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How a Washington County charter school failed at every step, and was approved anyway

Josh Moon

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Woodland Prep is a charter school horror story — and it hasn’t even been built yet.

Located in rural Washington County, Woodland Prep, which will open as a K-7 school this fall and add a grade level each year, is everything state leaders assured us could never happen under Alabama’s charter school laws.

Its land is owned by a shady Utah holding company. Its building is owned by a for-profit Arizona company. It will be managed by a for-profit Texas company that doesn’t employ a single Alabamian. It will pay the head of that management company around $300,000 per year — up front. Its application was rejected by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which Alabama pays a hefty sum to review and approve charter applications. Woodland’s management plan failed to meet basic standards for approval in any of the three plan areas reviewed by NACSA.

Woodland also is not welcome in Washington County, where residents turned up at a 10-1 ratio to speak out against it last year during community meetings. And maybe most importantly, the school is not needed in the poverty-stricken county, where not a single school is failing, most exceed state averages and students are free to attend any school in the county they wish.

“We never thought this school would be approved,” said Betty Brackin, an employee of the Washington County school system and an outspoken opponent of Woodland. “Before we knew any of the things about who was running it or all of that, we knew that only a small number of people in this county — people who were upset for personal reasons … with the public school system — they’re the only ones who wanted it. The rest of this county is not for this, and we’ve let everyone know it.”

But Woodland was approved by the Alabama Charter School Commission, which appeared to violate at least three of its responsibilities in doing so.

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The Commission ignored the community outcry against Woodland and failed to even discuss the need — or lack thereof — for a charter school in the county. Both of those are specific requirements within Alabama’s charter school law for the Commission to consider during its public meetings.

Additionally, charter schools approved in Alabama are, according to Alabama’s law, required to meet “national standards.” To assure those standards are met, Alabama lawmakers assured a concerned public that a “top-notch” national body — to quote two state representatives — would be contracted to review every application before those applications would be considered by the Commission. NACSA is that group, and Alabama pays it nearly $100,000 per year to review applications, and then the Commission ignores its advice.

Woodland Prep’s was at least the third charter application that NACSA rejected for very specific, very detailed reasons. For example, in questioning Woodland’s operational plan, the NACSA reviewers had concerns about its hiring of Unity School Services to perform management and education services. It was unclear why USS was selected, if the company — which had just eight total employees, none of which were in Alabama — could even do the job, and what expertise it had in such areas.

NACSA also noted that Woodland’s education plan included very few details, especially for a school scheduled to open the next school year, and had failed to identify key partnerships or assign key roles.

Commission Failings

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None of that mattered to the Commission, though. It approved Woodland’s application, and from what I can tell, the application was never reviewed by any other outside entity. (Other charter applications rejected by NACSA and later approved by the Commission were at least approved by a different entity.)

I asked the Alabama State Department of Education, which has oversight responsibilities of the Charter School Commission, to explain why the application was approved after being rejected by NACSA and/or to provide me with an approval of an amended application by NACSA or another group. There was no response.

ALSDE did, however, respond to several other questions I submitted concerning the troubling details of Woodland Prep’s ownership and management, the lack of community support for the school and about specific details — such as lease rates and interest rates — contained in agreements between Woodland’s board and the private companies it had contracted with.

ALSDE is supposed to maintain records, such as building plans and lease agreements, that charter schools enter into. That is because, as the authorizer of the charter school in Washington County, the Commission is responsible under Alabama law for the oversight of that school.  

But in response to my questions, ALSDE decided to be flippant. It directed questions about community opposition to “commissioners who attended the meetings,” despite the fact that ALSDE video recorded each meeting. It disputed that the Commission has a responsibility to monitor and oversee the charter schools it approves, stating that “the Commission may monitor …” the schools. And finally, when asked about the out-of-state ownership and management of Woodland, ALSDE said those questions should be directed to one of those out-of-state groups.

Which seems to indicate that there is no oversight whatsoever of charter schools — or the process to approve charter schools — in Alabama.

The Gulen Connection

A month ago, I had never heard of Woodland Prep, or of the uproar that has taken place in Washington County over its approval. But the day after I wrote a story about Montgomery’s LEAD Academy — which the Commission also approved despite a rejected application, questionable ownership and a shady management company — six different emails landed in my email inbox from Washington County residents.

All of the emails, including two from teachers, one from a dentist, another from a doctor and one from Brackin, the school system employee I mentioned earlier, had the same general theme: “Please help expose what’s happening in Washington County.” That was the actual subject line of one of the emails.

