Josh Moon Exposes Washington County Charter School Debacle

Just as I did, John Moon with the Alabama Political Reporter, got a whiff of the stench coming from Washington County and started asking questions and digging.  Josh is a veteran investigative reporter with a track record of exposing wrong doing.  You can see his entire article here.  I encourage you to read it all.

He zeros in on the involvement of the charter board and Texas-based education consultant Soner Tarim.  Josh uncovered details that definitely make you scratch your head.

Here are excerpts:

“Woodland Prep is a charter school horror story — and it hasn’t even been built yet.

Located in rural Washington County, Woodland Prep, which will open as a K-7 school this fall and add a grade level each year, is everything state leaders assured us could never happen under Alabama’s charter school laws.

Its land is owned by a shady Utah holding company. Its building is owned by a for-profit Arizona company. It will be managed by a for-profit Texas company that doesn’t employ a single Alabamian. It will pay the head of that management company around $300,000 per year — up front. Its application was rejected by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which Alabama pays a hefty sum to review and approve charter applications. Woodland’s management plan failed to meet basic standards for approval in any of the three plan areas reviewed by NACSA.

Woodland also is not welcome in Washington County, where residents turned up at a 10-1 ratio to speak out against it last year during community meetings. And maybe most importantly, the school is not needed in the poverty-stricken county, where not a single school is failing, most exceed state averages and students are free to attend any school in the county they wish.

The Commission ignored the community outcry against Woodland and failed to even discuss the need — or lack thereof — for a charter school in the county. Both of those are specific requirements within Alabama’s charter school law for the Commission to consider during its public meetings.

Additionally, charter schools approved in Alabama are, according to Alabama’s law, required to meet “national standards.” To assure those standards are met, Alabama lawmakers assured a concerned public that a “top-notch” national body — to quote two state representatives — would be contracted to review every application before those applications would be considered by the Commission. NACSA is that group, and Alabama pays it nearly $100,000 per year to review applications, and then the Commission ignores its advice.

But in response to my questions, ALSDE decided to be flippant. It directed questions about community opposition to “commissioners who attended the meetings,” despite the fact that ALSDE video recorded each meeting. It disputed that the Commission has a responsibility to monitor and oversee the charter schools it approves, stating that “the Commission may monitor …” the schools. And finally, when asked about the out-of-state ownership and management of Woodland, ALSDE said those questions should be directed to one of those out-of-state groups.

It seems that one name in my story about LEAD had caught their attention: Soner Tarim. Tarim is the CEO of Unity School Services and was the founder of Harmony Schools, a mostly-successful charter school group in Texas. Tarim and Harmony also have their very serious problems, not least of which is their ties to a Muslim cleric and controversial preacher from Turkey, Fetullah Gulen, and his Gulen Movement.

Numerous reports from the New York Times to Reuters and other local news outlets linked Harmony and Tarim to Gulen, and some labeled Harmony a financial front for Gulen’s movement. While Gulen espouses a more moderate brand of Islam, his movement has been labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey, which has accused Gulen and his followers of attempting to overthrow the Turkish government. Others dispute those claims, and believe the terrorist label is unfairly applied to Gulen, who has shown no proclivity for violence.

“No one could figure out why someone from Texas would come to little ol’ Washington County for a charter school,” said Brackin, who is the federal programs coordinator for the system.

The answer was easy and expected: Money.

A copy of the USS contract with the Woodland Prep board shows that Tarim will make 15 percent of all federal, state and local funds received by Woodland. Which means that for every student allotment — and Woodland estimates in its application that the per-pupil allotment will be more than $8,200 — Tarim will make 15 percent off the top. If Woodland’s projected enrollment of 260 students is accurate, Tarim will make more than $300,000.

“He’ll be the highest paid man in Washington County,” wrote one county official who asked not to be identified.

But there’s more. Under the terms of his contract, he also is allowed to keep all profits from any school programs, such as pre-K or after-school trainings, and he is free to use Woodland Prep to apply for any grants.

