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Opinion | The million dollar contract: How education tax dollars are wasted in Alabama

Josh Moon

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Last legislative session, with good results and great PR rolling in for Alabama’s Pre-K program, the Department of Early Childhood Education received a record-breaking increase in funding, as Gov. Kay Ivey and lawmakers pledged to build on one of the few bright spots in Alabama’s public education programs. 

The Education Trust Fund budget passed by the Legislature and signed by Ivey included $96 million for DECE, an increase of $18.5 million from the previous year. It was the largest increase in the program’s history and hailed as a triumph for education. 

But this is Alabama. And where there’s money to spend, you’ll find the usual leeches lurking about, figuring out ways to divvy up a portion for themselves and their friends and family.  

In late June, just a couple of weeks after Ivey gave final approval to the ETF budget, DECE secretary Jeana Ross awarded a marketing contract to a Birmingham firm. 

But not just any contract. 

And not just any firm. 

The contract was for $999,000. For six months’ worth of work. 

That work would include, according to the contract that was submitted to the Legislative Contract Review Committee, “design a multimedia marketing strategy to provide parents the knowledge and understanding of excellence in education.”

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I’m going to pause here and ask you to read all of that again. 

Particularly the parts where we used $999,000 of education funds — while parents are lugging toilet paper and printer cartridges to their kids’ schools — to tell those parents about “excellence in education.” 

I’m not sure it’s the parents who need the lesson. 

If it sounds like nonsense, well, hold on. It gets worse. 

The firm selected for this lucrative contract was Telegraph Creative, located in Birmingham. 

If that name sort-of rings a bell for you, it’s because that was the landing spot for former Yellowhammer News founder and White House bellhop Cliff Sims — the guy about whom Trump famously said, “Who?”

Sims is now the president of Telegraph Creative, which has so far been paid more than $400,000 out of the education trust fund, but prior to joining that company and prior to his trip to D.C., Sims was in charge of Yellowhammer News. 

Yellowhammer, we all now know — thanks to a fantastic story written by the Columbia Journalism Review earlier this year — was and is owned by (former) registered lobbyists, Tim Howe and John Ross. 

So, Howe, Ross and Sims all operated Yellowhammer — an unabashed rightwing website dedicated to propping up Republican politicians and pushing their agendas. All for the right price, of course. That CJR story noted that Yellowhammer raked in more than $185,000 from politicians and political action committees in 2018. 

And Howe and Ross, who have both served as directors of the Alabama Republican Party and whose lobbying firm had close ties to convicted felon Mike Hubbard, run in the usual ALGOP conservative circles. 

Oh, and Ross’s mom just happens to be Jeana Ross, the secretary of the Department of Early Childhood Education and the person who awarded the contract to Telegraph Creative. 

I’ve been all through Telegraph’s website and reviewed the company’s work (most of which is very good), but I don’t see any work for any public education entity or any entity even remotely in the education field. 

But I’m guessing that didn’t matter. 

Some important people are not very happy about the whole thing. I was sent a copy of the contract by a top ALGOP strategist, who was angry. And he wasn’t alone. Several elected officials who I spoke with over the past few days were also unhappy with the large pricetag and the questionable ties between Jeana Ross and Sims. 

The governor’s office was apparently caught off guard by it as well, and the response provided by spokesperson Gina Maiola didn’t exactly provide a lot of cover. 

The Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education used the proper process to ultimately contract with Telegraph Creative. In a transparent method, it was procured through the public RFP database on STAARS and was approved in June by the legislative contract review oversight committee.”

Allow me to translate that: It might be shady, but at least it’s not illegal. 

This is government at its worst. Which is the sort of government that Alabama is famous for. 

And the worst part is we all know nothing will happen. The contract has been signed and a good chunk of the money spent. The players involved are the same players who are always involved. They’re not going anywhere. If anything, they’ll just learn to make their leeching less obvious next time.  

The only possible punishment would come from voters, who might choose alternative candidates because these can’t be trusted with your tax dollars. But we all know that’s not happening, because these folks are wearing the same jerseys as the majority. 

So, nothing. 

But at least now none of you can pretend that you don’t know you’re getting hosed.

 

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Education

Alabama treasurer’s office to host annual college savings giveaway

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CollegeCounts, Alabama’s 529 Fund, will celebrate 5/29 day (May 29) with a sixth annual statewide giveaway focused on babies born in Alabama between May 29, 2019, and May 29, 2020.  CollegeCounts will randomly select 29 winners to receive $529 in contributions to an existing or newly opened CollegeCounts account.

