OK. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am not an impartial observer. This is especially true when I talk about the charter school fiasco in Washington County.
And after more than 60 posts about this mess, numerous trips to the county and conversations with dozens and dozens of locals, I am more convinced than ever that this is a scam, a disaster, a travesty and an injustice being forced on good and decent people who happen to live in a forgotten part of Alabama.
Earlier this week I spent the morning in the courthouse in Washington County listening to lawyers argue the merits and demerits of Woodland Prep charter school.
There were probably 75 people there. If a single one was a supporter of the charter school, none of the locals knew who they were. This has been typical from the outset.
When the charter commission approved this application in May 2018, residents had sent postcards to commission members urging them to vote no. All they got was a tongue lashing from some commission members for being proactive.
And though the national reviewer said this application should be denied, the charter commission ignored them. Attorneys for the charter argued at length that opponents should have registered their complaints with the charter commission–but none of them have seen how the folks in Washington county have been treated when they have tried to do so.
As they cited the charter law, pro-charter attorneys conveniently ignored the section that says the commission should not approve “weak” applications. nor did they mention the section that says the commission should consider the quality of the local school system, which is a B in this case, or that they should consider local support for the charter. which is non-existent.
On two occasions people in the county have chartered a bus and brought 60 people to Montgomery, one time to attend a state school board meeting and another to attend a charter commission meeting.
In addition, locals got nearly 3,000 names on petitions opposing the charter and presented them to the charter commission still, the commission pays no attention.
It was interesting to me that one of the pro-charter attorneys was state rep. David Faulkner of Mountain Brook. I wondered if he had ever set foot in this county before. It is worth noting that he voted in favor of the charter law in 2015, the very law.he is now making money on.
As he talked about how the charter will be funded, he failed to mention that the charter will divert $2.2 million from the existing system and was dismissal of time lines that govern local school systems. Obviously he is clueless about how school finance works. when local budgets are made and the implications that such a diversion could have on teachers, bus drivers, lunch room workers, etc.
Another charter attorney said they now have 132 students registered, which may, or may not, be the case since no one will present a list for verification. But when Woodland Prep met with the charter commission last September, they said they had 130 signed up. So they have gotten TWO more since then? (Their contract with the state says they will have 260 K-8 students enrolled when they open.)
The charter commission gave Woodland Prep a one-year extension last June. One of the attorneys said they are going to ask for another extension.
Circuit Judge Gaines McCorquodale did a good job, was in no hurry and asked good questions. At one point he asked if there was a transcript of all discussions Woodland Prep has had with the charter commission. He was told there is. THAT IS A JOKE. Minutes of meetings are anything but thorough. They don’t even show when the commission has elected officers.
The charter attorneys were asking that the hearing be “sealed.” In other words, that nothing be made public. Their argument was that the Alabama Education Association, which brought the suit on behalf of three local plaintiffs, had encouraged people to attend the meeting to unduly influence the proceedings.
The judge quickly dismissed this request saying that he welcomed public participation in his court room.
The other motion by the charter is to dismiss the suit entirely. The judge will rule on this in the near-future.
This has gone on far too long. It has been Chinese water torture since May 2018 for citizens of Washington County and their school system. Drip. Drip. Drip. And while Montgomery bureaucrats continue to say they do not know who has authority over the charter commission, one thing is very clear. What is right is right and what is wrong is wrong.
We desperately need some people in Montgomery to figure this out and then show the political courage to take action. If they are not willing to, they should be replaced.
Editor’s note: The proponents and opponents of Woodland Prep charter school in Washington County square off in circuit court in Chatom this Tuesday, Jan. 21. This is a date long anticipated by those who oppose the school and one the proponents have tried to postpone as recently as last week. And on the eve of this court hearing, it is worthwhile to review how we came to this juncture, The following article, published last July, recounts how this all unfolded.
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 Soner 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.
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.
Last August the Alabama Education Association filed suit in Washington County alleging that Sonar Tarim, the Texas education consultant working with Woodland Prep charter school falsified information submitted to the state charter school commission.
The initial hearing on this suit is scheduled for Jan. 21 before Circuit Court Judge Gaines McCorquodale in Chatom.