It seems that one name in my story about LEAD had caught their attention: Soner Tarim. Tarim is the CEO of Unity School Services and was the founder of Harmony Schools, a mostly-successful charter school group in Texas. Tarim and Harmony also have their very serious problems, not least of which is their ties to a Muslim cleric and controversial preacher from Turkey, Fetullah Gulen, and his Gulen Movement.

Numerous reports from the New York Times to Reuters and other local news outlets linked Harmony and Tarim to Gulen, and some labeled Harmony a financial front for Gulen’s movement. While Gulen espouses a more moderate brand of Islam, his movement has been labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey, which has accused Gulen and his followers of attempting to overthrow the Turkish government. Others dispute those claims, and believe the terrorist label is unfairly applied to Gulen, who has shown no proclivity for violence.

Regardless, other legal questions have been raised about Harmony and Tarim’s use of the schools to exploit a visa program and to skirt hiring laws in order to give contract jobs to Turkish workers and teachers.

There have also been other, education-related problems, such as a massive grade-change scandal at Harmony in Texas and financial fraud allegations related to grants at other Gulen schools.

But in Washington County, while there was concern about Tarim’s past and his connections to Gulen, the much bigger question was a simple one: Why is he here?

“No one could figure out why someone from Texas would come to little ol’ Washington County for a charter school,” said Brackin, who is the federal programs coordinator for the system.

The answer was easy and expected: Money.

A copy of the USS contract with the Woodland Prep board shows that Tarim will make 15 percent of all federal, state and local funds received by Woodland. Which means that for every student allotment — and Woodland estimates in its application that the per-pupil allotment will be more than $8,200 — Tarim will make 15 percent off the top. If Woodland’s projected enrollment of 260 students is accurate, Tarim will make more than $300,000.

“He’ll be the highest paid man in Washington County,” wrote one county official who asked not to be identified.

But there’s more. Under the terms of his contract, he also is allowed to keep all profits from any school programs, such as pre-K or after-school trainings, and he is free to use Woodland Prep to apply for any grants.

An Ownership Mystery

Brackin has served as a sort of investigative reporter when it comes to Woodland Prep — gathering public documents, attending meetings and taking meticulous notes, demanding contracts that should be public and reporting it all on social media. She provided me with a trove of documents, and it was the land deed and lease contract that first drew me in.

According to the deed for the land, Woodland Prep’s local school board, Washington County Students First, isn’t the owner of the land. Instead, a holding company — Woodland Charter Holdings — in Utah holds the deed. That company has one registered agent — Jennifer Lind of Utah. According to online records, Lind is the agent of record for at least two dozen charter holding companies in Utah — most of them tied to charter schools thousands of miles away from Utah.

According to records kept by the State of Utah, Woodland Charter Holdings also has just one registered executive: American Charter Development. The same company contracted with the charter board to finance and build the Woodland school building.

So, why all of the layers of ownership? Judging by similar ownership of other charter schools, it’s to mitigate risk to the company financing the project and to allow for the easy sale or transfer of ownership of the land, school building or all of the assets.

Forming a holding company in Utah, where banking laws are particularly lenient, allows for the investors — American Charter Development, in this case — to set up a financial buffer between it and the debt incurred by Woodland Prep. If the school goes broke and has to close, it’s the holding company left on the hook, not ACD.

That means that ACD has relinquished its ownership of the Woodland Prep school to a holding company that ACD owns, and now ACD will charge itself rent and interest — paid for by the tax dollars that were once flowing into Washington County schools.

And make no mistake, ACD is rolling in the cash — receiving 6 percent of the “total development costs” in monthly lease payments, according to the heavily redacted contract it signed with Woodland Prep’s board. That fee does not include a guaranteed 8.9 percent capitalization rate that ACD is guaranteed.

There are also guaranteed increases in the ACD contract terms, which assure that the company will receive 2-percent increases each year after the second year. The contract is for 20 years, but Woodland Prep’s board has the right to purchase the building and land for 117 percent of the total construction costs once every five years.

All of those payments, including the 15 percent to Tarim, will be made using public tax dollars, diverted from the classrooms in Washington County and into the coffers of for-profit businesses. (By the way, I also brought up the issue of the redacted contract between ACD and the Woodland Prep board. ALSDE said it was a matter I should take up with ACD.)

Follow the Money

The contracts to build and finance charter schools are worth millions. States with similarly lax laws governing charter schools’ start-up and management have been inundated with shady, corner-cutting building and finance operations that have sucked millions from local school systems and turned their owners and investors into millionaires. The results for students and communities, however, have been anything but stellar, with the overwhelming majority of charter schools performing no better than the traditional public schools they replace and often faring much, much worse.  

