Since Soner Tarim of Sugarland, TX has management contracts for both Woodland Prep and LEAD Academy charter schools, I watched with great interest when he appeared before the Texas Board of Education, on June 14, trying to get approval to open eight new charter schools in Austin and Houston.
Board member Georgina Perez of El Paso cut him no slack. In fact, when the chair asked if she had any questions, she quickly replied, “I have six pages of them.” She only made it to page five before the chair asked her to let some other members have their shot. A former teacher, she is one of five Democrats on the 15- member panel.
And she was not joking about having a lot of questions. About why Tarim used untrue facts and figures in his application, about why there was no diversity on the board of Harmony charters that he once ran, about his attitude toward students with discipline issues, etc.
“He attempted to create his personal set of alternative facts,” Perez told me in a telephone conversation. She was especially critical of his comments about students with discipline records.
At one point, Tarim asked her if she wanted “those kids” in her classroom. She quickly responded that these were the students she taught for years and she was glad to have the opportunity to work with them.
“Someone with his attitude should not be allowed near a school,” she told me, “much less involved with running one.
Perez is definitely not a fan of charter schools. “I think they are a detriment to democracy,” she told me. “In spite of their use of the term ‘public’ on their advertisements, they are not accountable to the public, yet–in Texas—they are 100 percent funded by taxpayers.”
“And for people like Soner Tarim, charters are about only making money—not about educating children.”
As I have talked to folks in Texas in recent weeks I sense that that their honeymoon with charters is coming to an end. Perez agrees. “For years we have been a Petri dish for charters,” she says. “But now, even Republicans who have been so supportive of them in the past are asking questions. They are wanting to know where the return is on their investment.”
Tarim’s application was denied by the Texas board. Four Republicans joined four Democrats in opposition.
The actions of the Texas board and the questions of Georgina Perez are in stark contrast to how the charter school commission in Alabama views Tarim. While we seem to believe anything he says, folks in Texas who know him well, certainly don’t.
We love to talk about going to other states to learn things about education. Right now we are looking at how five states teach math.
Seems we would be smart to listen to our neighbors in Texas when it comes to charter schools and especially what they think about Soner Tarim.
The charter school law passed by the legislature in 2015 established the Alabama Public Charter School Commission, an entity that has stumped its toe repeatedly during the controversy involving Woodland Prep in Washington County.
Let’s take a closer look at this commission.
Members are nominated by the governor, lt. governor, president pro tem of the senate and speaker of the house. The governor fills four slots, the lt. governor has one, the president pro tem has two and the speaker has three. At least two names are submitted for each seat on the board to the state board of education who make the final choice. (So while technically all commission members are chosen by the state school board, this is more formality than anything else as the school board has no input into who the nominees are.)
All nominees to the first board had to be submitted to the state superintendent by June 1, 2015. Five were appointed for one-year terms and five for two-year terms in order to create a “staggered” board. Now all nominees are for a two-year term, with five terms ending on May 31 each year. No one can serve more than three terms.
(However, there is no provision in the law for handling transitions beyond the first year. Which is why there are now five members serving whose terms expired May 31, 2019. Supposedly there is an Attorney General’s opinion saying that members may serve until they are either re-appointed or replaced. The law should be amended to require nominations be submitted to the state superintendent by March 31. Since nominees are first presented to the state board at a work session and then voted on at the next regular meeting, at this moment the earliest we can have new members is August. The law should be changed so that a two-year term is no longer than two years.)
The law also states that the board should be geographically diversified, taking into consideration the eight state board of education districts. This is not the case at present as four are from Montgomery, two from Madison County, one from Auburn, one from Birmingham and one from Marshall County. Since a seat formerly held by Chad Fincher of Mobile is now vacant, there are no members from south of Montgomery.
Of the original ten members, only two remain, Mac Buttram of Huntsville and Henry Nelson of Birmingham. Both of their terms expired May 31, 2019. Both can be reappointed. There are three others whose terms expired May 31. Charles Jackson and Melissa McInnis of Montgomery and Tommy Ledbetter of Madison County. All are eligible to serve another term.
