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‘Craziness’: How Montgomery’s first charter school has devolved into chaos in less than six weeks

Josh Moon

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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. 

Indeed. 

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. 

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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

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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.

 

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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Governor announces $100 million internet voucher program for students

The governor has allocated for the program $100 million of the state’s $435 million in federal CARES act funds to help the state safeguard schools amid the growing spread of COVID-19. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Friday announced a program to increase internet access for K-12 students for distance learning as the start of the new school year approaches. 

The project, called Alabama Broadband Connectivity (ABC) for Students, will provide vouchers for families of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunches “or other income criteria,” according to a press release from Ivey’s office. The vouchers will pay for equipment and services for high-speed internet from the fall through Dec. 31. 

Ivey has allocated for the program $100 million of the state’s $435 million in federal CARES act funds to help the state safeguard schools amid the growing spread of COVID-19. 

The funds will be used to expand internet access by providing “equipment and service for broadband, wireless hot spots, satellite, fixed wireless, DSL, and cellular-on-wheels,” according to Ivey’s office. 

“Despite the upheavals in our lives during the past few months and at least into the near future, children must be able to continue their classroom instruction,” Ivey said in a statement. “This funding will expand internet access to allow more students to access distance learning while creating smaller classes in schools that provide those options and will also ensure their safety during the pandemic. While I respect those districts that have elected to use remote learning, I fear that a slide will come by keeping our kids at home. These funds will bridge the gap until all students can get back into the classroom as soon as possible.”

Families with children who receive free or reduced school lunch are to receive a mailed letter in August, and a website to assist Alabamians with questions as the program nears its launch can be found here.

“Once again, we are appreciative of the leadership and resources provided by Governor Ivey during this unprecedented time in our country’s history. More than ever before, the immediate need for broadband infrastructure, devices, and connectivity are an integral part of providing Alabama students with a quality education,” said Eric Mackey, Alabama superintendent of education, in a statement. “A huge part of evening the playing field to provide greater equity in educational services will come from closing the digital divide between varying Alabama communities. We still have a lot of work to do, but because of the resources provided by Gov. Ivey, we can head into what we know will be a challenging school year with greater optimism.”  

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The funds are to be administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, which has partnered with Maryland-based CTC Technology & Energy for the project. 

“We have learned in the past several months that internet connectivity is a necessity for everything from education to healthcare and working remotely. I am pleased that Alabama is going to enter into this private-public partnership to make internet access available to those low-income households who cannot currently afford it. Economic status should not be a determining factor in receiving quality education, and it should not bar anyone from the ability to access vital online services,” said Sen. Del Marsh, president pro tem of the State Senate, in a statement. “Although this is only a temporary solution, I am confident that it will be a bridge to a time when fiber is put in the ground and access to the internet and devices will become standard across Alabama.”

According to Ivey’s office, the plan was drafted with the input from the Broadband Working Group, a group Ivey announced the creation of on June 25, which is composed of legislators and industry experts who are to provide to guidance on the state’s spending of $1.9 billion in CARES Act funds. 

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“I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of Governor Ivey’s working group to utilize federal funds in the CARES Act to provide broadband access to all Alabama students regardless of income. I think Governor Ivey has a good plan,” said Rep. Randall Shedd, a member of the working group and a leader of the Rural Caucus. 

Mackey said last week that approximately half of the state’s K-12 students will begin school by learning virtually for a period of time. A lack of internet connectivity in many homes is a major concern for school administrators who face the challenge of providing education to students when new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to increase in Alabama. 

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Jones urges USDA to extend waiver program for school meals amid COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Unless the U.S. Department of Agriculture extends a waiver program, set to expire at the start of school, thousands of Alabama’s schoolchildren without transportation to school and who are learning remotely could miss out on school meals.  

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, and dozens of other senators on Wednesday urged the USDA to extend vouchers that provide critical meals to children during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools around the country to close their buildings and shift instruction to online and distance-learning models,” the senators wrote in a letter to USDA. “For many children, school breakfast and lunch may be the only healthy and regular meals they receive.”

The economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has cost millions of parents their jobs, the senators wrote, and millions more students will be dependent on school-provided meals. 

“School meal program directors must begin procuring food, equipment, and supplies and placing orders now in preparation for the upcoming school year,” the letter continues. 

The waivers have allowed students to receive free meals when learning remotely, and the meals could be delivered to areas when transportation wasn’t available for students. 

