The state school board voted today (August 8) on six openings for the 10-member state charter school commission. They picked five new members. Two “incumbents,” Tommy Ledbetter of Madison County and Melissa McInnis of Montgomery, were replaced. Only “incumbent” Henry Nelson of Birmingham retained his seat.
New members picked were: Paul Morin of Birmingham, Jamie Ison of Mobile, Syndey Rains of Mobile, Kimberly Terry of Morgan County and Marla Green of Montgomery.
The fact that Governor Ivey chose to not offer chairman Mac Buttram for reappointment is also quite significant.
Couple these five with Allison Haygood of Boaz, who went on the commission in May, and the dynamics of the group shift appreciably.
There is little doubt that the fiasco over Woodland Prep in Washington County played a HUGE role in all of this. As we have recounted over and over, the commission made bad decision after bad decision, beginning in May of 2018, when they ignored the recommendation of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers that Woodland Prep not be given the go ahead to their decision of June 7, 2019 to grant Woodland Prep a one-year extension on opening.
And though Washington County is very remote and very rural, news of what has gone on there has spread far and wide across Alabama. Former state representative Elaine Beech of Chatom recently told me that she can’t go anywhere in the state without someone mentioning Woodland Prep to her.
The people of Washington County have been relentless in telling their story and providing documentation that info the charter commission was given by Woodland Prep supporters was not reliable. Every educator in the state owes these good folks their gratitude.
And it is fair to say that there will be a substantial effort in the regular legislative session of 2020 to revisit the present charter law and make much-needed changes.
We were told when this law was passed in 2015 that it was the strongest charter law in the nation. However, as we have seen since, nothing could be farther from the truth.
The bylaws of the charter school commission say right up front that their mission is “to authorize high-quality public charter schools.” The vote by the state school board today says loudly that they don’t believe this has been being done.
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.
In the last eight days I have driven from Montgomery to Chatom and back three times. Whether I go down I-65 to Evergreen, cut across on U.S. 84 to Grove Hill and head south on U.S. 43, or take the more scenic route through Hayneville, Camden and Pine Hill to Thomasville to pick up U.S. 43, its a drive through a sparsely populated section of the state.
Each of the counties I have gone through is shrinking. School enrollment in the six counties I’ve passed through have lost 3,365 students in their public schools in the last decade.
And as surely as the sun comes up in the east each morning, this trend will continue. Not just in Alabama, but all across rural America.
With this comes the stark reality of school consolidation, one of the most difficult decisions any local school board faces. People get angry, really, really angry. Emotions run high and long time friends find themselves opposing one another.
This is what lurks in the minds of folks in Washington County. There will come a time when they will lose a school. They know this. But they will postpone such action just as long as they can. Which is really at the heart of the Washington County battle against a charter school. Because if Woodland Prep becomes a reality it will take the place of a community school. So why cut the heart out of a community just so Soner Tarim can make a buck?
What is the impact of a school closing? Below is how Christopher Chavis, who went to school at South Robeson High in Robeson, NC. describes the recent decision to shut down his alma mater.
“A few weeks ago, the Robeson County, North Carolina Board of Education voted to close South Robeson High School, my alma mater. The school currently serves Rowland, an old rail town with a population of approximately 1,000 people, and the outlying rural areas.
In Robeson County, people identify with their local communities, an allegiance often fortified by high school attendance. Losing the high school means losing a part of the community’s identity, an irreparable tear in the social fabric that may never heal. It also means creating perpetual outsiders of the students who will be siphoned off to other local schools, away from their community and their lifelong friends.
For me, closing the high school symbolizes the county giving up on the community where I grew up. I learned so many lessons in the halls of South Robeson High School. As president of the school’s Beta Club and the Native American Student Association, I learned about leadership, the value of public service, and what it means to give back to your community. These lessons were amplified by the fact that I was actually serving my own community, a lesson that will be lost on the students who would have to attend schools in other communities.
I also learned about disparities in access to educational opportunities, even within the same school district. My high school did not have AP classes or a plethora of extracurricular activities; funding did not allow for any of that. I hoped that one day the school board would allocate more staff and money to my home community so students could reach their full potential. Now, that may never happen, a fact that fills me with profound sadness.
