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Opinion | Montgomery’s charter school mess

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

Good charter schools exist.

This is a fact. An undeniable fact.

There are good charter schools out there doing fantastic work, filling a void that a public school simply cannot.

The problem is there are also a lot of bad charter schools and even more just plain ol’ average charter schools — that mostly do a worse job educating kids, even when compared to schools in districts that struggle badly.

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There are horror stories from multiple states now of charters operated by scam artists, opening their doors, hauling in tax dollars, and then closing just as quickly, leaving the kids and the communities out of luck and the taxpayers on the hook. But don’t take my word for it, Google up “Charter school scam” and read through the stories.

Alabama officials swore things wouldn’t go that way in this state when they introduced legislation a couple of years ago allowing for charters.

There would be a commission. There would be some local control. There would be a set of guidelines to follow and we’d get help from people who know what they’re doing.

That help came in the form of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which was cited in the legislation allowing for charter schools as the organization that would aid Alabama in ensuring would-be charter schools complied with the basic rules and laws required to operate a successful school. The state signed a contract with NACSA, paying it nearly $70,000 to review charter applications in FY2017.

It was apparently money wasted.

A few weeks ago, the Alabama Charter School Commission approved the very first charter school for Montgomery, LEAD Academy. In doing so, the Commission flatly ignored a report from the NACSA recommending that LEAD not be approved and stating in detail how the school’s application failed to fully meet any of the three standards used for approval.

It’s even worse than it sounds.

LEAD didn’t simply forget to dot an i or cross a t. The public report from the NACSA stated that LEAD’s board lacked any experience in leading a k-12 school, that it failed to provide a clear and comprehensive program plan and that a number of items in its proposed budget were not reasonable.

But wait, it gets worse.

The NACSA report also raised questions about LEAD’s facility plan, which seemed suspect since it relied heavily on financing from a potential vendor — something NACSA considered a potential conflict of interest — with an extremely high interest rate (21.65 percent). The report also states that LEAD’s board members couldn’t answer basic questions about their plans for purchasing a building and renovations of that building.

So, NACSA considered that a potential problem.

And it was.

On Monday, LEAD announced that plans to purchase a building in Montgomery had fallen through. The search is currently on to find a new location and the school’s leadership team is unsure if the setback will delay the projected August start date.

What a mess.

And you know why it’s a mess? Because LEADs wasn’t approved because it deserved to be or because it will bring a quality school to Montgomery or because it will fill a gap that’s going unserved in Montgomery.

It was approved because of money.

The City of Montgomery desperately needs some. It desperately needs businesses to relocate to the city, bringing in families with disposable incomes to help offset the financial obligations required to fix up downtown, and it can’t do that currently because 60 years of ignoring its segregated school system has caught up to it.

And the people in suits are in a panic.

Now, we could tell people the truth: That the decades of segregation and underfunding have left Montgomery with a dire problem that will require significant resources to correct, that taxes have to be raised, that new school programs for both adults and children must be implemented and that the magnet program can no longer be segregated.

But no one wants the right way.

They want the cheap and easy way.

So, charter schools are the answer this year.

And the scheming to make sure it happens has been dialed up to 11. Just consider the coincidences.

The former head of the Charter School Commission, Ed Richardson, is now serving as interim state superintendent at a time when the state is in the midst of a takeover of Montgomery’s school system, and he couldn’t be happier to tell you about how just dadgum awful the public schools are in Montgomery.

In the meantime, Richardson’s former board votes 5-1 to approve LEAD’s application, which doesn’t seem odd until you remember that there are 11 members of the Charter School Commission. According to the bylaws posted on the Commission’s website, a majority vote of the commission is required to take action. That, by my math, would mean six votes.

But bylaws, shmylaws, amirite?

Montgomery needs a charter school by any means necessary. And it doesn’t matter, apparently, if that charter school has failed the application process, has a board staffed with people ill-equipped to operate a school, has an unreasonable financial plan, no clear program plan and has budgeted for one — ONE! — special ed teacher to teach over 100 special ed students.

None of that matters. Money does.

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Opinion | Alabama voters: You just don’t care

Joey Kennedy

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Secretary of State John Merrill expected turnout in Tuesday’s Democratic and Republican Party primary runoffs to be “extraordinarily low.”