But given the charter’s track record of evasion and misrepresentation of the facts, it came as no surprise when lawyers for Woodland Prep filed a last-minute motion to “dismiss, re-set the hearing, and seal the proceedings.”
In other words, they wanted to delay the start of the proceeding and then hide things from the public. An attorney told me that the effort to seal the proceedings in a civil action was highly unusual.
Among other things, Woodland Prep’s contention is that “the facts and filings in this case promotes scandal and defamation, poses a serious threat of harassment, and poses a risk of harm to persons who are not parties to this litigation.” This was based on the fact that AEA has encouraged the community to attend the Jan. 21 hearing.
Judge McCorquodale was not impressed and almost immediately denied the Woodland Prep motion.
It is high time to move forward with this suit and bring closure in some form or fashion to this whole sordid affair. The people of Washington County have been held in limbo since Woodland Prep was granted an application to move ahead in May 2018, in spite of the fact that the state charter law says that “weak” applications should not be approved and this application was approved, though the National Association of Charter School Authorizers recommended it not be.
Editor’s note: It is noteworthy that one of the lawyers defending Woodland Prep is David L. Faulkner, Jr. with the law firm of Christian & Small LLP of Birmingham. Faulkner is a state representative who voted in favor of the charter school law passed in 2015.
While you and I could not disagree much more on what we need to do to help Alabama schools and educators, I have never questioned that you are a successful politician and businessman. You could have tremendous impact on education in this state–if you would listen to real educators and teachers instead of latching onto whatever shiny object comes along.
Take the charter school law you sponsored in 2015 for instance.
Even though charters have been around for more than 20 years and have a very dubious track record (there are no public schools in New Orleans, only charters, but no one holds up New Orleans as what they want their schools to be.), we were told that Alabama had the best charter law in the country.
But five years later, no way this is true. While we were promised a race car, we now see that we got a go-cart instead.
The law is being ignored in certain cases and schools that have opened are not being held accountable. Two of them are facing legal challenges. When the public seeks info from the state charter commission that is public record, they are stonewalled. Local communities that are dead set against charters (like Washington County) are ignored, even though the law says that determining local support for a charter is part of the approval process.
The law also says that a charter authorizer should decline to approve “weak of inadequate charter applications.” Yet the National Association of Charter School Authorizers reviewed the applications for both Woodland Prep in Washington County and LEAD Academy in Montgomery and recommended they both be denied. But the charter commission ignored this recommendation, approved each, and so far both have been a disaster.
The charter commission is in over its head. The fact that four of its five members who came up for reappointment in 2019 (including the chairman) were replaced by the state school board is ample evidence of the lack of confidence in this entity.
The law clearly states that “The department (state department of education) shall oversee the performance and effectiveness of all authorizers established under this act,” but for some reason, the state superintendent has refused to exercise this authority.
At the heart of this may well be a single line on page 13 of the law that says, “The commission is established as an independent state entity.”
However, no one knows what this statement means, including the good folks at the legislative reference department who wrote the law.
The law should be amended in the upcoming session to at least delete this language. Also, the law should be amended so that there is absolutely no question that the state school board and the state superintendent have complete oversight of the charter commission.
Senator, since you wrote this law, I have no doubt that you want to make sure it works as intended. That is not the case now.
If you want charter schools, fine. (I do not oppose good charters that fill a need and are run properly like University Charter School in Livingston.)
But don’t leave us dangling at the mercy of something no one can seem to interpret or hold accountable.
It is nigh impossible to figure out what is going on with charter schools in Montgomery. Whether it is by design, deception or a bushel of inaptitude, the situation is clearly defying sections of the charter law and thumbs its nose at what is legal and what is not.
The charter law was passed in 2015. We were told it was the best such law in the country. But as is often the case with educational policy cobbled together by our supermajority, words and reality seldom agree.
Under the law, local school systems can opt to become a charter authorizer, meaning that charter applications that impact a school system must first get approval from the locals. (However, if turned down at this level, applicants can then appeal to the state charter commission.) Very few local school boards went this route. One reason being that local authorizers are required to send out RFPs seeking charters to come into their system.
