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Josh Moon

Opinion | The Alabama Charter School Commission does not care

Josh Moon

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Last year, the Alabama Charter School Commission gave approval to a Washington County charter school known as Woodland Prep.

It gave that approval despite the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which was contracted by the Alabama State Department of Education to review charter school applications, writing in its review of Woodland that the school’s operational plan and building plans were suspect and raising concerns about the number of students it might draw. The NACSA had specific concerns about the lack of a building, lack of community support and about a for-profit management company from out of state that was charging high rates.

The Commission gave the NACSA report a collective “pfft,” and green lit the school.

Well, on Friday, just two months before that school was scheduled to open, Woodland Prep was back in front of the Commission, this time asking for a year-long extension.

And you’ll never guess why.

Because the building still isn’t built. The community still hates the charter school, which has just 50 students enrolled. And the management company, Soner Tarim’s Unity School Services, still hasn’t managed to hire any staff for the school. (It had a principal but she quit.)

During the lengthy Commission meeting, chairman Mac Buttram took great care to walk Tarim and other Woodland reps through the many delays, problems and general screw-ups that have delayed the opening of Woodland to such a degree that there currently is not one brick of a school building in place.

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It was bullying, they said.

That simple.

Certain people in Washington County were so against the charter school that they had bullied the other people in Washington County. Contractors wouldn’t build. Teachers wouldn’t apply. Students wouldn’t register.

Out of fear.

It was … ridiculous.

Yes, people hate the Woodland charter school in Washington County. And yes, they have been very vocal about their disdain for a school that will suck millions of dollars from a good local school system that is already massively underfunded.

But, um, that’s not “bullying.” That’s called the majority of teachers, parents and interested parties in that county standing up for the school system they believe in.

And it’s also a clear indication that the community does NOT support this charter school — a requirement under the charter school law.

The fact is every warning that the NACSA gave about Woodland and its sketchy application has proven accurate.

But, of course, that didn’t matter to the Charter School Commission. It again approved Woodland Prep, giving it a one-year extension to open its doors.

The Commission gave that extension despite Woodland’s team, led by Soner Tarim, admitting that fewer than 50 students were enrolled, there is no building, there is no staff and there is no commitment from locals to fund the school.

In the meeting, with Buttram lobbing softball questions at Tarim, the Woodland reps claimed that students wanted to enroll, but that the “bullying” was preventing many people from registering. Same with donations. Same with contractors. Same with every problem.

There was also racism, they said, because Tarim’s very real and well documents connections to the Gulen Movement have been documented in state media, and some people were making anti-Muslim comments. That racism appeared to be contained solely within one newspaper letter to the editor and social media posts, mostly from anonymous users.

But while a little racism is still way too much racism, there’s zero evidence that Tarim’s religion played any role in any of the organized groups who are protesting this charter.

Instead, they seem to be motivated by reason and common sense: Their schools are good, and they don’t want money sucked out of them to pay for a needless charter that seems wholly unprepared to build, open or operate a school.

If only the Charter Commission cared.

 

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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Josh Moon

Opinion | Has Alabama lost its independent streak?

Josh Moon

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What if I told you that Sen. Richard Shelby, outraged by the stories of laid off Alabama workers forced to camp out overnight to get unemployment compensation, was pushing his fellow senators to pump more money into states to rectify the situation? 

What if I told you that Shelby had fought to get more funding for Alabama to expand Medicaid and provide 300,000-plus Alabamians with medical coverage during the ongoing pandemic? 

What if I told you that Shelby recently condemned the Tennessee Valley Authority for shipping jobs overseas, as Americans, including many Alabamians, suffer through a recession? 

What if I told you that Shelby pushed a bipartisan bill through the Senate that would strengthen and enhance telemedicine programs? 

What if I told you that at least once a week, Shelby hosts a livestreamed press conference, in which he and guests — usually medical professionals or local leaders — discuss the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and provide the public with critical updates and behind-the-scenes details on upcoming plans to address the most pressing matters?

What if I told you that Shelby had been honored in the Senate as one of the most bipartisan lawmakers, co-sponsoring dozens of bills with senators across the aisle? 

Would all of that impress you? Make you think more highly of Sen. Shelby? 

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Well, what if I told you that I was actually talking about Doug Jones? 

Because it’s Jones who did all the above over the last month. 

That’s right — month!

But it doesn’t matter to a good number of people in this state. Jones’ record while in the Senate, and his work ethic and his good bills that have done good things for the working people of this state, just don’t matter at all unless there’s an “R” beside his name. 

It’s a real shame that a man who has done all that in a month is running neck-and-neck, according to polling, with both of his potential opponents — Tommy Tuberville and Jeff Sessions. 

