Editor’s note: Alyson Ford is a mother in the Charlotte, NC area. It wasn’t long after she enrolled one of her sons in a charter school that she began to feel something was amiss. Soon she was attending board meetings of the school and digging into financial records. What she found was disturbing and even led to conversations with the FBI.
What does this have to do with Alabama? Many of the players Alyson has uncovered are involved with American Charter Development of Springville, Utah. This company is heavily involved with both LEAD Academy in Montgomery and Woodland Prep in Washington County and has close ties to Soner Tarim.
Here is Alyson’s story:
“I have two boys. One has only attended charter schools. The other has attended traditional public schools, as well as charter schools.
My son enrolled at Lakeside Charter Academy in November 2017, during their rebranding and name change from Thunderbird Preparatory Academy. He stayed through the 2018-2019 school year (4th grade). My stepson began at Lakeside in January 2018, for 4th grade. We withdrew him at the start of the 2018-2019 school year.
We chose the charter school route for several reasons. The biggest being that one son has a severe peanut allergy. The thought of him eating lunch in a cafeteria, surrounded by peanut butter sandwiches was terrifying. Our district schools are much larger than charters as well. We liked the idea of smaller schools for our boys. We like the sense of community offered at many charter schools.
We were aware of the negative press since Thunderbird opened in 2014. I studied the North Carolina Charter School Advisory Board meeting minutesl. The school was frequently in trouble and on the verge of having their charter revoked.
We toured the school and found the interim principal amazing. She was the reason we took the leap of faith. We were cautiously optimistic when enrolling at Lakeside Charter Academy (formerly Thunderbird Prep).
Given the school’s past I vowed to be very involved and attend board meetings. I was especially curious about the EB5 investors involved with the school. Even though I repeatedly asked questions regarding this I never received much clarity. Sadly, the more I attended board meetings the more unanswered questions I had.
I became quite suspicious of what I was being told. I continued asking questions and researching all involved parties/companies. I didn’t like what I was finding.
I had a feeling these businessmen from Utah weren’t wanting to educate my boys out of the goodness of their heart. There had to be a monetary motivator. Where could money be coming from given the depressingly low enrollment that has plagued the school for most of its existence and years of missed rent payments?
I took a trip to the Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds office where I reviewed the sales history of the property, as well as work permits.
The property was initially purchased on May 5, 2014 by Provo Land Exchange, LLC for $1,300,000.
Six months later ALA Anthem Enterprises, LLC another Mike Morley enity (he founded American Charter Development and is a former legislator in Utah) became the property owner in a dollar free transaction. According to the work permits it appears that about two million dollars was spent on construction costs.
On June 18, 2015 ALA Anthem sold the land and buildings to Vertex iii, LLC for $7,650,000. Quite the whopping return on a minimal investment. I say minimal because three million dollars came from EB5 investors from China. It would appear that ACD and the Morley family wasn’t out any of their own money for the initial purchase and construction of this small school.
A curious side note about Vertex iii, LLC is the name of the registered agent; Jared Haddock. Upon further review of Mr. Haddock it appears that he is the President of the Alumni Association of the Board of Directors at Utah State University Eastern. Coincidentally Mike Morley is the Vice President of the same board.
June 30, 2017 Vertex iii, LLC sold their property to AEP Charter Thunderbird for $9,225,000.
This next sale occurred during our time at the school. On December 21,2018 Lakeside Charter Holdings, LLC purchased the school for $9.5 million. What I find quite odd is that during this time Taft Morley, COO of American Charter Development, was also the chairman of the board of directors at Lakeside Charter. He knows the schools financial struggles better than anyone. Why would he want his company, ACD, to purchase a failing school for such an inflated price? The assessed value of the land at this time was $3,315,300. This doesn’t seem like a wise business move.
If I was a betting person I would say most, if not all, of these sales are bogus and only on record to drive up the cost of rent paid to ACD via tax dollar money.
Upon review of various contracts ACD schools have with their tenants it appears that if the school fails to make payments ACD then has the authority to take over as the managing body of said school. I believe this is what happened at Lakeside. The school was set up for financial failure and completely incapable of meeting the astronomical rent demands thus opening the door for ACD to take over.
