Drive by any school in Alabama (during more normal times) and what do you expect to find? Classrooms. Students. Teachers. Textbooks. Computers. A curriculum. Someone in charge.
But nearly two years after the Alabama charter school commission gave the go ahead to Woodland Prep charter in Washington County there is no school facility, no classrooms, no students, no teachers, no textbooks, no curriculum.
Just an endless string of broken promises, missed deadlines, lack of due diligence and questionable decisions. It all adds up to one of the sorriest chapters in Alabama public education, fueled in large part by incompetence at multiple levels.
Red flags were ignored from the outset.
Where was the public support? It was never there. Instead, the idea for this school was promoted by someone without school age children who was motivated by animosity toward the public school system. She wanted to get even. This is hardly the right motive for taking on a challenge of this magnitude.
Then she joined forces with Texas conman Soner Tarim, someone with a controversial background and a gift for gab. The handful of folks trying to launch Woodland Prep fell under Tarim’s spell. This was a fatal mistake.
Tarim wrote the application submitted to the state charter school commission. But when his handiwork was reviewed by the National Association of Charter School Auhorizers, they said it did not meet muster and should be denied. But in their infinite wisdom, the charter commission ignored the info they paid thousands of dollars to obtain and approved Woodland Prep in May 2018.
The application was chock full of inaccuracies and misrepresentations. “Letters of support” were unsigned. Figures that could not be verified were allowed to stand. Data from questionable sources was not challenged.
Plainly, the staff for the state charter commission did not do a decent job of due diligence. Had they, it would have been impossible to not see the numerous red flags in the application.
Both Tarim and the charter board are now being sued for fraud and misrepresentation by the Alabama Education Association. Attorneys for the charter have tried to derail this suit, but without success. Plaintiff attorneys are now trying to do “discovery”, but continue to get the run around from defendants. Woodland Prep attorneys tried to get Circuit Court Judge Gaines McCorquodale to dismiss the suit. He did not. Now they have appealed his ruling to the state Court of Civil Appeals.
The charter commission has 10 members who are appointed by various state officials. Of the seven who voted to approve Woodland Prep in May 2008, only two of them remain on the commission. Five of the seven have been replaced, including the chairman, Mac Buttram, who was unceremoniously dumped by Governor Ivey last August.
Word in Washington County now is that Tarim is no longer involved with Woodland Prep and they are looking for another
Education Management Organization (EMO).
(Tarim was also the EMO for Montgomery’s LEAD Academy, a school plagued by obstacles since it opened in August. He prepared this application as well and it ALSO was not recommended for approval by NACSA. However, as with Woodland Prep, the commission ignored this recommendation. At the same time NACSA gave Woodland and LEAD a bad recommendation, they did the same for a third charter application for a school in Bessemer. But this school did not use Tarim and the charter commission did not approve it.
(Down in Covington County things such as this are sometimes known as “home cooking.”)
To their credit, the charter commission voted in February to begin proceedings to revoke the Woodland Prep charter. Initially they called for a March 24, 2020 hearing to handle this matter. This was then delayed to April 20, though no one can figure out who authorized such action. This date has now also been delayed until some time in “early to mid-May.” Apparently this hearing must be face-to-face with the charter commission and due to the coronavirus pandemic, who knows when this may be possible.
And once again the good folks of Washington County who oppose Woodland Prep are left to dangle. Left to wonder how their public school system, which is rated a B by the state of Alabama, will cope with losing up to $2 million in funding should Woodland Prep ever become a reality.
Truth is, the charter is in worse shape today than when it was approved. Tarim WAS the school. He was the only voice speaking on its behalf before charter commission meetings. Never once do I recall a parent speaking in support of Woodland Prep.
(In the last year Tarim has tried to get approval to open charters in Texas and Nevada. He has been turned down in both states.)
Without him there is no curriculum, no on-the-ground expertise, just the shell of an unfinished building.
Nothing but more deception, more efforts by people trying to make some money, more excuses.