A little noticed provision of the charter law is that the minority party in both the senate and house shall appoint one of the members nominated by both the president pro tem and the speaker of the house. I do not know if this has been adhered to in the past. I have contacted both Democrat senators and house members and no one knew of this provision. They do now.
The commission selects a chair and vice-chair. Ed Richardson was picked as chair at the first commission meeting, Aug. 27, 2015. However, the minutes of that meeting only say there was a tie vote of four to four for vice chair. Nothing else. Apparently Mac Buttram was picked as vice chair because the minutes of Sept. 22, 2017 say Buttram became chair when Richardson stepped down to become interim state superintendent.
(These minutes are not available on the commission web site. Only those from meetings in 2018 and 2019 are.)
There has been controversy about who has jurisdiction over the charter commission. Attorneys for the state department of education have steadfastly maintained that the department can not oversee activities of the commission.
However, Section Five of the guidelines for the commission, which were written by the state department, say:
“The department will oversee the performance and effectiveness of all authorizers established under this Act.”
Hard to be more plain than this.
This section also says: “The department will conduct a special review of an authorizer with 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. In reviewing and evaluating the performance of an authorizer, the department will apply nationally recognized standards for quality in charter authorizing issued by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. If at any time the department finds that an authorizer is not in compliance with an existing charter contract or the requirements of all authorizers under this Act, the department will notify the authorizer in writing of any identified problem and the authorizer will have reasonable opportunity to respond and remedy the problem.”
All in all, too many questions remain about the present board and their willingness to accept anything they are told at face value by those seeking a charter school. It is time we try some new members who will recognize that their over-riding responsibility is to the students of Alabama, not someone wishing to make money at their expense.
Anyone reading this blog for the last three months is very aware of the chaos unfolding in Washington County about the location of Woodland Prep charter school there. The over-riding concern among educators in this small, southwest Alabama county is the impact on the school system’s finances.
Plans are for the charter to open with 260 students. If this happens, every student who leaves the local public system will take with them about $8,500 in state and Federal funding. This is the potential of $2.2 million leaving a system already struggling to meet their basic needs.
(There are some who maintain that such a transfer does not hurt the local system. An assistant state superintendent of education made this statement last week at a state school board work session. But this is foolishness because the school system does not shut down any schools, still has buses to run, still has custodians to pay, etc. And less money to do it with. If the enrollment in a school drops from 300 to 250, does the power company cut the electric bill in the same proportion? Not hardly.)
Washington County is not the only system in this predicament. The great majority of small systems, be they rural or urban, are in the same shape.
When you rank the 137 Alabama systems by size, Washington County is almost right in the middle. It has 2,650 students. There are 72 systems with more students and 64 with fewer.
Here is where members of the state board should be concerned. All eight of them have systems smaller than Washington County. Which means that if the state charter commission decides to ignore local opposition to a charter as has happened in Washington County, each state board member is at risk of being bombarded by emails and phone calls just like Ella Bell, who represents Washington County, has endured.
By my count, here is the tally for each district as to how many systems are less than 2,650. Jackie Zeigler, District 1–7 systems; Tracie West, District 2–14 systems; Stephanie Bell, District 3–3 systems; Yvette Richardson, District 4–6 systems; Ella Bell, District 5–15 systems; Cynthia McCarty, District 6–7 systems; Jeff Newman, District 7–10 systems; and Wayne Reynolds, District 8–2 systems.
The point being, while Washington County may seem to be on the dark side of the moon to some folks, no member of the state school board is immune to Washington County happening at their own doorstep.
There are presently five members of the charter commission whose terms expired May 31. All can either be re-appointed or replaced. The final choice for each rests with the state school board. Do we want to reappoint any of them and risk another Washington County? Do they really deserve another chance? Common sense says NO.
