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.