where you live and inspiring your students to know that just because you come from a small town doesn’t mean you can’t be successful, or you don’t have always have to up and leave to find better, because bigger is not always better.”
Now, she works hard to create those deep connections with her students. “If a student tells me at school ‘Ms. Richardson I’m playing a game tonight,’ I’m going to make sure that I go see them. That matters to me because I know it matters to them. I could have a thousand things to do,” she laughs. “And when they look up and see me during the game, that feels good cause I know I made their night by just showing up. Just showing up and being there, it really means a lot to the parents too.”
“There’s a phrase, ‘Take what you have to make what you need.’ So in a rural town we may not have much, but what we do have, we use it to make what we need, and in turn we make successful students. You take what you have to make what you need and you in turn go out and be successful and you bring it back to your community.”
I know Haley who is truly an outstanding your lady. Several years ago I was invited to a reception for all the members of the first Black Belt Teacher Corps cohort. I sat beside Haley’s mother. What I remember most is that Haley spoke and mentioned that because of the Black Belt Teacher Corps scholarship she received, she was finishing college with no student debt. That brought a huge smile to her mother’s face and a quiet “Amen.”