According to the deed for the land, Woodland Prep’s local school board, Washington County Students First, isn’t the owner of the land. Instead, a holding company — Woodland Charter Holdings — in Utah holds the deed. That company has one registered agent — Jennifer Lind of Utah. According to online records, Lind is the agent of record for at least two dozen charter holding companies in Utah — most of them tied to charter schools thousands of miles away from Utah.

According to records kept by the State of Utah, Woodland Charter Holdings also has just one registered executive: American Charter Development. The same company contracted with the charter board to finance and build the Woodland school building.

So, why all of the layers of ownership? Judging by similar ownership of other charter schools, it’s to mitigate risk to the company financing the project and to allow for the easy sale or transfer of ownership of the land, school building or all of the assets.

Forming a holding company in Utah, where banking laws are particularly lenient, allows for the investors — American Charter Development, in this case — to set up a financial buffer between it and the debt incurred by Woodland Prep. If the school goes broke and has to close, it’s the holding company left on the hook, not ACD.

That means that ACD has relinquished its ownership of the Woodland Prep school to a holding company that ACD owns, and now ACD will charge itself rent and interest — paid for by the tax dollars that were once flowing into Washington County schools.

And make no mistake, ACD is rolling in the cash — receiving 6 percent of the “total development costs” in monthly lease payments, according to the heavily redacted contract it signed with Woodland Prep’s board. That fee does not include a guaranteed 8.9 percent capitalization rate that ACD is guaranteed.”

As Josh has pointed out, what has happened in rural Washington County is MURKY, and then some.  And increasingly, various public officials are wondering why the state board of education and the state school superintendent seem so reluctant to ask questions of the charter commission and get to the bottom of what has taken place and why.

The legislature has little confidence in the state school board.  Senator Del Marsh calls them :dysfunctional.”  Yesterday a bill to term limit state board members came out of the House Education Policy Committee.  Last year there was an effort in the Senate to switch to an appointed state board.

The situation in Washington County is tarnishing the board’s reputation and effectiveness even more.

 

The Rape Of Washington County

If you are looking for peace and quiet and not many neighbors, my advice is to head for Washington County, AL.  The first county north of Mobile County and bordered on one side by Mississippi and the Tombigbee River on the other, the last census showed only17,629 population.  For a county that covers 1,080 square miles, that is a density of 16.3 people per each one of them.  By comparison, density in Jefferson county is 592.

So it meets all of anyone’s definitions of “rural.”  And like most rural counties, its public school system is a major part of community life.  The Washington County school system has seven schools in five communities.  Communities that are remote from one another.  Chatom is the county seat.  From Chatom to Fruitdale is 14 miles, to Millry is 13 miles, to Leroy is 21 miles and to McIntosh is 26 miles.  These are where schools are located.  It’s easy to understand why 59 buses travel 3,200 miles a day ferrying students.

And I can testify from personal experience that there is not much except lots of pine trees, a few houses and some small churches between any of these sites.  Like the majority of rural school systems, Washington County is losing enrollment.  Twenty years ago there were 3,798 students.  Over the next ten years this decreased by six percent.  But in the last ten years, the decline was 24 percent.  During the last decade McIntosh high school dropped from 344 to 272.  That is 43 percent.

All of which leads to this question: why does Washington County need a charter school?

It’s a question on the minds of many local residents, the majority of whom don’t think they do.

Yet, because folks on the Alabama Charter School Commission apparently failed to do their homework and realistically consider the impact of a charter on a declining system, Woodland Prep has been approved to open this coming school year.

At best, it is a very questionable decision and one that leaves lots of people in Washington County wondering who is setting the rules and who are abiding by them.

For example, the charter law passed in 2015 says the charter commission should “take into consideration the quality of school options existing in the affected community.”  Washington County got a B on the state’s latest A-F report card.  The same score as Shelby and Baldwin counties, two of the top systems in Alabama.  (Of the state’s 67 county systems, only ONE received an A.)

So this is not a failing system, nor a C system or a D system.  It has an excellent career tech program with the only pipe-fitting program in Alabama.  They offer health science, building science, welding and  pre-engineering/drafting.  They also have dual enrollment courses with Coastal Alabama Community College.  Enrollment  has grown from 112 in 2013-14 to 192 last fall.