Quick: Name one bill Sessions passed in 20 years in the Senate. 

Take your time. 

Yeah, that’s what I thought. His biggest accomplishments were fighting against the Violence Against Women Act and not saying anything racist out loud. 

Tuberville, in the meantime, is quite possibly the most policy-ignorant candidate in recent history. The man knows nothing about anything, and he hasn’t even pretended to have a plan for anything. He just keeps showing up at barbecue joints, muttering stuff about football and Trump, and pretending that not knowing anything is the same as being “an outsider.” 

That — along with the little R — is apparently enough for half the state. 

And it’s a shame. 

Because if Alabamians were even a sliver as independent or stubborn as they like to pretend, this thing wouldn’t even be a contest. 

On one side, there’s a guy who’s actually working, who cares about good public policy, bipartisanship and right and wrong — a guy who locked up the clowns who killed four little black girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. 

On the other side, two guys hoping to skate by on party affiliation. 

But Jones doesn’t whine about it, even when I gave him an opportunity to do so on Thursday. He refused to take shots at anyone, and instead said it was time to get to work. His only pointed frustration was directed at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has repeatedly blocked efforts by Democrats to get more relief funds out to the American people. 

McConnell has sat on a bill sent over by the Democratic-led House, and now, Jones said, McConnell plans to draft his own relief bill. 

“That’s crazy to me,” Jones said. “We’ve had that bill for weeks now. It’s not a perfect bill by any means, but it sets up the framework. We could have worked within that and got something out to the people who need it most before the Fourth of July holiday. Now, it’s going to be after this two-week break. That’s too long.”

Jones said a big concern for him was getting money to state and local governments, which employ about 20 percent of the American workforce and have been devastated by the coronavirus shutdowns. Those issues often manifest in terrible ways, such as forcing people to sit in a parking lot to receive basic help because your state department of labor is overworked and understaffed. 

“It’s not a matter of someone being lazy or not doing their job,” Jones said, speaking specifically of the situation that has left thousands of Alabamians waiting in long lines to get routine unemployment questions answered. “It’s a matter of giving these folks the resources they need to get the job done. That’s what we’re hoping to do.”

Jones is trying. And really, I’m not sure what else you can ask for at this point.

Well, except for one petty, and utterly meaningless, thing: An R beside his name.

 

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Education

Analysis | There’s a better plan for reopening schools — if Alabama leaders will use it

Josh Moon

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Maybe there will be a plan for reopening schools after all. 

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is set to meet with Gov. Kay Ivey’s staff on Tuesday morning to discuss an ambitious and comprehensive plan to reopen Alabama’s public schools that would see every school in the state get a new, stand-alone nurses station, a testing machine, a full-time nurse and tools to test and check students’ temperatures. 

The plan, known as the Safely Opening Schools Program, or SOS, was put together by the Alabama School Nurses Association and has the backing of several doctors and the Alabama Education Association. It was presented to some lawmakers earlier this month. 

State Sens. Jabo Waggoner, Jim McClendon and Bobby Singleton — two top Republicans and the highest-ranking Democrat — have since submitted requests for funding out of Alabama’s portion of CARES Act money to pay for the various components of the plan. 

In a letter sent last week to Ivey, Singleton said he was “excited by the plan,” and believes it will “address, to some degree, the inequity (in his local school districts) and allow my constituents to feel that they are receiving the same support to reopen their schools as the more affluent districts of our state.”

The SOS program contains, essentially, three pieces: Building 500-square-feet nurses stations/isolation rooms at every school, purchasing testing machines and supplies and hiring approximately 300 nurses for the schools around the state that are currently lacking one. (Every school is technically required to have a school nurse, but the systems have circumvented that requirement by allowing a district nurse to cover multiple schools.)

In total, the plan is projected to cost roughly $150 million — almost all of it (around 90 percent) coming from the nearly $2 billion in CARES Act funds provided to Alabama by the federal government. (The remaining portion is projected to be covered by other grants.) Included in those costs are the nurses’ salaries for two years and the construction of more than 1,300 stand-alone nurses stations/isolation rooms — each costing a little less than $50,000. 

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In addition, each school would receive its own testing device, which nurses would be trained to use, and testing supplies. If used as the program projects, Alabama schools would turn in more than 500,000 tests in nine months, with blind results being sent to the Centers for Disease Control for data collection purposes. The testing machines can also be modified to test for other ailments, such as the different types of flu.  

To put the total cost in perspective, the state has already spent at least $150 million — it received $115 million in grants from the CDC and received part of the more than $450 million the federal government sent to Alabama earlier this year — to test less than 10 percent of the state’s population over the last six months. 

The SOS program could potentially test between 12-15 percent in far less time, and in a setting where early detection could prevent massive hotspots. 