As my concerns arose I wanted to understand how this school went from max enrollment to barely staying open. It always came back to finances and the board of directors. The ethically questionable finances were alarming. In fact, I received a call from two FBI agents at the Charlotte Field Office. At the completion of the face to face interview I was told that it appeared there was fraud regarding Lakeside Charter Academy.”
Oh the webs we weave under the guise of helping children.
The voice on the other end of the phone line was polite, filled with the conviction of youth and disappointed that all people claiming to want the best for children are not sincere.
I’d heard the same voice hundreds of times before. Young people who had planned all their life to work with children, who had been “called” to do so. Voices full of both enthusiasm and innocence. Their mission was to save the world one child at a time. To give love and care and lots of hugs.
And so it was with the young lady I was talking to.
Except, she took a job at Montgomery’s LEAD Academy charter school and within a few weeks came to the jarring conclusion that what she faced each day was NOT what schools should be. A place were promises were not kept, administration was haphazard at best and money seemed to drive every decision.
She had a master’s degree and taught in a private school in Birmingham before joining LEAD. Why a charter school I asked. “Because I heard they offer more freedom to teachers,” she replied.
That was not what she found. And only weeks after going to work, she left behind a school she believes is not doing a good job of educating their students and one she would not recommend as a work place for another teacher.
She taught kindergarten and was so dedicated to her new job that she communed daily from Birmingham. She was interviewed by now dismissed principal Nicole Ivey and hired by the school’s board in June. She spent $650 on classroom supplies, but was not reimbursed after being told she would be. She was told she needed teaching “centers” in her room–but got no funding for them. Her paycheck for August was a week and one half late and about $1,200 less than she thought it would be. She got the remainder of her August check in September.
She did not get a contract until Sept. 27. To her surprise, it stated that she would be an “at will” employee, someone who could be terminated at any time. She did not sign it and resigned three days later. She was the second of five teachers to leave, along with the school nurse and special education director. When she left, all remaining teachers except one, were first year, including one with no education degree or certification
Two of her students also left.
The climate at the school? “Extremely chaotic,” she said. “Teachers got little support from the administration which was primarily LEAD board chair Charlotte Meadows and consultant Soner Tariim. “It was not a pleasant place to work,” she told me, “there was a feeling of discomfort and Soner Tarim was rude to teachers.”
Meadows would visit classrooms and tell faculty what to do. Who did she report to I asked. This brought a laugh. “We were constantly told different things by different people.” she said.
Finally the chaos and broken promises and lack of a clear chain of command were too much. She resigned.
Amazingly, when I talked to her she was not bitter. (Young people are like that you know.) But she was definitely disappointed that her motivation to help children in any way possible was obviously not the motivation for why this school began.
She is now looking for another teaching job. She will find one I’m sure. Let’s pray her dream of helping children still burns bright, which I think it does, and that at her next stop she will find administrators with the same desire.
Halloween was more trick than treat for LEAD Academy charter school in Montgomery as that was the day former principal, Nichole Ivey, filed a civil legal action against board chairperson Charlotte Meadows, the other three board members and the school’s education consultant, Soner Tarim, of Houston, TX.
The suit, which alleges fraud and breach of contract, documents an assortment complaints, ranging from Meadows using school property for a political campaign, discrimination against special education students, miscue of funds and much more.
LEAD responded with a three sentence statement saying that Ivey is “a disgruntled former employee who is providing false and misleading information in order to try and salvage her reputation.”
However, an attorney friend of many years reviewed the filing and told me that if only half of the allegations are true, LEAD has major problems.
The suit can be seen here.
Let’s take a look at some highlights
- Ivey was hired by the LEAD board on April 29, 2019: She began work in May. Her agreed upon salary was $95,000 annually. Shortly after, this was dropped to $93,000 and she was told that she would be an “at-will” employee, something that had never been discussed.
- In June the Montgomery Area Association of Realtors gave LEAD $200,000 in startup funding. However, the suit contends that Meadows only put $100,000 into the school’s account and put the other $100,000 in a separate account controlled by herself and a board member. Ivey had no knowledge of how this money was being used.
- Charter board members can not be involved in day-to-day management of a school. However, Meadows assumed the role of CEO going so far as to demand to attend parent-teacher meetings. (Meadows told a Montgomery radio show that she is only a “volunteer.”)
- Meadows used the school’s finance office for her own political activities. Ivey could not access school financial records.