It’s all bogus. A fake school that exists in name only. An example of what happens when people don’t do their job and follow their common sense.
This should have never happened. And it is way past time for it to be ended.
The South Oak Grove Baptist church has been a fixture in southwest Washington County since 1880. It doubled as a school for nearly 60 years, until a school was built in nearby Fruitdale.
Today it is a staging site for volunteers working to provide meals for local students prevented from attending school by the virus pandemic. The fellowship hall is filled with can goods, bags of chips and goodies and drinks. Five local churches, along with local citizens, have provided $2,000 for food. The local route man for a bread company donated loaves of bread. The Bay Area Food Bank helped.
The effort is coordinated by Marty Coaker, who has driven a school bus for Fruitdale school for 32 years. Food is provided for 109 students, all but eight of whom have meals delivered to their homes. Ten volunteers, including one great-grandmother, make deliveries. The deliveries are necessary because the area is so sparsely populated and both distance and lack of transportation hamper students and their families from getting to the church.
It is an amazing effort, one being repeated today in hundreds of communities around the state. For instance, the same day I visited South Oak Grove I also stopped by the McIntosh Community Center on the other side of the county. Volunteer Wesley Barnes, assisted by McIntosh High School principal Jamelle Sauls, ran this site distributing more than 100 “grab and go” lunches.
While thousands of volunteers and educators in Alabama are scrambling to meet the challenges of this momment, the Washington County school system is unique since it is the only rural system in the state also threatened financially by the prospect of a charter school opening there and cutting $2 million in funding from the existing system.
This charade has now gone on for nearly two years. The state charter commission approved the Woodland Prep charter application on May 14, 2018. The application was reviewed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers who recommended that it be denied. They also recommended the same for LEAD Academy in Montgomery.
But Soner Tarim of Houston, who had management contracts for both Woodland Prep and LEAD, convinced the charter commission that NACSA did not know what they were doing, so both schools were approved.
LEAD Academy opened last August and has had anything but a smooth start. Tarim is no longer working for them and according to the Montgomery Advertiser, LEAD owes him $76,000. The Woodland Prep board has indicted they are now looking for someone else to manage their school.
A letter was sent on Feb. 18, 2020 from charter commission chair, Henry Nelson, to the attorney for Woodland Prep stating that there would be a hearing on March 24, 2020 to consider revoking their charter.
However, this was postponed to April 20, 2020. I can not find out who authorized this. It was NOT an action by the charter commission. I have twice asked by email both Nelson and Logan Searcy, state department staff person for the charter commission, who OK’ed this. Neither responded.
So here we are nearly two years later and this mess drags on. In addition to struggling to meet the hardships of the virus crisis we now face, in October Washington County schools will lose $700,000 in annual revenue when Power South closes a generating plant in Leroy.
And the chaos and confusion caused by an effort to open a charter school that has scant community support and is not needed still dangles over the head of this rural community.
(I have attended at least three meetings the charter commission has had with Woodland Prep. I NEVER recall a single parent from Washington County showing up to speak for Woodland Prep. Instead, it has either been Soner Tarim or attorney Nash Campbell pleading their case. Since both have a financial interest in Woodland Prep, do they really want a school–or a paycheck?)
Even without the virus crisis, it is high time for the state charter commission to do what is right and put an end to this travesty. And this crisis makes it even more so.
Circuit Judge Gaines McCorquodale issued his ruling Feb 4 on Woodland Prep’s motion to dismiss a law suit against them.
The motion was denied and the suit now moves forward.
The Alabama Education Association filed suit last August against Soner Tarim, the Texas-based “education guru” hired by Woodland Prep. accusing him of submitting false information to the state charter school commission on behalf of Woodland Prep.
(Tarim also had a management contract with Montgomery’s LEAD Academy. But according to LEAD, Tarim is no longer working for them.)
The next step in the process will be “discovery,” which consist of depositions, interrogatories and requests for admissions..
Last June the Texas state board of education denied Tarim’s request to open four charters in Auston. I interviewed two members of the Texas board after they turned down this request. One of them said to me, “How could people in Alabama let this guy hoodwink them?”