Other charter schools for which Lind is a registered agent and which set up holding companies in Utah have experienced all levels of fraud and greed — from schools failing to purchase textbooks and employ an adequate number of teachers to school buildings and property being sold multiple times and investors fleeing in the night as the schools close their doors.

In Missouri, for example, the Imagine Schools charter system — which also set up a Utah holding company — had the worst test scores of any system in the state. Its classrooms lacked basic learning materials, according to a review reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. And several of the school buildings had changed owners multiple times in less than a year. But Imagine and its real estate investors made millions in profits, all of it coming from tax dollars.

Obviously, such an outcome can’t be predicted for Woodland Prep. But the process by which Woodland was approved and its start-up monitored by ALSDE and the Commission raises serious concerns.

And with millions of dollars at stake in an already cash-strapped state education system, shouldn’t someone be watching more closely?

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Alabama Education Association, Board of Medical Examiners meet over excuses to break COVID-19 quarantines

Prior to the meeting, the AEA on Nov. 5 threatened legal action against the board over the matter. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Officials with the Alabama Education Association and the Alabama State Board of Medical Examiners met on Thursday to discuss a concern the association has with doctors who write excuses to allow students to return to school before their mandated COVID-19 quarantine periods expire.

At the meeting between Theron Stokes, associate executive director of the Alabama Education Association, and William Perkins, executive director of the Alabama State Board of Medical Examiners, Stokes learned that the board wasn’t aware of the problem, the AEA said in a press release. 

“Both groups agreed to set up a meeting with educational and medical organizations on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in Alabama,” the AEA said in the release. “A meeting should be held before the end of the year and will allow the AEA and the Board of Medical Examiners, as well as other educational and medical organizations, to review existing guidelines issued by the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and ensure conformity in following those guidelines.” 

In a letter to Perkins on Thursday, Stokes wrote that it was AEA’s understanding that the board was aware of the problem, but he wrote that during their meeting he became aware that neither the board nor Perkins was aware of the problem. 

“It was not the intent of AEA to cause any unnecessary problems for you, the doctors you represent, or your organization regarding this matter,” Stokes wrote. 

Prior to the meeting, the AEA on Nov. 5 threatened legal action against the board over the matter. 

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“It is our firm belief that there exists no medical scenario under which these students could be written out of quarantine and that to do so is violative of ADPH and CDC quarantine recommendations,” Stokes wrote in the Nov. 5 letter. 

Stokes in his recent letter notes that both agreed in the meeting to bring together representatives of the other organizations to come up with a uniform procedure for following state and federal guidelines. 

“I agree with your plan to conduct this meeting and finalize our goals before the holidays,” Stokes wrote.

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Governor announces more than $298 million for K-12, college projects

$298 million has been awarded to 20 Public School and College Authority projects statewide. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday announced more than $298 million has been awarded to 20 Public School and College Authority projects statewide. 

“The Public School and College Authority was established with the intent on tackling long-standing school infrastructure projects or educational upgrades that have been delayed due to limited funding,” Ivey said in a statement. “I’m pleased to announce these 20 projects with the people of Alabama in full transparency. The announcement today marks a significant investment in the future of this state. I’m grateful to the Alabama Legislature for the enabling legislation which established the PSCA and the astute work of State Finance Director Kelly Butler for positioning the bond sale in the best way possible.”

The PSCA is comprised of Ivey, State Finance Director Kelly Butler and Alabama Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey.

“I am thrilled that the PSCA is able to provide these funds to worthwhile projects throughout the state,” Butler said in a statement. “I am grateful to the legislature for authorizing the sale and to Governor Ivey for her leadership in supporting this transaction. The successful sale is the result of outstanding work by the financing team, and I thank them for all of their efforts.”

The state Legislature in 2019, authorized the PSCA to sell up to $1.25 billion in bonds and allocated money to every city and county K-12 school system and to higher education institutions, with 73 percent of the funds going to K-12 schools and 27 percent going to two-and four-year colleges.

Because of low interest rates, the bond sale resulted in the PSCA receiving over $300 million in premium revenues, according to a press release from Ivey’s office. The true interest cost of the bonds is two percent over the 20-year repayment period.

