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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.

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.

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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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Wide variance in educational attainment between counties

The top ten counties in Alabama for educational attainment are Madison, Shelby, Lee, Jefferson, Baldwin, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Autauga, Coffee and Elmore.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A recent analysis by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama shows a wide variance in educational attainment between Alabamians residing in different counties.

According to the PARCA research, across the state, 10 percent of Alabamians over the age of 25 have earned a master’s or higher-level degree. Sixteen percent of the adult population has just a bachelor’s degree. Just 9 percent of adult Alabamians have an associate’s degree.

Nearly 22 percent of Alabamians have attended college but did not earn a degree, and 31 percent of Alabamians have earned their high school diploma or GED but did not receive any education beyond that.

Ten percent of adult Alabamians have finished the ninth grade or higher but have not gotten a diploma or GED. Just 4 percent of Alabamians 25 or older dropped out of school without at least finishing the ninth grade.

At least 35 percent of Alabamians have at least an associate’s degree. By comparison, 20 percent of the adult population in Massachusetts has a master’s degree or above and 24 percent have at least bachelor’s degree. Factoring in the 8 percent with associate’s degrees, 52 percent of Massachusetts adults have some sort of degree versus just 35 percent of Alabamians.

Alabama is 44th in educational attainment. West Virginia is 51st with 30 percent — 22 percent with a 4 year degree or above. Georgia, largely due to the success of the HOPE scholarships, has 40 percent of the population with a degree two year or above. Mississippi is at 33 percent. The national average is 39.9 percent.

The PARCA study also breaks it down into county-by-county differences. The top ten counties in Alabama for educational attainment are Madison, Shelby, Lee, Jefferson, Baldwin, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Autauga, Coffee and Elmore.

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In Madison County, 8.1 percent of adults have an associate’s degree, 25.7 percent have earned at least a bachelor’s degree and 16 percent have a master’s or higher degree. More than 20 percent have some college but no degree, 20.8 have a high school diploma with no education above that, 5.9 percent finished the ninth grade and 2.9 percent dropped out in the ninth grade or earlier.

Nearly 50 percent of adults in Madison County older than age 25 have earned at least a two-year degree. Madison County is followed by Shelby County with 49.5 percent, Lee with 43.1 percent, Jefferson with 40.7 percent and Baldwin at 40.7 percent. These are the only five counties that are above the national average.

The bottom 10 counties for educational attainment are Wilcox, Bibb, Greene, Coosa, Cleburne, Bullock, Lawrence, Conecuh, Barbour and Washington. Wilcox is in 67th place for educational attainment and is also regularly one of the state leaders in its unemployment rate. Just 3.6 percent of adults in Wilcox County have a master’s degree or above, just 8.9 percent have completed their four-year degree and only 4.8 percent have even an associate’s degree. Just 17.3 percent of the adult population in Wilcox County has any sort of degree. That is 22.6 percentage points below the national average. Nearly 20 percent of adults in Wilcox County have attended college but did not finish, and 40.3 percent has a high school diploma or the equivalent but no college. More than 16.5 percent finished the ninth grade but did not get a diploma or GED. Nearly 10 percent did not finish the ninth grade.

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Educational attainment is a concern because the fastest growing professions generally require more education than simply a high school diploma. Gov. Kay Ivey is trying to increase the percent of the workforce with at least a two-year associate’s degree or the technical training equivalent of a two-year associate’s degree.

Many high-paying technology jobs require a two year or even a four-year degree or above. It is difficult for the state to recruit those sorts of employers to counties where the workforce is not competent to fill the positions. Those sorts of employers often have to recruit employees from far outside the county or even the state.

Even manufacturing jobs are increasingly high tech as new factories use more robotics and automation than the factories of the past. Today’s high-paying jobs require more knowledge, skill and technical competence than the factory jobs of the past.

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Higher Ed Commission elects Dothan businessman, Huntsville CEO as chair and vice chair

Micah Danney

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Charles Buntin was elected chairman and Miranda Bouldin Frost was elected vice chair of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, the commission announced on Friday.

Both have been members of the commission since 2015.

“As the coordinating board for public higher education in Alabama, I pledge to continue to work with our institutions throughout this pandemic to maintain the highest level of excellence for Alabama’s students,” Buntin said. “Earlier this year, our colleges and universities proved their resilience to a changing work environment by successfully transitioning to online learning.”

Buntin is a shareholder and realtor with Tom West Company in Dothan. He graduated from Leadership Alabama in 2013, is a current member of the Houston County-Dothan Rotary Club and is a former chairman of the Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce.

Bouldin Frost is president and CEO of LogiCore Corp. in Huntsville, a company that provides Systems Engineering and Technical Assistance (SETA) services to U.S. Department of Defense agencies.

She is a member of the Greater Huntsville Rotary Club and a board member of the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce.

