Last August the Alabama Education Association filed suit in Washington County alleging that Sonar Tarim, the Texas education consultant working with Woodland Prep charter school falsified information submitted to the state charter school commission.
The initial hearing on this suit is scheduled for Jan. 21 before Circuit Court Judge Gaines McCorquodale in Chatom.
But given the charter’s track record of evasion and misrepresentation of the facts, it came as no surprise when lawyers for Woodland Prep filed a last-minute motion to “dismiss, re-set the hearing, and seal the proceedings.”
In other words, they wanted to delay the start of the proceeding and then hide things from the public. An attorney told me that the effort to seal the proceedings in a civil action was highly unusual.
Among other things, Woodland Prep’s contention is that “the facts and filings in this case promotes scandal and defamation, poses a serious threat of harassment, and poses a risk of harm to persons who are not parties to this litigation.” This was based on the fact that AEA has encouraged the community to attend the Jan. 21 hearing.
Judge McCorquodale was not impressed and almost immediately denied the Woodland Prep motion.
It is high time to move forward with this suit and bring closure in some form or fashion to this whole sordid affair. The people of Washington County have been held in limbo since Woodland Prep was granted an application to move ahead in May 2018, in spite of the fact that the state charter law says that “weak” applications should not be approved and this application was approved, though the National Association of Charter School Authorizers recommended it not be.
Editor’s note: It is noteworthy that one of the lawyers defending Woodland Prep is David L. Faulkner, Jr. with the law firm of Christian & Small LLP of Birmingham. Faulkner is a state representative who voted in favor of the charter school law passed in 2015.
While you and I could not disagree much more on what we need to do to help Alabama schools and educators, I have never questioned that you are a successful politician and businessman. You could have tremendous impact on education in this state–if you would listen to real educators and teachers instead of latching onto whatever shiny object comes along.
Take the charter school law you sponsored in 2015 for instance.
Even though charters have been around for more than 20 years and have a very dubious track record (there are no public schools in New Orleans, only charters, but no one holds up New Orleans as what they want their schools to be.), we were told that Alabama had the best charter law in the country.
But five years later, no way this is true. While we were promised a race car, we now see that we got a go-cart instead.
The law is being ignored in certain cases and schools that have opened are not being held accountable. Two of them are facing legal challenges. When the public seeks info from the state charter commission that is public record, they are stonewalled. Local communities that are dead set against charters (like Washington County) are ignored, even though the law says that determining local support for a charter is part of the approval process.
The law also says that a charter authorizer should decline to approve “weak of inadequate charter applications.” Yet the National Association of Charter School Authorizers reviewed the applications for both Woodland Prep in Washington County and LEAD Academy in Montgomery and recommended they both be denied. But the charter commission ignored this recommendation, approved each, and so far both have been a disaster.
The charter commission is in over its head. The fact that four of its five members who came up for reappointment in 2019 (including the chairman) were replaced by the state school board is ample evidence of the lack of confidence in this entity.
The law clearly states that “The department (state department of education) shall oversee the performance and effectiveness of all authorizers established under this act,” but for some reason, the state superintendent has refused to exercise this authority.
At the heart of this may well be a single line on page 13 of the law that says, “The commission is established as an independent state entity.”
However, no one knows what this statement means, including the good folks at the legislative reference department who wrote the law.
The law should be amended in the upcoming session to at least delete this language. Also, the law should be amended so that there is absolutely no question that the state school board and the state superintendent have complete oversight of the charter commission.
Senator, since you wrote this law, I have no doubt that you want to make sure it works as intended. That is not the case now.
If you want charter schools, fine. (I do not oppose good charters that fill a need and are run properly like University Charter School in Livingston.)
But don’t leave us dangling at the mercy of something no one can seem to interpret or hold accountable.
It is nigh impossible to figure out what is going on with charter schools in Montgomery. Whether it is by design, deception or a bushel of inaptitude, the situation is clearly defying sections of the charter law and thumbs its nose at what is legal and what is not.
The charter law was passed in 2015. We were told it was the best such law in the country. But as is often the case with educational policy cobbled together by our supermajority, words and reality seldom agree.
Under the law, local school systems can opt to become a charter authorizer, meaning that charter applications that impact a school system must first get approval from the locals. (However, if turned down at this level, applicants can then appeal to the state charter commission.) Very few local school boards went this route. One reason being that local authorizers are required to send out RFPs seeking charters to come into their system.