As time has gone along, we are learning the wisdom of this question.
Finally. Thankfully. Mercifully.
The colossal mishmash of an attempt to open a charter school in Washington County has now been taken off of life support and left to flop, flounder and gasp its last breath by the state charter school commission.
The application to open Woodland Prep was approved in May 2018 by the commission on a vote of 7-2. It is noteworthy that of the seven YEA votes, only two of these commission members remain.
(The commission has 10 members. Four nominated by the governor, three by the speaker of the house, one by the lt. govenror and two by the senate majority leader. Six of these members have taken office since last May, no doubt in part to the on-going controversy created by Woodland Prep.)
Then the charter asked for a one-year extension on June 7, 2019 stating more time was needed for construction and permitting. This was granted on a vote of 5-1.
At that time the contractor said the school would be ready for tours in January 2020.
However, instead of meeting this time line, Woodland Prep asked the charter commission at their Feb. 3, 2020 meeting for another building extension. This was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back and the commission balked.
In a near-unanimous vote, the commission not only voted down the extension request, they also approved a motion to proceed with the paperwork to revoke Woodland Pre’s charter application. The charter will be given 30 days to respond to the commission and the commission will then react to this response.
It was clear the commission has run out of patience with the charter and their endless excuses for why there has been so little progress on completing the facility and enrolling students.
This frustration was strongly expressed by commissioner Paul Morin of Birmingham who explained that since the Woodland Prep application was first approved in May 2018, the state highway department closed a major intersection in Birmingham where I-59/s0 and I-65 join and totally rebuilt it and re-opened for traffic. “And ya’ll can’t build a small school building in the same time?” he asked.
As we’ve documented here countless times, this has been a sordid mess from day one. The charter law has been ignored, due diligence has often been woeful, information has been either sketchy or simply withheld, the truth has been badly warped and the Washington County public school system has been left to left to wonder for too many months what future budgets will look like.
It has proven beyond a doubt that Alabama’s charter school law is flawed and needs serious re-tooling.
I titled one of my first posts (April 10, 2019) about all of this, The Rape of Washington County. That is still an appropriate description of what unfolded in the very rural county of only 17,000 people. No citizen of this state deserves to be treated as second-class. But that is what happened for months and months and months.
Fortunately, a small band of dedicated people in the county simply refused to go quietly into the night. They were tenacious in their efforts to expose wrong doing and make sure people in Montgomery knew about it. Without their hard work and perseverance, it is unlikely this story would have ended this way.
And educators all over the state, most especially those in rural areas, owe them all a debt of gratitude. They have proven that you can indeed fight city hall–and win. Time and time again they have told me that they do not oppose charter schools where they are needed and will strengthen local education options.
However, this was never the case in Washington County. Thankfully, some folks in Montgomery were finally convinced they were right.
The news for Montgomery’s LEAD Academy charter school has become a broken record. One bad news story after another.
This time The Montgomery Advertiser published a story on Jan. 28 that LEAD’s education guru, Soner Tarim of Houston, is no longer involved with the school. Of course, LEAD board chair Charlotte Meadows, told the reporter that, “It’s not totally clear what’s going on but they have decided to pull their operations from LEAD Academy almost two months ago.”
So you get a divorce and don’t know why? Sure, happens all the time.
My best guess it had something to do with the $30,000 LEAD was supposed to pay Tarim’s Unity School Services each month.
LEAD made headlines shortly after opening last August when they terminated their principal Nichole Ivey-Price. The principal sued claiming fraud and breach of contract.
Her first court date was Nov. 21. She prevailed and LEAD had to put her back on the payroll. For a closer look at what was involved in this legal action, go here.
What really caught my eye is that Ivey-Price said that when the Montgomery Area Association of Realtors gave LEAD $200,000 for startup funding last summer, Meadows only put $100,000 in the school account and put the other $100,000 in a separate account.
