If you think Millry, AL is small, (population 546 in 2010) then go a few miles west of town to the Aquilla community. Its the kind of place that are sprinkled across the state. You know, you see one of those little green signs with a name, but nothing more.
This was the childhood home of Dr. Sarah Odom, valedictorian of Millry High in 1987, and long time educator. She taught science in Mobile County before joining the private sector of education. She has had her own education consulting business since 2012. She has traveled extensively in other states and is familiar with charter schools.
Like many in Washington County, she has watched the commotion there concerning a new charter school and the management team they have engaged and decided to write Governor Ivey with her concerns. With her permission, her edited letter is below.
Dear Governor Ivey:
I live in Washington County, and I love my county. I am a small business owner with two S-corps–an educational consulting business, Vann-Ray, LLC, and a ministry with my husband, Odom Ministries. I am a former science teacher and I love education. But I especially love “public” education. Why? Because most of my people were born in poverty, and public education has made such an impact in my life. Without it, I would not be where I am today, save the Grace of God.
I am the first person to say that our public schools need to improve, including in Washington County – not because we have bad schools – but rather all schools should seek improvement on a daily basis. I know parents get disgruntled. I’ve been one myself. However, I believe in working with our public schools to make needed changes.
I am aware that parents should have a right to choose. But I also know that the masses do not always have the information needed to make informed decisions. I also believe leaders, such as yourself, are placed in positions to PROTECT the people from danger. Will you, Governor Ivey, protect Alabamians? Will you protect this small little county, which may seem insignificant to others, but means oh so much to me?
As a consultant, I’ve been in charter schools and met with their leaders. Some were awesome. Some were poorly run (as one in St. Louis where the math teacher could not speak fluent English), and some frankly scared me to death (when I left I felt I had been put on the FBI watch list). So, I understand the right for parental choice. And I even understand the reasoning behind why companies do business in education. So, I’m not anti-business in schools. It is necessary. Schools cannot provide everything they need without outsiders. I get that.
However, what I don’t get is taking far more than necessary to survive and make a living. I see NO REASON why a company would need (as reported) $300,000.to manage a small school like Woodland Prep, the school proposed for this county.
I was offered the opportunity to be part of this charter school venture. I turned it down.
Somehow, despite my turning down this offer, my name still found its way on the original application without my permission. You would be surprised at what I went through to become disassociated from it. And I’m upset at the sly infiltration, indoctrination, and outright erosion of our culture in Washington County.
Where is the oversight of the state department of education? Is this REALLY the best use of our tax dollars? Are we so far off the course in Alabama public education that we need foreign governments to step in to save our kids? Lord Jesus, I hope not! We, Alabamians, are smarter than this.
Most of the Washington County educators and residents see Mr. Tarim (the owner of the Texas based management company contracted to run the charter) as an invader, not as someone to save our educational system. .
I beg you, Governor Ivey… I implore you… I beseech you!
Please stop this invasion! Please infuse funding into the betterment of our own truly public institutions.
And if there is anything I can do to help, here I am… a native… someone who deeply cares for children, offering my time, talent and knowledge.
Sarah B. Odom, PhD
All charter school applications must be evaluated by a qualified entity before action by the state charter school commission. From the outset, this was done by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers based in Chicago. Today it is being done by the Auburn Center for Evaluation, a part of the Auburn University College o Education.
The NACSA report for Woodland Prep, dated May 7, 2018, “takes no prisoners” so to speak. Let’s just say that had the evaluation been your report card in the 5th grade, you would have dreaded your mother seeing it.
The review concentrated on three major areas: Education Program Design & Capacity; Operations Plan & Capacity and Financial Plan & Capacity. Grades given are: Meets the Standard; Partially Meets the Standard and Does Not Meet the Standard.
Woodland Prep got Partially Meets the Standard in all three areas. This score is defined as: “The response meets the criteria in some respects, but lack detail and/or requires additional information in one or more areas.”
The Executive Summary of the NACSA review plainly says under Recommendation: DENY. And the first line of the Summary Analysis says: “The Woodland Preparatory proposal does not meet the standard for approval.”.
Now you see why you don’t want mother to see that report card.
Other comments from the evaluation:
“Woodland Prep’s educational plan does not constitute a rigorous, quality instructional design that ensures students will meet or exceed standards, particularly in high school.
The most significant concern is related to its engagement of Unity School Services. The application includes limited information about USS, its performance track record, or its capacity to support Woodland Prep. The proposal does not address what other organizations were considered, how USS was selected, or a plan for holding the ESP accountable. Applicant was not able to sufficiently address these critical aspects during the interview, which raises significant concerns about the ability of the ESP agreement..
No information is provided about its fundraising track record. This is a concern, as the applicant’s plans include raising $500,000 to launch the school and secure its facility.
The educational plan is particularly insufficient as it relates to high school. The applicant acknowledged that offering AP classes in such a small high school will be a financial challenge, and did not offer more than an assurance that it would be able to do so. The plan also does not address plans for pre-kindergarten, despite enrolling Pre-K students beginning in Year 1.”