(As one over-the-mountain superintendent told me, “We have excellent schools, why should we recruit competition for them?”)
Initially, the Montgomery school board voted to become an authorizer and they commenced paperwork, which is a very involved task.
I served on the Montgomery school board for three months in late 2018. One of the things I tried to find out was what happened to the Montgomery effort to become an authorizer. I learned that while the process was begun, the initial application was not approved by the state and sent back for more work. However, by this time the Montgomery board, having learned more about what being an authorizer entailed, changed their mind and did not complete the application.
But today the charter commission says that Montgomery is an authorizer, however efforts to get the paperwork that support this contention, have been futile.
Enter LEAD Academy, the Montgomery charter that opened last August and has been mired in controversy and legal actions.
LEAD applied to the state charter commission for approval. Which begs the question, if MPS is a local authorizer, why didn’t LEAD apply to them?
The initial LEAD application was reviewed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a group in Chicago used by the state charter commission since they opened shop. They recommended that LEAD be denied, that the application was weak in all major categories.
The charter law clearly spells out that authorizers, such as the state charter commission, shall decline to approve weak or inadequate charter applications.
But in spite of this, the charter commission ignored the NACSA recommendation and approved LEAD Academy. (They did the same thing with Woodland Prep in Washington County.)
In March, 2018, the Alabama Education Association sued contending that the charter commission’s vote did not include a majority of its membership. This action did not hold up in court and LEAD was allowed to go forward.
Enter the Montgomery Education Foundation and their plan to convert existing public schools in Montgomery to charter schools.
Unlike LEAD, this application was submitted to MPS. However, we once again see that the charter law is not being followed.
The law states: A local school board may convert a non-charter public school to a public charter school. After identifying the non-charter public school it has decided to convert to a public charter school, a local school board shall release a request for proposals, allowing education service providers the opportunity to submit applications. Provide evidence of the education services provider’s success in serving student populations similar to the targeted population…..”
The decision to convert three public schools to charters WAS NOT the board’s decision. This came from the foundation. In addition, the foundation has NO experience in school management.
Now another potential charter is on the scene. They will hold a public hearing at Carver high school at 6 p.m. on Jan. 9 before the local board. If MPS is not an authorizer, they can not legally approve a charter application. In addition, who will grade this application to see if it has merit? MPS does not have this capacity.
On top of all of this, what about the situation at LEAD where they are being sued by their former principal for wrongful termination and where a number of faculty have left since school began? All school systems, including charters, are supposed to post their financial info, including check registers, on-line monthly. Why hasn’t LEAD done this?
Why did LEAD’s education consultant, Soner Tarim of Houston, leave them? His so-called expertise was a major part of LEAD’s application to the state. This change in structure should be spelled out in a new contract with the state. Has this been done?
It is a mess of the highest order. There are way too many questions and not near enough answers. The taxpayers of Alabama are footing the bill for all of this. They deserve answers.
The charter law gives authority over charter schools to the state department of education. Here is what you find on page 24, line 18 of the law:
The department shall oversee the performance and effectiveness of all authorizers established under this act. Persistently unsatisfactory performance of the portfolio of the public charter schools of an authorizer, a pattern of well-founded complaints about the authorizer or its public charter schools, or other objective circumstances may trigger a special review by the department.
In other words, where is the state school superintendent and the state school board? This mess is squarely in their lap.
While it slipped by unnoticed by many and certainly out of sight of main stream media, to me the number one story impacting public education across Alabama in the past 12 months was replacing four incumbents on the charter school commission. And especially chairman Mac Buttram.
The commission has 10 members. Four appointed by the governor, three by the speaker of the house, two by the senate majority leader and one by the lt. governor. Since they serve staggered terms of only two years, five of the ten come up for reappointment or replacement every year.
A year ago this group seemed more intent on approving any charter school than doing their due diligence. They were all too eager to force square pegs into round holes and ignore whether a school was about meeting a true need and how receptive was the local community. Case in point being the chaos in Washington County where the school system is rated a B by the state and the community is dead set against charter intrusion.
