The Alabama charter school law is an absolute mess, filled with loopholes and nonexistent instructions that make it possible, if not likely, that the state will endure countless bad charter schools that rob taxpayers and leave Alabama school children worse off.
Those were not the words of Alabama superintendent Eric Mackey.
But you could draw those conclusions from the words Mackey did use in an interview with APR about the state’s charter school law and the various problems exposed by the approval of a Washington County charter school.
Mackey’s actual words were much more subdued and measured, and far more diplomatic.
But he still drew the same conclusions: that the charter school law didn’t envision a scenario in which an authorizer would approve a charter school that failed to meet the requirements; that the law provides the Alabama State Department of Education with limited oversight of the authorizers; that the law provides ALSDE with zero oversight of applicants; that the law never spelled out a grievance procedure for the public or others to report issues with charters and charter approvals; and that there is no action that he or the state school board can take to stop an authorizer from approving a charter.
“Because this law is so new, and because we have so few charters approved at this point, we haven’t tried to answer those questions,” Mackey said. “What is our role in this process? We haven’t been forced to answer that until now.”
The Washington County Problem
The reason Mackey and the rest of ALSDE are now faced with that self-examination is due to the Commission’s approval of Woodland Prep — a charter school located in Washington County.
Woodland Prep has drawn national attention and community outrage, and the fire shows no signs of fading out after the Commission recently granted the school a 1-year extension to open.
That extension is the latest of a number of issues that opponents of the charter have highlighted. They also have drawn attention to the management company — a private company named Unity School Services, which is owned by Soner Tarim, a controversial figure in the charter school world.
Opponents maintain that the charter violates two essential tenets of the charter school law — that a charter must be needed (i.e. it must deliver some educational curriculum or fill some void that is not currently offered) and it must be supported by the local community.
Town hall meetings more than a year ago about the charter made it clear that there is little community support. And opponents contend that an uptick in state scores — going from a D to a B in overall grades — is proof that the charter isn’t necessary.
Supporters have claimed that the opponents have bullied others in town into not supporting Woodland Prep. And they tried to tie the criticisms of Tarim and his company to simple religious bigotry.
In the midst of this, as you could probably imagine, Mackey and the state department have received countless complaints, both in emails and letters and in the form of phone calls. They have come from the average citizen, school employees and from lawmakers.
As the complaints started to increase — and media coverage of the situation started to grow, as well — Mackey and the ALSDE legal team began trying to determine what, exactly, the role of ALSDE is in such a situation.
ALSDE’s Limited Role
Turns out, the law didn’t really spell one out. At least, not for this situation.
“When you read the law, it’s pretty clear that the anticipation was that an authorizer would refuse to give a fair shot to a qualified applicant,” Mackey said. “There doesn’t seem to be an anticipation that an undeserving applicant could be approved. That’s a piece that is missing, in my opinion.”
There is oversight responsibility for ALSDE in the law, however.
Sen. Del Marsh, who was a major proponent of the charter school bill, said the law clearly places oversight responsibility in the hands of ALSDE, and his office forwarded a section of the law to APR.
“The law is clear that the ALSDE and State Board of Education have oversight of the commission,” Marsh wrote in a statement. He then went on to try and tie the situation to his push for an appointed state school board, but that is in no way relative to this situation.
The portion of law is, however. It reads: “The department shall oversee the performance and effectiveness of all authorizers established under this act. Persistently unsatisfactory performance of the portfolio of public charter schools of an authorizer, a pattern of well-founded complaints about the authorizer or its public charter schools, or other objective circumstances may trigger a special review by the department.”
It goes on to say that if ALSDE finds an authorizer isn’t in compliance, the department “shall notify the authorizer in writing of any identified problem, and the authorizer shall have reasonable opportunity to respond and remedy the problem.”
And that’s all well and good, but it stops short of the real problem: the charter school law, as passed by the Legislature, establishes the Commission as a separate state entity.
And it never provides ALSDE with oversight responsibilities.
In fact, in the law itself, just a few paragraphs under what Marsh’s office sent, is this:
“If the Commission violates a material provision of a charter contract or fails to remedy any other authorizing problems after due notice from (ALSDE), (ALSDE) shall notify the Commission, within 60 days, that it plans to notify the governor, the speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate of the actions of the Commission, unless the Commission demonstrates a timely and satisfactory remedy for the violation of the deficiencies.”
So, to put that in English, if Mackey and his staff have a documented problem with the Commission, they can tell the Commission and the governor and speaker and Senate president about it.
And then … what?
No one knows.
Let’s say the Commission starts approving woefully bad charters because various business arrangements and backroom deals are going down. Even if the Commission repeatedly violated the charter law, there is no means within the law for ALSDE, the governor, the speaker or Marsh to punish the Commission.
Hold on a second. It gets crazier.
If that’s the case and charters that don’t meet the standards are being approved illegally, there’s virtually no chance of stopping it under the current setup. Because right now, as ALSDE and Mackey are experiencing, the complaints from the public that would expose such deficiencies can’t be investigated by ALSDE.
Because ALSDE only has oversight over an authorizer, not the applicant.
So, if Woodland Prep is violating the state’s Open Meetings Act or doesn’t have local support — allegations which have been made numerous times — ALSDE has no authority over those.
The authorizer does.
“The overwhelming majority of complaints that we’ve received about (Woodland Prep) are things we can’t do anything about,” Mackey said. “They are things that should be directed to the authorizer, in this case the Commission. All we can look at is if the Commission is following the law.”
Mackey said he plans to have conversations with lawmakers leading up to the next legislative session about possible changes to the law, but he didn’t seem optimistic. For now, he and the ALSDE legal staff are talking about possibilities and things that might be done.
And the bad law carries on.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.