The law also says the commission should “require significant and objective evidence of interest for the public charter school from the community the public chart school wishes to serve.”   However, such support is almost non-extent.

Harold Crouch is in his sixth-term as mayor of Chatom.  He told me that not a single parent has told him they plan to send their child to the charter.  “I am opposed to the charter, my council is also and I don’t know a single public official in the county who supports it,” says the mayor.

Crouch also thinks those involved with the charter school have been overly secretive about what they want to do.  He  met with the charter board one time.  They wanted the city to give them a prime piece of property for the school site.  He told them they would have to make a proposal to the city council.  They refused to do so.

“This is not in the best interest of the county,” he adds.  “Our resources are too critical now.  We are struggling to do the things we need to do now.  Bringing in another school and taking money from the system we have makes no sense.”

The school system’s annual budget is $27.3 million.  Because a charter gets money intended for the local system, at 260 students (which is what their application says enrollment will be the first year), this would be a hit to the system of at least $1.5 million or more.

The charter commission held three public meetings around the county seeking input.  One was in Chatom at the library.  According to Betty Brackin, who runs the Federal programs division of the county school system, about 50 people showed up.  The only ones who spoke in favor of the charter were some of its board members, the wife of a board member and the mother of one..  But more than 25 people spoke against it.

Staff of the commission set up a video camera to record the meeting and said that this video would be shared with commission members.  However, today the staff says such video does not exist.

On a recent trip to Chatom I decided to gauge public interest myself.  What better place to do this than Jakes, a longtime meat and three restaurant on the edge of town?  I ran into Sheriff Richard Stringer and a table of local citizens.  While the sheriff said he was trying to remain neutral, he did say that he didn’t think the charter would be successful.  His thoughts were echoed by everyone at the table.

Why all the intrigue about a school?

For one thing, in small places most everyone knows everyone else.  (The city of Troy has more population than Washington County.)  And lots of questions get asked.

Plus the fact that Soner Tarim was brought in from Texas to operate the school has set tongues to wagging.  Tarim operates Unity School Services and locals wonder why in the world is a Muslim from Sugar Land, TX telling people in Washington County how to run a school.  Tarim is a very controversial figure, having been associated with the Harmony charter schools in Teas that have been linked to the Gulen school movement.

(Tarim is also working with LEAD Academy charter in Montgomery.  Josh Moon with Alabama Political Reporter has written about this relationship.)

For sure, Tarim must be a helluva salesman.  According to the management agreement between the charter and Unity School Services, they will get 15 percent of all gross revenue (Federal, state and local,) in the 2019-20 school year.  If Woodland Prep were to have 260 students in the first year as they told the charter school commission, Tarim’s company would get about $360,000.

Locals also question the charter commission approval process.  The Woodland Prep application was reviewed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.  This is the organization Alabama has used since 2016.  During that time they have been paid $113,000.  NACSA did not give the application a positive report.  The application was reviewed on Education Program Design & Capacity, Operations Plan & Capacity and Financial Plan & Capacity.  NACSA said they only Partially Meets the Standard for each and the first sentence of their summary says: The Woodland Preparatory proposal does not meet the standard for approval.

(It is noteworthy that the charter commission no longer uses NACSA to evaluate applications, even thought they have done more than 500 in the last decade.  Instead, they are now using the Auburn Center for Evaluation which apparently has little to no experience evaluating charter applications.  My emails to the director of this center get no response.)

Yet in its infinite wisdom, the commission voted 7-2 to approve the application.

A number of people from Washington County showed up for this meeting.  They were told how to behave by commission staff.  They had also sent a number of postcards to commission members asking them to not approve.  The chairman of the commission chastised them for doing so.

Right now the good folks of Washington County feel helpless.  The charter law says the commission “is established as an independent state entity.”   No one seems to know exactly what this means.  And state school board members tell me they have no authority over them.

However, something seems funky about this.  As you read the law closely, time after time they refer to “the department” meaning the state department of education and their involvement with the commission.  For example, the law says: “The department shall oversee the performance and effectiveness of all authorizer established under this act.”

