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 Sonar 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.
End of discussion.
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.
I believe Brittany Williams is the epitome of what we are doing right in education in Alabama. She was in the inaugural cohort of the Black Belt Teacher Corps at the University of West Alabama and has just completed her first year as a kindergarten teacher at University Charter School on the campus of UWA.
The Rural Schools Collaborative is a national organization that played a major role in getting the Black Belt Teacher Corps up and running. I have the good fortune to serve as secretary of the RSC board. Gary Funk is the executive director. Several years ago he came to UWA and introduced them to the teacher corps concept, based on the Ozark Teacher Corps in Missouri. Dean Jan Miller embraced the idea and it was off and running. We were fortunate to convince state senators Bobby Singleton and Arthur Orr and representative Bill Poole to furnish the initial seed money. As we have since seen, it was money well-spent.
RSC believes strongly in place-based education which is another way of saying that students use community resources as part of making their classroom lessons more meaningful. To this end, the organization awards small grants, normally $1,000 or less, to teachers to implement projects. I have blogged about a number of these, such as this piece about Monette Harrison at Greenville Middle School.
Brittany also received a grant. Go here to read about how she and her young students put it to good use in Livingston. It will show you once again that education is all about what takes place in our schools and that what we hear coming out of Montgomery is far, far removed from the real world of education.
Winston County is a small, rural county in northwest Alabama. Double Springs, with just over 1,000 residents, is the county seat. Its “claim to fame” is the fact that citizens here were very opposed to Alabama withdrawing from the Union during the Civil War. When the Union Army invaded north Alabama in 1862, many locals joined forces with them.
Feelings ran so deep that county leaders met and made plans to secede from the Confederacy. And though this never occurred, the county is still often called the “Free State of Winston.”
To say that some in Washington County can relate to the thought of seceding from Alabama is not much of a stretch.
Hardly a day goes by that I am not in contact with someone in Washington County regarding the continuing upheaval there about the location of a charter school, Woodland Prep, between Chatom and Millry. They have fought this battle for more than 18 months and have hit one brick wall after another.
Their growing frustration is because no one will help them. Like all local school systems, they pay dues to several statewide groups that are supposed to “represent” education. But you can’t prove it by anyone in the county. “Apparently we are supposed to just be seen and not heard–and keep sending money to Montgomery,” one told me. This was evident in May when a charter bus load of folks made the 350-mile roundtrip to Montgomery and back to attend a state school board meeting–but were not allowed to speak.
“How the hell do you pretend this is a democracy when citizens can not address a public body?” asked one person who was on the bus. I do not have an answer for this very valid question.
The state charter commission has been no ally.
They have scoffed at their own guidelines, failed miserably when it comes to due diligence and paid the National Association of Charter School Authorizers thousands and thousands of dollars only to ignore their recommendations.
Or what about the legislature? After all, they wrote the law that created the charter commission. But turns out, they can’t even follow the laws they created.
The state school superintendent? The state school board? Those education groups that represent teachers, school boards, superintendents, principals, etc.? The Alabama Education Association did send some lawyers to town, but as someone at the meeting said, “They blew in, blew off and blew out.”
Others have sent emails saying locals should not be overly concerned because the charter school will probably never open. Wow. Such a statement is little more than an affront to someone having to prepare for the potential loss of $2 million from their budget. Maybe they are right. But then, given how the charter commission acts, maybe they are wrong.
Alabama loves to pound its chest and proclaim its faith in all that is good and decent. (Heck, the Ford dealer in Chatom was recently giving away Bibles to anyone who bought a new car or truck.) But talking about the Golden Rule and actually putting it into action, are two entirely different things. One Washington County educator summed it up this way, “Evidently in Montgomery the Golden Rule means we are to send them our gold and not question how they rule.”
Supposedly when Winston County was trying to figure out what to do, they met at Looney’s Tavern in Double Springs. To my knowledge, there is not a Looney’s Tavern in Washington County. However, I have no doubt that Jake’s Restaurant in Chatom, a popular meat and three, will gladly host a gathering of those who want to talk about creating the “Free State of Washington.”
I will volunteer to buy the coffee.
Unity School Services is the education management organization, created by Soner Tarim, signed on to run the new Woodland Prep charter school in Washington County and LEAD Academy in Montgomery. Documentary film maker Mark Hall of Austin, TX has spent years following the dealings of Tarim, who is affiliated with the controversial Gulen charter movement.
Hall was recently in Washington County to show his film, KILLING ED, to a crowd of 200 local citizens who oppose Woodland Prep. He later looked up the “office” for Unity School Services in Sugarland, TX. Here is the report he posted on Facebook. We use this with his permission.
“MYSTERY OFFICE :: We paid a visit last week to the Gülen Movement’s ’Unity School Services‘ (“USS”) a company operated by high-level Gülenist, Soner Tarim. USS is located in Sugar Land, Texas a suburb of Houston. The company was incorporated as an LLC by Soner’s wife in May, 2018 and is contracted to administer the controversial “Woodland Prep” charter school in rural Washington County, Alabama. USS also appears to be the for-profit charter management organization (CMO) that will manage “LEAD Academy” in Montgomery, AL and the new “Royal” charter schools Soner Tarim has applied to open in Texas. The company has already locked down contracts for millions of tax dollars.
We found Unity School Services address on the USS website (see photo below). The website is very typical of Gülen Movement sites for its businesses – no photos of management team or experts, lots of marketing talk (“the trusted authority”), and little information about how the long list of services will be provided. USS has a long list of services that it says it can offer: curriculum, school management, HR, professional development, technology, etc. The address for USS is 2245 Texas Drive in Sugar Land, Texas part of the Houston area.