In making their decision, the school board cited a decline in attendance. The board also cited a $2 million budget shortfall that needed to be closed “immediately.” The population data support this decision. According to the latest American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, since the 2010 Census, the population has declined in the schools’ service areas. The residents tend to be older than the rest of the county, a trend with troubling implications for the number of children entering the local schools. On paper, it might make sense to close these schools and focus on the parts of the county that are growing, especially considering the dire state of the finances of the public schools of Robeson County.
Robeson County is not alone in facing these tough decisions. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, there were 2,700 fewer rural schools in the 2015-2016 school year than existed just a decade prior.
When a rural school closes, it affects the entire community. In fact, according to a study by the Urban Institute, the impacts of a school closure are most acutely felt in rural communities, which often lack the wraparound services needed to compensate for the hole in the community a school closure creates.
However, what works on paper may have troubling implications in reality. At a community meeting on July 8th, students, parents, and community members voiced their concerns to the school board. The Town Clerk for Rowland noted that closing the high school would kill the town. Already an impoverished town that has never recovered from the decline of its initial industry, the railroad, it would lose one potential draw to both businesses and residents – easy access to a high school. Without the ability to attract new businesses and residents, the town’s economic woes would continue to grow. That also represents a bit of a paradox. In order to grow, you need resources. To grow, you need resources..
This is especially true in public education, which is usually funded by local property taxes. If residents leave and property values decline because of lack of economic development (or even access to a high school), the remaining local schools are going to suffer. Shutting down the high school would almost certainly exacerbate the current issues that the town is facing.
For a moment, the story appeared to have a happy ending. The day after the public hearing, the Robeson County Board of Education voted to reopen South Robeson High School for the coming year. However, there was a huge caveat. The high school would also house students from Rowland Middle School, meaning grades 6-12 would have to attend school in a facility designed for only four grade levels.
But even this measure of good news turned out to be fleeting. On July 19, the board reversed itself and voted to close South Robeson High School after all.
I doubt Christopher Chavis has ever been to Washington County. But none the less, he has seen its future. But then, I only know of one member of the state charter commission has ever been there. And he ignored what he learned.
But this group approved Woodland Prep–and drove a stake into the heart of some community they have never seen.
The charter commission should have 10 members. But it presently only has nine since Chad Flincher resigned in March. (The charter law says vacancies will be filled within 60 days. But why pay attention to the law?)
Of the remaining nine members, five are serving terms that expired My 31, 2019. Two of these appointments are by Governor Ivey, two by Speaker McCutcheon and one by Senate Majority Leader Del Marsh. (The vacant Fincher slot also “belongs” to Marsh.)
All parties have now submitted their nominations to state superintendent Eric Mackey. According to the agenda for the August 8 state school board meeting, these will be voted on then. Since the final selection falls to the state school board, two names must be submitted for each commission seat. Even if an incumbent is re-nominated, someone else must also be proposed for this seat.
Since all members serve staggered two-year terms, five seats are up each year.
There will be at least three new members since Governor Ivey did not re-submit the names of Chairman Mac Buttram and member Charles Jackson. Instead, her recommendations for Buttram’s seat are Paul Morin of Birmingham and Mark Martin of Birmingham. I have known Morin for years. He serves as the state’s after-school programs coordinator for Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act. He probably knows more educators around the state than anyone I know.
I do not know Martin, who is executive director of Build Up Ensley, a community re-vitalization program. He was principal of a charter school in New Orleans. His name was also submitted by Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth in May. However, Allison Haygood was selected instead.
Andre’ Harrison is a former superintendent for Elmore County. He is executive director for AdvancED, which accredits school systems throughout the state. I have known Andre for years. He is a good guy, but seems to me he has a conflict of interest because of his job.
Sydney Rains is executive director of the Southwest Alabama Partnership for Training and Employment in Mobile. I do not know him. But my good friend, former Mobile County superintendent Martha Peek, has worked with him on a number of ventures and gives him very high marks.
Senator Del Marsh has nominated one-time state house member Jamie Ison of Mobile and Hunter Oswalt of Fairhope to take Fincher’s seat. Ison works in real estate. I do not know her, but know of her. As with Rains, Martha Peek speaks well of her.
Oswalt is a young lady who owns Read-Write: The Learning Center in Daphne. I do not know her. This will be the third time she has been nominated. She was nominated by Speaker Mike Hubbard in 2016 and Governor Ivey in 2018.She worked for a charter school in Atlanta and had a relationship with Teach for America in Texas.