Since the commission is an authorizer, my interpretation is that the department DOES have jurisdiction.  In fact, the law says the department can notify the Governor, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate about its concerns of how the charter commission is functioning.

People in Washington County don’t think it is functioning as it should.  They are waiting for the state school board and the state superintendent to step up to the plate and work on their behalf.

Alabama code section 16 is entirely about public education.  Here is what section 16-3-11 says: “shall seek in every way to direct and develop public sentiment in support of public education.”

It is about time some folks in Montgomery read the damn code and do what they are supposed to and stop folks from raping places like Washington County.

 

 

 

Did The State Shaft Montgomery On Charter Schools?

I think they did.  And so does Josh Moon, who writes for the Alabama Political Reporter.  Read his story here.

Here are parts of what Josh reports:

“There is a process in place to approve charter schools in Alabama.

When the Alabama Legislature passed the law allowing charters in the state, they spent some time putting together a written plan with steps that must be followed. Things like: any organization wishing to start a charter school must submit an application that includes a detailed plan with specifics about funding and student-teacher ratios and facilities.

That plan must be approved by the state’s charter school board, or by a local school board that has applied and received approval from the Alabama State Department of Education to become a charter school authorizer.

But before any plan can be approved, it must first be submitted to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, to which the state pays an annual fee to have all charter applications reviewed. The NACSA then makes a recommendation to the state’s charter school board or the local school board authorizers.

Last year, LEAD Academy became the city’s first-ever charter school, despite failing to satisfy any of NACSA’s criteria and failing to receive its recommendation. LEAD also failed to receive a majority of the state charter board’s vote — a fact that has left it in limbo after the Alabama Education Association filed a lawsuit and a Montgomery Circuit Court judge blocked its approval.

And now, the approval of four conversion charters has been pushed through, despite that plan also failing to meet NACSA’s approval and despite the Montgomery County School Board failing to vote for the charters’ approval.

The four conversion charters will be operated by the Montgomery Education Foundation. To date, the MPS board members said, the Foundation has not presented the board with a plan for approval.

Under the current charter schools law, that’s an important step, since the Department of Education considers the MPS board an official charter school authorizer.

But their application was rejected by the state and sent back to MPS to work on. The primary issue, according to the board members and people within MPS who worked on the application, was funding — the system lacked the financial resources to set up and operate an office devoted to authorizing charters.

The MPS application also received an unfavorable review from NACSA.

ALSDE, however, takes another view. According to Michael Sibley, the department’s director of communications, MPS’ original application “was never denied.” Instead, it was “left in pending status.”

And although the MPS board never addressed any of the concerns raised by NACSA, last January, “(interim superintendent Ed Richardson) removed the pending status,” Sibley said.   

“This is a lawsuit waiting to happen,” said an MPS employee. “There’s no way he has the authority to both approve the board as a charter authorizer and then approve four conversion charters using that authority.”

Josh raises valid points.  I do not think due process has been followed.

Local education foundations are scattered all across the state.  For the most part their role is to work with the local school systems and help them bring projects to fruition.  Jefferson County has had one for years.  They are housed in the building with the Jefferson County school system.  Sally Price ran this organization for years and retired recently.  I know her well.

She told me that were treated about like “a member of the family” and their purpose was to shore up efforts the system was putting in place and providing necessary financial support.  Many foundations run grant programs for teachers to provide supplies the system can not fund.  When I told Sally that the Montgomery foundation planned to get in the charter school business, she could not believe it.

I have never known what the Montgomery Education Foundation does.  Nor can I find anyone who is a Montgomery principal or teacher who does either.  When I was on the Montgomery school board, I asked other board members about MEF.  They were in the dark as much as I was.

When I went on the board last September one of the first things I did was ask superintendent Ann Roy Moore if we could have a work session with the foundation.  It never happened.

In the spring of 2018 MEF held a meeting at Lanier high school to tell the world how they planned to convert Lanier high, Bellingrath middle and Davis and E. D. Nixon elementary schools to charters.  They had not discussed this plan with the MPS board, nor with any principals involved.