The document goes on like this for several pages, raising concerns about staffing, facilities, financing and even a loan rate of nine percent and fundraising capacity. For instance, it says: “The board did not provide evidence of its fundraising or track record or capacity, nor did the application include letters of interest or support from potential donors.”
Something that caught my eye was the statement that the school would be located on a piece of land costing $100. However, the Corrective Warranty Deed shows Woodland Prep actually paid $91.000 for the property they are now grading.
All of which brings us to the $64,000 question. With this information at hand, how the devil did the charter school commission vote 7 to 2 to approve this application?
And when will the Montgomery bureaucrats ask questions and find out just what went on.?
As we all know, news travels fast in this high-tech world we all live in. Even if it is news coming out of rural Washington County, AL.
Dr. Diane Ravitch is in New York City. A former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, she is founder of the Network for Public Education and without doubt, one of the nation’s leading voices opposing the corporate takeover of our public schools. She also has the country’s most widely read education blog, getting 100,000 views per week.
She has now posted three pieces about Washington County. You can see them here, here and here.
And now, an article with the byline of Vakkas Dogantekin and posted in Ankara, Turkey, has shown up. Here it is.
Why all the attention? It has a lot to do with the fact that both the Woodland Prep charter and the LEAD Academy charter in Montgomery have engaged a Muslim from Texas, Soner Tarim, who has ties to the Gulen charter movement, to operate their schools. Gulen charters are very controversial due to their founder, Fetullah Gulen. Many contend that he heads the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO).
In addition to all of this attention, The Washington Post is expected to publish an article about Washington County within the next few days.
Given the situation, it is very baffling why the state department of education contends that it has no jurisdiction over the Alabama Charter School Commission and why Eric Mackey, state superintendent, seems reluctant to ask questions and come to the defense of Washington County.
After all, the state superintendent has a responsibility to the people of Alabama to work for the betterment of all public schools–not pick and choose which systems he wants to help and which ones he doesn’t.
Like most deep-friend southern boys, I like sweet iced tea. Like it a lot. Never one for coffee, I have gulped down gallons and gallons of sweet tea, morning, noon and night. A nectar of the Gods so to speak. Regardless the weather outside, nothing beats a tall glass of sweet tea with plenty of ice.
But the recent diagnosis of being diabetic has brought this delight to a screeching halt. And it has now been more than three weeks since my last glass. Now it is water with lemon. Water with lemon. More water and more lemon.
Even a night ago when I stopped by a BBQ shack to get some ribs it was water with lemon. Just did not seem American. At least American south of the Mason-Dixon line.
I have eaten so much lettuce in the last three weeks I may soon have a bushy tail. Pecan pie? forget it. Chocolate pie? Nope. Off limits. And just a few nipples of corn bread with my peas and greens.
When I was in the hospital a few days ago, one of the meals had cabbage. About 70 years ago when I was in kindergarten, we had cabbage for lunch. We also had chocolate pudding for dessert. I ate the cabbage, got sick, and missed the pudding. The hospital cabbage was the first I’d eaten since then.
So today I am at one of my favorite meat and three places here in Montgomery. One of their sides was cabbage. What the heck, I ordered it. Now I know that I have not missed anything for 70 years and will not order it again until perhaps 70 years from now.
Adjusting my diet is not easy. But I am trying. And no doubt missing the mark by a long way. But I prick my finger each morning and check my blood sugar. Was 113 this morning. Then shoot up with insulin every night. Have been to see two doctors since my episode. Both have been satisfied with how I’m doing.
Definitely need to walk more. Bought a new pair of walking shoes and have climbed on my tread mill a few times. My dear friend, Martha Peek, who retired last summer as superintendent in Mobile County, has lost 40 pounds since then. She looks great. Walking three miles a day has played a big part of her transformation. About every day or so she emails me the same question: DID YOU WALK TODAY?
I got the perfect response to her question from a 4th grader at Bear Elementary here in town. She said I should get a dog and name it “Five Miles.” Then I can tell Martha that I walk five miles every day.
And who knows, after I walk Five Miles I might sneak a glass of sweet tea. With plenty of ice.
Just as I did, John Moon with the Alabama Political Reporter, got a whiff of the stench coming from Washington County and started asking questions and digging. Josh is a veteran investigative reporter with a track record of exposing wrong doing. You can see his entire article here. I encourage you to read it all.
He zeros in on the involvement of the charter board and Texas-based education consultant Soner Tarim. Josh uncovered details that definitely make you scratch your head.
Here are excerpts:
“Woodland Prep is a charter school horror story — and it hasn’t even been built yet.
Located in rural Washington County, Woodland Prep, which will open as a K-7 school this fall and add a grade level each year, is everything state leaders assured us could never happen under Alabama’s charter school laws.
Its land is owned by a shady Utah holding company. Its building is owned by a for-profit Arizona company. It will be managed by a for-profit Texas company that doesn’t employ a single Alabamian. It will pay the head of that management company around $300,000 per year — up front. Its application was rejected by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which Alabama pays a hefty sum to review and approve charter applications. Woodland’s management plan failed to meet basic standards for approval in any of the three plan areas reviewed by NACSA.