- Meadows decreed that all school supplies had to be purchased from a company where her campaign chair works.
- An effort was made to minimize students with special needs. Meadows denies this and told the Montgomery Advertiser that LEAD has 19 special needs students. According to the state department of education, LEAD reported an enrollment of 348 students. This means only 5.4 percent of the student population falls in this category. I checked with a number of elementary schools in the Montgomery system and this is less than one-half the percentage of traditional public schools.
- Meadows signed checks without having purchase orders or invoices and without checks being signed by principal Ivey.
- Meadows reportedly told staff to tell parents of special education students “they can’t come here.” The suit also alleges that Meadows said, “We’re a charter school, we don’t have to follow the law.”
- Consultant Tarim and Meadows over-rode the principal on discipline recommendations in fear of losing students which would limit their allocation of state funding.
- Staff was required to attend 15 days of professional development, but only paid for attending seven days.
- There was a lack of adequate health care when the school nurse was not on site. The nurse resigned because LEAD refused to comply with state law regarding student health.
- Tarim is paid $30,000 per month and his duties include such things as handling human resource issues, background checks, developing a faculty handbook, professional development, grant writing, food service, financial maintenance and purchasing. However, Ivey handled these tasks, not Tarim.
- Ivey was told on Sept. 27 by Meadows that the school. “moving in a different direction.” Ivey had no formal evaluation or formal reprimand.
How will this all play out? No one knows. But this is certainly a lot of smoke for there to be no fire.
Editor’s note: Meadows served on the Montgomery County school board from 2006-12. Durden Dean was elected to this same slot when Meadows did not run again. Dean resigned in the summer of 2018 to move to North Carolina. It was up to the school board to fill the few months left in his term. Board member Lisa Keith nominated Meadows to fill this vacancy. She could not get a second to her nomination. I was then selected for this position.
Meadows was also nominated by senate majority leader Del Marsh in 2016 for a seat on the state charter commission. Her nomination was rejected by the state school board.
Here in Montgomery, rumors about LEAD Academy charter school, which opened this fall, have swirled for weeks. About discipline issues, lack of resources, class sizes, teachers quitting, students withdrawing, etc. And the rumor mill really cranked up when the school fired their principal, Nicole Ivey, only a few weeks into the school year.
As reported by Josh Moon of the Alabama Political Reporter Nov. 1, Ivey has filed suit against LEAD for fraud and breach of contract.
Here is his article in its entirety:
“The administration at LEAD Academy tried to prevent students with learning disabilities from enrolling. LEAD board president Charlotte Meadows and another board member controlled a private bank account. Meadows used the school to run her campaign for the Alabama House and directed school funds to her campaign manager and her niece. Teachers and other employees at the school haven’t been paid money they were promised, and LEAD officials attempted to alter contracts several weeks, even months, after the employees began working.
Those are just some of the allegations made in a fraud and breach of contract lawsuit filed on Thursday by former LEAD principal Nicole Ivey.
Those allegations were largely confirmed by current and former LEAD teachers, who spoke to APR in recent days, and who presented even more issues that they’ve encountered at Montgomery’s first charter school.
I wrote about many of Ivey’s allegations several weeks ago, following her departure from the school. But some of the most damning revelations in her lawsuit were simply unconfirmed rumors at the time.
Now, however, they are laid bare in a court filing, and they are being discussed openly among the staff members of LEAD, including several who are no longer at the school. (APR has learned that six teachers and one nurse have left the school since the school year began in August.)
Ivey’s position was filled by Ibrahim Lee, and that hire possibly violates Alabama ethics laws. Lee was a member of the Alabama Charter School Commission, which has oversight of all charter schools, including LEAD. On several occasions, Lee voted on matters involving LEAD and played a role in the school being allowed to open.
According to the applicable ethics laws, which are part of the state’s “revolving door” ban, that level of oversight should disqualify Lee from being hired by LEAD, or any other charter school in the state, for two years. The reason for such a ban is that it prevents elected or appointed officials, who are in a position of oversight, from providing favorable decisions or votes in the hopes of being offered a lucrative job by an entity or business that person is regulating.