We drove over to have a look. It’s a nice 4 story building. However, going to the office directory for the building there is NO LISTING for Unity School Services. We went upstairs to Suite 300 where USS is supposed to be located according to its own website. No listing for Unity School Services or any other company was on the outside. Turns out that Suite 300 is the location of a “Regus” mini-suites rental company – that offers cubicles and space for small mom and pop-like businesses. Going inside, we asked the receptionist if we could talk to someone from Unity School Services. She told us that “there was no one here from that company.“ I asked her if USS had any employees in the space. Answer: No. I looked at the board with the companies renting cubicles and space within the Regus office – no listing for Unity School Services (see photo) I said why would Unity School Services list their business address at this building? Answer: ”they come in by appointment.’ Evidently to use the conference room. No office. No employees. Not even a filing cabinet.
Is THIS the type of business that Alabama and Texas taxpayers should pay millions of tax dollars to? How will USS provide services with no employees? I did notice a page on their website (“Locations”) that makes the odd statement that it provides “educational services for its clients at various cities and states in the United States and throughout the world.” Really? From a Regus mini-suites address and no office? The page lists a number of states where Gülen charter schools are located – are “USS team members” teachers and administrators at Gülen Movement charter schools that will be brought in to run schools like Woodland Prep in Alabama? Public schools require lots of people to make them function – and they involve our children. Schools can’t be operated like a non-asset tech company such as Uber or Amazon. They are vital to our communities and deserve the attention of teachers, principals and other staff who live and work in those communities. Is Unity School Services a ‘real’ company deserving of our tax dollars? Or is it another apparent attempt by Gülenists to generate funds for its cult members? I don’t know – but worth asking questions about this.”
Go here to see Mark’s Facebook post, complete with pictures.
This is just one more example of why the good people of Alabama should be suspect about what is going on and why we are about to send tax dollars intended to help our public schools to a company surrounded by controversy in Texas..
Last week we posted a survey asking how folks feel about having an elected state school board versus an appointed one. (Voters will tackle this issue by voting on a constitutional amendment March 3, 2020.)
More than 1,100 people responded. Here was our initial look at responses. As you see, 89 percent favor keeping an elected board. Then we asked those who were willing to go into more depth about how they feel to send us an email. Again, we heard from lots and lots of folks.
The great majority of these were either current or former educators. Several were retired superintendents. No one beat around the bush and spoke strongly and passionately about how they see the present state of education in Alabama.
Here are some takeaways:
There is not much confidence in the present state board of education. They are viewed as only reactive, never proactive. They don’t exercise enough authority over the state superintendent, who answers to them.
But there is even less confidence in the governor and legislative leaders to steer education in the right direction. Only 25 percent who took the survey said they have confidence in the governor to make good appointments to the state school board and just 17 percent have confidence in the state senate to confirm good people. “The legislature and governor are already too involved in education,” said one respondent. “An appointed board is just another ploy to further the destruction of our public school system,” said a retired superintendent.
A former local school board member said, “The last appointed state school board member was Matt Brown. How did that work out?” One retired educator said, “Our legislature could screw up a two-car parade.”
One respondent was a former superintendent in Tennessee, which has an appointed state school board. “It was all about politics, certainly not about educating children,” they said.
The divide between educators and politicians as to how education should be governed is about as wide as the Grand Canyon. “We ignore teachers when making policy,” said one. “This is like not listening to a doctor when deciding how to treat a patient.” “Bills like the A-F school report card are a slap in the face to educators,” said another. “If no one among the political leadership pays any attention to the opinions of educators, does it matter how board members are chosen? asked one.
Most believe that whether the state board is elected or appointed, at the end of the day the process is largely controlled by special interests. Numbers from the 2014 and 2016 campaign cycles confirm this. In those two years, the Business Council of Alabama contributed more than $600,000 to six candidates running for the state board. “Anyone who thinks BCA will not be trying to get their hand-picked folks on an appointed board is crazy,” said one respondent.
The election of 2010 that put a Republican supermajority in both the State Senate and House of Representatives was a knife in the back of public education. “This is when we adopted the Alabama Republican model for public education.” said someone, who happens to be an elected Republican official. “The Alabama Accountability Act was all the proof I needed to see this.” Someone else replied, “As long as the Republican party continues its war on Alabama educator’s, arguing over how the state board is chosen is like deciding on the arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic.”
We are too focused on data and test results. “Teachers know the needs of their students and don’t need Scantron or any other test results to guide the direction of their classroom Too much valuable time is wasted on this nonsense,” said a teacher of 32 years who retired in June. “There is a lack of common sense leadership coming from the state level.”
The appointed charter school commission was cited over and over again as a good reason not to have an appointed state school board. “Take a look at the charter school commission and what they’ve done thus far. Is this what we’re saying we want as far as oversight for Alabama’s children? Not I,” was one comment. Another was, “Not one single person has accepted responsibility for the Woodland Prep mess. Pitiful. I’m sure we could expect the same from an appointed school board.”
Leadership was mentioned over and over again. Or actually, the lack of leadership. “Where are the so-called champions for children and school teachers?” asked one person. “Why won’t those who get money from local school systems to represent them in Montgomery do what they are supposed to do? Another wanted to know, “When legislation is bad for education, why doesn’t the state superintendent speak out, where is the state school board? Seems to me too many have become a part of the problem, instead of the solution. We constantly hear that you have to get along with the legislature, so you can’t make waves. Look at where that has gotten us: A–F school report cards, the Alabama Accountability Act, charter schools. It’s a joke.”
Heck, the divide may be much wider than the Grand Canyon. And those souls I exchanged emails with certainly don’t think it will become more narrow with the “players” we have now.