The commission faces steep challenges. State funding had been increasing to help institutions recover from the 2008 recession before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now institutional enrollments, budgets, auxiliary revenue and the health of employees and students are simultaneously at risk.

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“The dedication to student success shown by Chairman Buntin and Vice Chair Bouldin Frost will guide their decision making as the higher education community navigates the current COVID crisis and its impact on Alabama’s universities and community colleges,” said Jim Purcell, executive director of the ACHE.

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Alabaster City Schools gets federal grant to bolster security

Eddie Burkhalter

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U.S. Attorney Prim Escalona on Friday announced that the U.S. Department of Justice has awarded a $374,883 grant to Alabaster City Schools’ Board of Education to bolster school security. 

The grant is administered through the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) School Violence Prevention Program (SVPP), which has awarded almost $50 million in grants nationwide. 

“I am pleased to announce that the COPS Office has awarded this grant to the Alabaster City Schools’ Board of Education this year,” Escalona said in a statement. “The safety of our students is a top priority and this grant will enhance school safety for these students. While there have been some unique challenges to this school year, our commitment to ensuring students are safe when attending school is the same.” 

 “With the new school year underway, the safety of our nation’s students remains paramount,” said COPS Office Director Phil Keith in a statement.  “Although this school year may look different at the start, now is the ideal time to make preparations to enhance school safety for when all of our children are back in the classroom.”   

Alabaster City Schools will be able to coordinate with law enforcement, train local law enforcement officers to prevent student violence, buy metal detectors, locks, lighting, and other deterrent measures, buy technology to notify local law enforcement during an emergency and other measures that provide a significant improvement in security, according to a press release from the Department of Justice.

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Gov. Kay Ivey awards $72 million for remote learning tech in state colleges

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday awarded $72.34 million in federal coronavirus aid to the state’s higher education institutions for remote learning technology. 

“Since July, the state of Alabama has awarded $432,753,000 to various levels of education to ensure that we have a safe and smart continuation of educational instruction,” Ivey said in a statement. “COVID-19 has exposed deficiencies in our remote learning capabilities, and I am pleased to award our institutions of higher education the critical funds to enhance their instructional experience.”

“My office has received numerous CARES Act funding requests, and we are eager to help as many folks as possible. We are still reviewing them to ensure they meet eligibility under the letter of the law and will be forthcoming when finalized,” Ivey continued. 

 The Alabama Community College System will receive $27,345,000.

  • From the $300,000,000 for expenditures related to technology and infrastructure related to remote instruction and learning
  • To support the purchase of technology hardware and software to facilitate distance education and remote learning at the state’s community colleges
  • $8 million for a laptop loaner program to assist low-income and other students within special populations with remote learning
  • $10 million for a statewide virtual desktop environment that will allow students to utilize institution owned software anywhere and at any time
  • $2,920,000 for video conferencing equipment in a classroom at each community college
  • $6,425,000 for Zoom rooms, next generation firewalls and online course assistance

“Alabama’s community colleges have adapted quickly to a new learning environment at each of our 24 colleges, but we are constantly looking for new, innovative, and engaging ways to improve the student experience,” ACCS Chancellor Jimmy H. Baker said in a statement. “We are grateful for the additional resources this funding will provide to enhance learning for Alabamians for years to come.”

Alabama Public 4-Year Institutions will receive $25,000,000.

  • From the $300,000,000 for expenditures related to technology and infrastructure related to remote instruction and learning
  • To establish a reimbursement for universities for costs they are incurring related to remote instruction and learning
  • Maximum allocations per institution have been established
  • This is in addition to the $50 million the Governor allocated on July 6, 2020, to assist the universities with COVID-related expenses

“While the Higher Education Partnership is energized by the return to campus of our students this fall, the year has certainly been filled with COVID-19 related challenges for Alabama’s 14 public universities,” Alabama Higher Education Partnership executive director Gordon Stone said in a statement. “Throughout the year, Governor Kay Ivey and her team have worked with the institutions to make sure that Alabama’s next generation of leaders have been served with a continuous learning experience. Thank you, Governor Ivey, for once again recognizing the importance of our students, faculty and staff with the latest round of CARES Act support.”

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Alabama Independent Colleges will receive $20,000,000.

  • From the $118,346,250 for any lawful purpose as provided by the United States Congress, the United States Treasury Department, or any other federal entity of competent jurisdiction
  • To establish a reimbursement program to assist Independent Colleges with expenditures that they are incurring related to the coronavirus
  • Maximum allocations per institution have been established

“On behalf of the 25,000 students at Alabama’s Independent Colleges, we want to express our sincere gratitude to the governor,” Alabama Association of Independent Colleges and Universities president Paul Hankins said in a statement. “The additional support is greatly appreciated in this unprecedented time of financial need. These funds will go a long way to ensure our schools can remain open. Our colleges have done everything necessary to keep their students safe and on campus.”

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