Call it a day late and a dollar short, but at the August 2 meeting of the state charter school commission members raised questions about what little info they have about the financial situation of Woodland Prep charter in Washington County and their budget numbers.
This questions were initiated by Tommy Ledbetter, a retired high school principal from Madison County. He questioned the accuracy of many line items in the Woodland budget. He pointed out that from his experience, there is no way the charter budget reflects the real world. Numbers are way too low in Ledbetter’s opinion.
As a result, the commission attorney was directed to ask Woodland Prep’s attorney to provide financial info, such as bank statements, within 10 business days and be prepared to come to the next commission meeting to answer questions in person.
Woodland Prep has never been as transparent as a public body should be. Since charter schools are considered public schools, their boards are obligated to operate in the open. However, as you see from this video of their last meeting, this is not the case. Even though their treasurer did not attend the meeting, they still approved their financials with no discussion.
They also approved invoices from their public relations person in Mobile, Jon Gray. Again, no discussion and no one in the audience had any clue how much they are paying him. (And since there is no school, why do they need a public relations firm? But I digress.)
I am glad the charter commission is showing some concern about Woodland Prep. But where have they been? Why didn’t they ask questions on June 7 when they granted Woodland Prep a one-year extension for their opening date? They had the same budget numbers then as they do now.
This discussion came about three hours after the Alabama Education Association announced they have filed suit against Woodland Prep and their management guru, Soner Tarim, for fraud. Which really means they are questioning the charter commission’s lack of due diligence that should have uncovered fraud.
The commission should have latched the barn door before the mule ran away–not afterwards.
Anyone submitting an application for a charter school to the charter school commission is bound and determined to show that they are filling a need. And it is the duty of the commission to determine if this need really exists–not just rubber stamp any application thrown in front of them as this commission had demonstrated it is willing to do.
This requires homework. Again something the charter commission seems allergic to.
The Woodland Prep charter application in Washington County being case in point. They should look at every sentence, paragraph and number in the application and figure out if they are honest and believable and backed by reliable sources. And when something doesn’t make common sense, it should be questioned.
It’s difficult work. Which is why the charter commission hired the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to review applications and paid them $113,000 over the course of a couple of years.
One of the first considerations of the commission should be a careful look at the area wanting a charter. Since any charter will take money and students away from existing public schools, the commission has to decide if the charter is going into an area or growth, or one of decline. After all, how much sense does it make to put another school where the “market” for students is shrinking. Given that enrollment in 93 of the state’s 137 school system has declined in the last decade, this determination is critical.
In the last 10 years Washington County public school enrollment has dropped from 3,487 to 2,650–a decrease of 31.5 percent. Naturally charter supporters claim this is proof public schools are failing and people are sending their children to other schools. In fact, they have repeatedly said that 900 children leave Washington County each day to go to schools in other places. But as we pointed out before, this number can not be verified and must be considered bogus.
So what about this? Maybe the outmigration of mothers has more to do with falling enrollment than anything else.
And that is exactly what is happening. There were 2,459 females between the ages of 20-39 in Washington County in 1980 according to census data. These are the ages when most mothers give birth. And 30 years later, in 2010, this number was only 1,979–a drop of 19.4 percent. Of course, this does not fit the narrative Woodland Prep supporters are pushing.
It is not the role of the charter commission to look the other way when an application does not meet muster. Their role is to ensure that Alabama taxpayers get value for their dollars and not buy tickets for the Titanic. They should have enough common sense to check census information in cases like this.
Unfortunately, as we have seen repeatedly with Woodland Prep, this is not the way this commission, appointed by various politicians, goes about their job. Why look up census numbers if they don’t have to? Which is why the good folks of Washington County will tell you the way this commission does business is a travesty.
Josh Moon has been a journalist for two decades. Once with the Montgomery Advertiser, he can now be found on the pages of the Alabama Political Reporter.
Never one for beating around the bush, Moon has taken dead aim at the charter law passed in 2015. When first passed, the public was assured that this was the best such law in the United States. But has time has proven over and over, such political boastings are seldom true. Certainly not in this case.
As Moon points out, the law is flawed and the politically appointed charter school commission is little more than a sham. They ignore the law that governs them, ignore their own bylaws and guidelines and make decisions that defy logic. The debacle in Washington County being Exhibit A.
Time after time the state school superintendent has declared that he has no authority over the charter commission–when the law plainly states this is not the case. The ONLY responsibility of folks in leadership slots in Alabama education is to do whatever is necessary to protect local schools and students. Mama would simpy say they are supposed to do what is right.
