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Analysis | New lawsuit exposes troubling issues, possible criminal acts at LEAD Academy

Josh Moon

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The administration at LEAD Academy tried to prevent students with learning disabilities from enrolling. LEAD board president Charlotte Meadows and another board member controlled a private bank account. Meadows used the school to run her campaign for the Alabama House and directed school funds to her campaign manager and her niece. Teachers and other employees at the school haven’t been paid money they were promised, and LEAD officials attempted to alter contracts several weeks, even months, after the employees began working. 

Those are just some of the allegations made in a fraud and breach of contract lawsuit filed on Thursday by former LEAD principal Nicole Ivey. 

Those allegations were largely confirmed by current and former LEAD teachers, who spoke to APR in recent days, and who presented even more issues that they’ve encountered at Montgomery’s first charter school. 

I wrote about many of Ivey’s allegations several weeks ago, following her departure from the school. But some of the most damning revelations in her lawsuit were simply unconfirmed rumors at the time. 

Now, however, they are laid bare in a court filing, and they are being discussed openly among the staff members of LEAD, including several who are no longer at the school (APR has learned that six teachers and one nurse have left the school since the school year began in August).

Ivey’s position was filled by Ibrahim Lee, and that hire possibly violates Alabama ethics laws. Lee was a member of the Alabama Charter School Commission, which has oversight of all charter schools, including LEAD. On several occasions, Lee voted on matters involving LEAD and played a role in the school being allowed to open. 

According to the applicable ethics laws, which are part of the state’s “revolving door” ban, that level of oversight should disqualify Lee from being hired by LEAD, or any other charter school in the state, for two years. The reason for such a ban is that it prevents elected or appointed officials, who are in a position of oversight, from providing favorable decisions or votes in the hopes of being offered a lucrative job by an entity or business that person is regulating.

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If he is allowed to hang around, Lee will inherit a mess, according to Ivey, who said she was constantly overruled in that job by Meadows and Soner Tarim, who operates the company, Unity School Services, which was hired to serve as a sort of central office for LEAD. Despite a clear provision in LEAD’s application to the commission which prohibits board members from being involved in the daily functions of the school, Ivey said Meadows was there every day, making decisions and usurping Ivey’s power.     

But while all of that was bad enough, the most startling allegations from Ivey — and supported by at least two other teachers — are that Meadows and other LEAD administrators have actively worked to deter students with special needs from enrolling at LEAD, and that they’ve also attempted to push special needs students out. 

Why? For money, of course. 

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Ivey claims in her lawsuit that eliminating as many special needs students as possible increases revenue for the school tremendously, because LEAD won’t have to spend dollars on hiring personnel required by federal laws to educate those students. So, Ivey says, Meadows and Tarim have attempted to deter or push out all special needs students. 

The school has done this, according to Ivey, by simply not attempting to follow federal laws and by not providing the special needs students with a proper education. 

“Tell them they can’t come here,” Meadows is alleged to have said about special needs students, according to Ivey’s lawsuit. That comment was made prior to enrollment opening and was, according to the lawsuit, made in front of several staff members. 

The awfulness doesn’t end there. 

Ivey also accuses Meadows and another board member, Lori White, of mishandling school funds, including a $200,000 donation from the Montgomery County Association of Realtors. Ivey said half of that money went into a “foundation account,” which is controlled exclusively by Meadows and White. 

Ivey said she didn’t know what happened to that half of the money, but that it had not been expended to aid students at LEAD. 

But Ivey does know where some other LEAD money went — into the pockets of people close to Meadows. 

Ivey said Meadows’ father, Charles Borden, was a constant presence at the school, and that school faculty were forced to attend a training session at his lake house. (A lake house where several Confederate flags were prominently displayed.) Ivey hinted that Borden could have been paid from the “foundation” account. 

Meadows also skirted state bid laws, according to Ivey’s lawsuit, by hiring her niece to provide professional development and website creation. If that wasn’t bad enough, Meadows also directed staff, according to Ivey’s lawsuit, to purchase all supplies through Imperial Dade company, whose sales rep for that area is Megan Rhea Lewis — Meadows’ campaign manager. 

It’s worth pointing out, again, that numerous people attempted to stop this debacle of a school from opening, including the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. The NACSA essentially flunked LEAD’s application in all three of the major areas of function that it reviews. In doing so, the NACSA noted LEAD’s lack of proper special education instructors and questioned oversight of the school’s financials. 

