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Opinion | Turmoil amidst the pines

Larry Lee

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It’s reasonable to think there might be some controversy about any new school. Maybe where it is located, what it is named, who the principal may be, what courses will be taught?

But seldom do you expect the wholesale turmoil that hit rural Washington County, AL when locals learned that a handful of folks wanted to open a charter school.  In a close-knit county of only 17,000 souls, news travels fast, people choose sides and lines are drawn.

Add in the fact that the new school went off to Texas and hired someone with a controversial past and the pot nears the boiling point very quickly.

However, to fully grasp how this all came to be, it is important to understand, as best we can, Washington County and its people.

In The Beginning

The county has been around longer than the state of Alabama. St. Stephens, on the county’s northern border on the Tombigbee River, was the Alabama territorial capital before there was officially an Alabama.  Sitting atop a limestone bluff, it was a trading post, steamboat landing for cargo headed downstream to Mobile and the place where official territory business was conducted.

As was much of Alabama, many early Washington County settlers were descendants of Scots-Irish, a fierce, independent people. Larger in land area than Rhode Island, timber has long been its principal commodity.  In fact, in 1870 local farmers only produced 1,200 bales of cotton, a far cry from the thousands of bales produced 100 miles north in the state’s Black Belt region.

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Demographics underscore this fact. Only 25 percent of Washington County is African-American, as compared to Black Belt counties such as Wilcox, 72 percent; Perry, 69 percent; and Lowndes, 74 percent.  A stark reminder that in 1850, cotton and slavery were synonymous.

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To add more context, jump the Tombigbee and go a few miles into adjoining Clarke County where the War of Mitcham Beat took place in the 1890s. This was an honest-to-goodness shooting war that grew out of unrest between tenant farmers and merchants.  At least a half dozen citizens were killed by vigilantes.

As with much of rural Alabama, politics in Washington is conservative to say the least. The election of Ronald Reagan basically switched the county from D to R when it comes to national politics.  Bill Clinton was the last Democratic presidential nominee to win the county in 1996.

John McCain beat Barack Obama here in 2008 with 65 percent of the vote. Mitt Romney got 66 percent in 2012 and Donald Trump got 72 percent in 2016.  In 2017 when Democrat Doug Jones won Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat, he lost the county to Roy Moore 35-65.

The School

So, what does all of this have to do with trying to put a charter school, Woodland Prep, on highway 17 between Chatom and Millry?

A helluva lot actually.

Without understanding who the 17,000 residents of the county are, the DNA that runs through them, how they react to things that are not familiar, etc. is burying your head in the sand and living in a fantasy world.

And from all indications, the Alabama Charter School Commission failed miserably to do their homework about the community and its nuances.  Their first misstep was ignoring how the idea for this charter came to life. Normally one would think that some parents, disappointed in how a child is doing in school, come up with the idea of seeking an alternative education path.

This was not the case in Washington County.

Instead, the notion was largely conceived by a wife who could not come to grips with the fact that her husband, a teacher for many years, failed to always conduct himself professionally and because of this, the school board was forced to take action.

Though a native of the county and extremely well thought of by locals, an outsider sees her as someone who became overly zealous and to some degree, took advantage of both her job and longtime friends in an effort to avenge what she considered a wrong.

Hardly the foundation from which one embarks on such a complex challenge as starting a school from scratch, with little funding and no expertise.

Enter Soner Tarim

Somewhere along the way, this lady heard of Sonar Tarim, who began the Harmony charter chain in Texas in 2000.  She connected with him and apparently came to believe that no one in the country knows more about charters than he does.

Tarim is controversial and not held in high esteem by many in Texas. His most recent effort to get state approval for four new charters in Austin was resoundingly turned down by the state school board.

During his presentation before the Texas board he had a hard time keeping his facts straight and was tripped up on several occasions by school board members who had done their homework.

But obviously the good folks wanting a charter in Washington County drank his Kool Aid and did little background checking.  Apparently neither did the staff and members of the state charter school commission.

The fact that Tarim is affiliated with the highly controversial Gulen Movement, has simply added another degree of complexity to the entire episode.

Tragedy Strikes

Unfortunately, this story took a tragic turn in June 2018 as the lady in question sat reading her Bible on her front porch one Sunday morning when her husband shot her in the head. He then killed himself.

The county was stunned. Suddenly the charter effort was without its primary mover and shaker.

And there was no one to be questioned as to why the application submitted to the Alabama charter commission, which Tarim says he largely prepared, was so riddled with inaccuracies and false claims.

For example, from the outset, proponents of the charter have declared that 900 students a day leave Washington County to attend private schools. But no one can verify where this number came from and a look at census data and other sources indicate that it is totally without credibility.