Some 15-20 local people spoke,  NO ONE was in favor of the plan.  Ed Richardson was there.  Had Jesus spoken against this conversion it would not have mattered.  We were just all standing beside the railroad while this train sped by.

I later had lunch with Ann Sikes, who runs the Montgomery Education Foundation.  I asked how many blacks were on her board.  She told me 27 percent.  I told her that this didn’t look like either Montgomery which is 55 percent black, or the school system which is 78 percent black..  I asked how the board is selected.  She told me they “self select.”  I responded that this was like going to a family reunion looking for a date.

The Bourbon Democrats were the landowners, mill owners and mine owners who rose to power in Alabama after Reconstruction in the late 1800s.  They wrote the 1901 Alabama Constitution that said my grandpa Horace Lee, a Covington County sharecropper, could not vote because he did not own land.

From what I know about this situation, you can’t tell me the Bourbon Democrats aren’t still alive and well in Montgomery.

 

University Charter School Makes National News

Last summer we told you about the brand new charter school opening in Livingston, that is closely alighned with the University of  West Alabama.  I have been to the school and am very impressed.  The fact that its leadership is home grown can not be over emphasized.  It is not run by some so-called education management organization that is basically a hired gun.

The relationship between the university and the school is also critical.  Experts on almost any subject may just be a couple of buildings away.

But what drew attention to this venture, that began in the fall of 2018, is the makeup of the study body.  The fact that it is basically 50-50 black and white students means it is unique in the Black Belt where white faces in public schools are a rarity.  Many have said it is the first integrated school in Sumter County, though I doubt that is factually correct.

However, there is no doubt that it is the most integrated school ever in the county.  Which is why it caught the attention of folks as far away as New York City.  Like folks who work for NBC News.

So recently a film crew showed up to document what is going on.  You can see the segment aired on the Today show, Saturday, Jan. 19 right here.

It is well done and paints a much more positive picture of Alabama than most of us have come to expect.

The Iron Bowl And Education

As I watched the team in white (Auburn) get methodically picked apart by the team in red (Alabama) last Saturday to the tune of 52 points to 21 points, I couldn’t help but equate this to a situation unfolding in Montgomery about charter schools.

What IF the two teams switched uniforms at half time?  Would the team now wearing red continue to dominate the game?  Or would we still have the same players just in different uniforms?

Fantasy?  Not really.

Because this is what is being proposed by a plan of the Montgomery Education Foundation to convert some existing schools to charters.  When this plan was unveiled to the public at a meeting at Lanier high school months ago, we were told that the students who today attend the schools to be confiscated and made charters will remain the same.

This includes an elementary school where the principal guesstimates that 90 percent of her students come from single parent homes and where the PTA only has ONE parent member.

Let’s call them the team in white.

According to the charter conversion proponents, the school year will be lengthened at this school, more special services will be provided, an education management organization will be hired to run the school and existing teachers may be replaced by non-certified teachers.  And all of this will be done on the same amount of funding the school now receives.

In other words, the students are now the team in red, even though 90 percent of them still live in a single portent home and the PTA only has ONE parent member.

It will be nothing less than a miracle.

And since miracles don’t happen every day, it would seem that the good folks at the Montgomery Educatio0n Foundation would be so proud of what they are about to create that they would have rushed out and told the Montgomery school board what they were want to do and ask for their blessing and input.  However, that is not the case at all.  If anyone on the MPS board has been briefed about this plan, I don’t know who it is.  I certainly have not been.

THIS is what some folks in Montgomery consider progress?  Sleight of hand and smoke and mirrors?

God help us all.

 

Reinventing Education In West Alabama

The Black Belt has always been a study in contradictions.  Both bewitched and bewitching.  It was always the land that set the table for both wealth and grinding poverty.

When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, the scramble for new lands to grow cotton was on.  The Black Belt lay waiting.

Of the ten most populous counties in Alabama in 1850, five were in the Black Belt.  Greene county had more citizens than any other county in the state.  (Today it is the smallest county.)  These five counties had 18 percent of the state’s population in 1850.  Today they have two percent.