Ivey and the other teachers who spoke to APR have called the school and its management team a “nightmare.” In addition to the stated problems, they also talked about constant issues with paychecks. For example, multiple teachers said they received significantly less pay than originally promised. 

Teachers have not received promised compensation for training just prior to the school year, several teachers said. And promised benefits still haven’t shown up, two months into the school year. 

The results are what you’d expect: nearly one-third of LEAD’s faculty has resigned since the start of the school year and several students have disenrolled as well. One parent who wrote to APR said that when she finally had enough of the dysfunction and went to LEAD to remove her son, the front office workers admitted to her that they never received her child’s transcripts or birth certificate. 

“They hadn’t even verified that he was in the right grade or what his name was,” the parent wrote. “When we withdrew, not a single question was asked — not why, or can we have a discussion. Nothing. I signed a single piece of paper and we left. The one thought I had leaving there was: this place needs to be shut down.”

 

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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Alabama declines to release COVID-19 data associated with child care centers

APR has asked for that data and whether ADPH was aware of the number of cases associated with child care centers statewide.

Eddie Burkhalter

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It was unclear Tuesday the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 there have been among staff, children and relatives associated with child care facilities in Alabama, because the Alabama Department of Public Health declined to release that data.

“All cases of COVID-19 are required to be reported to the Alabama Department of Public Health under notifiable disease laws. ADPH is aware of cases in entities such as child care but does not report separately from other data,” said Dr. Karen Landers, assistant state health officer, in a message to APR on Tuesday.

APR has asked for that data and whether ADPH was aware of the number of cases associated with child care centers statewide.

Landers noted that ADPH does provide the percentage of cases among age ranges, however. There had been approximately 2,628 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Alabama children 4-years-old and younger as of Monday, according to ADPH’s dashboard, but the department doesn’t specify which of those cases are associated with child care centers, and it was unclear how many cases there have been among relatives or workers connected to child care centers.

While children 10-years-old and older can efficiently transmit COVID-19 to others, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a recent report note that “limited data are available on SARS-CoV-2 transmission from young children, particularly in child care settings.”

The Sept, 18 CDC report looked at three COVID-19 outbreaks in child care facilities in Salt Lake County, Utah, during April 1 through July 10, and found that the 12 children who contracted the disease spread it to at least 12 others outside the centers, and one parent was hospitalized with coronavirus.

In one facility, researchers confirmed five cases among workers and two among children. One of those children, aged 8 months, transmitted COVID-19 to both parents, the report notes. Many of the children had mild symptoms or none at all, researchers found.

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“COVID-19 is less severe in children than it is in adults, but children can still play a role in transmission,” the report reads. “The infected children exposed at these three facilities had mild to no symptoms. Two of three asymptomatic children likely transmitted SARS-CoV-2 to their parents and possibly to their teachers.”

While Alabama’s Department of Public Health isn’t releasing data on cases associated with child care centers, many other states are, including Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, California, Minnesota and Massachusetts.

There have been 332 confirmed cases, two deaths and 14 separate outbreaks associated with child care centers in North Carolina, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

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Health officials in California’s Sonoma County traced 30 cases of coronavirus to one child at a child-care center in the county, where 16 students, 11 relatives and three workers tested positive, according to The Los Angeles Times. In addition to that outbreak, there have been 62 other cases at 13 child-care facilities in the county, including 27 family members, 10 workers and 25 students, with 381 cases of children younger than 17 still under investigation, the newspaper reported on Sept. 21.

Reopening child care centers can be done safely, according to an Aug. 28 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which that found that in Rhode Island, which reopened child care centers on June 1, there were just 52 confirmed and probable cases among staff, children and relatives across 29 centers between June 1 and July 31.

The report noted that Rhode Island at first limited centers to 12 or fewer students, required staff and students to not move between groups in centers and “universal use of masks for adults, daily symptom screening of adults and children, and enhanced cleaning and disinfection according to CDC guidelines.”

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris on March 19 issued an order closing child care centers through April 5, with exceptions for facilities that provided services to first responders and other workers deemed essential. Harris on March 27 issued a supplemental order allowing centers that cared for 11 or fewer children to reopen.

The Alabama Department of Public Health on Monday published a press release touting the number of open child care centers across Alabama. According to the department, 76 percent of all child care facilities in Alabama are open.

