My first post about the Washington County charter mess was on April 10, 2019. I had no clue about what was going on in southwest Alabama until just a few days before this. Someone mentioned there was an effort to open a charter there and I contacted the charter commission at the state department of education.
Having known the person I got in touch with for years, I expected a quick and straight forward answer. But to my amazement, I was told I would have to contact the media folks at ALSDE. I was dumbfounded that I was getting the runaround on such a simple question.
But as I soon discovered, nothing about Washington County seemed to include transparency.
My first trip to Washington County was April 5. It is 385 miles roundtrip from Montgomery to Chatom and back. That was the day I met Betty Brackin, Federal programs director for the county. She shared a great deal of documentation she had gathered about the charter. She, and some of her friends, have been relentless in their pursuit of what is taking place.
This was not my first visit with Betty, nor my last trip to Washington County.
The work of Betty and her friends has been mischaracterized over and over.
Soner Tarim, the guy from Texas hired to manage Woodland Prep in Washington County, says those who work with the public school system are scared of competition and only trying to protect their jobs. This is total BS. But then, so is most of what Tarim says, as members of the Texas state school board, who know him well, will confirm.
It’s about a very rural school system that is fighting for survival and know a charter will dig deeply into the capacity to provide necessary resources to their students. In the last ten years enrollment in Washington County public schools has gone from 3,487 to 2,650. That’s 24 percent. Choctaw County and Clarke County adjoin Washington. They have lost respectively, 33 percent and 28 percent in the last decade.
This in part of a statewide trend. Alabama had 739,196 public school students in 2008-09 and 722,212 this past school year.
The Woodland Prep charter application says they will open in August 2020 with 260 students. Washington County gets about $8,500 from the state for each student. If all of these students come from Washington County, that is a loss of $2.2 million for the system.
There are only 17,000 people living in Washington County, which covers 1,000 square. They have high schools in Chatom, Millry, Leroy, Fruitdale and McIntosh. Three are 1-A schools, our smallest classification. Leroy and Washington County high in Chatom are 2-A. None of them are close to each other. For the most part, these schools are the heart and soul of these communities.
Close one and you have gutted the community.
But that is likely what a charter school will do. Force one of these schools to sit empty. You simply can not take $2.2 million from an already overtaxed budget and keep doing what you’ve been doing. Plus, couple this with the fact that in 2020 the Power South generating plant in the county will shut down, taking with it another $700,000 in revenue to the school system, and you see why Betty and friends have been battling so hard.
Why did I join the fray?
An article on AL.com implies that I am only a front man for the Alabama Education Association (AEA). This too is BS. And the author knows it because I told her so.
In early May Woodland Prep supporters distributed a flyer in the Washington County News touting their school and again using the same bogus numbers about Washington County school proficiency rates that Tarim has spread since day one. When I saw this I picked up the phone and called Willie Gray, who is publisher of the Washington County News and the Call News in Citronelle. I told him I wanted to do a flyer to counter Woodland Prep’s fake news piece and distribute just as many as they did.
I wrote the text for the flyer and one of his employees did the design. I drove from Montgomery to Citronelle on May 24 and wrote a check for $2,300. I have the invoice. This paid for 15,000 flyers. This was my money. I did not expect anyone to reimburse me. (However, when word got out about what I did, someone in Washington County did chip in $500 which I appreciated.)
When Henry Mabry was head of AEA, he suggested one day in a chance encounter at the statehouse that they put me on a monthly retainer to help cover my expenses for the work I do advocating for public schools. I have no retirement. My only income is a monthly Social Security check. I appreciated the offer and agreed. This went along for several months. Mabry left AEA in March 2015. The checks stopped before he left. AEA NEVER suggested that I write any article or take on any project. To suggest that they were somehow involved with the flyer is sloppy reporting and totally false.
(I should also point out that at one point a number of years ago I also got a monthly retainer from both the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools (CLAS) and the School Superintendents of Alabama (SSA) to advocate for public schools. This lasted just a few months.)
Some have questioned my diligence in covering the mess in Washington County. They can’t seem to believe that someone would be this passionate without an ulterior motive.
They don’t know me.
It is what I do. And have been doing for decades. My devotion to rural folks and rural places is well-documented. When I graduated from Auburn in 1966 with my journalism major in hand, my first job was as an assistant editor at Progressive Farmer magazine in Birmingham. I have been writing about the rural South ever since.
I was executive director of the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning & Development Commission in Dothan, working with seven Wiregrass counties. I ran the Covington County Economic Development Commission. I was the first director of a group working on economic development in Pickens, Lamar and Fayette Counties. My last job before retiring was running a little shop at the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries we called the Center for Rural Alabama.
While there I wrote a grant for $25,000 that funded the study of ten rural schools we called Lessons Learned From Rural Schools. One of these schools was Calcedever elementary in north Mobile County, very close to Washington County. Another was at Gilbertown in Choctaw County, also near Washington County.
I co-authored with my friend Joe Sumners at Auburn, two publications about rural development. Today I serve on the board of the national organization, Rural Schools Collaborative. I was very involved in launching the Black Belt Teacher Corps at the University of West Alabama..
I am glad to have been a part of telling the story of the chaos created in Washington County by the state charter commission. It should have never been allowed to get started.
I make no apologies for anything I have done or for my passion in speaking out for rural Alabama.
This is who I am. The grandson of a Covington County sharecropper. It is sad that some among us are so jaded that they just don’t understand.