(As one over-the-mountain superintendent told me, “We have excellent schools, why should we recruit competition for them?”)
Initially, the Montgomery school board voted to become an authorizer and they commenced paperwork, which is a very involved task.
I served on the Montgomery school board for three months in late 2018. One of the things I tried to find out was what happened to the Montgomery effort to become an authorizer. I learned that while the process was begun, the initial application was not approved by the state and sent back for more work. However, by this time the Montgomery board, having learned more about what being an authorizer entailed, changed their mind and did not complete the application.
But today the charter commission says that Montgomery is an authorizer, however efforts to get the paperwork that support this contention, have been futile.
Enter LEAD Academy, the Montgomery charter that opened last August and has been mired in controversy and legal actions.
LEAD applied to the state charter commission for approval. Which begs the question, if MPS is a local authorizer, why didn’t LEAD apply to them?
The initial LEAD application was reviewed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a group in Chicago used by the state charter commission since they opened shop. They recommended that LEAD be denied, that the application was weak in all major categories.
The charter law clearly spells out that authorizers, such as the state charter commission, shall decline to approve weak or inadequate charter applications.
But in spite of this, the charter commission ignored the NACSA recommendation and approved LEAD Academy. (They did the same thing with Woodland Prep in Washington County.)
In March, 2018, the Alabama Education Association sued contending that the charter commission’s vote did not include a majority of its membership. This action did not hold up in court and LEAD was allowed to go forward.
Enter the Montgomery Education Foundation and their plan to convert existing public schools in Montgomery to charter schools.
Unlike LEAD, this application was submitted to MPS. However, we once again see that the charter law is not being followed.
The law states: A local school board may convert a non-charter public school to a public charter school. After identifying the non-charter public school it has decided to convert to a public charter school, a local school board shall release a request for proposals, allowing education service providers the opportunity to submit applications. Provide evidence of the education services provider’s success in serving student populations similar to the targeted population…..”
The decision to convert three public schools to charters WAS NOT the board’s decision. This came from the foundation. In addition, the foundation has NO experience in school management.
Now another potential charter is on the scene. They will hold a public hearing at Carver high school at 6 p.m. on Jan. 9 before the local board. If MPS is not an authorizer, they can not legally approve a charter application. In addition, who will grade this application to see if it has merit? MPS does not have this capacity.
On top of all of this, what about the situation at LEAD where they are being sued by their former principal for wrongful termination and where a number of faculty have left since school began? All school systems, including charters, are supposed to post their financial info, including check registers, on-line monthly. Why hasn’t LEAD done this?
Why did LEAD’s education consultant, Soner Tarim of Houston, leave them? His so-called expertise was a major part of LEAD’s application to the state. This change in structure should be spelled out in a new contract with the state. Has this been done?
It is a mess of the highest order. There are way too many questions and not near enough answers. The taxpayers of Alabama are footing the bill for all of this. They deserve answers.
The charter law gives authority over charter schools to the state department of education. Here is what you find on page 24, line 18 of the law:
The department shall oversee the performance and effectiveness of all authorizers established under this act. Persistently unsatisfactory performance of the portfolio of the public charter schools of an authorizer, a pattern of well-founded complaints about the authorizer or its public charter schools, or other objective circumstances may trigger a special review by the department.
In other words, where is the state school superintendent and the state school board? This mess is squarely in their lap.
While it slipped by unnoticed by many and certainly out of sight of main stream media, to me the number one story impacting public education across Alabama in the past 12 months was replacing four incumbents on the charter school commission. And especially chairman Mac Buttram.
The commission has 10 members. Four appointed by the governor, three by the speaker of the house, two by the senate majority leader and one by the lt. governor. Since they serve staggered terms of only two years, five of the ten come up for reappointment or replacement every year.
A year ago this group seemed more intent on approving any charter school than doing their due diligence. They were all too eager to force square pegs into round holes and ignore whether a school was about meeting a true need and how receptive was the local community. Case in point being the chaos in Washington County where the school system is rated a B by the state and the community is dead set against charter intrusion.
