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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. 

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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.”

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.” 

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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.

 

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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Wide variance in educational attainment between counties

The top ten counties in Alabama for educational attainment are Madison, Shelby, Lee, Jefferson, Baldwin, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Autauga, Coffee and Elmore.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A recent analysis by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama shows a wide variance in educational attainment between Alabamians residing in different counties.

According to the PARCA research, across the state, 10 percent of Alabamians over the age of 25 have earned a master’s or higher-level degree. Sixteen percent of the adult population has just a bachelor’s degree. Just 9 percent of adult Alabamians have an associate’s degree.

Nearly 22 percent of Alabamians have attended college but did not earn a degree, and 31 percent of Alabamians have earned their high school diploma or GED but did not receive any education beyond that.

Ten percent of adult Alabamians have finished the ninth grade or higher but have not gotten a diploma or GED. Just 4 percent of Alabamians 25 or older dropped out of school without at least finishing the ninth grade.

At least 35 percent of Alabamians have at least an associate’s degree. By comparison, 20 percent of the adult population in Massachusetts has a master’s degree or above and 24 percent have at least bachelor’s degree. Factoring in the 8 percent with associate’s degrees, 52 percent of Massachusetts adults have some sort of degree versus just 35 percent of Alabamians.

Alabama is 44th in educational attainment. West Virginia is 51st with 30 percent — 22 percent with a 4 year degree or above. Georgia, largely due to the success of the HOPE scholarships, has 40 percent of the population with a degree two year or above. Mississippi is at 33 percent. The national average is 39.9 percent.

The PARCA study also breaks it down into county-by-county differences. The top ten counties in Alabama for educational attainment are Madison, Shelby, Lee, Jefferson, Baldwin, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Autauga, Coffee and Elmore.

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In Madison County, 8.1 percent of adults have an associate’s degree, 25.7 percent have earned at least a bachelor’s degree and 16 percent have a master’s or higher degree. More than 20 percent have some college but no degree, 20.8 have a high school diploma with no education above that, 5.9 percent finished the ninth grade and 2.9 percent dropped out in the ninth grade or earlier.

Nearly 50 percent of adults in Madison County older than age 25 have earned at least a two-year degree. Madison County is followed by Shelby County with 49.5 percent, Lee with 43.1 percent, Jefferson with 40.7 percent and Baldwin at 40.7 percent. These are the only five counties that are above the national average.

The bottom 10 counties for educational attainment are Wilcox, Bibb, Greene, Coosa, Cleburne, Bullock, Lawrence, Conecuh, Barbour and Washington. Wilcox is in 67th place for educational attainment and is also regularly one of the state leaders in its unemployment rate. Just 3.6 percent of adults in Wilcox County have a master’s degree or above, just 8.9 percent have completed their four-year degree and only 4.8 percent have even an associate’s degree. Just 17.3 percent of the adult population in Wilcox County has any sort of degree. That is 22.6 percentage points below the national average. Nearly 20 percent of adults in Wilcox County have attended college but did not finish, and 40.3 percent has a high school diploma or the equivalent but no college. More than 16.5 percent finished the ninth grade but did not get a diploma or GED. Nearly 10 percent did not finish the ninth grade.

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Educational attainment is a concern because the fastest growing professions generally require more education than simply a high school diploma. Gov. Kay Ivey is trying to increase the percent of the workforce with at least a two-year associate’s degree or the technical training equivalent of a two-year associate’s degree.

Many high-paying technology jobs require a two year or even a four-year degree or above. It is difficult for the state to recruit those sorts of employers to counties where the workforce is not competent to fill the positions. Those sorts of employers often have to recruit employees from far outside the county or even the state.

Even manufacturing jobs are increasingly high tech as new factories use more robotics and automation than the factories of the past. Today’s high-paying jobs require more knowledge, skill and technical competence than the factory jobs of the past.

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Education

Higher Ed Commission elects Dothan businessman, Huntsville CEO as chair and vice chair

Micah Danney

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Charles Buntin was elected chairman and Miranda Bouldin Frost was elected vice chair of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, the commission announced on Friday.

Both have been members of the commission since 2015.

“As the coordinating board for public higher education in Alabama, I pledge to continue to work with our institutions throughout this pandemic to maintain the highest level of excellence for Alabama’s students,” Buntin said. “Earlier this year, our colleges and universities proved their resilience to a changing work environment by successfully transitioning to online learning.”

Buntin is a shareholder and realtor with Tom West Company in Dothan. He graduated from Leadership Alabama in 2013, is a current member of the Houston County-Dothan Rotary Club and is a former chairman of the Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce.

Bouldin Frost is president and CEO of LogiCore Corp. in Huntsville, a company that provides Systems Engineering and Technical Assistance (SETA) services to U.S. Department of Defense agencies.

She is a member of the Greater Huntsville Rotary Club and a board member of the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce.