When Woodland Prep supporters were quizzed about this at a June 7, 2019 state charter commission meeting, their answer was that the lady who first used the number had access to lots of data and since she is no longer alive, they don’t question it.

End of discussion.

The State Charter Commission, etc.

Alabama passed its charter law in 2015. It set up a 10-member commission to govern charters.  Four named by the governor, one by the Lt. Governor, three by the Speaker of the House and two by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate.

Though members may serve up to six years, only two of the original ten remain. Presently, five of these members are serving terms that expired May 31, 2019 and there is an additional vacancy due to a member’s resignation in March 2019.

Judging from their actions involving Woodland Prep, as well as an overall lack of professionalism and attention to details, many feel that wholesale change in membership is due.

A very meaningful measure to see how a community feels about its schools is to compare school system demographics to community demographics.  The fact that both the school and the country mirror one another in Washington County is insightful.  African-Americans make up 25.1 percent of school population and 24.6 percent of county population.  Whites are 63.0 percent of school population and 65.5 percent of the county.

This, coupled with the fact that there are no private schools in the county, speaks volumes about how the public feels about its school system.

By comparison, the Montgomery County school system is 78.5 percent African-American, while the county is only 57.3 percent.  There are about 40 private schools in Montgomery.

Once again it is obvious the charter commission didn’t bother to  do its homework.

It is impossible to believe that this board and its staff conducted adequate due diligence. How do you ignore the red flags in the application?  How to you take unsigned “support” letters at face value?  How do you maintain that there is not substantial local opposition to this school?  How do you disregard the financial impact a charter will have on the existing public school system?

And how in the world do you pay the National Association of Charter School Authorizors thousands of dollars to evaluate charter applications and then ignore their recommendation to deny the Woodland Prep application?

(Interestingly enough, NACSA also recommended that the application for LEAD Academy charter in Montgomery be denied, but it too was approved. And surprise, surprise, both of these charters signed management agreements with Soner Tarim.)

Why has the state superintendent refused to conduct a wholesale investigation into this entire affair? Why has the state school board not demanded that he do so?

Too many have shirked their responsibility to put school children first.  We have been told over and over that the charter law sets the commission above anyone’s jurisdiction.

However, the first and only real allegiance to education anyone in Montgomery, be they politician or bureaucrat, has is to help children and those local schools who teach them.  When they are in harm’s way, you do what is right.

Besides, who is going to stop you?  Is there an education policeman who will arrest you?

You don’t hide behind some legal ambiguity; you don’t try to placate this one or that one. You just do what is right.  Period.

If you are the charter commission your allegiance is not to some guy from Texas who is more interested in money than in educating children. It is not to the money that people like Betsy DeVos and Alice Walton send to Alabama to fund political action committees.  It is not to a think tank created by Jeb Bush.

You have a higher mission than to just plop down charter schools across the state’s landscape as it they were convenience stores.

And you understand that not all communities and school systems are identical.  Washington County is unlike any other community in the state.  Just as is Huntsville or Franklin County or Union Springs or Henry County.

There is not a farmer in the state who thinks corn planted on a worn-out red clay hill top will do as well as corn planted on rich bottomland. So why do we think what may work in one community will work in all of them?

We know that only about ten percent of all charter schools in the United States are in rural areas. Why?

Because most charters are business ventures, not educational ones. Do you think Soner Tarim would be involved in Washington County without a management contract that gives him 15 percent of all the revenue Woodland Prep will get?  Do you think he woke up one morning in his six-bedroom house in Sugarland, TX with a burning desire to open a school in tiny Washington County because he was “called” to help their students?

Schools are a central part of the fabric of a rural community. The community often revolves around the school.  Woodland Prep has the potential of taking $2.2 million away from the Washington County school system which struggles every day to meet its needs.  People in this county resent that.

It will threaten the foundation of this system.  Which community will want to close their school because a charter school took their funding?

In a system of only 2,650 students, would anyone in their right mind suggest opening another school with 260 students and diluting resources that now go to the seven schools in the system?

By and large rural communities look at outsiders with caution. Will Sonar Tarim ever be considered a member of this community?

These are all things the state charter commission failed to acknowledge.

Woodland Prep recently was given a one-year extension for their opening date because they could not meet enrollment expectations.  The result?  A community in continuing chaos.  Teachers and bus drivers and custodians wondering if they will have a job a year from now.

It is a travesty that could have been easily avoided had charter commission staff and members done their homework and used some common sense.

But they didn’t. And Washington County is left twisting in the wind.

 

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