But instead, we have folks who are content to shirk this responsibility and look the other way as people in Washington County are left to twist in the wind.
Josh Moon sees this as well as anyone. And here is what he has to say:
The Alabama charter school law is an absolute mess, filled with loopholes and nonexistent instructions that make it possible, if not likely, that the state will endure countless bad charter schools that rob taxpayers and leave Alabama school children worse off.
Those were not the words of Alabama superintendent Eric Mackey.
But you could draw those conclusions from the words Mackey did use in an interview with Alabama Political Reporter about the state’s charter school law and the various problems exposed by the approval of a Washington County charter school.
But he still drew the same conclusions: that the charter school law didn’t envision a scenario in which an authorizer would approve a charter school that failed to meet the requirements; that the law provides the Alabama State Department of Education with limited oversight of the authorizers; that the law provides ALSDE with zero oversight of applicants; that the law never spelled out a grievance procedure for the public or others to report issues with charters and charter approvals; and that there is no action that he or the state school board can take to stop an authorizer from approving a charter.
“Because this law is so new, and because we have so few charters approved at this point, we haven’t tried to answer those questions,” Mackey said. “What is our role in this process? We haven’t been forced to answer that until now.”
The reason Mackey and the rest of ALSDE are now faced with that self-examination is due to the Commission’s approval of Woodland Prep — a charter school located in Washington County.
Woodland Prep has drawn national attention and community outrage, and the fire shows no signs of fading out after the Commission recently granted the school a 1-year extension to open.
That extension is the latest of a number of issues that opponents of the charter have highlighted. They also have drawn attention to the management company — a private company named Unity School Services, which is owned by Soner Tarim, a controversial figure in the charter school world.
Opponents maintain that the charter violates two essential tenets of the charter school law — that a charter must be needed (i.e. it must deliver some educational curriculum or fill some void that is not currently offered) and it must be supported by the local community.
Town hall meetings more than a year ago about the charter made it clear that there is little community support. And opponents contend that an uptick in state scores — going from a D to a B in overall grades — is proof that the charter isn’t necessary.
Supporters have claimed that the opponents have bullied others in town into not supporting Woodland Prep. And they tried to tie the criticisms of Tarim and his company to simple religious bigotry.
In the midst of this, as you could probably imagine, Mackey and the state department have received countless complaints, both in emails and letters and in the form of phone calls. They have come from the average citizen, school employees and from lawmakers.
As the complaints started to increase — and media coverage of the situation started to grow, as well — Mackey and the ALSDE legal team began trying to determine what, exactly, the role of ALSDE is in such a situation.
ALSDE’s Limited Role
Turns out, the law didn’t really spell one out. At least, not for this situation.
“When you read the law, it’s pretty clear that the anticipation was that an authorizer would refuse to give a fair shot to a qualified applicant,” Mackey said. “There doesn’t seem to be an anticipation that an undeserving applicant could be approved. That’s a piece that is missing, in my opinion.”
There is oversight responsibility for ALSDE in the law, however.
Sen. Del Marsh, who was a major proponent of the charter school bill, said the law clearly places oversight responsibility in the hands of ALSDE, and his office forwarded a section of the law to APR.
“The law is clear that the ALSDE and State Board of Education have oversight of the commission,” Marsh wrote in a statement. He then went on to try and tie the situation to his push for an appointed state school board, but that is in no way relative to this situation.
The portion of law is, however. It reads: “The department shall oversee the performance and effectiveness of all authorizers established under this act. Persistently unsatisfactory performance of the portfolio of 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.”
It goes on to say that if ALSDE finds an authorizer isn’t in compliance, the department “shall notify the authorizer in writing of any identified problem, and the authorizer shall have reasonable opportunity to respond and remedy the problem.”
And that’s all well and good, but it stops short of the real problem: the charter school law, as passed by the Legislature, establishes the Commission as a separate state entity.
And it never provides ALSDE with oversight responsibilities.
In fact, in the law itself, just a few paragraphs under what Marsh’s office sent, is this:
“If the Commission violates a material provision of a charter contract or fails to remedy any other authorizing problems after due notice from (ALSDE), (ALSDE) shall notify the Commission, within 60 days, that it plans to notify the governor, the speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate of the actions of the Commission, unless the Commission demonstrates a timely and satisfactory remedy for the violation of the deficiencies.”