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The PSCA projects funded from the premium revenue and announced today are:

  • University of Alabama Huntsville: Huntsville Regional Lab and Morgue — 11,000,000
  • HudsonAlpha: Expansion of Biotech Campus/designate Alabama the Discovery Life Sciences Global Headquarters — 15,000,000
  • Auburn University: New STEM & Agricultural Sciences Complex — 50,000,000
  • University of Alabama at Birmingham: Genomic Medical & Data Sciences Building — 50,000,000
  • Troy University: Center for Materials and Manufacturing — 9,450,000
  • Alabama Center for Arts: Dorm — 15,000,000
  • University of South Alabama: New Medical School Building — 50,000,000
  • University of North Alabama: Computer Science & Mathematics Building — 15,000,000
  • Alabama School of Deaf and Blind: North Alabama Campus — 28,519,992
  • Alabama Aviation College: Phase 2 renovations of Barnett Building and upgrade the hanger floor — 500,000
  • Lauderdale County: Workforce Development Center — 8,000,000
  • Alabama Shakespeare Festival: Renovations and Repairs — 5,000,000
  • Alabama School of Math & Science: Science Research Center — 6,000,000; Outdoor Classrooms — 235,000
  • AIDT: Toyota/Mazda — 8,000,000
  • Jacksonville State University: Randy Owen Performance Center — 15,000,000
  • The American Village: Central Independence Hall and Tower Classrooms and Experiences — 5,000,000
  • Alabama A&M University: Library Roofing — 907,500; Wilson Hall, Drake Hall, Carnegie Hall wood restoration project — 605,000
  • University of Montevallo: Residence Halls HVAC/Roof Repair — 1,000,000
  • University of West Alabama: Brock Hall 2nd Floor Renovation — 2,600,000
  • Alabama State University: Friendship Manor — 1,500,000

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Many Alabama schools return to remote learning before Thanksgiving

Alabama school districts reported 1,592 positive cases last week, up 536 cases from the previous week.

John H. Glenn

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Despite the state saying there are no plans for a statewide move to remote learning, numerous local systems across the state have begun transitioning to remote learning after a large number of COVID-19 cases were reported in school systems across the state last week. 

Alabama school districts reported 1,592 positive cases last week, up 536 cases from the previous week, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) K-12 COVID dashboard.

“We’ve heard about rumors suggesting there would be a statewide move to remote learning after Thanksgiving. Absolutely not true,” ALSDE spokesperson Michael Sibley said. “There have been no plans or discussion concerning any form of statewide shutdown. Local systems, of course, have the autonomy to make their own schedule and react to their individual circumstances. But no statewide plans for this.”

As early as Nov. 9, multiple city and county school systems in Alabama began announcing transitions from in-person to remote learning. Tuscumbia, Oneonta and Alexander City Schools all by Nov. 13 had begun or fully transitioned to remote learning. 

“Over the past three days, Alexander City Schools has seen a surge in positive cases,” Alexander City Schools Superintendent Dr. Keith Lankford said in a statement to The Outlook. “The health and safety of our students, teachers, staff and community are most important to us. After consulting with the Alabama State Department of Education lead nurse and reviewing our data related to COVID-19, we have decided that it is necessary to move all schools to remote learning effective Nov. 16.”

Alexander City Schools have reported 32 positive cases among students and teachers, with 259 students and faculty currently in quarantine.

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East Limestone Middle School and High School said they would also transition to remote learning due to understaffing problems, WAFF 48 reported. Close to 300 students have been quarantined in those schools, with 20 positive cases among teachers and students.

Huntsville’s Goldsmith Schiffman Elementary, Ridgecrest Elementary, Columbia High and Huntsville High followed Friday morning, saying in a press release those schools would transition to remote learning until Nov. 30.

“The district’s Preventative Measures Team worked collaboratively with each school’s leadership team to assess several factors before making the decision to transition to remote learning.” Huntsville City Schools’ press release reads. “Instruction will occur as it did during the remote learning period at the beginning of the school year.”

Birmingham’s Carrie A Tuggle Elementary transitioned to remote Nov. 12th, just three days after Birmingham city schools began reopening in-person classes, WBRC reported. The school recorded 5 new positive cases over the past two weeks.

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Marshall and Colbert county schools fully closed their in-person programs until Jan. 5, WAFF 48 reported. Marshall County Superintendent Cindy Wigley recently tested positive for COVID-19, the news station reported, along with 37 other people in the Marshall system. Nearly 300 others are quarantined.

Colbert County Schools reported 11 positive cases, 10 of them teachers, according to school officials. One Colbert County bus driver, Bobby Stutts, died from COVID-19 earlier in the week, according to several news reports.

