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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?

 

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Economy

Alabama Workforce Council delivers annual report touting improved career pathways

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The Alabama Workforce Council (AWC) recently delivered its Annual Report to Gov. Kay Ivey and members of the legislature. The report highlights the many and varied workforce successes from 2019. It also outlines policy recommendations to further solidify Alabama as a leader in workforce development and push the state closer to Ivey’s goal of adding 500,000 credentialed workers to the state’s workforce by 2025.

Gov. Ivey acknowledged the recent progress stating, “the continued efforts of the AWC and the various state agency partners in transforming our workforce are substantial. Significant work has been accomplished to ensure all Alabamians have a strong start and strong finish. We will continue to bolster our state’s economy through dynamic workforce development solutions to help us reach our ambitious goal.”

The AWC, formed in 2015, was created as an employer-led, statewide effort to understand the structure, function, organization and perception of the Alabama workforce system. The goal of the AWC is to facilitate collaboration between government and industry to help Alabama develop a sustainable workforce that is competitive on a global scale. 

“This report details the tremendous efforts of the dedicated AWC members and their partners who have greatly contributed to the progress of building a highly-skilled workforce.” noted Tim McCartney, Chairman of the AWC. “To meet ever-growing job needs of an expanding economy, we have put forth recommendations to bring working-age Alabamians sitting on the sidelines back into the workforce to address our low workforce participation rate.”

Included among the many highlights from the report are:

  • Created the Alabama Office of Apprenticeship to support apprenticeships and work-based learning statewide.
  • Established the Alabama Committee on Credentialing & Career Pathways (ACCCP) to identify credentials of value that align with in-demand career pathways across Alabama.
  • Furthered foundational work toward cross-agency outcome sharing through the Alabama Terminal on Linking and Analyzing Statistics (ATLAS).
  • Commissioned statewide surveys to better understand the characteristics, and potential barriers, of the priority population groups (during record-low unemployment) identified as likely to enter or re-enter the state’s workforce. 
  • Provided technical assistance, support staff and grant writing services to a cohort of over 30 nonprofits from across the state enabling them to expand services and directly connect more Alabamians to training and economic opportunity. Services helped cohort members secure over $6.4 million in grant money through various out-of-state grant programs.
  • Identified and evaluated 17 population segments of potential workers and determined the likelihood of adding members of those respective population segments into the workforce. Within this process, issues affecting the state’s labor participation rate were also detailed. 

Vice-Chair of the AWC Sandra Koblas of Austal USA commented, “the energy around workforce development in Alabama right now is incredibly exciting. We are working together with businesses, nonprofits and agency partners to reduce barriers, increase opportunities and grow the state’s overall economy.”

The full report can be viewed here.

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To learn more about the Alabama Workforce Council please visit: www.alabamaworks.com/alabama-workforce-council

 

 

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Committee hears state plan to address student mental health

Jessa Reid Bolling

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State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey asked the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee for funding to put more mental health professionals in schools. 

While addressing the committee, Mackey said that having more counseling available for students will help to not only address student mental health but to also help teachers who are “overwhelmed” with trying to make up for the lack of counseling services. 

“Teachers are the frontline on good mental health for our students,” Mackey said. “They have to do a lot of the work but teachers are not therapists. They don’t have time to do it, they’re not trained to do it and teachers in our state are absolutely overwhelmed with the problems that are coming into their classrooms. 

The Alabama State Department of Education in collaboration with the Alabama Department of Mental Health created the School Based Mental Health Services Program (SBMH) in 2010 with the goal of ensuring that children and adolescents, both general and special education, enrolled in local school systems have access to high quality mental health prevention, early intervention and treatment services. 

The collaboration places a certified mental health professional, hired by the mental health department, in a school system to be available throughout the school day, with an estimated cost of $50,000 per site, according to Mackey. 

Mackey said in his presentation that there is a need for far more of these therapists than he is requesting but that there simply are not enough of them available to be hired. He also noted that seeking the help of social workers and organizations like the Department of Human Resources to fill that need for more school counseling would ultimately harm their existing duties. 

“If we put students in therapy but then they’re going home to a dysfunctional situation, then we’re just spinning our wheels and that’s why we’ve got to have community collaborations and we’ve got to have these other strong agencies like Mental Health (Department) and DHR to support the work with the communities.”

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Alabama State Senator Jim McClendon (District 11) said that he has heard from “frustrated” teachers who have to take on responsibilities apart from teaching. 

“They were kind of depressed, the teachers were, simply because they felt like they weren’t able to do the job they were hired to do because they were doing so many other things,” McClendon said.

In the 2019 Fiscal Year, nine mental health centers were added with the $500,000 appropriation in FY19. There are now a total of 72 school systems participating in School-Based Mental Health. Mackey says there will be 82 by the end of this year and asked for funding for 20 more after meeting that goal.

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Business, community leaders call on lawmakers to support Gov. Ivey’s push for more Pre-K funds

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Governor Ivey’s push for a $25 million statewide expansion of Alabama’s high-quality, voluntary First Class Pre-K program was endorsed today by business and community leaders from across the state. If approved by the state Legislature, the proposed funding increase would add at least 160 new classrooms next year and help enroll at least 2,889 additional four-year-olds.