It’s a good program, and it would likely be worth the costs if only for the things mentioned. 

But those things are only half of the benefits of this program. Maybe not even half. 

Consider this: Included in the costs, every school in every city in Alabama, regardless of income level or parental involvement or poverty rates, will get a state-of-the-art nurses station and a fulltime school nurse. 

To care for children who rarely see any sort of healthcare professional. To diagnose the early signs of disease or mental health issues. To spot the early warning signs of physical abuse or drug addiction. 

In every school in Alabama. For two full school years. 

“This is extremely important to my communities, as they lack school nurses and other critical health access,” Singleton wrote to Ivey. “The opportunity to have testing/screening on-site and nurses to address students’ health needs would be of tremendous assistance to the residents in my district.”

The same could be said for school districts, and for school children, all over the state. 

The simple fact is there is no better plan offered for reopening Alabama’s schools. The others, including the “roadmap” presented by state superintendent Eric Mackey last week, mostly fail to account for known shortages in teachers, staff and nurses, and they offer no assurances for worried parents. 

The SOS plan would take the burden of monitoring and quarantining sick students off the staff and faculty, would establish a clear protocol for dealing with the virus in our schools and would assist the state and federal government with accurate, real-time data. In addition, it could be a health lifeline for kids in rural and impoverished areas. 

There is no better plan.

 

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Health

Opinion | Alabama leaders’ plan to reopen schools really isn’t a plan at all

Josh Moon

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There is no plan to reopen Alabama’s public schools. 

That much was clear after state superintendent Eric Mackey’s hour-long press conference on Friday — the one in which he presented the state’s plan to reopen schools. 

It was, to put it kindly, underwhelming.

To put it not so kindly: It was the State Department of Education running from a hard decision. 

Because what Mackey presented on Friday was 50 pages of ALSDE, the governor and the Alabama Department of Public Health essentially telling local superintendents and principals: “Y’all figure it out.” 

There was no guidance on testing, quarantining and tracing. 

There was no guidance on how to deal with older employees and faculty who decide, reasonably, that the risk is too high. 

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There was no guidance for parents. 

There wasn’t even a requirement that local districts create a plan by a specific date so parents could determine whether to send their kids to school or to opt for the online system. 

Basically, Mackey spent 30 minutes or so telling all public school employees to wash up real good and try to stay six feet apart if you can. 

Oh, and that there’s no extra money for any of the extra stuff they’re going to have to do. 

Look, I get that this is an insanely difficult situation, and that it’s something we’ve never dealt with before. But damn, you’re about to send Alabama’s children back to enclosed spaces in the middle of a pandemic. Maybe, just maybe, that calls for an idea or two from the state’s top leaders on how we might do that at least a tad bit more safely. 

It sure is strange how the people in Montgomery want in on every decision made at the local level when there’s political pandering or money involved, but they can’t get away fast enough when there are actual hard decisions to be made? 

The vanishing act on Friday wasn’t lost on teachers and principals and local superintendents. A spokesperson with the Alabama Education Association said their office had been flooded with calls from confused and concerned educators following Mackey’s presentation. I spoke with numerous principals and a couple of superintendents, and they were baffled by the “roadmap,” which they said was essentially the same guidance they received last year. 

Their biggest question: How are they going to meet even the basic, simple goals laid out in the “roadmap” without extra funding or resources? 

For example, Mackey mentioned “school nurses” on a couple of occasions in his presentation, and the roadmap also mentions them, saying they’ll be dealing with symptomatic students. 

That’s great. Except approximately 300 schools don’t have a nurse. 

Oh, they have a district nurse that covers all the schools in the district, but not one on their campus every day. Not one that can be there within 45 minutes or so. 

So, who’s going to deal with that symptomatic child? Who’s going to make sure he or she stays quarantined? Who’s going to discuss with the students’ parents the requirements, or provide options for testing? 

All of these things, including the extra cleaning that emphasized throughout the roadmap, are new responsibilities that will have to fall on employees and faculty, and be absorbed by the budgets of cash-strapped local districts. 

I can’t, for the life of me, understand what happened here. 

Because there were good plans offered up to ALSDE and the committee that compiled the roadmap. There were comprehensive and innovative ideas for dealing with this virus and best protecting students. There were bipartisan plans that would have diverted millions to Alabama’s schools and made the state a model for others to follow, while at the same time drastically improving Alabama’s testing and data reporting. 

Instead of those plans, ALSDE punted. 

If I had to guess, the reason for that is likely money. Mackey, in his plan, asks for a miniscule amount of it — only enough to equip buses with WiFi and purchase tablets and hotspots — and hopes for grants and other federal dollars to possibly cover other expenses. 

