LEAD Academy, Montgomery’s first charter school, has been a chaotic mess since it opened less than six weeks ago, with staffing shortages leaving more than 70 students crammed into one class, angry teachers left without necessary supplies, student shortages threatening the school, extensive discipline issues and an ongoing fight between staff and the LEAD board over a strange contract that faculty members are being forced to sign several weeks after school has started, according to numerous LEAD teachers and employees who spoke with APR.
Most of the issues have remained internal, with few details leaking outside of LEAD’s walls … until Friday, when the school’s first principal, Nicole Ivey, resigned unexpectedly. Almost immediately, rumors began to swirl and worried faculty members started to discuss the multitude of issues at LEAD.
Two staff members who worked closely with Ivey said she ultimately resigned after a heated argument with LEAD board president Charlotte Meadows, who was pushing Ivey to require the staff to sign an at-will work contract which would allow the board to fire or reduce the pay of any LEAD employee without cause. But those staff members, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear that they could be fired by Meadows, said Ivey’s resignation was likely inevitable due to a litany of mismanagement issues and odd decisions by leadership at the school.
A list of more than a dozen detailed questions about the specific concerns raised by LEAD employees was sent to Meadows early Monday afternoon. Shortly after 6 p.m., she responded to the questions by saying that her email had been hacked and she had just gained access. However, she didn’t have time to answer the questions because a PTA meeting was underway and she needed to “pay attention to our parents.”
“I expect that you will not print anything that you do not have credible proof that it occurred,” Meadows wrote.
For several weeks now, LEAD Academy staff members and their family members have been sending APR information about problems at the school. Prior to Friday, those issues ranged from the mundane to something just short of serious. But following Ivey’s resignation, a flood of information, including details of troubling safety issues and possible fraud allegations, came pouring in from LEAD staffers.
The allegations reported in this story have been verified by at least two staff members, independent of each other, and in most cases at least four LEAD employees have corroborated the information. The staffers refused to be identified in the story out of fear that they could lose their jobs, and to explain their fear, several pointed to the fact that Meadows and the LEAD board members were already attempting to implement a “fire-at-will workplace.”
“This is the craziest place I’ve ever worked,” said one employee who has experience working in other school districts in Alabama. “There are no rules. They don’t follow the law. And when you ask Charlotte about it, or say that we can’t do something because it’s illegal, she’ll just tell you that ‘LEAD is a charter school and charter schools don’t follow laws.’”
A Shortage of Resources
Lawless is a good way to describe the day-to-day operation of LEAD, according to the teachers.
One of the prime examples that several teachers pointed out is a morning physical education class at the K-5 school, where more than 70 students are in one class and monitored by one teacher. That class is always outdoors, because there is only one room within the LEAD school building large enough to hold that many students — the lunchroom, where lunch is being served to other students.
The class being outdoors has increased anxiety among the staff who worry that a child could easily wander off — a point they say was repeatedly made to Meadows and others. Additionally, there is little shade, and the recent run of 95-plus-degrees days have made the classes even more dangerous.
When teachers inquired about hiring an additional teacher to handle some of the students in the PE class, they said Meadows told them that the school lacked the resources. Instead, an aide was assigned to help out “when she could,” which was fewer than two days per week.
A lack of resources also has hindered teachers in receiving proper supplies, three teachers told APR. The teachers said getting access to basic supplies is “a daily fight” and that it has sparked anger among the faculty, particularly due to the amount of money being spent on management fees that are being paid to Soner Tarim.
Tarim, a controversial figure with ties to the Gulen Movement, operates Unity School Services, which is listed as the management company for LEAD. Under its contract, USS should provide daily management services, apply for federal grants and generally serve the same functions as a public school district’s central office.
Only, that’s not the case, according to two employees with direct knowledge. Instead, Meadows, the board president, serves a more daily role — going so far as to direct staff to refer to her as a superintendent — and Tarim, who is receiving more than $30,000 per month, is rarely seen at the school, they said. Most of his duties, the sources said, have been shuffled off to others at the school.
“If he’s there at all during the week, it’s maybe three days, max,” said one employee. “But there have been a few weeks since we started that he hasn’t shown up once.”
A Lack of Discipline
The staff isn’t exactly complaining about Tarim’s absence, though. Both he and Meadows have fallen out of favor with most of the staff over recent decisions regarding discipline issues at the school. One decision in particular — not to punish a student who punched a teacher — angered the staff and led to a number of complaints.
In that instance, the teacher and an assistant principal at LEAD had determined that the student, who also cursed the teacher, deserved to be suspended. Meadows and Tarim intervened and sent the student back to class. Their reasoning: “(Meadows) said it would be bad PR for the school,” a staff member said.
Teachers said the student in question was returned to the same classroom and is still in the teacher’s class.
While Tarim is rarely at LEAD, the staff say they can’t get rid of Meadows and board member Lori White. Meadows has gone so far as to set up an office for herself at the school, and White is serving as the school nurse — which staff told White and Meadows was illegal under Alabama law.
Additionally, staff members said Meadows and White repeatedly overstepped their responsibilities as board members and became involved in the day-to-day operations of the school. Meadows often entered classrooms unannounced and has, on multiple occasions, sat in on faculty-parent meetings without prior warning.
White often communicates with faculty members about curriculum and daily activities. Recently, she used the faculty email list at the school to send a letter encouraging all LEAD employees to vote against Steven Reed in the upcoming Montgomery mayoral election, because of his ties to the Alabama Education Association. APR was forwarded a copy of the email.
“I understand why (Ivey) resigned — because she was never left alone and was constantly dealing with BS from board members who shouldn’t be in the school,” said a teacher who said she witnessed Meadows enter a classroom unannounced.
The Last Straw
The final straw for Ivey was the demand from Meadows and Tarim that she sign, and then force her staff to sign, a contract stating that they were working as at-will employees and could be terminated at any time without cause. The form, a copy of which was provided to APR, also stated that employees could have their pay reduced or docked without cause, and that salaried employees could be forced to work weekends, nights and overtime without additional compensation.
The demand to sign the contract came well after the start of the 2019-20 school year, when teachers would have no options for seeking other employment for the year. Teachers said they told Ivey that they felt entrapped by the circumstances and that it was unfair. She agreed.
“(Ivey) knew it wasn’t right and that’s why she was fighting them,” said one teacher.
That the situation at LEAD has devolved so spectacularly should not be a surprise. APR reported months ago that the school’s application was rejected by the national reviewers because its school plan failed to meet basic minimums in any of three main areas. In portions, the National Charter Authorizers’ review of LEAD’s application almost seemed mocking, as it noted serious problems in staffing, finance and curriculum planning. For months, the school lacked even a building, and even charter school supporters expressed concerns that the LEAD board lacked a single person who had experience running a school.
Still, the Alabama Charter Commission, facing serious political pressure, approved the application. That approval was the subject of a lawsuit, since a majority of the overall board didn’t approve — a requirement in the charter school law passed by the Alabama Legislature. The actual law didn’t matter much to the Alabama Supreme Court, however, and it overturned a lower court’s ruling and allowed LEAD to move forward with opening.
APR also was the first to report in Alabama of Tarim’s ties to the Gulen Movement and point out his charter schools’ ties to a religious organization that has been deemed a terrorist organization by Turkey. There were also troubling concerns of fraud and questionable hires at Tarim’s old company, Harmony Schools.
His management of LEAD — and of another charter school in Alabama — were questioned by a number of public education watchdogs around the state, who were concerned about the cost of his contracts with the schools, which pay Tarim a blanket 13 percent of all money — public and private — taken in by the schools.