The first time I remember seeing my name in print was 55 years ago this summer. I was sports editor of The Auburn Plainsman that summer and each week had my name and photo attached to a column I wrote. Which is just another way of saying I have been around a long time and have read the work of many reporters.
During all this observation, I have always been amazed at how two journalists can work with the same info and impart two totally different views on something that occurred.
The June 9, 2020 decision by the state charter school commission to revoke the charter of Woodland Prep in Washington County being a prime example. Within a few hours, both AL.com and the Alabama Political Reporter had articles on-line about what happened. You can read the AL.com article here and the APR one here.
While the APR article is labeled as “opinion,” this is not the case with the AL.com piece. And you only have to get to the third paragraph to get a strong whiff of which way the wind is blowing.
That paragraph says: Woodland Prep attorney Nash Campbell said, “It’s just a little disturbing that a large group of people that threaten businesses, threaten people–and also essentially used religious and racial elements–caused this school to never get off the ground.”
The reporter than proceeded to relate several paragraphs to talking points of the charter supporters, most of which were never substantiated or verified and were questioned by legal action of the Alabama Education Association. There are no quotes or comments from anyone in Washington County who opposed the charter.
On the other hand, APR reporter Josh Moon largely related how Washington County residents, lead by Betty Brackin, were relentless for two years in expressing their opposition, doing their homework and simply refusing to stop standing their ground.
Washington County has been around longer than Alabama has. Alabama became a state in 1819. Before that, Washington County was the first territorial capital, it became the first state county in June, 1800. It had the first bank in the county.
Point being that folks in this southwest corner of the state have been running their own affairs for a very long time. And when folks from Texas and Utah showed up two years ago to tell them they knew more about schools than the locals folks did, their racket fell on deaf ears.
And had the “outsiders” been nearly as smart as they wanted folks to think they were, they would have figured this out and kept on going.
After a two-year battle that seemed to have more lives than a houseful of cats, the state charter school commission voted today (June 9) to revoke the charter granted in 2018 to Woodland Prep charter school in Washington County.
How many articles have I written about this? At least 50. And to be honest, I got to the point where I began to doubt that I would ever have the chance to write a headline like the one above.
In the end, it was as much a story about a very rural community that simply refused to quit fighting and standing up for what it believed in strongly. It was about a community that takes pride in its public schools and refused to be bulldozed by a group of education “experts” from out-of-state who were far more intent on making money than helping children.
It was about doing what is right and honest and not falling victim to those who would twist the truth to suit their own purposes. And at this especially troublesome time when good intentions seem thrown to the wind, this action sends a message all of Alabama can take heart in. An action that awards steadfast faith and gives more meaning to what good neighbors are supposed to represent.
No doubt there are right now many smiles in Washington County, but equally as important are all the prayers of thanks that steadfast conviction and loyalty to one another will be rewarded.
Part of the sideshow conducted by the state charter commission on May 28 about whether or not to revoke the charter for Woodland Prep charter in Washington County was the chance for the school to impress commission members with all the expertise they have assembled to work on the school.
This is why someone named Angela K. Hansen was introduced via telephone midway through the afternoon. Seems that she was just appointed to the Woodland Prep board. No one on the commission knew her, but this was no surprise since she lives in Salt Lake City, Utah and admitted that she has never been to Washington County.
The Woodland Prep site and building is owned by American Charter Development of Utah. Hansen has a close relationship with ACD charters in Utah and North Carolina and this is obviously why she was nominated. (It is highly unlikely that other Woodland Prep board members had any relationship with someone 1,900 miles away who had never been to their county.)
The financial sitaution of Woodland Prep has been a major issue from the get go. It was discussed at length at the May 28 hearing. According to Hansen, she was brought on board because of her expertise and experience in school financing and ability to get schools on sound financial footing.
Hansen failed to tell the commission that she has just been declared bankrupt by the Federal Bankruptcy Court in Salt Lake City. Go here to see documentation.
Really now? And we’re gonna hire the town drunk to be the new preacher at the first Baptist church?
This was basically the tone of the entire hearing. People in Washington County are so uneducated and backward that we anything we say about them will be believed.
You had to hear it to believe it.
Subcontractors have been bullied and threatened and left the job. But no one has any documentation. Locals have made endless requests to get public records and this has somehow hampered the school from opening.. (Charter schools are public schools and their records are supposed to be public and it is perfectly legal to make such requests.)
Retired public school superintendent Joe Walters has been hired to be the school “leader.” When he was asked what is the major obstacle the school has in order to open in August, he said, “No one has any experience in charter schools.” When asked when the school building will be ready, Walters said, “All I have to go on is hearsay and guesswork.”
