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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. 

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. 

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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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Education

Nearly $1 million awarded to Alabama summer learning programs

SAIL facilitates a peer learning and funding network to ensure high-quality summer learning programs thrive.

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Third graders participate in making a volcano at a STEM program.

Nearly one million dollars in grant funding was announced this week for summer learning programs in Birmingham, Huntsville and the Black Belt.

Formed in 2012 as a project of six Alabama-based philanthropies, Summer Adventures in Learning facilitates a peer learning and funding network to ensure high-quality summer learning programs thrive across the state. Today, SAIL operates in 15 Alabama counties, including the Birmingham, Black Belt, Tuscaloosa and Huntsville/Madison County areas.

SAIL announced that it is awarding 37 independent programs in the Birmingham area and the Black Belt region with $698,500. In the Huntsville/Madison County region, SAIL is providing an additional $200,000 to three partners operating programs at 14 sites throughout the region.

“We have always known the importance of intentionally academic summer programming, but it proved more critical than ever after schools closed in the spring of 2020,” said Elizabeth Dotts Fleming, the executive director of The Schools Foundation, which administers the SAIL network in Huntsville.  “One of the hallmarks of SAIL is its diverse delivery of programming, while following the Quality Assurance Framework.”

SAIL does not require its programs to follow a specific curriculum. This flexibility allows each site to design a summer learning program that meets students where they are academically, that is tailored to the child’s interests and addresses the needs of the whole child.

Two Alabama school systems are collaborating with SAIL to meet the Alabama Literacy Act’s summer reading requirements. One of those systems is Blount County Schools. It is using SAIL funding to offer summer reading camps for K-3 students who are behind in reading.

“State law requires school systems to offer summer reading camps, but leaves the implementation to each district,” said Mitchie Neel, the executive director of the Blount County Education Foundation. “We know from research that how you structure a summer learning program influences how much students will learn. Partnering with SAIL allows us to meet students where they are while nurturing the whole child and bringing them up to grade level.”

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In the summer of 2020, SAIL supported 34 programs. 14 provided in-person programs, 17 virtual and three offered an at-home curriculum. Due to COVID restrictions, enrollment was down from SAIL’s normal 2,500-plus students to 1,250.

In 2020, SAIL students gained an average of 2.3 months in reading and 1.6 months in math. Research shows that students from low-income families typically lose two-to-three months of reading and math skills every summer. SAIL’s gains are especially salient this year because the novel coronavirus is exacerbating academic losses for at-risk students. Eighty-four percent of students enrolled in 2020 qualified for free- and reduced-cost lunches.

In 2021, state education leaders are concerned that academic losses will be at the highest levels in years. SAIL grantees are preparing to increase their enrollment to pre-pandemic levels.

  • Click here for a list of programs receiving SAIL funding in Birmingham.
  • Click here for a list of programs receiving SAIL funding in Black Belt.
  • Click here for a list of programs receiving SAIL funding in Huntsville/Madison County.

“Last summer, our programs met our students where they were and provided them the supports they needed most,” said Fleming. “Today, SAIL sites are diligently planning for this summer with keen attention to serving students who need this fun yet intentionally academic catch up time the most. We are stronger when we work together, collaboratively, for our students, and we see that through SAIL.”

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Auburn faculty vote down no-confidence vote on provost

Seventy-one percent of the 1,200 faculty members present voted against holding a no-confidence vote in Provost Bill Hardgrave.

Josh Moon

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Auburn Provost Bill Hardgrave.

In a wild online meeting Tuesday with more than 1,200 Auburn University faculty members, a no-confidence vote against Provost Bill Hardgrave was scrapped after 71 percent of the faculty members voted not to hold the vote. 

That vote followed a number of confusing procedural motions and heated arguments among some faculty members and administrators. Ultimately, however, a clear majority of the faculty saw no value in moving forward with the vote. 

“I am heartened by the support that so many of our faculty expressed at today’s University Senate meeting, reinforcing the great work they have helped Auburn accomplish to date during the pandemic,” Hardgrave said in a statement released by the university. “Amid such support, we remain committed to providing a safe and rewarding academic experience at Auburn. As we go forward, I will continue to listen to each of our shared governance groups while heeding the input of faculty, students and staff and the advice of medical experts, building on the successes of our fall semester.”

Hardgrave had come under fire over the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with most of the anger surrounding the announcement that Auburn would push to increase in-person instruction to 70 percent in the spring semester. Faculty members instead wanted more flexibility in order to determine when remote instruction was necessary. 

Hardgrave and university officials maintained that the 70 percent figure wasn’t conjured out of thin air or based on revenue projections, but was instead a product of numerous conversations with faculty, staff, students, medical professionals and other stakeholders. 

Defending himself in previous meetings, Hardgrave noted that he held multiple town hall meetings with faculty, and the COVID protocols developed and implemented were the product of those meetings. 

During Tuesday’s meeting, which was filled with angry outbursts, outright confusion and a number of comical exchanges, Hardgrave called the no-confidence vote “an attack” against him, both personally and professionally. 

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Ultimately, however, the majority of the faculty sided with Hardgrave, possibly because the university’s response to COVID has been rather successful. Auburn has experienced no layoffs or furloughs on campus, nor has it been forced to close campus or shut down classes.

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Opinion | This leader inspires confidence

“It takes a proven leader to make thoughtful, vigilant decisions in times of chaos.”

Jane DiFolco Parker

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(STOCK PHOTO)

There is no playbook in a pandemic. There are no hard and fast rules in a fast-moving crisis. Second-guessing in a crisis, especially from those who have never had to deal with such pressures, is counterproductive.

It takes a proven leader to make thoughtful, vigilant decisions in times of chaos.