So, to put that in English, if Mackey and his staff have a documented problem with the Commission, they can tell the Commission and the governor and speaker and Senate president about it.
And then … what?
No one knows.
Let’s say the Commission starts approving woefully bad charters because various business arrangements and backroom deals are going down. Even if the Commission repeatedly violated the charter law, there is no means within the law for ALSDE, the governor, the speaker or Marsh to punish the Commission.
Hold on a second. It gets crazier.
If that’s the case and charters that don’t meet the standards are being approved illegally, there’s virtually no chance of stopping it under the current setup. Because right now, as ALSDE and Mackey are experiencing, the complaints from the public that would expose such deficiencies can’t be investigated by ALSDE.
Because ALSDE only has oversight over an authorizer, not the applicant.
So, if Woodland Prep is violating the state’s Open Meetings Act or doesn’t have local support — allegations which have been made numerous times — ALSDE has no authority over those.
The authorizer does.
“The overwhelming majority of complaints that we’ve received about (Woodland Prep) are things we can’t do anything about,” Mackey said. “They are things that should be directed to the authorizer, in this case the Commission. All we can look at is if the Commission is following the law.”
Mackey said he plans to have conversations with lawmakers leading up to the next legislative session about possible changes to the law, but he didn’t seem optimistic. For now, he and the ALSDE legal staff are talking about possibilities and things that might be done.
And the bad law carries on.”
Jan Resseger is a longtime public school advocate. Before retiring she worked with the United Church of Christ to improve public schools by reducing standardized testing, calling attention to opportunity gaps that confront many children and advocating for schools that welcome all children. She chaired the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education for 12 years.
Here is an insightful article she recently did about charter schools.
“If you value the role of public schools—locally governed, publicly owned and operated—whose mission is to serve the needs and protect the rights of every child, you can be more supportive if you know the facts about charter schools. The public schools across the United States enroll 50 million students, 90 percent. Charter schools suck money out of state budgets and public school districts while they enroll only 6 percent of American students. We all need to be actively refuting the myths and calling politicians on their errors when they betray their ignorance about the problems posed by the privatization of public education.
Here are eight facts to keep in mind:
While their promoters try to brand them as “public charter schools,” charter schools are a form of school privatization. Charter schools are private contractors whose expenses are paid with tax dollars. Their boards operate privately—very often without transparency.
For-profit charter schools are permitted in only two states—Arizona and Wisconsin. In the 43 other states whose laws permit charter schools, the schools must be nonprofits.
Nonprofit charter schools are increasingly operated—and often highly controlled—by for-profit Charter Management Organizations (CMOs). Sometimes, in something called a sweeps contract, a nonprofit turns over 90 percent or more of its operating dollars to the for-profit management company it has hired to run the school—meaning that the for-profit essentially runs the school. But that school is technically a nonprofit. Eighty percent of Michigan’s charter schools are operated by for-profit CMOs.
Charter schools are established in state law in 45 states and the District of Columbia. (West Virginia, the 45th state, just passed charter school enabling legislation in June, 2019.) There are no federal laws that set up or regulate charter schools.
Across the states, charter school fraud and corruption has run rampant due to weak regulation by state legislatures.
Charter schools and their supporters and lobbyists have used their power to promote charter schools across the state legislatures. Groups like the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), ExcelinEd (Jeb Bush’s group), and the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos’s group) have lobbied for charter school expansion, and deregulation. Many state legislatures have passed “model” bills which were written and distributed by ALEC’s Education Committee to members of state legislatures who are also members of ALEC.
No state has passed additional taxes to fund charter schools. When states create charter schools, children who leave public schools to enroll in charters carry away state dollars and essential funding from the public school districts where the children were previously enrolled. . Public school districts are unable to compensate fully for the loss the public dollars that used to pay for public school services but have now been redirected to a privatized sector.
Since it was begun in 1994, the federal Charter Schools Program has served as a sort of venture capital fund with grants to states to fuel the startup and expansion of the charter school sector. More than $1 billion has been wasted on charter schools which never opened or eventually shut down. Proponents of the program, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, have claimed this waste of tax dollars is acceptable because the money fueled educational innovation and entrepreneurship—even if there was a high rate of failure.”
California has long been a hot bed for charter schools. As of the 2017-18 school year, there were charters in 54 of the state’s 58 counties with more than 628,000 students.