Merrill said he thought, on average, 15 percent to 18 percent of the state’s registered voters would go to the polls.

Even that was wishful thinking.

Alabama voters: You don’t care. With as much going on in Alabama and American politics at this moment in history, you just don’t give a damn.

Early numbers indicated fewer than 12 percent of Alabama’s registered voters bothered to take a few minutes to be heard in Tuesday’s runoffs.

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True, in some areas, Democrats didn’t really have runoffs. But Republicans had runoffs in key statewide races, including lieutenant governor, attorney general, and the courts.

And even where Democrats had runoffs – Jefferson County is an example – voting numbers were low.

Alabama voters, you just don’t care.
Of course a lot of this is on Merrill and Republicans in control of the House, Senate, and governor’s mansion, where the goal, truly, is a low voter turnout. Republicans don’t want voters to go to the polls because they’ll have more trouble staying in control if they do.

Strict photo voter ID, a prohibition against crossover voting in taxpayer-funded primaries, purges of voter rolls, keeping former inmates from re-registering to vote, partisan gerrymandering, the lack of early voting or multiple-day voting – all of this is part of the GOP’s efforts to suppress voter turnout.

That hideous, mean-spirited strategy is wildly successful, too.

Consider also that the turnout of “registered” voters does not mean “eligible” voters. Many voters are eligible, but for whatever reason, don’t register to vote. So Tuesday’s turnout of eligible voters was likely quite a bit below 10 percent.

In that vote, Republicans nominated their candidates for lieutenant governor (the second highest position in Alabama government) and attorney general (the state’s top law enforcement officer).

U.S. Rep. Martha Roby, a disaster and embarrassment for Alabama in Congress for awhile now, was re-nominated for her fifth term and will likely defeat her Democratic Party opponent in November.

Another career politician, Republican Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh, was defeated in her primary for lieutenant governor, but this was a free election for political opportunist Cavanaugh. She’ll simply return to her post as president of the Alabama Public Service Commission, having lost little, and where she’ll continue to do little. But Cavanaugh will be well-rested for whatever political opportunity she tries to grab in 2020.

Important runoffs in Jefferson County for the five-member County Commission saw two of the most contentious Birmingham City Council members unseat more reasonable incumbents. At least these two are off the City Council now, but they’ll no doubt take their professional dysfunction to the Jefferson County Commission.

Because voter turnout was so low, the results don’t truly reflect what might have happened had voters turned out in the numbers they should have.

But c’mon, Alabama voters: You don’t really care, do you? Oh, you’ll gripe at the results, sure. You’ll moan and roll your eyes when the candidates you didn’t vote for embarrass your county or state. But you really don’t give a damn.

Maybe that’ll change some if the Southern Poverty Law Center’s and Campaign Legal Center’s Alabama Voting Rights Project is successful.

Secretary of State Merrill won’t like it, but that’s really more of a recommendation for the project than not.

The SPLC and CLC want to make it clear to tens of thousands of Alabamians that a felony conviction doesn’t permanently take away a person’s right to vote. Once an individual has fully paid for his crime, he can get his voting rights reinstated.

According to the SPLC’s July 12 announcement, “Workers will organize and train local leaders in communities across the state, participate in community events and forums, and go door to door to work with formerly incarcerated people who may be eligible to vote under Alabama law. They will also make use of an online tool, www.alabamavotingrights.com, that will guide formerly incarcerated Alabamians through the process of registering or re-establishing their voting status.”

Many of these “criminals” were convicted of nonviolent drug or other nonviolent offenses. They’ve paid their debt. Being eligible to vote again is an important part of their successful return to society.

“So many people fought and died to ensure that all citizens have a voice in our society through the right to vote, yet many men and women – disproportionately people of color and poor people – have been denied the right to vote even after serving their time and completing their sentences,” said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the SPLC, in the announcement. “The Alabama Voting Rights Project is dedicated to ensuring that every person who is eligible to vote in Alabama is registered and that each one of them can access the franchise. A healthy democracy depends on full participation by all members of society.”