State Superintendent Eric Mackey during a press briefing hosted by Jones on July 24 said “we do not anticipate that waiver being extended by the United States Department of Agriculture.” 

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Mackey said those waivers allowed for the delivery of meals to students who couldn’t come to school to pick the food up, and it allowed for the serving of bulk items, such as milk by the gallon. That all goes away if the USDA does not extend the waivers, he said. 

“Essentially, they will have to come to school to get the meals,” Mackey said. 

Mackey said last week that about half of the state’s K-12 students will be learning remotely for a period of time once school begins.

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The senators are urging the USDA to extend those waivers to help ensure low-income students can get school-provided meals throughout the upcoming school year. The senators also called on the USDA to reimburse schools for the transportation costs for delivering meals to low-income students.  

“While many school meal programs are managing these costs for the time-being, they cannot continue absorbing them for the foreseeable future. We ask that the USDA make additional funds available to schools to assist with the cost of delivering meals to low-income students until regular school operations are restored,” the letter continues. 

Senators in the letter asked the USDA to extend the following waivers: 

  • Unexpected School Closures Waiver 
  • Afterschool Activity Waiver
  • Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program Parent Pick-Up Waiver
  • Waiver of Child Nutrition Monitoring
  • Waiver of Food Management Company Contract Duration Requirements
  • Waiver of Local School Wellness Assessments
  • Area Eligibility Waiver
  • Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO) Waivers

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Jones: Not enough funding in GOP COVID-19 relief package for schools

Eddie Burkhalter

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Sen. Doug Jones speaks during a live-streamed press conference. (SEN. DOUG JONES/FACEBOOK)

Alabama Sen. Doug Jones is worried that what’s in Senate Republicans’ plan for a fifth round of coronavirus relief bills won’t provide enough to keep students, teachers, staff and families safe once schools begin reopening soon, while COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise. 

Jones said during a press briefing Thursday that proposed bills coming from Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell’s office also doesn’t include enough funds for COVID-19 testing, for local and state governments hard-hit by the economic impact of coronavirus and includes a cut to unemployment benefits when millions need it most. 

Jones said he’s hearing from teachers all across Alabama who are worried but said it doesn’t appear lawmakers in Washington D.C. are nearing a deal to send much-needed federal aid and resources to schools.

“They do not feel like they have a plan in place that will keep both themselves and their children that they teach healthy,” Jones said. 

Alabama added another 1,923 new COVID-19 cases and 27 deaths on Thursday. Of the 83,495 confirmed coronavirus cases in Alabama, more than half, or 45,053, have been reported in July. More than a third of Alabama’s 1,516 coronavirus deaths have come in July as well. The state hit a record-high 1,605 coronavirus hospitalizations on Wednesday.

Jones said he filed a bill with Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., in early June that would provide grants to schools and universities to cover the cost of keep staff and students safe amid the pandemic, including the estimated $1.8 million Alabama schools would need to open safely, but that “Unfortunately that bill, like so many others, is sitting somewhere in Senator McConnell’s desk, and has not been brought to the floor.” 

Jones said the proposals coming from McConnell this week don’t include enough funding for schools, and ties too much of that money to physically opening schools for in-person classes. 

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“I don’t think it gives our state and our local governments and boards of education, enough flexibility,” Jones said. 

The Republicans’ approximately $1 trillion relief package includes $105 billion for schools, with $70 billion earmarked for K-12 schools, according to The Washington Post. Of that $70 billion, two-thirds is set aside for schools to reopen for in-person classes, The Post reported. 

President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy Devos have called for schools to reopen fully despite surging cases in many states, including Alabama, and both have threatened to withhold federal funding from schools that do not. Presidents don’t have the ability to withhold funds from public schools. Doing so would take approval from Congress. 

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“We are deeply concerned that the bill would seek to tie much-needed assistance to a federal definition of school building reopening,” said Council of Chief State School Officers executive director Carissa Moffat Miller in a statement on the Republican proposal. “It is important to know that nearly all schools will reopen in some way this fall, whether in person, remotely or a combination of both. Additional federal resources are critical to serve students in every learning environment, from necessary PPE and health and safety protocols for safe in-person instruction to broadband and connectivity in the home for successful remote learning.” 

Jones said he’s concerned that lawmakers are “not anywhere close” to finalizing a deal to provide critical federal aid to schools. 

