If someone from the Midwest showed up at your door and asked to see “rural Alabama,” an excellent choice would be to get out a map and show them how to get to Washington County. You see, this sprawling county of 1,000 square miles and less than 17,000 people fits under anyone’s definition of “rural.”
For instance. there are only 16 people per square mile. This compares to a density for the state of 95 and 1,481 for Birmingham. (New Jersey is 1,195 and New York City is 26,403.) The largest community in the county is Chatom, the county seat with 1,288. The other four communities are Leroy (911), Millry (546), McIntosh (238) and Fruitdale (105).
And since there are not many adults, there are not many children either, as borne out by the fact that in the just-finished school year, enrollment was 2,650. But hold on to your hat, the Washington County public school system is FAR from the smallest in the state. In fact, of our 137 systems, 64 have fewer students than Washington County does. Most of these are in rural locations, but not all. There is Anniston city in Calhoun County, Tuscumbia city and Sheffield city both in Colbert County, Chickasaw city in Mobile County and Tarrant City in Jefferson County..
As surely as the sun comes up in the east, when you are small, money is harder to come by. This is true whether you are a small church, a small business or a small school system.
In the case of Washington County, while there are 64 school systems with less enrollment, there are only 16 systems with less local funding per student. The state average for local funding is $2,011 per student. In Washington County it is $1,010. This is a far cry from places like Mountain Brook city ($7,324), Vestavia Hills city ($5,159) and Homewood city ($4,917). Looking at those systems smaller than Washington County you find Geneva County ranked 132 on local funding, Clarke County (120), Cleburne County (123) and Lamar County (136).
Point being, it is a challenge for small school systems to meet their financial needs.
The very last thing they need is for the state charter school commission to cast aside common sense and be bound and determined to plop a charter school down somewhere like Washington County and take dollars away from an already thinly stretched budget. (In this case, if 260 students leave Washington County public schools to attend Woodland Prep, the county will lose more than $2 million. And while charter proponents say “money follows the child,” they never mention the expenses left behind.
The public system still has utility bills, support personnel, custodians, bus drivers, etc. to pay. I have never heard a utility company say “Since you have lost 10 percent of your funding, we will cut the cost of kilowatt hour by 10 percent.”
When it comes to rural Alabama, the charter school commission just doesn’t get it. But then, until a month ago when Alliison Haygood from Boaz was put on the commission, there was no one on it from a rural location. They have shown no understanding of how rural Alabama differs from urban Alabama. They are so fixated on setting up charter schools that they ignore the disruption they are creating.
So. The message should go out loud and clear from Washington County to all other small school systems in Alabama, when are they coming for you?. Every lawmaker who serves in either the Alabama House or Senate needs to pay attention to what this charter school commission is doing. To the fact that they either don’t understand the real world or just don’t give a damn.
Whichever it may be, it is not good for education in this state.
At some point we’ve all played the parlor game when someone tells the person next to them something, then they tell the next and so on until the last person relates what they heard. Often we are amazed at what gets lost in the telling.
I could not help but think of this as I read articles by Josh Moon of Alabama Political Reporter and Trish Crain of AL.com and how each reported what took place Friday, June 7 when the state charter school commission met and approved a one year extension of the opening of Woodland Prep in Washington County.
I know both Josh and Trish and call them friends. And because of this, I make no editorial comment about what each wrote. You can read each article and reach your own conclusions.
Read the AL.com article here. And the Alabama Political Reporter article here.
I listened today for 120 minutes as the state charter school commission discussed the request by Woodland Prep in Washington County to open in the fall of 2020, instead of 2019. While I was hopeful common sense might prevail, in my heart of hearts I knew it would not. The vote of 5-1 proved me correct.
Of the nine members presently on the board, only six of them joined the meeting. Of these, the lone no vote came from Allison Haygood, the brand new member of the board from Boaz in Marshall County. It is significant that she is the only active educator on the board. She is an elementary school principal.
For the most part, the meeting was an oral version of Muhammad Ali’s famous Rope-A-Dope while in the ring. Dance this way, dance that way, lean into the ropes, bear hug the other guy and avoid direct hits.
Here are things I learned:
People on the commission are unaware of opposition to this charter school from locals. (Yet when opponents sent several hundred postcards to commission members last spring and were chastised for doing so, this did not show local opposition? When 60 people rode a chatter bus from Chatom to the May 9 state school board meeting in Montgomery and were recognized by state board member, Ella Bell, this was not considered opposition?)
Soner Tarim, who owns Unity School Services in Sugarland, TX and has the very lucrative management contract for Woodland Prep, is just a victim of the mean-spirited people of Washington County. These are people who have prevented him from hiring a good principal because candidates have been bullied. (Like the lady who lives in California and is unknown by name to anyone in the county.)
Unless numbers about school proficiency come from any where but U. S. News & World Report, they are worthless. Time after time Tarim referred to this magazine and their rankings of high schools. He never mentioned numbers from the Alabama State Department of Education that differ drastically from those in the magazine.
The contractor for the school has been hampered by sub-contractors walking off the job because they have been threatened by locals. (Yet there is no local opposition to this charter.)
How many students are presently enrolled in Woodland Prep? Ali would have been proud of this response. “A survey shows we may have 150 students who are interested.” “We have had private meetings with 20-30 parents who say they will be there when the doors open.” Finally the truth came out, somewhere between 40 and 50 are now enrolled.
