The newly re-constituted state charter school commission met in Montgomery on Sept 30 and one thing is quite clear. There is a new sheriff in town.
The state school board replaced four incumbent commission members on Aug. 8, one of whom was chairman Mac Buttram. When Woodland Prep came before the commission on June 7 asking for a one-year extension, Buttram handled them with kid gloves, never following up with questions to get to the heart of things. Instead, he tossed marshmallows at Soner Tarim, the consultant for Woodland Prep.
That was hardly the case at the latest meeting.
New members Paul Morin, Jamie Ison and Sydney Raine asked specific questions and expected specific answers. Morin made it very clear that he expects clear, concise documentation when it is called for.
Long time member Henry Nelson was elected chair at this meeting and it was quickly apparent that the days of Woodland Prep playing dodge ball and getting away with it are over.
The meat of the session began with existing charters giving an update. ACCEL Academy in Mobile, Legacy Prep in Birmingham and University Charter at the University of West Alabama updated commission members on their progress. They were professional and very believable. Then Charlotte Meadows and Soner Tarim spoke for LEAD Academy in Montgomery and the temperature in the room literally dropped as they flopped and foundered.
Meadows said that her school (she is chair of the board) had Johnny Appleseed Day last week. No one seemed to care. Commissioner Jamie Ison of Mobile then said she saw on Montgomery TV that LEAD had terminated their principal after only a few weeks on the job. Meadows acknowledged this was true and Tarim said one of his associates is acting interim principal. (However, an internet search for this person says that he is a principal of a Houston, TX charter.)
Probably the most unbelievable comment from this portion of the meeting was when Ison asked Tarim if he lives in Montgomery. He told her he does. This brought laughs from the audience because everyone knows he lives in Houston.
The squirming really started when Thad Becton, chair of the Woodland Prep board, and Tarim were called to give a status report on their school.
Washington County brought a charter bus load of people to the meeting, a number of whom spoke during the public comment portion. Time after time they pointed out how Woodland Prep has misrepresented facts and used bogus data trying to justify the need for Woodland Prep.
Pinning either Becton or Tarim down is like trying to nail Jello to the wall. They only offer vague answers and would not deal in specifics. For instance, Tarim says they have 50 percent of their required enrollment of 260 students enrolled. But they refuse to release the names so their numbers can be vetted. Becton said they have $50,000 in donations, but will not reveal from what sources.
To which Paul Morin said, “Until I see documentation, the money is not there.”
Allison Haygood is an elementary principal in Boaz and was appointed to the commission in May. At one point she said, “You don’t have enough money to start a school.” Woodland Prep did not present any evidence that would prove her wrong.
The school is being built by American Charter Development out of Springville, Utah. Their construction manager was at the meeting. When Henry Nelson wanted to know why so little progress had been made on the building, this guy told him that it rains a lot in Alabama and that was slowing them down.
Everyone in the room guffawed knowing that Alabama is suffering its worst drought in decades.
(State representative Brett Easterbrook of Washington County attended the meeting and said to me afterwards, “If you can’t tell the truth about where you live and the weather, how can you believe anything these folks says?” )
Another issue is the fact that Woodland Prep is supposed to show their efforts at community engagement. Again, there is only smoke and mirrors. Any such meeting is to be documented with sign up sheets from those in attendance. Woodland Prep has not done this. Their reason? People are scared to sign anything.
The meeting concluded with commissioners unanimously passing a resolution that commission staff and attorneys from Balch & Bingham develop specific information that Woodland Prep must deliver in the near-future.
In other words, it is time to put up or shut up.
It is certainly time for such action.
Of course it is impossible to watch all of this unfold with Woodland Prep and LEAD Academy and ignore the fact that Soner Tarim is the common thread. The same guy who was refused by the Texas State Board of Education in June when he wanted to open four charter schools in Austin. After that meeting, I spoke to board member Georgina Perez of El Paso.
She told me that Tarim only deals in “alternative facts.” Anyone at the Sept. 30 charter school commission now knows why she said this.