Such matters wee ignored by the commission when they approved applications for both Woodland Prep and LEAD Academy in 2018. They also ignored the recommendations of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers that neither be approved. As the situation in Washington County has labored on for months and months and LEAD Academy has turned into a first-rate mess in Montgomery, one has to think that the national reviewers had ample reason for their “do not approve” recommendation.
Throughout this time, former legislator Mac Buttram chaired the commission.
How he got to be chairman is unclear.
The bylaws of the charter commission plainly state the chair serves a one year term. Which clearly means that an election for chair should be held annually. But minutes of the commission do not show this has been the case.
Ed Richardson was elected chair at the commission’s first meeting on Aug. 27, 2015. Co vice-chairs were Thomas Rains and Gloria Batts. There is no mention of any election in 2016. At the April 25, 2017 meeting Richardson said they would have an election at their May meeting. But the minutes do not show this happened.
However, later that year, September 22 to be exact, Buttram was chairing the meeting, having apparently been elevated from vice-chair when Richardson left the commission to be interim state school superintendent.
But when was Buttram elected vice-chair? The minutes do not say.
Buttram was elected to the state house of representatives from Cullman County in 2010 and served one term. This election was clouded in controversy. Buttram beat James Fields who won a special election in 2008. Fields’ election drew attention because he was a black Democrat who got elected in a district that was 98 percent white. Both men were ministers and participated in the same weekly prayer group. Even more notable was that when Fields’ first wife died, Buttram officiated at the funeral. And when Fields re-married, Buttram again officiated.
Naturally, Fields was surprised that his “friend” was running against him.
Buttram got to Montgomery at the time when Mike Hubbard became speaker and the Cullman Republican quickly became a loyal follower. Over time, some of Buttram’s constituents came to believe he was more concerned with cozying up to Montgomery power brokers than paying attention to the needs of home folks.
One of them was Corey Harbison, the mayor of Good Hope, at the southwest corner of Cullman. Harbison told me that his attempts to get help from Buttram on city matters largely fell on deaf ears and late in 2013, he decided to challenge Buttram for his seat.
There were three in the Republican primary. Buttram got 44 percent of the vote, Haribson got 41. Eager to help their friend, Hubbard and former governor Bob Riley rolled out the big guns. In all, Buttram spent more than $350,000 trying to keep his seat. Riley’s PAC kicked in more than $100,000, Hubbard’s PAC gave $13,500, the Business Council of Alabama gave $52,500 and the Alabama Federation for Children contributed $37,000. Event the California-based group, Students First, gave $2,500.
As anyone who watches public education in this state closely knows, none of these are considered friends of public education.
By comparison, Harbison’s campaign only pulled in $97,000.
Someone got the bright idea that it would be wise to bring Hubbard and Riley to Cullman the Saturday before the runoff on Tuesday. As it turned out, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. News about the power broker invasion for Buttram hit the Sunday paper and Harbison won going away, 55 percent to 45 percent.
Buttram has since moved to the Huntsville area.
He was nominated for the charter commission board by Governor Robert Bentley, the same guy who declared that Alabama education “sucks” and cast the deciding vote to hire Mike Sentance for state superintendent.
Buttram fully displayed his exuberance for charters last June when Woodland Prep asked for a one-year extension for their opening date. Soner Tarim did his best impression of the Artful Dodger that day, avoiding one direct answer after another. It was obvious that Buttram believed it all and never once challenged Tarim.
Tarim has been linked to the very controversial Gulen charter school movement. This effort has sponsored trips to Turkey for a number of years for lawmakers and others. It is public relations at its best. Buttram told the commission that day that he had been to Turkey and that Tarim told him he was not associated with Gulen.
The extension was granted.
Officials actually nominate two people for each slot on the charter commission. The final selection is made by the state school board. So even incumbents who get renominated have another name in their slot the state board may choose. Buttram was a nomination that belonged to Governor Ivey. She did not even submit his name for consideration.
At the August state school board meeting, four new people were put on the charter commission. In January, another new member will be added.
Unlike Mac Buttram, the new members seem far more deliberative and willing to ask reasonable and thoughtful questions. And Alabama is all the better for it.