School supporters have said over and over that 900 students leave the county each day to go to private schools. And where did this number come from? “They came from the local economic developer, who, unfortunately is now deceased so we don’t question their accuracy.”
And so it went. Artful dodging at its best. Someone even threw in a comment about racism for good measure.
But no one ever touched on the bottom line issue in this whole sordid mess. WHAT THIS CONTROVSERY IS DOING TO THIS VERY RURAL COMMUNITY. It is gnawing at the very fabric of what makes rural places both unique and special. Woodland Prep has become a cancer that will now continue to grow for at least 12 more months. That is a travesty. And one that could have been stopped today.
For months, state superintendent Eric Mackey has said that he has no jurisdiction over the state charter school commission. (However, as we have pointed out numerous times, the charter law of 2015 clearly says that “The department shall oversee the performance and effectiveness of all authorizers established under this act” .Furthermore, the guidelines written to govern the charter commission say: “The department will oversee the performance and effectiveness of all authorizers established under this act.”)
However, in a strongly worded email to all members of the commission sent June 4, 2019, Mackey changed his tune and points out eight concerns he has with how the Washington County charter (Woodland Prep) approval process has been handled to this point.
- Insufficient student enrollment
- Insufficient number of school administrators, teachers, and staff
- Facility and building readiness and compliance
- Financial stability
- Inaccurate or possibly false information contained in the original application
- Insufficient statutory parental makeup of the charter school governing board
- Transparency of the charter school governing board
- Fierce public opposition
This memo takes on major significance given the fact that the charter commission has a meeting scheduled for 10 a.m on June 7 to consider a request by Woodland Prep. (While the charter commission will not reveal the nature of the request, it is widely thought that Woodland Prep intends to ask for a one year extension of their opening date.)
Here is how Mackey addressed the upcoming meeting: “Should Woodland Preparatory request a further extension form the Charter School Commission, I hope you would weigh each of these serious concerns as part of the deliberative process.”
The commission is chaired by Mac Buttram of Huntsville. He is now in the hot seat. Does he ignore Mackey? Or does he delay voting on any request by Woodland Prep?
(Buttram is one of the five members of the current board whose terms expired on May 31, 2019. Members may serve until either a replacement is named or they are re-appointed. All five of these members may be re-appointed.)
Given the circumstances surrounding this situation, it would seem the commission should delay any decisions until a new board is in place. However, since so many of their actions have been questionable to this point, who the heck knows what they may do.
But what we do know is that Mackey’s involvement is long overdue.
The Friday meeting will be by teleconference. For those wishing to listen in, call 1-888-822-7517 and then enter 814512#.
Because terms of five current members of the state charter school commission expired May 31 and because the final selection of who serves on this board belong to the state board of education, people across Alabama will be closely watching who they pick for these seats in the coming weeks.
All five of these members can be re-appointed. But should they be?
That answer is easy if they are judged by how they have handled (or fumbled) the charter school mess in Washington County. Why did they vote 7-2 to approve the application of Woodland Prep in Washington County after the National Association of Charter School Authorizers recommended the application be denied? Why have they ignored the overwhelming opposition to this school by the local community? Why have they not considered the impact of the loss of $2 million on a rural system of only 2,650 students. Why do they think a school system rated as a B on the state report card needs another school?
Why did they accept at face value an application that contained “data” that could not be confirmed? Why did they not do due diligence on “support” letters that were highly suspect? Why did they chastise Washington County citizens for sending postcards opposing the charter? Why have they allowed the charter school to miss deadlines in the start up process?
Here is how the process works.
Two of these appointments will be filled by Governor Kay Ivey, two by Speaker of the House Mac McCutheon and one by Senate President Del Marsh. (In addition, there is currently a vacancy in another seat because of the resignation of Chad Fincher in March. This slot is to be filled by Senator Marsh.).
Each appointing official sends two nominations for each position to the state board of education, who make the final selection.
Should changes be made? Or should we keep on doing what we’ve been doing?
That decision rests with the state board of education. If you would like to weigh in on this matter, contact state school board members and let them know how you feel. They are:
District One: Jackie Zeigler firstname.lastname@example.org
District Two: Tracie West Traciewest3@gmail.com
District Three: Stephanie Bell email@example.com
District Four: Yvette Richardson firstname.lastname@example.org
District Five: Ella Bell email@example.com
District Six: Cynthia McCarty firstname.lastname@example.org
District Seven: Jeff Newman email@example.com
District Eight: Wayne Reynolds firstname.lastname@example.org
Here is another example of the incompetence of the state charter school commission. The following notice is from state department of education web site.
“The Alabama Public Charter School Commission will have a meeting on June 7, 2019, at 10 A.M. at the Gordon Persons Building and via teleconference. The purpose of the meeting is to vote on whether or not to approve a request by Woodland Prep.”
So what is the request by Woodland Prep? What is the room number for the meeting? What phone number do you call to listen in? There are only nine members presently on this commission. The terms of five of them expired May 31. Can they legally conduct business under these conditions? Or should they conduct business knowing that some members may soon be replaced?
This is the kind of foolishness the good folks in Washington County have been dealing with for more than a year. Is it any wonder they are sick and tired of it all?
And now the legislature says we need to have an appointed state school board. Why? So they can be as unprofessional as the appointed state charter school commission?