Beginning May 29, 2020, parents, grandparents and legal guardians can visit CollegeCounts529.com/giveawayto register by entering their contact information and the child’s name and date of birth.

“It’s never too early – or too late – to start saving for future education expenses,” said Alabama State Treasurer John McMillan. “The 5/29 Day promotion gives us a fun way to remind people of this important message each year. The goal is to ease parents’ minds about this important future expense and educate them on the benefits that CollegeCounts provides.”

CollegeCounts has no minimum contribution requirement, making it simple for families and friends to invest a little at a time. The plan utilizes quality investments from Vanguard, T. Rowe Price, Fidelity, PIMCO, Dodge and Cox, PGIM and DFA.

Funds may be withdrawn and used at colleges, universities, trade schools and graduate schools at one, two and four-year schools in Alabama and across the U.S. – including vocational, technical, community, public and private colleges and universities – for qualified expenses like tuition, fees, room and board (if enrolled at least half-time), books, supplies, and equipment required for enrollment, including computers.

“Despite these uncertain times, the Alabama CollegeCounts program remains committed to helping families save in whatever way works best for their budgets and goals,” added McMillan. “Eighteen years will pass by more quickly than most of us expect, so do not let temporary economic turbulence interrupt your college savings plan.”

Under Section 529 of the IRS tax code, special tax benefits are provided to families saving for future college expenses. In addition, Alabama taxpayers may receive a state income tax deduction of up to $10,000 for married couples filing jointly ($5,000 for single filers)1 on contributions to CollegeCounts each year.

To enter an Alabama child born between May 29, 2019, and May 29, 2020, in the 5/29 Day Giveaway, please visit CollegeCounts529.com/giveaway. No purchase is necessary to enter or win a prize. All entries must be submitted by July 13.  The 29 winners will be contacted by July 24. Selected winners must provide a birth certificate or commemorative birth announcement to receive the prize contribution of $529 into the new or existing CollegeCounts account for the newborn they register.

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For information on how to open an account, please visit CollegeCounts529.com. To learn more about CollegeCounts, the investment objectives, risks and costs, read the Program Disclosure Statement available online here.

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Education

Governor announces Secretary Jeana Ross to retire

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday announced that Jeana Ross is retiring as secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education. She has served in this position since 2012.

“I am extremely grateful for Secretary Ross’ tireless efforts and dedication to our children,” Ivey said. “On behalf of our state, she deserves a ‘job well done’ for her work in expanding voluntary, high-quality pre-K to all 67 counties. She is leaving the Department of Early Childhood Education with a great legacy, and we thank her for her service.”

Under Ross’s leadership, the department has received national recognition for their work. For the 14th consecutive year, Alabama leads the nation in providing the highest quality early learning experiences for four-year-old children.

Ross and her team have grown the nation’s highest quality pre-K program by more than 470 percent: from 217 classrooms in 2012 to 1,250 classrooms located in all 67 counties of the state in 2020.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as Alabama’s secretary of Early Childhood Education for the past eight years,” Ross said. “I appreciate Governor Ivey’s leadership and commitment to our efforts in ensuring as many children possible have access to a strong education foundation. For 14 years, Alabama’s program has ranked No.1 and serves as a model of excellence in early learning, and I am grateful to be a part of this achievement.”

In retirement, Ross will remain in Alabama and plans to consult for the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation as part of their efforts to promote the importance of early learning throughout the United States.

Ivey is appointing Dr. Trellis Smith to serve as acting secretary until Ross’ replacement is named. Smith has been employed with ADECE for 19 years, currently serving as the Alabama Head Start collaboration director.

She holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Family and Child Development from Auburn University and a doctorate in Child and Family Development from the University of Georgia.

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Her appointment is effective June 1, 2020.

 

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Education

ASU’s Ross: Coronavirus has exposed longstanding inequities in college funding

Josh Moon

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Traditionally underfunded and serving an economically challenged student population, America’s historically black colleges are particularly vulnerable to the challenges of COVID-19 and many are facing bankruptcy, Alabama State University President Quinton Ross told CNN on Monday evening. 

Ross was interviewed by CNN as part of the network’s coverage of how coronavirus shutdowns of college campuses are disproportionately affecting HBCUs. 

“It exposed a number of inequities that were already present prior to this virus,” Ross said during the piece. 

HBCUs typically lack large endowments and hefty budgets, making it harder for them to adjust to shifting courses online. Also, serving a more economically disadvantaged student body often means that the students don’t have the necessary Internet or computers at their homes to participate in online courses. 

Ross said that some HBCUs needed more substantial technological infrastructure to transition to online and other alternative learning methods to ensure the continuity of education for entire student bodies; many of whom were returning to homes without connectivity or computers.