“Alabama is well on our way to reopening the necessary number of child care facilities to enable parents to return to work and resume a more normal schedule,” said Alabama DHR commissioner Nancy Buckner, in a statement. “This is the sixth survey we have conducted and each one has shown tremendous growth in the numbers of open facilities. We have worked hard to encourage child care providers to open by providing support in the form of grants and supplies.”

Asked whether the department is aware of the number of COVID-19 cases among children, staff or relatives associated with child care centers, a DHR spokesperson responded in a message to APR on Monday that “We don’t track that.”

While child care plays a critical role for working parents across the country, the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns have put a strain on the businesses, according to a July 13 study by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which surveyed more than 5,000 child care facilities in every state.

Among the child care centers surveyed, two out of five said they would have to close without more public assistance, while half of the minority-owned centers said they have to close without more aid, according to the report. A quarter of child care workers said they’d applied for or received unemployment benefits, and 73 percent of centers said they have or will begin laying off workers and/or make pay cuts.

An Aug. 26 study by the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center found that 32 percent of parents polled said their child care centers were closed, 14 percent of them permanently, and 22 percent of the parents said they could not return to work in person without childcare.

Even when child care is available to parents, many are worried about sending their children back while COVID-19 continues to spread. Of those asked, 77 percent of parents said they were concerned that sending their kids back would increase the risk of exposing their family to COVID-19.

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Alabama’s First Class Pre-K a bright spot in state’s Black Belt, report finds

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama’s Black Belt communities continue to be hard-hit when it comes to unemployment and a declining population, but according to a report released Tuesday, the region’s Pre-K program is a bright spot. 

The University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center released its latest report in the center’s “Black Belt 2020” series, each looking at different aspects of the majority Black counties that make up the state’s Black Belt.

Tuesday’s report — entitled “Access to Early Childhood Interventions and First Class Pre-K in Alabama; the Black Belt Region“ — shows that the state’s First Class Pre-K program is improving educational outcomes for students in the Black Belt and across the state.

Hunter Whann, a graduate student and research associate at the Education Policy Center, told reporters during a briefing Monday that Black Belt counties have a much higher percentage of single-parent households and, in general, higher percentages of participation among 4-year-olds in Pre-K programs.

Exceptions are Escambia, Lamar, Lowndes and Pike counties, which have less than 37 percent participation. 

“Some counties outside the Black Belt still have low access, so a lot of progress has been made, but of course, as always, there’s more progress to be made,” Whann said.

Noel Keeney, another graduate student and lead author of the center’s latest report, said he believes that because there’s a greater percentage of single-parent households in the Black Belt, and higher rates of participation in Pre-K, it’s evidence there’s a need for the resources that Pre-K provides to families. 

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Stephen Katsinas, director of the university’s Education Policy Center, noted that the National Institute of Early Childhood Education Research in April 2020, ranked Alabama’s First Class Pre-K as the highest quality state-funded pre- kindergarten program in the country for the 14th consecutive year. 

Katsinas said that from the very beginning of the state’s First Class Pre-K in 2000, and especially under Gov. Kay Ivey, the focus has been to develop Pre-K in the Black Belt. 

“And I would suggest these data show that that has been a successful approach,” Katsinas said. 

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Barbara Cooper, Alabama’s Secretary of Early Childhood Education, speaking to reporters during the briefing Monday said that from the beginning, officials knew there were some counties and some students that should be the focus of those resources. 

“We’ve been able to really see the type of gains in the Black Belt communities because the department has been so purposeful about making sure that we’re serving our most vulnerable populations,” Cooper said, adding that work continues to reach those counties with lower participation rates. 

Pamela Truelove-Walker, Region 3 Director for the Office of School Readiness, said Monday that the Black Belt is seeing Pre-K funding of almost $20 million during fiscal year 2020-2021, which employs approximately 466 teachers in those counties. 

“So we are excited about the intentionality and the purposefulness with which we are targeting those areas,” Truelove-Walker said. “Because we do know that what it is that we are providing for those children, those families, those homes, and even with workforce development. It is very important.” 

The data is clear, both Truelove-Walker and Cooper said Pre-K boosts school readiness skills, reading and math scores, social emotional development, but it is also closing achievement gaps for children living in poverty. 

“We are very excited that children who actually attend First Class Pre-K are making gains that are, in many instances, even double the gains that their peers are making who were not able to actually have a First Class Pre-K experience,” Truelove-Walker said. 

Additionally, First Class Pre-K allows families the ease of mind to know their children are receiving high-quality education while they themselves enter the workforce. 