“We didn’t even see that until this week,” Jones said of McConnell’s proposals. “And we got schools in Alabama that are set to open next week. Some have been delayed until August 20. Some have been delayed until Labor Day, but the fact is, to have this right here in front of us this late in this game, after we’ve been begging to try to get this stuff on the floor of the Senate for a long time, is unconscionable.”  

State School Superintendent Eric Mackey said last week that about half of Alabama’s public school children will be learning virtually for a period of time once school starts back, but acknowledged that it’s possible schools will have intermittent closures “of particular parts of the school” if outbreaks occur. 

“We don’t have a number,” Mackey said of a percentage of COVID-19 infections that would prompt a school to close, but he said there will come a point when it becomes “untenable to continue.”

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Education

Opinion | Parents are being asked to gamble their family’s safety over reopening schools. Don’t.

The only reason we’re in this boat is because weak politicians, bowing to the ignorance of selfish people over the expertise and knowledge of doctors and scientists, refused to take hard, necessary steps for the proper lengths of time.

Josh Moon

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Alabama parents, do what you think is best. Do not apologize for it. Over the last several weeks, there has been an ongoing pressure campaign around the country, and particularly in Alabama, to get kids back into school buildings. The president has pushed it. Republicans in Congress have pushed it. Even local politicians are pushing it. 

On Wednesday, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey told parents that missing school would potentially put Alabama school kids further behind. She encouraged them to get their kids back in school as soon as possible, because “it’s really important.” 

Um, yeah. Do you think there are parents out there who don’t know that? 

Furthermore, do people think there are parents who are gleeful about keeping their kids home from school? Who are keeping them out simply to be arbitrarily defiant? Who are being flippant about this decision in any way? 

If you do, allow me to set you straight: We’re not. 

Keeping children out of school, or even out of daycare in my case, is an incredibly hard decision and an even harder life adjustment. Because it disrupts EVERYTHING. 

My wife and I are extremely fortunate to work for companies that are understanding and willing to work around our childcare situations. And even so, it has been a major adjustment. 

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We try to alternate and coordinate the best we can. We’ve hired people to help at times. And we’ve made the call to grandparents for assistance. 

And still, there are days when we cannot get things done, when we’re both frazzled and frustrated. 

We’re not doing any of that because it’s fun. Or because we’re giving Trump the middle finger. 

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We’re doing it because there is no good, safe — or even just saf-ER — option. 

And I’m not necessarily talking about the danger for only our daughter, because she’s healthy and strong and would likely be just fine even if she happened to contract COVID-19.

But when could I safely let our child see her grandparents again? Her aunts and uncles and extended family members? What about the family members and friends who have underlying conditions? 

And then there are larger questions. Like, are we helping to extend a pandemic by participating in what will inevitably lead to more virus spread? 

Because that’s going to happen. There’s no way around it. If you put millions of children and adults in enclosed buildings all over the country, you’re going to spread this virus. Just like those schools spread the flu, colds and everything else. 

Kids are going to take that virus home, just like they take home all those Fall colds and flu. And they’re going to infect others. 

And the spread will come at the height of flu season, and at a time when ICU beds are already full. 

That seems like a recipe for death and disaster. 

And it shouldn’t be on parents. This decision shouldn’t be laid at our feet. In fact, there shouldn’t even be a decision for us to make. 

The only reason we’re in this boat is because weak politicians, bowing to the ignorance of selfish people over the expertise and knowledge of doctors and scientists, refused to take hard, necessary steps for the proper lengths of time, and then compounded the problems by refusing to offer the necessary financial support to overcome those mistakes. 

We could have implemented mask orders earlier, kept bars and nightclubs closed, restricted large gatherings more stringently and been serious about fines for dangerous behaviors — all the things that have worked so well in other countries. 

At the same time, instead of forking over billions to companies that don’t need the money, we could have instead paid for a system that protected working parents’ jobs and their salaries. 

But we didn’t. It was more important to “reopen” the economy for the big Memorial Day boom and to make sure the corporate pals got fatter. 

And so now, here they are, asking parents to place the safety and health of their children, and, really, their entire families, on the line because they need to pretend that there’s some normalcy out there. 

Don’t listen to them. 

Get good, reliable facts from good, reliable sources. Do your research. Talk to your kids’ teachers and principals and superintendent. Weigh the options and the risks for yourself. And then you do what’s right for your family. 

And don’t apologize for it.

 

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