Such matters wee ignored by the commission when they approved applications for both Woodland Prep and LEAD Academy in 2018. They also ignored the recommendations of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers that neither be approved. As the situation in Washington County has labored on for months and months and LEAD Academy has turned into a first-rate mess in Montgomery, one has to think that the national reviewers had ample reason for their “do not approve” recommendation.
Throughout this time, former legislator Mac Buttram chaired the commission.
How he got to be chairman is unclear.
The bylaws of the charter commission plainly state the chair serves a one year term. Which clearly means that an election for chair should be held annually. But minutes of the commission do not show this has been the case.
Ed Richardson was elected chair at the commission’s first meeting on Aug. 27, 2015. Co vice-chairs were Thomas Rains and Gloria Batts. There is no mention of any election in 2016. At the April 25, 2017 meeting Richardson said they would have an election at their May meeting. But the minutes do not show this happened.
However, later that year, September 22 to be exact, Buttram was chairing the meeting, having apparently been elevated from vice-chair when Richardson left the commission to be interim state school superintendent.
But when was Buttram elected vice-chair? The minutes do not say.
Buttram was elected to the state house of representatives from Cullman County in 2010 and served one term. This election was clouded in controversy. Buttram beat James Fields who won a special election in 2008. Fields’ election drew attention because he was a black Democrat who got elected in a district that was 98 percent white. Both men were ministers and participated in the same weekly prayer group. Even more notable was that when Fields’ first wife died, Buttram officiated at the funeral. And when Fields re-married, Buttram again officiated.
Naturally, Fields was surprised that his “friend” was running against him.
Buttram got to Montgomery at the time when Mike Hubbard became speaker and the Cullman Republican quickly became a loyal follower. Over time, some of Buttram’s constituents came to believe he was more concerned with cozying up to Montgomery power brokers than paying attention to the needs of home folks.
One of them was Corey Harbison, the mayor of Good Hope, at the southwest corner of Cullman. Harbison told me that his attempts to get help from Buttram on city matters largely fell on deaf ears and late in 2013, he decided to challenge Buttram for his seat.
There were three in the Republican primary. Buttram got 44 percent of the vote, Haribson got 41. Eager to help their friend, Hubbard and former governor Bob Riley rolled out the big guns. In all, Buttram spent more than $350,000 trying to keep his seat. Riley’s PAC kicked in more than $100,000, Hubbard’s PAC gave $13,500, the Business Council of Alabama gave $52,500 and the Alabama Federation for Children contributed $37,000. Event the California-based group, Students First, gave $2,500.
As anyone who watches public education in this state closely knows, none of these are considered friends of public education.
By comparison, Harbison’s campaign only pulled in $97,000.
Someone got the bright idea that it would be wise to bring Hubbard and Riley to Cullman the Saturday before the runoff on Tuesday. As it turned out, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. News about the power broker invasion for Buttram hit the Sunday paper and Harbison won going away, 55 percent to 45 percent.
Buttram has since moved to the Huntsville area.
He was nominated for the charter commission board by Governor Robert Bentley, the same guy who declared that Alabama education “sucks” and cast the deciding vote to hire Mike Sentance for state superintendent.
Buttram fully displayed his exuberance for charters last June when Woodland Prep asked for a one-year extension for their opening date. Soner Tarim did his best impression of the Artful Dodger that day, avoiding one direct answer after another. It was obvious that Buttram believed it all and never once challenged Tarim.
Tarim has been linked to the very controversial Gulen charter school movement. This effort has sponsored trips to Turkey for a number of years for lawmakers and others. It is public relations at its best. Buttram told the commission that day that he had been to Turkey and that Tarim told him he was not associated with Gulen.
The extension was granted.
Officials actually nominate two people for each slot on the charter commission. The final selection is made by the state school board. So even incumbents who get renominated have another name in their slot the state board may choose. Buttram was a nomination that belonged to Governor Ivey. She did not even submit his name for consideration.
At the August state school board meeting, four new people were put on the charter commission. In January, another new member will be added.
Unlike Mac Buttram, the new members seem far more deliberative and willing to ask reasonable and thoughtful questions. And Alabama is all the better for it.
Once again Josh Moon, investigative reporter for the Alabama Political Reporter, has pulled back the curtain on LEAD Academy, Montgomery’s first charter school, and exposed what he calls a “first-rate mess.”
Go here to read his article of Dec. 17.