Time after time the Woodland Prep attorney asked his witnesses how many students will the school have. No one had an answer. Just vague references to “people are scared to sign up their kids,” or, “Probably 25 people in other counties say they will send their kids there.”
The only concrete number ever mentioned was 117.
Andy Craig is deputy state superintendent of education for the state. School finances are his specialty. He testified that it will be virtually impossible to run a viable school with only 117 students.
This circus has gone on for two years now. Delay after delary. Excuse after escuse. Always the other guy’s fault.
There are TWO billion acres in the continental United States. And out of all of them, some folks in Utah and Houston decided they would build an unwanted school on 10 of them in the middle of nowhere in south Alabama. In an area that, like rural places across this country, are drying up and blowing away.
And these rednecks, ate up with racism and hate and meanness and prejudice and generation of clannishness, don’t love us. They don’t trust our endless tall tails, They don’t believe our hearts are pure.
And guess what? Neither do I.
(The next installment of this ugly episode is supposed to unfold on June 9 when the charter commission will vote whether or not to revoke the Woodland Prep charter.)
This is not easy to write. The reason being that I spent 6+ hours on zoom today watching the state charter school commission hold another session about Woodland Prep charter, in Washington County.
It was sickening to say the least. Woodland Prep brought in one witness after another who had nothing but contempt for the folks of Washington County
The purpose of this meeting was to hear pro and con arguments as to whether or not the charter for Woodland Prep (that was granted two years ago this month) should be revoked.
At the end of the day we heard from the contractor who had nice charts about rainfall, the school leader (who is the only employee), someone who works part time for the school (and had to quit her church because people were mean to her), the board chair who does not live in the county and takes his kids to private school in Mississippi, a woman from McIntosh who has no kids in school, a former educator who has no kids in school, a businessman who has kids in public school, a brand new board member who lives in Utah, like Salt Lake City. And Mike Morley, founder of American Charter Development also in Utah, the company who owns the building and is paying all the bills.
At the end of the day, they were all victims who have been bullied and mistreated by the redneck masses of the county. they are just concerned about bringing good schools to Washington County. (that includes the board member from Utah who has never been to the county.)
Morley was a legislator in Utah for 10 years. He is “slick.” even though he can’t keep his stories straight. For example he said his company did not get involved with Woodland Prep until their charier was approved. He apparently forgot his company helped prepare the application.
He was also asked did it concern him that the National Association of Charter School Authorizers rejected the application partly on how lacking their budget plans were.(plans his company helped develop) He said it did not because a charter should not have to depend on outside money. This seemed unusual since one of his vice presidents put together Woodland Prep’s fund-raising plans. So why does a company spend money on something that is meaningless?
Yes, I am biased, but it was a rag tag effort. And tax payers from this state should not be treated with such disdain as they were today It was sickening.
Oh. The outcome? Stay tuned. The charter commission will have another meeting on June 9 to decide what to do.
This is how we should conduct state business? Of course not, but who am I?
Keith Beech is a native of Washington County. He left to go to vet school at Auburn University years ago and came home to run his veterinary clinic.
He is strong supporter of the county’s public schools, has two children in school, a wife who teaches and he serves on the Washington County school board.
And like hundreds of other local school board members across the state, he is grappling with the great uncertainly now facing schools due to the virus pandemic. The biggest one, no doubt, is finances. At some point soon the legislature will have to develop an education trust fund budget for the upcoming fiscal year. This will be a daunting task because of the toll the economic slowdown is causing to state revenues.
Because of this, many have predicted that the next budget will be “bare bones” and many programs will have to be cut drastically or eliminated. It will be up to Keith Beech and his colleagues to make very difficult decisions.
Among other things, this means trying to come up with the best numbers for each system as to how many students they will have and then adjusting the numbers of classrooms and teachers needed. It’s a giant juggling act that is especially hard for rural systems like Washington County.
May is when most such decisions are made.
But as things stand right now, Washington County is the only rural system facing double jeopardy. Not only will they have to contend with the pandemic impact, but they are still under the cloud of whether or not a charter school will open in the county and divert even more funding from public schools.
So Keith sat down and whipped off an email to the 10 members of the state charter school commission detailing the decision he and his other board members face and how a charter will harm them.
Here is what he wrote:
“This Woodland Prep fiasco has gone on long enough. (The state approved this school in May 2018) It is past time for the Charter commission to act. We are into lawyer games now and they will prolong the inevitable indefinitely. This does not serve the education of our children. May is fast approaching and that is when decisions are made about terminating or retaining teachers. Those decisions are made impossible by the uncertainty of whether Woodland Prep will open. If we retain teachers based on the numbers we have presently, and then you foolishly decide to allow Woodland to open, we will have to terminate teachers after they could have found a job elsewhere.