The Alabama School Readiness Alliance Pre-K Task Force included its support for Governor Ivey’s budget request in its 2020 Legislative Recommendations. The ASRA Pre-K Task Force consists of more than 60 prominent leaders from the business, education, civic, medical, legal, philanthropic, military, and child advocacy communities.

In addition to increased funding in FY2021, the Task Force’s plan proposes a series of recommendations to fully fund the state’s First Class Pre-K program by the 2022-23 school year while maintaining the program’s benchmarks for quality and accountability. The Pre-K Task Force’s Recommendations are available in their entirety at https://www.alabamaschoolreadiness.org/asra-pre-k-task-force-recommendations/.

“We are not there yet, but the state is moving in the right direction to provide high-quality, voluntary pre-k to all families that want it,” said Mike Luce and Bob Powers, business leaders and co-chairs of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance Pre-K Task Force. “The Alabama School Readiness Alliance’s Pre-K Task Force is pleased that Governor Ivey is once again prioritizing additional funds to add more pre-k classrooms across the state. We stand with Governor Ivey and encourage lawmakers to appropriate the $25 million increase outlined in her proposal.”

For 13 years in a row, the National Institute for Early Education Research has ranked Alabama’s pre-k program as the number one state-funded pre-kindergarten program in the country for quality. Research by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham has found that students who participate in a First Class Pre-K classroom – regardless of demographics, zip code or school – are more likely to be proficient in math and reading than their peers.

The Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education manages the First Class Pre-K program. It allocates funding for the First Class Pre-K program through a competitive application process. Public and private schools, child care centers, faith-based centers, Head Start programs, nonprofits, universities, and other community-based providers are all eligible to apply. Potential providers can apply for three different levels of funding: an excellence classroom (up to $50,400), tiered funding (ranges from $86,904 to $100,008), and a new classroom (up to $120,000). Applications for First Class Pre-K classroom funding are due March 13 on the Department’s website, www.children.alabama.gov.

The ASRA Pre-K Task Force first proposed expanding voluntary pre-k access to all families in 2012. Since then, state leaders have incrementally increased the level of investment in Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program from $19 million to $122.8 million. In 2012, the program enrolled just six percent of Alabama’s four-year-olds. In the 2019-20 school year, nearly 40 percent of Alabama’s four-year-olds attend First Class Pre-K.

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Finance and Taxation Education Committee briefed on state program to improve literacy

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Superintendent of Education Dr. Eric Mackey spoke to the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee. Mackey addressed the committee on the state department of education’s efforts on improving literacy.

We have a literacy task force,” Mackey said. “We are very proud and happy to have the Literacy Act.”

“A task force is meeting,” Mackey said. “Their main purposes are to vet, form an assessment of K-12 reading, and vet materials.”

“We have 14 venders who responded to a request to bid,” Mackey said. We narrowed that down to six and the finally three. We have sent letters offering them to present their best price statewide. “We will get a statewide price from all venders. I can not tell you which three are the final three.”

“The Alabama Action Plan for Literacy is being revised by a committee formed by the Literacy Act,” Mackey explained. An eight person committee will be meeting between now and June to revise the Alabama Action Plan for Literacy.”

“We are relying on outside experts who have done work in other states,” Mackey told the committee.

Mackey said that the department is hiring 53 state reading specialists. “Each of them will be assigned to the lowest performing schools.“ The poorest performing five percent will have a reading specialist in their school every single day. The schools that are having the least difficulty will see a specialist once a quarter. The schools in the middle will see a reading specialist once a month. “The focus is on the most needy schools.”

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“We are around 40th in (fourth grade) reading,” Mackey said. “We are lower in math. We were in the state average ten years ago, but have dropped.”

“We will be going to a new test for reading,” Mackey explained. “Our current test is not accepted by the federal government so I had to get a new test. “We could have lost a $half a billion in federal money if we had not done that.”

“In the eighth grade we are 49th on reading,” Senator Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said. ‘How did we lose our way?”

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Orr chairs the committee.

Mackey said that before the Great Recession the ARI (Alabama Reading Initiative) budget was $70 million. That was cut to $40 million. “All the summer training for teachers and reading coaches went away. We have many teachers who have turned over in the last ten certainly twenty years who have never had any training in those ARI modules.”

Mackey said that a report came out that was not favorable to Alabama Schools of Education. “We do not prescribe their curriculum.”

State Senator Jabo Wagoneer, R-Vestavia Hills, asked, “I chaired a committee on Artificial Intelligence there seems to be some concern at the college and higher education level that our K-12 students are not prepared in technology Where are we on technology in our K-12 schools.”

“Compared to surrounding states we are actually ahead,” Mackey said. “We are the fifth state in the nation to meet all the code.org criteria. We are ahead of at least 45 other states.”

“We put in place a three-year plan to offer a computer science course in every high school,” Mackey said. “The next year we will offer computer science in every middle school. The third year we will offer it in every elementary school. Hundreds of elementary schools are already offering computer science.”

The Governor is asking for more money for reading coaches and ARI in the 2021 education trust fund budget (ETF).

In 2019, the Alabama Legislature approved a state constitutional amendment that, if ratified by voters, would replace the elected Alabama’s State Board of Education with a commission appointed by the governor. Amendment one will be on the March 3 ballot.

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