Voters in Alabama will have a chance next March to approve, or turn down, a constitutional amendment that would replace our elected state school board with one appointed by the governor. Governor Ivey calls this the “Take the Lead, Alabama” initiative.
But right now she has one huge problem. The appointed 10-member state charter school commission has proven that it is little more than a bumbling, fumbling collection of ill-informed folks. And the governor appoints four of the ten members of this group. (The Speaker of the House appoints three, the President Pro Tem of the Senate appoints two and the Lt. Governor appoints one.)
As we’ve documented over and over, the charter commission’s handling of the applications to open Woodland Prep charter in Washington County and LEAD Academy in Montgomery has been a classic case of throwing common sense to the wind and failing to carry out due diligence.
On June 14 the Texas state board of education rejected a request from Soner Tarim to open new charter schools in Austin. (Tarim owns Unity School Services which has management contracts with both LEAD and Woodland Prep.) Yet on June 7 this same Soner Tarim appeared before the Alabama charter commission and they gave him everything he wanted and believed anything he said.
This is the same charter commission that ignored the recommendations of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to deny the applications of Woodland Prep and LEAD Academy and approved them anyhow. And lo and behold, both Woodland Prep and LEAD Academy have management contracts with Tarim.
(Tarim recently told a group in Texas that the Alabama charter commission did not know what it was doing when it came to grading applications. Of all the things I have heard Tarim say, this may be the only statement I believe.)
While Tarim is new to Alabama, he is well-known in Texas, having opened his first charter school there in 2000. Which begs the question, what do folks in Texas know about him that folks in Alabama don’t? There are 15 elected members of the Texas board of education. Ten are Republicans, five are Democrats. The vote against Tarim was 8-5. Four Republicans voted against him.
The appointed charter commission is an albatross around the neck of Governor Ivey’s effort to get rid of an elected state school board. If you are really concerned about the future of education in Alabama, it will be impossible to vote for an appointed state school board that might be as unprofessional as the appointed charter commission.
If wisdom comes with age–and I’m not sure it always does–at age 76 I should have learned something. Maybe I have, maybe I haven’t. But I do believe after so many years in so many different situations, I have figured out how to spot someone who can not be trusted. Or as they say in Red Level, who can tell when someone is doing you-know-what on your leg and telling you it is raining.
This is my assessment of Soner Tarim. No doubt the man is very smart. You don’t earn a doctorate in biology and ecology without having a lot of sense.
Still, as you watch him in action and listen to him dodge direct questions, a little bell goes off in the back of your head. Something there is just “too slick.” Too glib. You can’t pin him down. One minute he says one thing, the next minute he contradicts himself. Like when he told the Texas board of education that he never slams public schools and later said that the two teachers from Alabama who testified at the hearings where, in so many words, more interested in their jobs than anything else.
And nothing is ever his fault. It’s always the other guy who is wrong. This article from the Austin American-Statesman newspaper is a good example. This was published June 13 after a host of people testified before a subcommittee saying they were opposed to Tarim’s application for Royal Public Schools.
Here are excerpts:
“Soner Tarim, the founder of Royal Public Schools, told the American-Statesman on Thursday that Austin school officials expressed the concerns because they fear the competition.
“That means whatever I have done in the past is working. Competition really hurts them,” said Tarim, who left Harmony Public Schools in 2017 after building the charter network into one of the largest in Texas.
Austin school district officials have rarely spoken against charter proposals in the past, but on Thursday, school officials pushed back. None of the campuses identified by Royal as low-performing failed under the state grading system last year, they said.
If Royal were allowed to open, the district could lose an estimated $85 million due to the loss of students to Royal schools over a 10-year period, according to Nicole Conley Johnson with the Austin district. Royal aims to enroll 2,390 students in Austin during that period.
Other criticisms of Royal are:
• Seven percent of students will be special education and 25% will be students who did not grow up learning English, far lower than what nearby Austin district schools serve.
• No current board members (for Royal schools) are from Austin.
• Insufficient counselors to properly implement social emotional learning.