The only possible reason for that is that he was told there would be no additional money — not even from the $1.8 billion in CARES Act funds the state is doling out. Which, honestly, seems impossible. 

This state’s children are about to return to school. In some counties, Mackey noted, 97 percent of the students plan to be in those buildings. Statewide, roughly 80 percent of kids will be back in the buildings. 

The state has a duty to provide the safest environment possible for those kids, and to do everything it can to keep those kids from spreading the coronavirus to family members and at-risk people outside of the schools. 

The roadmap presented on Friday does none of that.  

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Alabama’s government has failed in this crisis

Josh Moon

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Alabama has failed at crisis management. 

If you doubt this, take a drive by Alabama State University or simply look at the photos taken by al.com of the parking lot outside of the university’s Acadome. Look at the massive line of people, many of them elderly, baking in the Alabama summer sun in the middle of June, waiting to get simple answers to simple questions about their unemployment compensation. 

So they can eat. So they can buy medicine. So they can live. 

It is infuriating what’s happening. And why it’s happening. And who it’s happening to. 

But it is not surprising. 

Because this is the government that we should expect by now, because it’s the government the majority of people in this state keep voting for. One built on social pandering and religious fear mongering at the expense of actual planning and competency. 

That ASU parking lot is the result. 

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If you’re unfamiliar with the situation, it is this: thousands of Alabamians have been denied unemployment benefits for one reason or another, and the only place in the entire state for these people to get help with their claims is at ASU, where Alabama Department of Labor workers are set up to help.

They serve only 300 people per day, and many of the people who need help have been told that they must see an ADOL worker face-to-face to solve their issue. People start lining up the night before. 

In a lengthy, infuriating story by al.com’s Connor Sheets, one elderly man said he drove from Tuskegee at 2 a.m. He was too late by then. The first person in line, a 62-year-old woman, arrived at ASU at 7 p.m. the night before. 

Inside the Acadome, just six to 10 trained employees will meet with people and solve the mostly routine problems. 

This has been going on for seven weeks. 

Through heat and rain. For hours upon hours. 

Workers at ASU have been taking water and snacks to those in line. ASU opened its student center so they would have a cool place to get out of the sun, but few took advantage, worried they’d lose their spot in line. ASU police patrol the parking lots at night, ensuring the safety of those camped out. 

Leave it to a historically Black college to understand how to treat people with decency and respect.  

And make no mistake about it, these are not freeloaders looking for a handout. They’re people who were gainfully employed just a few weeks ago. They’d happily go back. 

Now they’re suffering this indignity. 

Left in a steaming hot parking lot for hours. Because the people we’ve put in charge in this state could not care less about the working people of Alabama. 

Trying to get answers as to how this awful scene is still playing out every day, Sheets instead got excuses from state leaders. A spokeswoman for Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and a spokeswoman for the Department of Labor both blamed the “unprecedented” COVID-19 crisis for the problem. 

They said that phone lines are jammed with more than 200,000 calls per day. (There’s no real online option.) And because of staffing shortages and budget cuts, the only staffers they have are working as hard as they can to meet these needs. 

And those are all fine answers … for April. Maybe even early May.

Because that’s when other states realized the coming onslaught and started doing things to offset it. Contracting with call centers. Hiring extra personnel. Training additional personnel to handle in-person issues. Creating workable plans to address this unprecedented problem. 

Hell, the federal government has given us billions of dollars, through the CARES Act, to pay for whatever we need. 

And yet, it’s nearly July and our working people are sitting in a parking lot because there are, at times, only six — SIX! — people, and at most 10 people, in the ENTIRE STATE trained and paid to handle unemployment claims questions. 

When I asked why, on Thursday, that CARES Act money hasn’t been used to address this issue, I was told by ADOL’s Tara Hutchinson that some money has been spent on two call centers, and just that day the personnel board had approved overtime for ADOL workers. 

That’s good to hear. But, again, it’s freakin’ July.  

The fact is the true problem here isn’t hard to figure out. 

The management of this crisis by Alabama’s elected and appointed leaders has been an abysmal failure. 

ADOL is woefully understaffed to handle it, and everyone with semi-knowledge of that department knew it after the first two weeks. There has been little effort to change that. 

On March 21, we got the first glimpse of the coming storm, when unemployment claims jumped from 1,200 or so to more than 10,000. The next week, they were over 80,000. 

That was 12 weeks ago. 

With hundreds of thousands of people looking for work, this state couldn’t find and train maybe six to 10 more people to handle claims?

Of course, they could. Or they could have done one of about a thousand other things to help the state’s working class and make this awful, scary time a tad easier for them. 

Instead, we’ve received a lesson in incompetency.

 

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