Following the uncertainty that defined last spring and summer, Auburn University forged into an unpredictable fall, making necessary tough decisions in the midst of an unprecedented crisis as it transitioned back to campus. Although many institutions opted for fully remote instruction, suspending classes, or even canceling semesters entirely, Auburn committed to creating a safe campus environment while preserving many of the benefits of a residential academic community. 

Despite the pandemic’s myriad challenges, Auburn remained open throughout the fall and had a successful semester, thanks to countless students, faculty, and staff who understood the importance of safety protocols and upheld shared institutional values. Not surprisingly, there was an increase in COVID-19 cases in the first few weeks of the fall semester, but the number of cases declined and remained at negligible levels for the remainder of the term. 

Amazingly, Auburn was able to avoid the employee furloughs, layoffs, salary cuts, and hiring freezes which have befallen other colleges and universities throughout the country. In addition to holding town halls with faculty and staff, I know the university worked diligently to respond to concerns, adjust policies and procedures, and implement safety measures that enabled the institution to continue delivering on its mission of teaching, research, and outreach. The versatility and nimbleness exhibited by Auburn’s leadership, faculty, staff, and students in navigating the extraordinary circumstances resulting from the pandemic are impressive.

As our country grapples with an unprecedented public health crisis and a highly volatile political climate, we know that one of the best ways to support students is to foster a structured learning environment that supports critical thinking, advances problem solving, encourages empathy, and promotes diversity of thought. 

With this in mind, and using the past semester as a guide, the university is preparing to start the spring semester next week with more than 70 percent of classes face-to-face. Although some may disagree with a return to on-campus learning, the decision to do so was made based on careful consideration by the university’s senior leadership. These leaders sought feedback from local, state, and federal medical professionals, shared governance groups, campus representatives at various levels, and other sources, including state government and peer institutions. 

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Last month, Governor Ivey encouraged educational institutions to return to the classroom for the spring. A majority of students and faculty who have communicated their preferences favor returning to the classroom while still providing flexibility to faculty and students who request it. Indeed, there is an unavoidable cost to remote learning — we have seen its negative effect on the mental health of both students and faculty members. 

Although the decision to return to on-campus instruction is supported by many, some have voiced opposition. The changing and uncertain nature of the pandemic often leads to fear and, in some cases, anger. Unfortunately, much of this anger has been directed at Bill Hardgrave, Auburn’s provost and chief academic officer. Recently, this frustration has manifested in a specially-called — and horribly misguided — meeting to take a vote of no confidence. At Auburn, it takes only 50 faculty members of the more than 1,700 faculty to sign a petition calling for such a vote. That is fewer than 3 percent of the entire faculty!

This action is regrettable. It sends a false message about a leader who has stepped up to forge an uncharted path during extraordinary times. Throughout this unprecedented year, Dr. Hardgrave has taken deliberate measures to consult with and to incorporate faculty opinion, and to allow exceptions to in-person teaching when it presented a hardship for a faculty member. He has encouraged innovative approaches to pedagogy and helped deliver excellence, which is the hallmark of an Auburn education and a renowned faculty. 

Auburn President Jay Gogue said recently, “A no-confidence vote in the midst of a global pandemic and social unrest when student, faculty, staff and administration leaders have worked diligently together for the best interests of our campus is unprecedented and destructive.”

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At a time when our nation is experiencing profound divisiveness at all levels, Auburn has a unique opportunity to demonstrate its role as a leader in higher education. Dr. Hardgrave’s proven ability to guide Auburn’s academic enterprise during these unprecedented times is indisputable. His efforts have exemplified The Auburn Creed, demonstrating a belief in education, hard work, honesty, and sympathy for the interests of the university’s students, faculty, and staff.

Not only does a vote of no confidence damage the reputation of an academic leader who has served Auburn admirably for the past ten years, but it damages the reputation of our university among the higher education community, and it undermines its credibility with our students, parents, alumni, community, and accrediting agencies. It does not benefit the university, but rather undercuts the hard work of so many members of the Auburn Family in advancing our mission during the pandemic. I strongly encourage those who wish to express a rational, constructive voice in furthering Auburn’s mission to continue to speak up in support of Dr. Hardgrave and, thus, in support of our university. You are being heard.

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Education

Alabama school internet vouchers extended into 2021

The Alabama Broadband Connectivity for Students program will continue into 2021, made possible by a provision in the latest COVID-19 relief package.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Monday announced the extension of a statewide program that uses CARES Act funds to provide vouchers for internet service for low-income families with school-aged children.

Ivey’s office in a Monday press release said the Alabama Broadband Connectivity for Students program will continue into 2021, made possible by a provision in the latest COVID-19 relief package, passed by Congress on Friday and signed into law by President Donald Trump late Sunday.

The ABC program which has provided high-speed internet for about 200,000 Alabama students and was set to end on the original CARES Act spending deadline of Dec. 30, according to the release. The latest round of COVID-19 aid extended that deadline for another year.

“Alabama has led nationally with this innovative program via CARES Act funding to ensure that students can participate in distance-learning during the pandemic,” Ivey said in a statement. “I am extremely grateful to President Trump and Congress for including the funding extension, and most of all, I am pleased that we will continue to offer this assistance to the families who are signed up for the program. My hope is that this extension is welcome news for both parents and students during an unusual and difficult school year.”

Trump last week threatened to not sign the COVID-19 aid package or the omnibus spending bill, saying he wanted the $600 in direct payments to individuals bumped up to $2,000. That could have resulted in a government shutdown, which would have likely resulted in an estimated 14 million unemployed Americans losing their benefits and would have let a moratorium on evictions expire.

Updated information for current participants in the ABC program is to be posted soon to the program’s website.

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