From the beginning, this region has had two cultures.  One white and one black.  The whites owned the land, the blacks were slaves who worked the cotton fields.  And probably nothing better illustrates this division than public schools.  There are six school systems in Lowndes, Dallas, Wilcox, Perry and Sumter counties.  Of their 12,022 students, 92.6 percent are black and 72 percent get free lunches.

It has been this way since desegregation, two generations ago.  There is little point to arguing if this is right or wrong.  It’s just important that we face reality.

Which brings us to a fascinating effort taking place on the campus of the University of West Alabama in Livingston known as the University Charter School where nearly 300 students from pre-K through eighth grade have just begun a new school year.  The racial breakdown is about 55 percent black and 45 percent white.  Many of these students have never been in a class with someone of the opposite race.

The design of the course of study is unique in that it includes both traditional and non-traditional approaches to education.

In elementary school the morning is dedicated to traditional instruction with an hour each of reading, writing, and mathematics. The second half of the day for elementary includes recess, place-based education (PBE) and an hour of specials/elective courses. For middle school, their entire day rotates back and forth through traditional courses (math, reading, writing, and science) and non-traditional, custom courses  called STREAM  (science, technology, reading, engineering, arts, math) and PBE. They start their day with an hour of specials/elective courses and then rotate through the rest of their courses in 45-minute blocks.

All students have a daily 60-minute block of PBE. Teachers plan lessons/units based on the interests of their students. For example,  students are interested in the history of the Livingston area. Based on this, teachers have been working a project where the students find local people to interview to create a compilation (a documentary in elementary and individual oral history accounts in middle school) of the history of Livingston and what the area has to offer to visitors as told by the public figures and long-time residents in the town.

As this project progresses, teachers will work on other necessary skills with literacy (writing from the voice of a journalist), career exploration (doing research on the job titles and responsibilities of the community figures chosen to be interviewed), interpersonal and intrapersonal skills (eye contact, greetings, formality, dressing for interviews, best practices for interviewing), and other related topics. As this project nears completion, the same process repeats where teachers start surveying student’s’ current interest to build a unit that brings in multiple skills and content to complete through project-based learning.

The goal, since this PBE time is the same for all students in all grade levels, is to have students sign up for their favorite PBE topic so that students of various grades can work together instead of keeping them contained by their birthday.

I recently visited a fifth-grade class where two days a week the course is taught by a college instructor with a background in theatre/drama, and three days by teachers with backgrounds in coding, computer science, and mechanical engineering. Students study aspects of theatre and learn to code robots with the other teachers. Coding will reenact some of the plays, movies, and texts they study.

One example is studying The Wizard of Oz. One instructor teaches costuming, lighting, stage design, etc. while other teachers (the ones with engineering and computer science backgrounds) continue to work on coding and programming to have the robots reenact parts of the performance.  Such as the scene where the characters circle around the start of The Yellow Brick Road and then continue down its path. The students will have to use precise mathematical calculations to successfully program the robot to maneuver correctly

A key component of the school is parental engagement.  A Parent Academy meets monthly with the purpose of educating parents on instructional and operational life at UCS. Parents have learned about plans for handing out iPads to each student, the security to keep students safe, how parents have access to the content students access on their iPads and how they can access this at home.

Being associated with UWA is significant because a number of university professors can work as adjuncts in the charter school.

All in all, it is quite a venture.  Not only because they are breaking the mold of how most schools approach education, but equally as much as to its impact on the local community and any success it may have in breaking long-held perceptions.

Editor’s note: Few things in education are more controversial than charter schools.  Their original intent was to be places of innovation and partners with more traditional public schools.  However, it didn’t take long for this concept to become bastardized and dollars replaced good intentions.  I have written many pieces about charter shortcomings.

But I have long maintained that each potential charter should be examined carefully on a case by case basis, not simply turned over to some group with little real experience in education whose first step is engaging some management group.

Because I know the people so well at UWA and their motives, resources and experience and because I understand the unique cultural challenges of the Black Belt, I fully support this effort and will watch them closely.