And some of the folks running these schools are making out like bandits according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Here are portions of an in-depth report the newspaper did:
SAN DIEGO — Leaders of some local charter school organizations made more money than superintendents of California’s largest school districts in 2016, the most recent year for which all of their salary information is available.
One of those charter organizations was Inspire Charter Schools, which paid its chief executive, Nick Nichols, $514,197 that year, according to an Internal Revenue Service filing.
Inspire is a home school charter network that enrolled at least 23,300 students in nine schools last fall. Inspire students typically learn from home or online.
Another top payer was Learn4Life, a charter school network with about 44,000 students that says it serves some of California’s most disadvantaged youth, including low-income students, refugees and high school dropouts.
Learn4Life was recently ordered to shut down some of its locations because it violated a state law based on where it located its learning centers.
The parent corporation for Learn4Life charter schools, Lifelong Learning Administration, paid five executives more than $300,000 in 2016, according to its IRS filing.
Lifelong Learning’s previous chief executive, the now-retired founder Dante Simi, was paid $630,920, including severance pay and a settlement for an undisclosed claim, Learn4Life’s attorney Greg Bordo said. The current Lifelong Learning chief executive, Skip Hansen, made $374,374 in 2016, according to the organization’s IRS filing. Hansen is Simi’s son-in-law.
The leader of High Tech High charter schools, which serve about 5,400 students and has been lauded for an innovative education approach, was also highly paid. High Tech High Chief Executive Larry Rosenstock made $351,092 in 2016. Rosenstock did not respond to a request for comment.
Nichols, Hansen, Simi and Rosenstock are among a handful of charter school leaders who have made more money than the superintendents of California’s largest school districts.
Charter school advocates have argued that charter leaders are essentially like business start-up executives and have to focus on more tasks that school district superintendents get help for, such as marketing, acquiring facilities or drawing investors.
Charter school leadership pay tends to get less attention than traditional school district leaders’ pay because charter schools’ data are not as readily available.
Some pay data can be found by looking up a charter school organization’s 990 form, which nonprofits file yearly with the IRS. The most recent 990 forms available for many charter schools are 3 years old, and 990s for some charters can be hard to find, because some file under parent corporations with different names.
Members of the public typically have to file public record requests to charter schools to get their current pay data. But some charter schools post no contact information or names of board members or administrators on their websites, making it difficult to file such a request.
One of the most commonly used sources of public employee pay data is Transparent California, a nonprofit that files public records requests to publish pay data from hundreds of, but not all of, California’s roughly 1,000 K-12 school districts. The nonprofit publishes much less charter school pay data; for example, it publishes pay data from a dozen San Diego County charter schools, most of which covered only 2013.
Robert Fellner, executive director of Transparent California, said the nonprofit’s limited resources, which depend on donations, force it to focus its work “on the traditional forms of government most members of the public seem to be interested in.”
Fellner said it has been difficult to get pay data from several charter schools.
“Our efforts at obtaining charter school data have been made more difficult because many believed the [California Public Records Act] did not apply to them,” Fellner said in an email.
Make no doubt about it, charter schools and money go hand-in-hand. Which is not to say there are not some folks in the charter business who are truly motivated to do all they can to help students get the best education they can obtain. But if you keep tabs on what is going on nationally with charters, you begin to wonder if these are more the exception, rather than the rule.
Josh Moon was a reporter for The Montgomery Advertiser for many years. Today he writes for The Alabama Political Reporter.
He has once again taken a look at the charter school mess in Washington County. But what jumped out at me in his latest article is his description of an article a few days ago on AL.com that purports to be a look at Washington County. You can read the article here.
Sadly, I agree with Josh Moon. In this case, the AL.com reporter had documentation and interviewed people in Washington County who refuted what she had previously written in this article of June 7, but chose to ignore it. This leaves one to conclude that the reporter first drew their conclusion and then only used info that supported it.
This is not journalism. It is propaganda.
I got a journalism major from Auburn and graduated in 1966. Time after time I climbed the steps to the third floor classroom of Professor Paul Burnett in Samford Hall to study beginning news writing, feature writing, photo journalism, etc. Had Professor Burnett graded the two articles referred to above from AL.com, they would have received very low marks.
The people of Washington County have been “under attack” from the state charter commission for months and months. They are facing a potential loss of revenue that will devastate their public school system. They have been mischaracterized and ignored by people in Montgomery. No one has come to their aid.
Now this. The state’s largest media outlet has stooped to this level by discarding objectivity, Professor Burnett would just shake his head in amazement.