As the debacle with Woodland Prep in Washington County continues and as the state charter commission resembles a lap dog more than a watch dog, questions keep piling up in my mind.
Soner Tarim, the self-proclaimed education guru from Texas, who owns Unity School Services that has management contracts with both Woodland Prep and LEAD Academy in Montgomery, was just denied his application to build more charters in Texas by their state school board.
He started the Harmony charter network in Texas in 2000 that had more than 50 campuses when Tarim parted ways with them in 2017. He is well known there. So with a 17-year record, why did he run into a brick wall before the Texas Board of Education on June 14? What do folks in Texas know that folks in Alabama don’t?
Four Republicans and four Democrats voted against him. So it was not a partisan issue..
I have talked to one of the Republicans and one of the Democrats who voted against him. Both spoke openly. One says he used “alternative facts,” the other said he can’t be trusted. Both say he is more interested in making money than educating children.
So when Tarim appeared before the Alabama charter commission on June 7, why did the members of this commission believe everything he said?
Tarim has long been linked to the Gulen movement, an organization many believe is dedicated to overthrowing the Turkish government and is often referred to simply as FETO. (Tethullahist Terrorist Organization).
Mac Buttram chairs the Alabama charter commission. At the June 7 meeting he said that he has been to Turkey. (Buttram was a state representative from 2010 to 2014. Gulen affiliated organizations have sponsored trips to Turkey for U.S. legislators for years.) Who paid for Buttram’s trip? What was the purpose for going?
At this same meeting Buttram said that he had spoken to Tarim about any Gulen connection and Tarim denied it. But recently Tarim said at a hearing in Texas that he can not return to Turkey. Why? Because the Turkish government has identified people involved with Gulen and they will be arrested if they go home.
The charter commission retained the National Association of Charter School Authorizers in Chicago to review all charter applications and recommend whether or not they should be approved or denied. We paid them $113,000 for their services over several years.
NACSA said both Woodland Prep and LEAD Academy should be turned down. But the charter commission approved both. And lo and behold, both have management contracts with Soner Tarim. Coincidence?
Texas state board member Aicha Davis asked Tarim why the application he said he prepared for Woodland Prep was turned down by NACSA. He told her that it was because they did not know what they were doing. And then added that people in Alabama did not know either until he showed them how.
So he prepared the application–and then helped grade it too? Talk about a sweetheart deal.
Alabama no longer uses NACSA. And even though the organization told me they have reviewed 500 application in the last ten years, Tarim knows more than they do.
(When Tarim testified before the Texas board on June 14, he was asked why he claimed in his application that six Austin public schools were failing when the Texas Education Agency said they were not. Tarim’s response? He used his own grading system.)
At the June 7 meeting where Woodland Prep asked for a one-year extension because they can not find enough students to open their school by August as they originally planned, the attorney for the charter went into a rant about a letter John Dickey, Washington County superintendent, sent to the charter asking what their enrollment was and that he wanted the names of these students. The attorney said Dickey should be ashamed to ask for names because this violated certain regulations.
The attorney is the one who should be ashamed because his statement was untrue. Dickey has the letter to prove it. But did the charter commission ask for a copy of this letter? Nope. They just believed this lie.
At the same meeting Woodland Prep supporters said they have always held public board meetings. Wrong again. And again there is documentation to prove the point. But didn’t matter to the charter commission.
At the June 13 work session of the state school board, assistant state superintendent Tony Thacker gave a report about the charter commission meeting of the previous week, which he attended. He said that commission member Tommy Ledbetter “read the riot act” to Woodland Prep warning them not to miss deadlines. This is especially interesting since the charter has already missed several deadlines and no one said a word about it.
The Woodland Prep application claimed that 900 students a day leave Washington County to attend private schools. (There are no private schools in the county.) This number is bogus and can not be verified. So when Mac Buttram asked Woodland Prep about the number, he was told that the lady who got it had access to lots of data and since she is now dead, they would not question it.
It’s unfortunate the lady is deceased. But the number was wrong when she was alive and it is still wrong. Yet, Buttram took the Woodland Prep answer at face value and moved on.
The application had a number of red flags. It contained false information about who was supporting the school. It had “support” letters that were unsigned. So why did none of this raise a red flag for charter commission staff? Why didn’t they verify the support letters?
Too many questions. Too few answers.
Don’t taxpayers deserve better than this? Our children damn sure do.