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Department head claims no prior relationship with man who received nearly million dollar education contract

Bill Britt

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Three years ago, a former governor, a powerful association head, a lawmaker and a lobbyist organized a plan to take over Alabama’s education system according to those involved.

It failed, but the seeds of that scheme, as well as most of the players, are still in place and at least some of those same individuals and their associates are benefiting from the cronyism that is pervasive within Alabama state government.

During the waning days of the 2019 Legislative Session, the Department of Early Childhood Education awarded a $999,000.00, six-month contract to Telegraph Creative, a company led by Cliff Sims, the former face of Yellowhammer News and a staffer in the Trump administration.

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

(Sims’ sale of Yellowhammer, and his leaving the White House are subjects that remain clouded under various versions of who is telling the story.)

The six-month contract, which is worth just shy of one million dollars, was granted to Sims’ company by DECE secretary Jeanna Ross. The purpose of the deal was to “design a multimedia marketing strategy to provide parents the knowledge and understanding of excellence in education.”

Ross claims she has no prior relationship with Sims and that the contract was correctly handled. Gov. Kay Ivey’s office makes the same claims.

In 2016, the State Board of Education was in turmoil which led to Philip Cleveland’s appointment as interim superintendent of the Board.

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Bentley, Canary, Riley Plan to Control Education’s Future

In June of that year, Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, emailed members of the board encouraging them to keep Cleveland as interim superintendent “a few more months to work on efficiency and effectiveness of the department and the programs.”

She also urged the members to consider Ross as the permanent superintendent.

According to those involved in the situation at the time, Collin’s email was part of a larger plan to gain control of Alabama’s education system by then-president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama Billy Canary and former Gov. Bob Riley.

Sources who spoke to APR in 2016—on background because they were part of the selection process and did not want to speak publicly—said, “The goal is ultimately is to put both K-12 and post-secondary under the Department of Commerce, because they see education as workforce training,”  In fact, several education experts privately stated the same, while accusing Gov. Robert Bentley of being a “useful tool” for Canary and Riley.

Ross, in fact, did submit her name for the superintendent’s position, but she was never given real consideration because board members understood the plan that was cooked up by her benefactors.

Bentley had appointed Ross DECE secretary at the urging of then-Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard and lobbyists who formed Hubbard’s kitchen cabinet.

Ross’ son, John Ross, was at the time a partner at the lobbying firm Swatek, Howe and Ross. Each member of the lobbying group played an essential role in Hubbard’s rise and the Republican landslide election in 2010. Each man was also aligned with Canary and Riley.

While Collins was asking the Board of Education to consider Ross as superintendent, Canary and  Swatek were soliciting Bentley, according to education professionals with knowledge of the plan to appoint Jeanna Ross superintendent.

Swatek, Tim Howe, Ross and Canary exercised tremendous power while Hubbard was speaker. Sims, through Yellowhammer News, enjoyed insider access to the inner workings of the speaker’s office and often served as an arm of Hubbard’s regime.

During this period, it was unknown that Howe and Ross were the owners of Yellowhammer News, a revelation that was exposed by the Columbia Journalism Review earlier this year.

Allison Ross, John’s wife, who now says she is co-owner of Yellowhammer, told the Columbia Journalism Review they didn’t reveal the lobbyists’ involvement because, “Cliff would have no credibility to stand on,” Ross explained. “Everybody would have assumed he was slanted.”

The coup to control the Alabama Board of Education failed in 2016, but it continues today in other guises, according to those who work in the department.

Mrs. Ross claims she had no prior relationship with Sims before awarding his company nearly a million dollars for six months work. She also says it was all above board. But it is clear that her son and Mrs. Ross’ associates had an extremely close relationship with Sims.

In a state where parents and teachers must pay for children’s toilet paper, printer cartridges and a host of other products not funded by the state’s education budget, a million dollars to tell parents that education is a good idea might appear excessive.

A plan to control education in the state in 2016 is an example of the cronyism that permeates state government. Granting lavish contracts to friend of the family is also questionable. The governor pledged to clean up corruption in Montgomery. Some in the highest ranks of Republican leadership are now suggesting the governor should look at her own cabinet.

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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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