But then, transparency does not seem to be something that concerns this school. For instance, all school systems are supposed to post financial info on-line every month. Since charter schools are considered a stand-alone Local Education Agency, this requirement includes them. Info should include check registers. Here is the LEAD website. If financial information is posted, I can not find it.
However, you will find a listing, along with photos, of employees of the school. There are 25 in all. But a former teacher, who left last fall, told me that at least 11 of these people are no longer with the school. (She is still shown to be working at LEAD.)
The charter commission meets on Monday, Feb. 3. They are supposed to get an update from LEAD. Stay tuned..
OK. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am not an impartial observer. This is especially true when I talk about the charter school fiasco in Washington County.
And after more than 60 posts about this mess, numerous trips to the county and conversations with dozens and dozens of locals, I am more convinced than ever that this is a scam, a disaster, a travesty and an injustice being forced on good and decent people who happen to live in a forgotten part of Alabama.
Earlier this week I spent the morning in the courthouse in Washington County listening to lawyers argue the merits and demerits of Woodland Prep charter school.
There were probably 75 people there. If a single one was a supporter of the charter school, none of the locals knew who they were. This has been typical from the outset.
When the charter commission approved this application in May 2018, residents had sent postcards to commission members urging them to vote no. All they got was a tongue lashing from some commission members for being proactive.
And though the national reviewer said this application should be denied, the charter commission ignored them. Attorneys for the charter argued at length that opponents should have registered their complaints with the charter commission–but none of them have seen how the folks in Washington county have been treated when they have tried to do so.
As they cited the charter law, pro-charter attorneys conveniently ignored the section that says the commission should not approve “weak” applications. nor did they mention the section that says the commission should consider the quality of the local school system, which is a B in this case, or that they should consider local support for the charter. which is non-existent.
On two occasions people in the county have chartered a bus and brought 60 people to Montgomery, one time to attend a state school board meeting and another to attend a charter commission meeting.
In addition, locals got nearly 3,000 names on petitions opposing the charter and presented them to the charter commission still, the commission pays no attention.
It was interesting to me that one of the pro-charter attorneys was state rep. David Faulkner of Mountain Brook. I wondered if he had ever set foot in this county before. It is worth noting that he voted in favor of the charter law in 2015, the very law.he is now making money on.
As he talked about how the charter will be funded, he failed to mention that the charter will divert $2.2 million from the existing system and was dismissal of time lines that govern local school systems. Obviously he is clueless about how school finance works. when local budgets are made and the implications that such a diversion could have on teachers, bus drivers, lunch room workers, etc.
Another charter attorney said they now have 132 students registered, which may, or may not, be the case since no one will present a list for verification. But when Woodland Prep met with the charter commission last September, they said they had 130 signed up. So they have gotten TWO more since then? (Their contract with the state says they will have 260 K-8 students enrolled when they open.)
The charter commission gave Woodland Prep a one-year extension last June. One of the attorneys said they are going to ask for another extension.
Circuit Judge Gaines McCorquodale did a good job, was in no hurry and asked good questions. At one point he asked if there was a transcript of all discussions Woodland Prep has had with the charter commission. He was told there is. THAT IS A JOKE. Minutes of meetings are anything but thorough. They don’t even show when the commission has elected officers.
The charter attorneys were asking that the hearing be “sealed.” In other words, that nothing be made public. Their argument was that the Alabama Education Association, which brought the suit on behalf of three local plaintiffs, had encouraged people to attend the meeting to unduly influence the proceedings.
The judge quickly dismissed this request saying that he welcomed public participation in his court room.
The other motion by the charter is to dismiss the suit entirely. The judge will rule on this in the near-future.
This has gone on far too long. It has been Chinese water torture since May 2018 for citizens of Washington County and their school system. Drip. Drip. Drip. And while Montgomery bureaucrats continue to say they do not know who has authority over the charter commission, one thing is very clear. What is right is right and what is wrong is wrong.
We desperately need some people in Montgomery to figure this out and then show the political courage to take action. If they are not willing to, they should be replaced.