The South Oak Grove Baptist church has been a fixture in southwest Washington County since 1880. It doubled as a school for nearly 60 years, until a school was built in nearby Fruitdale.
Today it is a staging site for volunteers working to provide meals for local students prevented from attending school by the virus pandemic. The fellowship hall is filled with can goods, bags of chips and goodies and drinks. Five local churches, along with local citizens, have provided $2,000 for food. The local route man for a bread company donated loaves of bread. The Bay Area Food Bank helped.
The effort is coordinated by Marty Coaker, who has driven a school bus for Fruitdale school for 32 years. Food is provided for 109 students, all but eight of whom have meals delivered to their homes. Ten volunteers, including one great-grandmother, make deliveries. The deliveries are necessary because the area is so sparsely populated and both distance and lack of transportation hamper students and their families from getting to the church.
It is an amazing effort, one being repeated today in hundreds of communities around the state. For instance, the same day I visited South Oak Grove I also stopped by the McIntosh Community Center on the other side of the county. Volunteer Wesley Barnes, assisted by McIntosh High School principal Jamelle Sauls, ran this site distributing more than 100 “grab and go” lunches.
While thousands of volunteers and educators in Alabama are scrambling to meet the challenges of this momment, the Washington County school system is unique since it is the only rural system in the state also threatened financially by the prospect of a charter school opening there and cutting $2 million in funding from the existing system.
This charade has now gone on for nearly two years. The state charter commission approved the Woodland Prep charter application on May 14, 2018. The application was reviewed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers who recommended that it be denied. They also recommended the same for LEAD Academy in Montgomery.
But Soner Tarim of Houston, who had management contracts for both Woodland Prep and LEAD, convinced the charter commission that NACSA did not know what they were doing, so both schools were approved.
LEAD Academy opened last August and has had anything but a smooth start. Tarim is no longer working for them and according to the Montgomery Advertiser, LEAD owes him $76,000. The Woodland Prep board has indicted they are now looking for someone else to manage their school.
A letter was sent on Feb. 18, 2020 from charter commission chair, Henry Nelson, to the attorney for Woodland Prep stating that there would be a hearing on March 24, 2020 to consider revoking their charter.
However, this was postponed to April 20, 2020. I can not find out who authorized this. It was NOT an action by the charter commission. I have twice asked by email both Nelson and Logan Searcy, state department staff person for the charter commission, who OK’ed this. Neither responded.
So here we are nearly two years later and this mess drags on. In addition to struggling to meet the hardships of the virus crisis we now face, in October Washington County schools will lose $700,000 in annual revenue when Power South closes a generating plant in Leroy.
And the chaos and confusion caused by an effort to open a charter school that has scant community support and is not needed still dangles over the head of this rural community.
(I have attended at least three meetings the charter commission has had with Woodland Prep. I NEVER recall a single parent from Washington County showing up to speak for Woodland Prep. Instead, it has either been Soner Tarim or attorney Nash Campbell pleading their case. Since both have a financial interest in Woodland Prep, do they really want a school–or a paycheck?)
Even without the virus crisis, it is high time for the state charter commission to do what is right and put an end to this travesty. And this crisis makes it even more so.
Circuit Judge Gaines McCorquodale issued his ruling Feb 4 on Woodland Prep’s motion to dismiss a law suit against them.
The motion was denied and the suit now moves forward.
The Alabama Education Association filed suit last August against Soner Tarim, the Texas-based “education guru” hired by Woodland Prep. accusing him of submitting false information to the state charter school commission on behalf of Woodland Prep.
(Tarim also had a management contract with Montgomery’s LEAD Academy. But according to LEAD, Tarim is no longer working for them.)
The next step in the process will be “discovery,” which consist of depositions, interrogatories and requests for admissions..
Last June the Texas state board of education denied Tarim’s request to open four charters in Auston. I interviewed two members of the Texas board after they turned down this request. One of them said to me, “How could people in Alabama let this guy hoodwink them?”
As time has gone along, we are learning the wisdom of this question.
Finally. Thankfully. Mercifully.
The colossal mishmash of an attempt to open a charter school in Washington County has now been taken off of life support and left to flop, flounder and gasp its last breath by the state charter school commission.