If we keep teachers in limbo, waiting to see what happens, then those teachers may seek employment elsewhere. Retaining good teachers is tough in a rural setting and to lose some because of inaction in Montgomery will be very troubling. As you can see it is past time for this uncertainty to be over. It is in no one’s best interest for the possibility of Woodland to open to exist. Revoke the charter and allow us to move on and deal with other crises the corona virus has caused.”
The charter commission began the process in February to revoke the charter for Woodland Prep. Initially they we going to take action in March. This has now been postponed to at least May.
In the meantime, Keith Beech is left to twist in the wind.
(As of this writing, Beech had not received a response to his email from any charter commission members.)
Drive by any school in Alabama (during more normal times) and what do you expect to find? Classrooms. Students. Teachers. Textbooks. Computers. A curriculum. Someone in charge.
But nearly two years after the Alabama charter school commission gave the go ahead to Woodland Prep charter in Washington County there is no school facility, no classrooms, no students, no teachers, no textbooks, no curriculum.
Just an endless string of broken promises, missed deadlines, lack of due diligence and questionable decisions. It all adds up to one of the sorriest chapters in Alabama public education, fueled in large part by incompetence at multiple levels.
Red flags were ignored from the outset.
Where was the public support? It was never there. Instead, the idea for this school was promoted by someone without school age children who was motivated by animosity toward the public school system. She wanted to get even. This is hardly the right motive for taking on a challenge of this magnitude.
Then she joined forces with Texas conman Soner Tarim, someone with a controversial background and a gift for gab. The handful of folks trying to launch Woodland Prep fell under Tarim’s spell. This was a fatal mistake.
Tarim wrote the application submitted to the state charter school commission. But when his handiwork was reviewed by the National Association of Charter School Auhorizers, they said it did not meet muster and should be denied. But in their infinite wisdom, the charter commission ignored the info they paid thousands of dollars to obtain and approved Woodland Prep in May 2018.
The application was chock full of inaccuracies and misrepresentations. “Letters of support” were unsigned. Figures that could not be verified were allowed to stand. Data from questionable sources was not challenged.
Plainly, the staff for the state charter commission did not do a decent job of due diligence. Had they, it would have been impossible to not see the numerous red flags in the application.
Both Tarim and the charter board are now being sued for fraud and misrepresentation by the Alabama Education Association. Attorneys for the charter have tried to derail this suit, but without success. Plaintiff attorneys are now trying to do “discovery”, but continue to get the run around from defendants. Woodland Prep attorneys tried to get Circuit Court Judge Gaines McCorquodale to dismiss the suit. He did not. Now they have appealed his ruling to the state Court of Civil Appeals.
The charter commission has 10 members who are appointed by various state officials. Of the seven who voted to approve Woodland Prep in May 2008, only two of them remain on the commission. Five of the seven have been replaced, including the chairman, Mac Buttram, who was unceremoniously dumped by Governor Ivey last August.
Word in Washington County now is that Tarim is no longer involved with Woodland Prep and they are looking for another
Education Management Organization (EMO).
(Tarim was also the EMO for Montgomery’s LEAD Academy, a school plagued by obstacles since it opened in August. He prepared this application as well and it ALSO was not recommended for approval by NACSA. However, as with Woodland Prep, the commission ignored this recommendation. At the same time NACSA gave Woodland and LEAD a bad recommendation, they did the same for a third charter application for a school in Bessemer. But this school did not use Tarim and the charter commission did not approve it.
(Down in Covington County things such as this are sometimes known as “home cooking.”)
To their credit, the charter commission voted in February to begin proceedings to revoke the Woodland Prep charter. Initially they called for a March 24, 2020 hearing to handle this matter. This was then delayed to April 20, though no one can figure out who authorized such action. This date has now also been delayed until some time in “early to mid-May.” Apparently this hearing must be face-to-face with the charter commission and due to the coronavirus pandemic, who knows when this may be possible.
And once again the good folks of Washington County who oppose Woodland Prep are left to dangle. Left to wonder how their public school system, which is rated a B by the state of Alabama, will cope with losing up to $2 million in funding should Woodland Prep ever become a reality.
Truth is, the charter is in worse shape today than when it was approved. Tarim WAS the school. He was the only voice speaking on its behalf before charter commission meetings. Never once do I recall a parent speaking in support of Woodland Prep.
(In the last year Tarim has tried to get approval to open charters in Texas and Nevada. He has been turned down in both states.)
Without him there is no curriculum, no on-the-ground expertise, just the shell of an unfinished building.
Nothing but more deception, more efforts by people trying to make some money, more excuses.
It’s all bogus. A fake school that exists in name only. An example of what happens when people don’t do their job and follow their common sense.
This should have never happened. And it is way past time for it to be ended.