Here are portions of what Josh wrote:
“As former LEAD Academy principal Nichole Ivey-Price prepares for another hearing in her ongoing wrongful termination lawsuit against the charter school, a number of current and former LEAD employees have told APR that the environment at the school remains one of near-chaos.
Perhaps most surprising, the employees said that Unity School Services — the management company led by Soner Tarim, the controversial charter school guru with questionable ties to a Turkish religious movement — is no longer involved at LEAD.
According to several teachers, three more LEAD teachers have resigned in the last few weeks causing a significant staffing shortage. So significant, in fact, that several non-certified teachers have been hired to fill open positions.
In addition, LEAD employees told APR that the school’s office is often staffed with volunteers. That isn’t necessarily uncommon for elementary schools, but what is uncommon, they say, is that the volunteers have access to private student records.
“You can’t do what they’re doing and not expect a problem at some point,” said a LEAD teacher. “It is so obvious now that this school was not even close to being ready to open. Whoever approved this never spent a day here.”
LEAD was sold to desperate people as a beacon of hope. But from the start, it appeared to be little better than a scam.
There was never a plan to create a different sort of school. There was never a plan to address specific issues within Montgomery. There was never any indication that LEAD administrators, including board president Charlotte Meadows — who used the publicity of the school as a springboard to be elected to the Alabama House — had a plan for success that extended beyond not following tenure laws.
In one semester, LEAD is already on its second principal and has lost nearly half of its original staff, according to current and former employees. There have been issues with payroll, with employees receiving proper pay, being compensated for training and having their pay cut arbitrarily.
There have also been sickening accusations of LEAD administrators working to push special needs students away from the school.
And none of it should be a surprise to anyone who paid attention to the fiasco that unfolded during LEAD’s application process — when professionals who determine the readiness of charter schools all over the country told Alabama’s commission that LEAD wasn’t fit to open.”
Editor’s note: Living in Montgomery and having many contacts in the education community, I have confirmed much of what Josh reports. In addition, hardly a day goes by without rumors of more problems. For instance, I have been told that principal Ibrahim Lee’s relationship with LEAD staff is rocky at best. But then, Lee was once principal at Bellingrath middle school in the Montgomery system and was not retained. He is also the same guy who was on the state charter school commission and voted to approve the LEAD charter application before taking a job with them. The ethics of this maneuver are highly suspect.
It should also be noted that the same Soner Tarim who is no longer with LEAD is the same guy who is the consultant for Woodland Prep in Washington County. And the same guy who told the Texas school board last summer that he not only prepared the application for Woodland Prep to submit to the state charter commission–but also helped to grade it. Like LEAD, the application for Woodland Prep was reviewed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers who recommended that it be denied.
It is high time that the state superintendent of education step into this quagmire and get to the bottom of what is going on. After all, charter schools are public schools getting public funds and the state superintendent is the overseer of all public schools.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, without doubt the most unqualified person to ever hold this position, thinks charter schools are the solution to every ailment in education. So she is quick to hand out dollars to folks wanting to bring more charter schools on line. (This is how the non-profit New Schools for Alabama, recently got awarded $25 million)
And to this end New Hampshire was recently told that $46 million was waiting for them in the coffers of the USDOE so they could double the number of charter schools in the next five years.
Just one problem. Some folks in New Hampshire don’t want the money for more charter schools. So they have voted to block the first installment of this Washington handout. You can get all the details in this article in the Washington Post.
Some pertinent excerpts from the article.
Members of the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee voted 7 to 3 to table the grant from the federal Charter School Program (CSP), with the majority Democrats saying they were concerned about the effect that the expansion of charter schools could have on traditional public schools at a time of decreasing enrollment.
The federal grant given this past August to New Hampshire was intended to allow the opening of 20 new charter schools. In addition, five existing charters could expand, and seven existing charters could “replicate” in other places.
Most of New Hampshire’s charters rent space from for-profit companies, a 2018 analysis by a pro-charter group shows. New Hampshire Public Radio reported that most of the state’s charter schools have fewer students than they are authorized to enroll.”
It should be noted that the political landscape of New Hampshire is starkly different than that of Alabama. Whereas the state was staunchly Republican for decades, it began to shift a couple of decades ago and today both of its U.S. Senators and two U.S. Congress persons are Democrats. And in 2018, Democrats took control of the legislature from the Republican party.