And that’s what bothers Merrill and his Republican Party minions. “People of color and poor people” are disproportionally going to vote against Republicans. That’s probably why Merrill hasn’t done his duty to make sure these folks know they can regain their voting rights. The SPLC and CLC believe “(t)ens of thousands of additional Alabamians may be eligible to restore their right to vote through a simple application for a state Certificate of Eligibility to Register to Vote.”

So yeah, the dastardly plan worked Tuesday – and it has in many previous elections where our state leaders are happy if even 30 percent of registered voters show up.

As the state’s top election official, Merrill should be working to guarantee all eligible citizens are registered to vote, to make it convenient for them to vote, to get the highest voter turnout possible.

That’s not the strategy, though, and mainly because: 1) Voters don’t care enough to go vote. And, 2) because those in charge simply don’t want them to vote.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

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Opinion | Alabama: The confused state

Josh Moon

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Alabama is a confusing state.

A state that prides itself on its hardworking, blue-collar image but somehow turned out overwhelmingly to vote for the (alleged) billionaire, reality TV star for president was just as bi-polar during Tuesday’s primary runoff election.

On one hand, voters seemed to want to rid themselves of long-serving, stagnant politicians, rejecting Democrats Alvin Holmes, John Knight and Johnny Ford and Republicans Twinkle Cavanaugh and Gerald Dial. They seemed to be saying that they wanted ethics and term limits and candidates that were more responsive and energetic.

But on the other hand, still standing at the end of the night were Steve Marshall, Martha Roby and Larry Stutts. So, voters were also saying they were cool with a complete lack of ethics, a complete disregard for constituents and a completely awful human.

Maybe this is why pre-election polling in Alabama is always so screwed up. How can a pollster figure out what you people want when even you don’t know?

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So, let’s try to dissect this a bit and come up with a few answers. 

Let’s start with the Democrats, because they’re easier to understand.

Holmes and Knight, with a combined 70 years of experience serving in the Alabama House, lost to two dudes who have combined to serve for exactly zero years in any state office. David Burkette, who beat Knight for what seemed like the 50th time in the past year, has served as a city councilman in Montgomery, but that’s the extent of their political experience. Kirk Hatcher, who I couldn’t pick out of a lineup with The Beatles, has zero political experience.

All of this fits with a recent trend in the Democratic Party to push for candidates who relate better to real, everyday people. They believe the old-school guys, particularly the multi-term lawmakers, are out of touch with the real people they serve and are selling them out.

And those voters are right.

For example, while I’ll happily vote for Chuck Schumer over pretty much any dollar-seeking, Bible-thumping Republican, I’d sure like to have an option that isn’t sitting right in the middle of the big banks’ pockets.

And so, the Dems have decided to clean house wherever it’s possible.

It was possible in Montgomery.

Republicans, however, are a different story, which is usually the case. Because while certain factions of the GOP love to play up this alleged independent streak they claim to have, at the end of the day, it’s hard for them to turn their backs on the guy they came in with.

They get trapped by the lights and sparkle of the incumbent’s deep pockets.

Or at least they used to.

Before Twinkle turned dull and Dial time ran out.

In those races, Republicans voted against the lifelong politicians, putting Will Ainsworth and Rick Pate, respectively, into office.

Ainsworth’s win was particularly satisfying, yet also so confusing. He’s a pro-ethics, pro-term limits guy who once stood up to Mike Hubbard and told him he needed to go.

How do you vote for a guy like Ainsworth and then also vote for Steve Marshall? Or Larry Stutts?

Marshall, in particular, has governed pretty much the opposite of Ainsworth and former AG candidate Alice Martin, who picked up nearly a third of the votes in the primary. Marshall’s not chasing crime and corruption. His major accomplishments have been weakening the state’s ethics laws  — a move the business community rewarded him for — and pushing back against the law that outlaws political action committee (PAC)-to-PAC transfers.

Marshall is OK with such transfers now that he’s raking in millions from PACs doing exactly what is outlawed.

Speaking of outlaws, I’m not sure how Stutts is even on the ballot, much less still winning GOP elections. He has been nothing but an embarrassment, selling out women and children and selling out everyone else fairly routinely.

And yet, he won.