• Between 7 and 34 people attended community meetings about Royal, which critics say demonstrate a lack of interest from the community.
Tarim responded to each criticism, respectively, by saying:
• Those percentages were based off of the student demographics of the schools around Alief and his school would aim to serve the same rate of special needs students as the Austin schools. (Alief is a school district in Houston, not Austin.)
• Although not required, his board will include an Austin member if he wins approval from the State Board of Education.
• He denies it and says he will have sufficient counselors and that implementing social emotional learning to the degree he wants to will take time, just as Austin school district has taken.
• The turnout at the meetings do not necessarily show there is not a need for Royal in the community.”
The Alabama charter law was passed in 2015. It obviously needs tweaking. The Mississippi charter law says that for-profit management companies, like Unity School Services owned by Tarim that has contracts with Montgomery’s LEAD Academy and Washington County’s Wooland Prep, can not do business in the Magnolia State.
Which means Tarim can not do business there. Alabama should consider amending our law to say the same thing.
By a vote of 8-5, the Texas Board of Education on June 14 turned down an application by Soner Tarim to build four new charter schools. Tarim is the consultant who has management contracts for Woodland Prep in Washington County and LEAD Academy in Montgomery..
Today’s meeting was in stark contrast to one in Montgomery June 7 when Tarim appeared before the Alabama Charter Commission to address questions about Woodland Prep. While the Alabama folks accepted anything Tarim said as the gospel and failed to probe, members of the Texas board had obviously done their homework and zeroed in on discrepancies between what Tarim said in testimony and information in his application.
For instance, board member Patricia Hardy had questions about Common Core. Tarim said that his curriculum had no connection to Common Core and was “all Texas.” Earlier Tarim bragged about getting a $30 million grant for Harmony Charters when he was CEO of the chain. But Hardy pointed out that this was a Race To The Top grant from the U.S. Department of Education and all recipients were required to incorporate Common Core standards. Tarim had no response.
Editor’s note: Tarim wrote the application for LEAD Academy in Montgomery which states: Common Core in Practice: Great Teachers Demonstrate Moving to Deeper Learning. America Achieves developed a series of videos demonstrating effective instruction aligned to the Common Core. These five videos show how teachers are putting the new standards into practice in their classrooms and how enthusiastically their students are responding.
When it came time for member Georgina Perez to question Tarim, she announced she had six pages of questions. She peppered him about student applicants with discipline issues, special needs students, lack of diversity among management and much more. She pointed out that the application for new charters Tarim wanted (known as Royal Charter Schools to serve the Austin area) said they would have 25 percent English language learners and seven percent special needs students and that both were far below the averages for the Austin school system.
She also pointed out that the top 16 managers in the Harmony network were all Turkish men and asked why there was no diversity. Tarim replied that they were now looking for Latinos, African-Americans and women to serve in management positions. To which Perez retorted, “Why has it taken you 20 years to figure this out?”
I watched the entire interview and one of the most interesting segments to me was when Tarim said that he works with local school districts and will not locate a school where the local superintendent has strong objections. That flies in the face of the experience of Washington County superintendent John Dickey who strongly opposes Woodland Prep.
Tarim is hardly a stranger in Texas charter circles as he began his first Harmony school in 2000. He was CEO until 2017. So he has an extensive track record there.
Which begs the question after the vote: WHAT DOES TEXAS KNOW THAT ALABAMA DOESN’T?
I listened for two hours on June 7 when Tarim met with the Alabama charter commission and watched his entire interview with the Texas school board on June 14. There was no comparison to how both bodies approached their duties. One was very prepared and very professional. The other. Not so much.
The Texas folks were armed with facts and figures. They pointed out inconsistencies between what Tarim said and what he had written. The Alabama commission seemed more of a rubber stamp than anything.
Charter schools are now a fact of life in Alabama. But it is our responsibility to make sure charters are managed in the best manner to serve our young people–not to be a cash cow for some for-profit management company. Obviously Texas understands this. Nothing I’ve seen yet in Alabama tells me we have.