The application to open Woodland Prep was approved in May 2018 by the commission on a vote of 7-2. It is noteworthy that of the seven YEA votes, only two of these commission members remain.
(The commission has 10 members. Four nominated by the governor, three by the speaker of the house, one by the lt. govenror and two by the senate majority leader. Six of these members have taken office since last May, no doubt in part to the on-going controversy created by Woodland Prep.)
Then the charter asked for a one-year extension on June 7, 2019 stating more time was needed for construction and permitting. This was granted on a vote of 5-1.
At that time the contractor said the school would be ready for tours in January 2020.
However, instead of meeting this time line, Woodland Prep asked the charter commission at their Feb. 3, 2020 meeting for another building extension. This was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back and the commission balked.
In a near-unanimous vote, the commission not only voted down the extension request, they also approved a motion to proceed with the paperwork to revoke Woodland Pre’s charter application. The charter will be given 30 days to respond to the commission and the commission will then react to this response.
It was clear the commission has run out of patience with the charter and their endless excuses for why there has been so little progress on completing the facility and enrolling students.
This frustration was strongly expressed by commissioner Paul Morin of Birmingham who explained that since the Woodland Prep application was first approved in May 2018, the state highway department closed a major intersection in Birmingham where I-59/s0 and I-65 join and totally rebuilt it and re-opened for traffic. “And ya’ll can’t build a small school building in the same time?” he asked.
As we’ve documented here countless times, this has been a sordid mess from day one. The charter law has been ignored, due diligence has often been woeful, information has been either sketchy or simply withheld, the truth has been badly warped and the Washington County public school system has been left to left to wonder for too many months what future budgets will look like.
It has proven beyond a doubt that Alabama’s charter school law is flawed and needs serious re-tooling.
I titled one of my first posts (April 10, 2019) about all of this, The Rape of Washington County. That is still an appropriate description of what unfolded in the very rural county of only 17,000 people. No citizen of this state deserves to be treated as second-class. But that is what happened for months and months and months.
Fortunately, a small band of dedicated people in the county simply refused to go quietly into the night. They were tenacious in their efforts to expose wrong doing and make sure people in Montgomery knew about it. Without their hard work and perseverance, it is unlikely this story would have ended this way.
And educators all over the state, most especially those in rural areas, owe them all a debt of gratitude. They have proven that you can indeed fight city hall–and win. Time and time again they have told me that they do not oppose charter schools where they are needed and will strengthen local education options.
However, this was never the case in Washington County. Thankfully, some folks in Montgomery were finally convinced they were right.
The news for Montgomery’s LEAD Academy charter school has become a broken record. One bad news story after another.
This time The Montgomery Advertiser published a story on Jan. 28 that LEAD’s education guru, Soner Tarim of Houston, is no longer involved with the school. Of course, LEAD board chair Charlotte Meadows, told the reporter that, “It’s not totally clear what’s going on but they have decided to pull their operations from LEAD Academy almost two months ago.”
So you get a divorce and don’t know why? Sure, happens all the time.
My best guess it had something to do with the $30,000 LEAD was supposed to pay Tarim’s Unity School Services each month.
LEAD made headlines shortly after opening last August when they terminated their principal Nichole Ivey-Price. The principal sued claiming fraud and breach of contract.
Her first court date was Nov. 21. She prevailed and LEAD had to put her back on the payroll. For a closer look at what was involved in this legal action, go here.
What really caught my eye is that Ivey-Price said that when the Montgomery Area Association of Realtors gave LEAD $200,000 for startup funding last summer, Meadows only put $100,000 in the school account and put the other $100,000 in a separate account.
But then, transparency does not seem to be something that concerns this school. For instance, all school systems are supposed to post financial info on-line every month. Since charter schools are considered a stand-alone Local Education Agency, this requirement includes them. Info should include check registers. Here is the LEAD website. If financial information is posted, I can not find it.
However, you will find a listing, along with photos, of employees of the school. There are 25 in all. But a former teacher, who left last fall, told me that at least 11 of these people are no longer with the school. (She is still shown to be working at LEAD.)
The charter commission meets on Monday, Feb. 3. They are supposed to get an update from LEAD. Stay tuned..
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.