I just don’t get it. At the end of these elections, there’s supposed to be a pattern. We’re supposed to be able to look at who won and who lost and tell people what it all means. That voters were tired of this, or happy about that, or that they want a certain type of candidate.

Not in Alabama.

We apparently do things a bit different here.

 

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Opinion | Inside the Statehouse: Potpourri/Notebook from June 5 primary

Steve Flowers

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You have the results of Tuesday’s runoff elections. I had to go to press with my column before the results were known.

There are some fantastic runoff races which should be close and interesting. The four best will be Troy King versus Steve Marshall in the Attorney General’s race. The Lt. Governor runoff between Twinkle Cavanaugh and Will Ainsworth will be interesting. The Agriculture race between Rick Pate and Gerald Dial will be good. It will be interesting to see if Bobby Bright ousted Martha Roby from Congress in the 2nd district.

Let me share some thoughts and analyses from the first primary on June 5th. Kay Ivey and Walt Maddox won their party’s nominations very impressively. Governor Ivey used the mantle of incumbency to win a decisive victory with 56 percent of the vote against three thought to be viable, well financed opponents. Her campaign was brilliantly run. Her television ads were excellent.

The mastermind of her campaign was Brent Buchanan. He is now the master of political campaigns in Alabama. His polling arm, Cygnal, is the most accurate on the scene. He uses his polling adroitly to design brilliant ads. Buchanan runs many campaigns out of state. He only ran two in the state, Ivey’s gubernatorial contest and Gerald Dials’ race for Agriculture Commissioner. In fact, Buchanan came up with the best ad of the campaign season. The jingle ad for Dial in the Ag race was spectacular.

Walt Maddox’s waltz to victory over five opponents without a runoff was impressive. It became apparent in the closing days that he was going to win without a runoff. He ran the table on all of the important endorsements. He got the Alabama Democratic Conference, New South Coalition, but even more importantly the endorsement of and use of the young Birmingham Mayor, Randall Woodfin’s organization. This was a recipe for a big win.

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Maddox is the best candidate that the Democrats have fielded for governor in two decades. He is young, vibrant, and has a proven track record as a Chief Executive/Mayor of one of Alabama’s largest and most important cities, Tuscaloosa.

However, we are still a very red state. All 29 of our statewide elected offices are held by Republicans. Kay Ivey is not only the Republican nominee, she is the sitting Republican governor who can continue to cut ribbons and claim credit for every industrial announcement as well as the outstanding national economy and job growth. She will refuse to debate or go unscripted. In addition, as the incumbent she can raise substantial campaign funds.

In the June 5th primary, there were twice as many votes cast in the GOP Primary as there was in the Democratic Primary. There were 340,000 votes cast for Kay Ivey, whereas there were only 284,000 votes cast for all of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates combined. Therefore, 174,000 more people voted for Governor Kay Ivey than Mayor Walt Maddox.

I would handicap this race 56 to 44 in favor of Ivey going into the Fall. The only way that Maddox can win is for Kay to falter. Her handlers should keep her close to home and limit her appearances. They should continue to not discuss the issues that face the state or take any positions or offer any plans for the state woes. Under no circumstance should they allow her to debate. The young articulate mayor would eat her lunch. The contrast in appearance itself would be dramatic.

Maddox, if not elected, will live to run another day. The divide between the two political parties is narrowing in the state. Younger voters are trending Democratic, even in the Heart of Dixie.

Tommy Battle ran a very successful get acquainted race for governor. He will be the favorite in 2022. You could see a Walt Maddox vs. Tommy Battle contest in four years.

Battle built name ID and got 25 percent of the vote against a popular incumbent governor. He goes back to being Mayor of Alabama’s most prosperous and fastest growing city. If you think Huntsville has prospered and boomed the last 10 years, you ain’t seen nothing yet! It could very easily be the boom town of America in the next five to ten years.

Maddox’s city of Tuscaloosa is growing right behind Huntsville. Quite frankly, Battle and Maddox have much better jobs as mayors of Huntsville and Tuscaloosa than if they were Governor of Alabama.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

 

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Opinion | Montgomery’s charter school mess

by Josh Moon Read Time: 5 min
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