Coosa County School System announced on the system’s Facebook page that they would continue virtual learning through the Thanksgiving break before returning Nov. 30. According to the K-12 COVID dashboard, the system has reported no cases. 

Lauderdale County High School will also move to remote learning after increased numbers of students and teachers tested positive for COVID-19, according to a post on the system’s Facebook page. Lauderdale County reported 33 positive cases last week, according to the K-12 COVID dashboard.

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State settles Craig Pouncey defamation suit against Mary Scott Hunter

A defamation suit filed by Pouncey against former school board member Mary Scott Hunter was recently settled with Pouncey being awarded $100,000 by the state.

Bill Britt

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Board of Education member Mary Scott Hunter speaks to reporters after a board meeting. (SAMUEL MATTISON/APR)

More than four years ago, Alabama Political Reporter first exposed what appeared to be suspicious activities aimed at derailing Dr. Craig Pouncey’s selection as Alabama’s State Superintendent of Education.

A defamation suit filed by Pouncey against former school board member Mary Scott Hunter was recently settled with Pouncey being awarded $100,000 by the state. According to Pouncey’s attorney, Kenny Mendelsohn, no admission of liability by Hunter was offered under the terms of the agreement.

It is estimated the state spent as much as a million dollars or more on defense attorneys to protect Hunter and others. APR was able to identify nearly a half-million dollars in attorneys fees paid during the case, but assigning a final dollar figure is nearly impossible, because four contracts with top-tier law firms were for $195 per hour and open-ended.

The settlement puts an end to years of hearings, investigations, lawsuits, and recriminations.

State Board of Education members in July 2016, each received an anonymous package alleging that Pouncey plagiarized his doctoral dissertation and had used state property and personnel in the process.

Except for Hunter, board members ignored the anonymous complaint seeing it as a politically motivated smear campaign against Pouncey, who was the lead contender for the superintendent’s job.

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The move against Pouncey first came to light when two state senators and a lobbyist informed APR that Hunter was telling individuals at the 2016 Business Council of Alabama summer gathering that Pouncey had serious ethics problems and was “out of the running” for State Superintendent.

Later, APR reported that at Hunter’s urging, then-General Counsel for ASDE, Juliana T. Dean, contacted the Ethics Commission.

In a letter sent July 15, via email from Hugh Evans III, then-General Counsel for the State Ethics Commission to the Alabama State Department of Education, Evans wrote, “We have received a complaint alleging certain possible violations of the Ethics Law on the part of Warren Craig Pouncey.”

This was highly unusual as, under the state Ethics Act, ethics complaints are to be guarded with the same secrecy of a grand jury investigation.

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Then-state senators Gerald Dial and Quinton Ross held a series of bipartisan legislative committee meetings to investigate the allegations. Dial and Ross’s efforts cast a bright spotlight on questionable activities at ALSDE.

Pouncey was later cleared of all allegations, but the damage was done, and he was denied the superintendent’s position.

The job went to Micheal Sentance, a New England lawyer who had never been a school superintendent. Sentance’s tenure was short-lived.

An internal investigation conducted by ALSDE attorney, Michael Meyer, concluded that board member Hunter, then-interim Superintendent Philip Cleveland, and ALSDE attorneys Dean, James R. Ward III, and Susan Tudor Crowther had coordinated to deny Pouncey the job as superintendent. The internal investigation also found unnamed individuals who may have participated in the plot.

“Most regrettably, these five participants have caused grave and serious harm,” the report stated, “and cast a major shadow on the veracity and credibility of the State Department of Education and the State Board of Education (through no fault of the majority) that still lingers to the present day.”

Hunter, Cleveland, Dean, Ward, and Crowther denied all of the report’s allegations.

After Meyer released his report, there were allegations of retribution against him and his wife, Tracey, a longtime legislative liaison. Meyer was transferred out of ALSDE and to the state Department of Human Resources, and his wife’s position was eliminated without notice.

Pouncey’s civil defamation claim also included Dean, Cleveland, and Crowther. However, Judge Roman Shaul released them from the suit, saying Pouncey’s lawsuit “fails to allege facts that demonstrate these individual defendants were the source of any information that was disseminated to the public and/or that these individuals made any comments about the plaintiff that was not protected.”

Numerous reports from APR chronicled what appeared to be a haphazard attempt to smear Pouncey.

APR investigative reporter Josh Moon, deceased colleague Sam Mattison and education writer Larry Lee played vital roles in bringing the matter to the public attention.

Pouncey currently serves as president of Coastal Alabama Community College.

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