The commission faces steep challenges. State funding had been increasing to help institutions recover from the 2008 recession before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now institutional enrollments, budgets, auxiliary revenue and the health of employees and students are simultaneously at risk.

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“The dedication to student success shown by Chairman Buntin and Vice Chair Bouldin Frost will guide their decision making as the higher education community navigates the current COVID crisis and its impact on Alabama’s universities and community colleges,” said Jim Purcell, executive director of the ACHE.

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Alabaster City Schools gets federal grant to bolster security

Eddie Burkhalter

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U.S. Attorney Prim Escalona on Friday announced that the U.S. Department of Justice has awarded a $374,883 grant to Alabaster City Schools’ Board of Education to bolster school security. 

The grant is administered through the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) School Violence Prevention Program (SVPP), which has awarded almost $50 million in grants nationwide. 

“I am pleased to announce that the COPS Office has awarded this grant to the Alabaster City Schools’ Board of Education this year,” Escalona said in a statement. “The safety of our students is a top priority and this grant will enhance school safety for these students. While there have been some unique challenges to this school year, our commitment to ensuring students are safe when attending school is the same.” 

 “With the new school year underway, the safety of our nation’s students remains paramount,” said COPS Office Director Phil Keith in a statement.  “Although this school year may look different at the start, now is the ideal time to make preparations to enhance school safety for when all of our children are back in the classroom.”   

Alabaster City Schools will be able to coordinate with law enforcement, train local law enforcement officers to prevent student violence, buy metal detectors, locks, lighting, and other deterrent measures, buy technology to notify local law enforcement during an emergency and other measures that provide a significant improvement in security, according to a press release from the Department of Justice.

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Gov. Kay Ivey awards $72 million for remote learning tech in state colleges

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday awarded $72.34 million in federal coronavirus aid to the state’s higher education institutions for remote learning technology. 

“Since July, the state of Alabama has awarded $432,753,000 to various levels of education to ensure that we have a safe and smart continuation of educational instruction,” Ivey said in a statement. “COVID-19 has exposed deficiencies in our remote learning capabilities, and I am pleased to award our institutions of higher education the critical funds to enhance their instructional experience.”

“My office has received numerous CARES Act funding requests, and we are eager to help as many folks as possible. We are still reviewing them to ensure they meet eligibility under the letter of the law and will be forthcoming when finalized,” Ivey continued. 

 The Alabama Community College System will receive $27,345,000.

  • From the $300,000,000 for expenditures related to technology and infrastructure related to remote instruction and learning
  • To support the purchase of technology hardware and software to facilitate distance education and remote learning at the state’s community colleges
  • $8 million for a laptop loaner program to assist low-income and other students within special populations with remote learning
  • $10 million for a statewide virtual desktop environment that will allow students to utilize institution owned software anywhere and at any time
  • $2,920,000 for video conferencing equipment in a classroom at each community college
  • $6,425,000 for Zoom rooms, next generation firewalls and online course assistance

“Alabama’s community colleges have adapted quickly to a new learning environment at each of our 24 colleges, but we are constantly looking for new, innovative, and engaging ways to improve the student experience,” ACCS Chancellor Jimmy H. Baker said in a statement. “We are grateful for the additional resources this funding will provide to enhance learning for Alabamians for years to come.”

Alabama Public 4-Year Institutions will receive $25,000,000.

  • From the $300,000,000 for expenditures related to technology and infrastructure related to remote instruction and learning
  • To establish a reimbursement for universities for costs they are incurring related to remote instruction and learning
  • Maximum allocations per institution have been established
  • This is in addition to the $50 million the Governor allocated on July 6, 2020, to assist the universities with COVID-related expenses

“While the Higher Education Partnership is energized by the return to campus of our students this fall, the year has certainly been filled with COVID-19 related challenges for Alabama’s 14 public universities,” Alabama Higher Education Partnership executive director Gordon Stone said in a statement. “Throughout the year, Governor Kay Ivey and her team have worked with the institutions to make sure that Alabama’s next generation of leaders have been served with a continuous learning experience. Thank you, Governor Ivey, for once again recognizing the importance of our students, faculty and staff with the latest round of CARES Act support.”

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Alabama Independent Colleges will receive $20,000,000.

  • From the $118,346,250 for any lawful purpose as provided by the United States Congress, the United States Treasury Department, or any other federal entity of competent jurisdiction
  • To establish a reimbursement program to assist Independent Colleges with expenditures that they are incurring related to the coronavirus
  • Maximum allocations per institution have been established

“On behalf of the 25,000 students at Alabama’s Independent Colleges, we want to express our sincere gratitude to the governor,” Alabama Association of Independent Colleges and Universities president Paul Hankins said in a statement. “The additional support is greatly appreciated in this unprecedented time of financial need. These funds will go a long way to ensure our schools can remain open. Our colleges have done everything necessary to keep their students safe and on campus.”

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