“We had to rush to try to provide and undergird ourselves with technology, and many of the infrastructures were not prepared,” he said.

Ross has said that federal emphasis on access to technology is not just an HBCU issue, “it is a nationwide issue that must be addressed.”

The underlying inequities Ross mentioned stem, in part, from states, such as Alabama, implementing racist funding practices, leaving HBCUs funded at significantly lower levels than white colleges. That made it impossible for HBCUs to keep pace on matters such as technology infrastructure.  

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Former ASU vice president John Knight, a longtime former state representative, in the 1980s filed a lawsuit on behalf of ASU and other black colleges in the state, challenging the funding policies of the state. The state lost and was forced to pay millions of dollars to at least partially rectify decades of improper funding that denied thousands of black Alabamians a college education.

 

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Education

Jones calls for more federal aid to students, schools and teachers amid COVID-19 crisis

Eddie Burkhalter

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U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, on Thursday asked Senate leadership to include money for public schools and students in the next round of COVID-19 relief funding. 

Jones and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, led a group of other senators in drafting a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that urges aid to be directed to education during the coronavirus crisis. 

“We continue to see the challenges our states and school districts face on a daily basis and the impact this pandemic will have on education budgets over the next 18 months. Less than 1% of the CARES Act funding was specifically dedicated to supporting public schools,” the letter reads. “This is insufficient to stabilize education through this crisis. We are particularly concerned about how the educator workforce and other school personnel will be impacted by COVID-19.”

“It is not just teachers who will be impacted by these shrinking education budgets. Countless cafeteria workers, school bus drivers, counselors, and other support staff are expected to take a dramatic hit during this pandemic. Our students cannot meet their full potential without the many professionals that make their schools work for them day in and day out,” the letter continues. 

Approximately $13.2 billion through the CARES act Education Stabilization Fund has already been disbursed to governors for distribution to K-12 schools. 

Education organizations recommend $175 billion more for the Education Stabilization Fund to be divided between local education agencies and institutions of higher education, according to a press release from Jones’s office. 

 Full letter below: 

 Dear Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Schumer:

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 We write to urge you to include, in any upcoming legislation designed to provide additional relief to Americans during the COVID 19 pandemic, significant additional support for our nation’s schools. While the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act included an Education Stabilization Fund to provide immediate support, we continue to see the challenges our states and school districts face on a daily basis and the impact this pandemic will have on education budgets over the next 18 months. Less than 1% of the CARES Act funding was specifically dedicated to supporting public schools. This is insufficient to stabilize education through this crisis. We are particularly concerned about how the educator workforce and other school personnel will be impacted by COVID-19.

 School districts rely almost entirely on state and local revenue. Low-wealth districts rely the most heavily on state aid and will be most impacted by the economic implications of this crisis. It is our duty to ensure that children receive the education they are rightfully entitled to. Students cannot learn if their schools are forced to downsize operations, eliminate teaching positions in critical subjects, or lay off other critical support staff such as social workers and counselors, due to depleted budgets.

 The U.S. economy is expected to contract by six percent in 2021,[1] changing the lives of all Americans in dramatic ways that are not yet fully known. One thing is certain however, students will still need to continue learning and progressing through school. Our nation’s teachers are crucial to ensuring that learning can continue, yet current projections expect the reductions in education spending due to the pandemic to be two and a half times worse than the lowest point of the last recession. [2] It is not just teachers who will be impacted by these shrinking education budgets. Countless cafeteria workers, school bus drivers, counselors, and other support staff are expected to take a dramatic hit during this pandemic. Our students cannot meet their full potential without the many professionals that make their schools work for them day in and day out.

 As local communities and school districts see their revenue shrink, they will be forced to look at staffing cuts, as salaries and benefits comprise the majority of school budgets. As a result of this crisis, Learning Policy Institute estimates that if states experience a 20% decline in revenue, without federal intervention, about 460,000 educator positions will be eliminated. [3] Congress must invest now to stabilize the public education sector and fill the current gaps in our education workforce and prevent an even more dire shortage in the years to come.  

 In addition to focusing on our educator workforce in any upcoming economic relief package, we urge you to continue to help schools to address learning loss facing our most disadvantaged students and ensure that all students with disabilities can continue to access the Free Appropriate Public Education to which they are entitled. We therefore urge you to provide substantial, flexible additional investments through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Finally, if the next funding package includes infrastructure provisions, we urge you to explicitly include K-12 schools as eligible recipients for funds.

 Thank you for your consideration of this important matter.

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