Woodland also is not welcome in Washington County, where residents turned up at a 10-1 ratio to speak out against it last year during community meetings. And maybe most importantly, the school is not needed in the poverty-stricken county, where not a single school is failing, most exceed state averages and students are free to attend any school in the county they wish.
The Commission ignored the community outcry against Woodland and failed to even discuss the need — or lack thereof — for a charter school in the county. Both of those are specific requirements within Alabama’s charter school law for the Commission to consider during its public meetings.
Additionally, charter schools approved in Alabama are, according to Alabama’s law, required to meet “national standards.” To assure those standards are met, Alabama lawmakers assured a concerned public that a “top-notch” national body — to quote two state representatives — would be contracted to review every application before those applications would be considered by the Commission. NACSA is that group, and Alabama pays it nearly $100,000 per year to review applications, and then the Commission ignores its advice.
But in response to my questions, ALSDE decided to be flippant. It directed questions about community opposition to “commissioners who attended the meetings,” despite the fact that ALSDE video recorded each meeting. It disputed that the Commission has a responsibility to monitor and oversee the charter schools it approves, stating that “the Commission may monitor …” the schools. And finally, when asked about the out-of-state ownership and management of Woodland, ALSDE said those questions should be directed to one of those out-of-state groups.
It seems that one name in my story about LEAD had caught their attention: Soner Tarim. Tarim is the CEO of Unity School Services and was the founder of Harmony Schools, a mostly-successful charter school group in Texas. Tarim and Harmony also have their very serious problems, not least of which is their ties to a Muslim cleric and controversial preacher from Turkey, Fetullah Gulen, and his Gulen Movement.
Numerous reports from the New York Times to Reuters and other local news outlets linked Harmony and Tarim to Gulen, and some labeled Harmony a financial front for Gulen’s movement. While Gulen espouses a more moderate brand of Islam, his movement has been labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey, which has accused Gulen and his followers of attempting to overthrow the Turkish government. Others dispute those claims, and believe the terrorist label is unfairly applied to Gulen, who has shown no proclivity for violence.
“No one could figure out why someone from Texas would come to little ol’ Washington County for a charter school,” said Brackin, who is the federal programs coordinator for the system.
The answer was easy and expected: Money.
A copy of the USS contract with the Woodland Prep board shows that Tarim will make 15 percent of all federal, state and local funds received by Woodland. Which means that for every student allotment — and Woodland estimates in its application that the per-pupil allotment will be more than $8,200 — Tarim will make 15 percent off the top. If Woodland’s projected enrollment of 260 students is accurate, Tarim will make more than $300,000.
“He’ll be the highest paid man in Washington County,” wrote one county official who asked not to be identified.
But there’s more. Under the terms of his contract, he also is allowed to keep all profits from any school programs, such as pre-K or after-school trainings, and he is free to use Woodland Prep to apply for any grants.
According to the deed for the land, Woodland Prep’s local school board, Washington County Students First, isn’t the owner of the land. Instead, a holding company — Woodland Charter Holdings — in Utah holds the deed. That company has one registered agent — Jennifer Lind of Utah. According to online records, Lind is the agent of record for at least two dozen charter holding companies in Utah — most of them tied to charter schools thousands of miles away from Utah.
According to records kept by the State of Utah, Woodland Charter Holdings also has just one registered executive: American Charter Development. The same company contracted with the charter board to finance and build the Woodland school building.
So, why all of the layers of ownership? Judging by similar ownership of other charter schools, it’s to mitigate risk to the company financing the project and to allow for the easy sale or transfer of ownership of the land, school building or all of the assets.
Forming a holding company in Utah, where banking laws are particularly lenient, allows for the investors — American Charter Development, in this case — to set up a financial buffer between it and the debt incurred by Woodland Prep. If the school goes broke and has to close, it’s the holding company left on the hook, not ACD.
That means that ACD has relinquished its ownership of the Woodland Prep school to a holding company that ACD owns, and now ACD will charge itself rent and interest — paid for by the tax dollars that were once flowing into Washington County schools.
And make no mistake, ACD is rolling in the cash — receiving 6 percent of the “total development costs” in monthly lease payments, according to the heavily redacted contract it signed with Woodland Prep’s board. That fee does not include a guaranteed 8.9 percent capitalization rate that ACD is guaranteed.”
As Josh has pointed out, what has happened in rural Washington County is MURKY, and then some. And increasingly, various public officials are wondering why the state board of education and the state school superintendent seem so reluctant to ask questions of the charter commission and get to the bottom of what has taken place and why.
The legislature has little confidence in the state school board. Senator Del Marsh calls them :dysfunctional.” Yesterday a bill to term limit state board members came out of the House Education Policy Committee. Last year there was an effort in the Senate to switch to an appointed state board.
The situation in Washington County is tarnishing the board’s reputation and effectiveness even more.