Speaker McCutcheon has re-nominated incumbents Tommy Ledbetter of Madison County and Melissa McInnis of Montgomery County. Both of them voted to approve the Woodland Prep application in May, 2018 and to give them a one-year extension on June 7. I do not know either and emails to them have not been answered.
McCutcheon nominated Morgan County teacher Kimblerly Terry along with Ledbetter and Montgomery business woman Marla Green, along with McInnis. I do not know either.
Marsh re-nominated Henry Nelson of Birmingham, who has been on the board from the outset.in 2015. Nelson voted to approve Woodland Prep. Marsh also nominated Steve Sipel of Birmingham, a businessman and founding board chairman of Legacy Prep charter.
Once again there is the glaring omission of representation for rural Alabama, More than 40 percent of all public school students attend rural schools, but Allison Haygood, who is a principal in Boaz, will be the only commission member from a rural location. This lack of understanding the circumstances of rural schools has had a huge role in the Woodland Prep charter disaster. Haygood is the only commission member who voted NO to giving Woodland Prep a one-year extension on June 7.
If you know any of these nominees and want to offer your input to state school board members, or simply want to give your thoughts on the charter commission, here are their email addresses:
District 1–Jackie Zeigler: email@example.com
District 2–Tracie West: Traciewest3@gmail.com
District 3–Stephanie Bell: firstname.lastname@example.org
District 4–Yvette Richardson: email@example.com
District 5–Ella Bell: firstname.lastname@example.org
District 6–Cynthia McCarty: email@example.com
District 7–Jeff Newman: firstname.lastname@example.org
District 8–Wayne Reynolds: email@example.com
Attorneys for the Alabama Education Association filed suit in Circuit Count in Washington County August 2 alleging that Soner Tarim, the Texan with the management agreement with Woodland Prep, has submitted false information to the state charter school commission on behalf of Woodland Prep in his efforts to establish this charter school.
At the same time Tarim has been working with Woodland Prep he was also trying to get approval to open charters in Houston and Austin. The AEA court document refers a number of times to the fact that Tarim made statements to the Texas state board of education about Woodland Prep that were untrue.
Some of this included false info about the performance of Washington County public schools, about the level of opposition to Woodland Prep from the local community, about why the application he says he wrote for Woodland Prep did not meet standards of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, about school enrollment numbers, etc.
As we have been documenting here for months, Soner Tarim is a fraud.
Granted, he could sell Eskimo pies to Eskimos, but he does it with smoke and mirrors and ignores facts. And the fact that the members of the present Alabama charter school commission allowed themselves to fall under his spell, rather than doing their homework, is also shameful and even more reason members of this group should be replaced as soon as possible.
One of the more incredible pieces of this whole sordid mess is what Tarim told the good folks in Texas about his role in getting state approval for Woodland Prep. He told, without hesitation, a Texas board member that he wrote the Woodland Prep charter application. When the board member then asked why this application was rejected by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers Tarim said this group does not what it is doing. (I contacted NACSA and learned they have reviewed 500 applications from across the country in the last 10 years. Yet, according to Tarim, they don’t know what they are doing.)
Then, incredibly, he said that the Alabama charter commission did not know what they were doing either until he showed them how to grade an application. Alabama had used NACSA to grade applications since the charter law was passed in 2015. We paid them more than $100,000 for their service. Of course, Tarim has a ready-made answer for everything and it is ALWAYS the other guy’s fault.
Tesas has figured out who Tarim is. This is why on June 14 the Texas state school board denied Tarim’s request to open four charters in Austin. They have a long history with him because he opened his first charter in Houston in 2000.
As board member Georgina Perez told me in an interview after she voted against Tarim, all he deals in is “alternative facts.” The people in Washington County are well aware of this because time and time again he has cited “facts” about their public schools that are fiction–not facts.
Thankfully, AEA has stepped up to the plate.
But had the Alabama charter commission done their work, there would be no need for a law suit. They would have listened to the national reviewers in May, 2018 and rejected the Woodland Prep application. But they, and others, were mesmerized by Tarim and failed the people of Alabama and caused months of misery for Washington County.
It is one of the most shameful examples of failed government I have ever witnessed.