If he is allowed to hang around, Lee will inherit a mess, according to Ivey, who said she was constantly overruled in that job by Meadows and Soner Tarim, who operates the company, Unity School Services, which was hired to serve as a sort of central office for LEAD. Despite a clear provision in LEAD’s application to the commission which prohibits board members from being involved in the daily functions of the school, Ivey said Meadows was there every day, making decisions and usurping Ivey’s power.
But while all of that was bad enough, the most startling allegations from Ivey — and supported by at least two other teachers — are that Meadows and other LEAD administrators have actively worked to deter students with special needs from enrolling at LEAD, and that they’ve also attempted to push special needs students out.
Why? For money, of course.
Ivey claims in her lawsuit that eliminating as many special needs students as possible increases revenue for the school tremendously, because LEAD won’t have to spend dollars on hiring personnel required by federal laws to educate those students. So, Ivey says, Meadows and Tarim have attempted to deter or push out all special needs students.
The school has done this, according to Ivey, by simply not attempting to follow federal laws and by not providing the special needs students with a proper education.
“Tell them they can’t come here,” Meadows is alleged to have said about special needs students, according to Ivey’s lawsuit. That comment was made prior to enrollment opening and was, according to the lawsuit, made in front of several staff members.
The awfulness doesn’t end there.
Ivey also accuses Meadows and another board member, Lori White, of mishandling school funds, including a $200,000 donation from the Montgomery County Association of Realtors. Ivey said half of that money went into a “foundation account,” which is controlled exclusively by Meadows and White.
Ivey said she didn’t know what happened to that half of the money, but that it had not been expended to aid students at LEAD.
But Ivey does know where some other LEAD money went — into the pockets of people close to Meadows.
Ivey said Meadows’ father, Charles Borden, was a constant presence at the school, and that school faculty were forced to attend a training session at his lake house. (A lake house where several Confederate flags were prominently displayed.) Ivey hinted that Borden could have been paid from the “foundation” account.
Meadows also skirted state bid laws, according to Ivey’s lawsuit, by hiring her niece to provide professional development and website creation. If that wasn’t bad enough, Meadows also directed staff, according to Ivey’s lawsuit, to purchase all supplies through Imperial Dade company, whose sales rep for that area is Megan Rhea Lewis — Meadows’ campaign manager.
It’s worth pointing out, again, that numerous people attempted to stop this debacle of a school from opening, including the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. The NACSA essentially flunked LEAD’s application in all three of the major areas of function that it reviews. In doing so, the NACSA noted LEAD’s lack of proper special education instructors and questioned oversight of the school’s financials.
Ivey and the other teachers who spoke to APR have called the school and its management team a “nightmare.” In addition to the stated problems, they also talked about constant issues with paychecks. For example, multiple teachers said they received significantly less pay than originally promised.
Teachers have not received promised compensation for training just prior to the school year, several teachers said. And promised benefits still haven’t shown up, two months into the school year.
The results are what you’d expect: nearly one-third of LEAD’s faculty has resigned since the start of the school year and several students have disenrolled as well. One parent who wrote to APR said that when she finally had enough of the dysfunction and went to LEAD to remove her son, the front office workers admitted to her that they never received her child’s transcripts or birth certificate.
“They hadn’t even verified that he was in the right grade or what his name was,” the parent wrote. “When we withdrew, not a single question was asked — not why, or can we have a discussion. Nothing. I signed a single piece of paper and we left. The one thought I had leaving there was: this place needs to be shut down.”
Editor’s note: There is a direct link between LEAD Academy and Woodland Prep in Washington County. They both employ Soner Tarim as their “education consultant.” When the applications for both schools were reviewed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers the national group recommended that neither be approved. However, the state charter school commission ignored this advice and approved both.
Last June Tarim told the Texas state school board that Alabama did not know how to grade an application–until he showed them. This was after he said that he prepared the Woodland Prep application. In other words, he claims that he helped grade an application that he also prepared.
How much more of a mess do we need to see before the charter commission does what is right and pulls the plug on Soner Tarim and his colleagues?
There was a pep rally, complete with high school cheerleaders and a pep band, at Chatom Elementary on Friday morning, Oct. 18, even though the K-4 school has no football team. And there was good cause as this is when students at this Washington County school got the news that their school earned an A on the latest Alabama public school report card.
You an watch it on this Facebook link.
Chatom is one of 170 elementary schools in the state to earn an A. The vast majority of these are in more affluent systems with significant local funding.