“Those families are able then to seek jobs and have opportunities for workforce development that they would not have had if their children were not able to be enrolled in a high quality learning environment,” Truelove-Walker said. 

Parental involvement in a child’s education, a critical factor in future educational attainment outcomes also gets a boost through participation in Pre-K, Truelove-Walker said, and that involvement is then carried forward as the child progresses in school. 

Jinping Sun, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy and Technology Studies at the University of Alabama, said Monday that research shows that family participation in children’s early learning is twice as predictive of a student’s academic success as family socioeconomic status.

“The earlier parents become involved in their children’s literacy practices, the more profound the results and the longer lasting the effects will be,” Sun said. 

Data also shows that the benefits of Pre-K last well into a child’s later school years, Copper said. 

“We have children that have been in Pre-K from its inception, and they continue to outperform their peers in both reading and math,” Cooper said. “We also see long-term benefits of children not having as many behavior referrals, disciplinary referrals in elementary school. Having better attendance, because we tackle attendance from day one in Pre-K.”

To learn more about the Education Policy Center’s previous reports on the Black Belt, visit the center’s website here.

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Brock Kelley appointed as interim president Lurleen B. Wallace Community College

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Chancellor Jimmy Baker announced Monday the appointment of Dr. Brock Kelley as interim president of Lurleen B. Wallace Community College. Kelley will serve in the role until a president is named at the completion of a presidential search. Kelley succeeds Dr. Chris Cox, who served as interim president since December 2019.

Kelley’s career is focused on education and workforce development. Most recently, he served as regional director of workforce development for the Alabama Community College System. Prior to his role with the ACCS, Kelley served as director of workforce development for the Alabama Department of Education.

“Throughout his career, Dr. Kelley has proven to be a dynamic and innovative leader committed to the success of the students he served,” Baker said. “Brock’s experience marries the worlds of academics and workforce development, which is a tremendous asset to Lurleen B. Wallace Community College.”

An Opp, Alabama, native and Lurleen B. Wallace Community College alum, Kelley began his career as a special education teacher at Enterprise High School in Enterprise. He later served as a behavior specialist for Enterprise City Schools and principal at Charles Henderson High School in Troy.

Kelley also serves as an adjunct professor for Troy University. Kelley earned an associate of science at Lurleen B. Wallace Community College in Andalusia, where he was a member of the Saints baseball team. He earned a bachelor of science in Collaboration (K-6) and a master of science in collaboration (6-12) from Troy University.

He completed the education administration endorsement at Auburn University-Montgomery and earned his Ph.D. in adult and continuing education from Auburn University.

“As an LBW graduate I know just how special this college is and have experienced firsthand the commitment of the faculty, staff, and administration,” Kelley said. “It is an honor to serve the Andalusia, Opp, Greenville, and Luverne communities in this capacity and I’m eager to hit the ground running to create the best possible experience for LBW’s students.”

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Kelley’s tenure at LBW will begin Oct. 1.

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Governor announces the Alabama STEM Council

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Monday announced that she has signed Executive Order No. 721 establishing the Alabama STEM Council. The council will advise state leadership on ways to improve STEM-related education, career awareness and workforce development opportunities across the state.

“Alabama has continued to grow into an advanced manufacturing, aerospace engineering and cybertechnology center of excellence and as a result, the demand for qualified labor in these sectors has skyrocketed,” Ivey said. “The Alabama STEM Council will play a vital role in ensuring that our state’s future leaders have the opportunity to learn STEM-based skills that will help them transition into successful career pathways upon graduation.”

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics workers play a key role in the sustained growth and stability of Alabama’s economy. As companies continue to relocate or expand in Alabama, the state must develop an adept workforce that is prepared to adequately meet growing labor demands.

Ivey has appointed Dr. Neil Lamb, vice president for educational outreach at HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, as chairman of the council.

“Our great state is home to several quality STEM-focused education and workforce initiatives. However, we lack a common system to weave these initiatives together into a network that reaches all learners across the state and expands the workforce pipeline,” Lamb said. “Establishing a statewide Council was a key recommendation from the Governor’s Advisory Council on Excellence on STEM, and I am thrilled to see that recommendation become reality through the Alabama STEM Council.”

State Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, who chairs the House Education Policy Committee, sponsored a bill in the 2020 Regular Legislative Session that sought to create the Alabama STEM Council as an independent state entity within the Alabama Department of Commerce. Although HB293 passed in the house with unanimous consent, it failed to advance in the Alabama Senate due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m extremely pleased the governor is taking the lead with the Executive Order to form the STEM Council,” Collins said. “Having the math and science experts from Alabama set high quality standards and guiding student growth in achievement will make a positive difference. Thank you, Governor Ivey, for prioritizing education!”

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Deputy Commerce Secretary Ed Castile, who also serves as the director of the Alabama Industrial Development Training Agency, has played a substantial role in the development of the council.

“The state of Alabama is rapidly evolving in science and technology with new job opportunities developing daily that require a STEM education as a basic foundation. So, STEM education is rapidly becoming the new ‘basic education’ that Alabama jobs require,” Castile said. “With new tech companies developing, manufacturing moving to digital ‘smart factories’ and numerous job opportunities that support these businesses, we must have a workforce that will meet the demands.  The STEM Council will be crucial in working with K-12 education as they develop their STEM programs to align with Community Colleges and Universities to assist students move along the STEM pathways needed by our developing businesses. We, in the Department of Commerce are excited to assist with administrative support of the STEM Council and will be a natural link to the business and commerce of our state.”

The council will hold an initial organizational meeting within 90 days after the issuance of this order.

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Members of the council include:

  • Dr. Neil Lamb, Vice President for Educational Outreach, HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology
  • Dr. Charles Nash, University of Alabama System
  • Terry Burkle, Baldwin County Education Foundation
  • Dawn Morrison, Alabama State Department of Education
  • Charisse Stokes, Montgomery Chamber of Commerce
  • Dr. Vicky Karolewics, President, Wallace State Community College
  • Sheila Holt, AMSTI Director, University of Alabama in Huntsville
  • Liz Huntley, Lightfoot, Franklin & White
  • RaSheda Workman, Stillman College
  • Dr. Eric Mackey, State Superintendent of Education
  • Dr. Barbara Cooper, Secretary, Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Jimmy Baker, Chancellor, Alabama Community College System
  • Dr. Jim Purcell, Executive Director, Alabama Commission on Higher Education
  • Fitzgerald Washington, Secretary, Alabama Department of Labor
  • Greg Canfield, Secretary, Alabama Department of Commerce
  • Tim McCartney, Chairman, Alabama Workforce Council
  • George Clark, President, Manufacture Alabama
  • Dr. Ken Tucker, President, University of West Alabama
  • Dr. Kathryn Lanier, STEM Education Outreach Director, Southern Research
  • Dr. Tina Miller-Way, Dauphin Island Sea Lab
  • Amy Templeton, President and CEO, McWane Science Center
  • Kay Taylor, Director of Education, U.S. Space and Rocket Center
  • Dr. Mary Lou Ewald, Director of Outreach, Auburn University College of Sciences and Mathematics
  • Paul Morin, Alabama SMART Foundation
  • Dr. Adreinne Starks, Founder and CEO, STREAM Innovations
  • Dr. Calvin Briggs, Founder and Director, Southern Center for Broadening Participation in STEM
  • Josh Laney, Director, Alabama Office of Apprenticeship
  • Keith Phillips, Executive Director, Alabama Technology Network
  • Jimmy Hull, Career and Technical Education Director, Alabama State Department of Education
  • Sean Stevens, Career Coach, Alabama State Department of Education
  • Tina Watts, Community Investor, The Boeing Company
  • Daryl Taylor, Vice President and General Manager, Airbus America 
  • K-Rob Thomas, Power Delivery General Manager, Alabama Power 
  • Dr. Lee Meadows, Associate Professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Alabama at Birmingham
  • Dr. Tim Wick, Senior Associate Dean, School of Engineering, University of Alabama at Birmingham
  • Dr. Robin McGill, Director of Instruction, Alabama Commission on Higher Education
  • Elisabeth Davis, Assistant Superintendent of the Division of Teaching and Learning, Alabama State Board of Education
  • Dr. Jeff Gray, Professor, Department of Computer Science, University of Alabama
  • Dr. Cynthia McCarty, District 6 Representative, Alabama State Board of Education
  • Dr. Andre Harrison, Vice President, Cognia
  • Brenda Terry, Executive Director, Alabama Mathematics, Science, Technology, and Engineering Coalition for Education
  • Tammy Dunn, Program Director, A+ Education Partnership

A copy of Executive Order No. 721 is available here.

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