“This is just more affirmation of the progress this entire school system is making,” said one long-time administrator. The entire system is rated as a B. There are seven schools in this system. One is an A, four are a B and only two are a C. No other system in southwest Alabama is rated higher.
This news is significant as Woodland Prep charter continues its effort to open a school north of Chatom. It’s hard to imagine that many parents will take their children from an A rated school to one with no track record. Woodland Prep is proposed to be a K-8 school and open in the 2020-21 school year. Chatom is the nearest elementary school to the charter site.
The only other elementary school in the county is at McIntosh. (Elementary grades are part of the K-12 schools at Millry, Fruitdale and Leroy.) It is rated as a C. However, it is at least 30 miles from the Woodland Prep site. Since parents will have to furnish transportation to any student attending Woodland Prep, it is not very likely that many students from the McIntosh area will attend the proposed charter.
(Charter supporters originally indicated that the charter would be located near McIntosh. In fact, their charter application to the state charter school commission had a support letter from a then county commissioner based on this information. However, when this commissioner, who did not seek re-election, learned the truth, he recanted his support.)
Congratulations to everyone at Chatom Elementary. You have made your community proud.
At its essence, the charter commission is actually a bank. And every taxpayer in Alabama has a stake in how they conduct business..
What the charter commission really does is decide how taxpayer money will be invested, to the tune of about $8,500 per student who attends a charter school. It is up to them to decide if this money is invested wisely or poorly.
This was crystal clear in a riveting moment at the September 30 charter commission meeting when a member told Soner Tarim that the commission wanted him to succeed in Washington County and they should do anything they could to make this happen.
OMG. The person who made the statement had just listened to Tarim spend nearly an hour dodging direct questions, trying to play the victim and making up one excuse after another. The same guy the Texas state school board sent packing in June when he wanted to open four charter schools in Austin. The same guy who is being sued for fraud because of all the misrepresentations in the Woodland Prep charter application (which he told folks in Texas he prepared). And we want to help him succeed?
When someone approaches the charter commission seeking approval for a new school, they are looking for money. It is the duty and responsibility of the commission to decide if investing in this charter makes sense. Just like a banker does when someone wants to borrow money to open a new business.
When this happens, one of the first things the banker wants to know is how much money will this new business owner invest themselves. The bank is not going to take 100 percent of the risk and if the person seeking the loan is not willing to invest themselves, then why should the bank?
The charter commission should require that any new charter applicant show in writing that they have raised at least $250,000 in local money. If the local community is not willing to support this venture with their dollars, then why should Alabama taxpayers go out on a limb?
The banker will also do proper due diligence and determine if this new business venture makes sense. Is there a market for the services or goods the borrower is proposing to furnish.
This is where the charter commission has badly mishandled the Woodland Prep situation.
Soner Tarim claims that he will offer a curriculum that with be heavy on science and technology and prepare Washington County students to go to college to be engineers, doctors, etc. He obviously thinks that one size fits all. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
But some homework shows us Washington County does not need–nor want–what Tarim is peddling. Sure, they graduate bright students who have their eyes on college and the possibilities a college degree may afford them.
But of the 67 counties in Alabama, only four of them (Pickens, Clay, Coosa and Conecuh) have less people over the age of 25 with a college degree than Washington County does. On the other hand, Washington County has the highest average weekly wage ($1,152) of any county in the state. This is 30 percent above the state average. In addition, Washington County ranks No.19 in the state in median income, wedged between Mobile and Montgomery.
Plus, ACT Work Ready Communities has declared Washington County as a “certified Work Ready Community.” This means the community links workforce development to education; aligns with the economic development needs of the community; and matches individuals to jobs based on skill levels. In other words, they are tailoring education to what the public wants. They are preparing graduates for good-paying jobs in the area.
The charter commission, at least the one in place prior to four new members being appointed in August, obviously did not bother to do their homework and figure all of this out.. Instead of listening to the local community and understanding its dynamics, they chose to listen to a guy from Texas who is only trying to get money out of Alabama taxpayers. However, there is reason to believe that the most recent appointments to the commission are looking for accountability, not just the smoke and mirrors Tarim has given them.
In a nutshell, Tarim wants to open a Neiman-Marcus where folks are doing just fine with only a Dollar General.
No banker worth his salt would fall for this. Nor should the charter school commission have done so.