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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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Education

Alabama voters will decide whether to fire the state school board

Jessa Reid Bolling

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The fate of the state school board will be decided by Alabama voters on March 3. 

A proposed constitutional amendment, Amendment One, asks if voters want to change how the folks in charge of education at the state level are selected. 

A yes vote would abolish the elected State Board of Education and the Board-appointed position of State Superintendent of Education. Instead, there will be a Governor-appointed Commission, the Alabama Commission on Elementary and Secondary Education. The Commission would appoint a Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education, to replace the existing state Superintendent’s position.

A no vote would leave the current system in place, meaning school board members would still be elected by voters based on districts. 

The Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) conducted an analysis of the amendment, highlighting both strengths and weaknesses of the amendment. 

“Proponents say elected boards are more responsive to the public will. As elected officials, board members have their rightful place and, ideally, are only responsible to the people who elected them. They should be more empowered to oppose what they believe is not in the interests of the state’s schools and children.

At the same time, as elected officials, re-election is an important goal, if not the central goal. Thus elected board members may find themselves where the interests and desires of voters conflict with policies, programs and practices that best serve children. 

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Conversely, proponents of appointed boards cite the strength of the vetting process in creating boards with knowledgeable, skilled, effective board members. An appointment process allows the governor to consider the needs of the board and the qualities different candidates would bring. 

Others cite that governor-appointed boards and appointed superintendents create a more efficient, aligned, and harmonious system for setting and implementing education priorities. Ambitious and substantive changes to a state’s school system are more feasible in a more efficient system that encourages collaboration and strengthens the governor’s capacity to effect change. However, while somewhat insulated, appointed boards are not immune from political pressure.”

Earlier this month, Governor Kay Ivey addressed PARCA at the annual Albert Brewer Legacy lunch at the Harbert Center in Birmingham, asking the council to support Amendment One.

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“Alabama is at the bottom in about every education category that can be found,” Ivey said. “Too many of our third graders cannot read and too many of our high school graduates are not ready for a career or college.”

“Vote yes on amendment one when you go to the polls on March 3,” Ivey said. “We have had three superintendents in five years. We can do better.”

 

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Education

South Alabama medical residents work alongside Orange Beach first responders

Brandon Moseley

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Residents in USA Health’s Emergency Medicine Residency Program are given the opportunity to rotate with emergency medical services (EMS) in Orange Beach. The residents are stationed at the Orange Beach Fire Department giving resident physicians the experience of responding to emergency calls alongside paramedics and firefighters.

Paul Henning, M.D. is the associate program director of the Emergency Medicine Residency Program at USA Health and medical director of Orange Beach Fire/Rescue.

“The expertise that a patient gets in the field can determine outcomes,” Henning explained. “It bridges the gap between the physician and the paramedic. Seldom, if ever, do physicians have this kind of exposure to prehospital emergency services. It also gives the physician more perspective of what the paramedics are doing in the field. If we have an opportunity to improve the prehospital scope of practice, then we have accomplished our goals.”
Henning also serves as an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine.

He said that it is vital that physicians understand what happens in the prehospital stage of care.
The innovative program was established in July 2019.

Andrew Warner, M.D., took a nonlinear path to emergency medicine. Dr. Warner is a former Green Beret, who served with the U.S. Army 5thSpecial Forces Group on tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Following his military service, he went on to earn his medical degree from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. He completed his residency training in family medicine at USA Health and started in the emergency medicine program as a second-year resident.

Warner expressed his great respect for the Orange Beach first responders, who “epitomize true dedication to patient care and outcomes.”

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“I have further learned to appreciate just how critical those precious seconds in the prehospital setting are for patient survivability,” Warner added.

Justin Thomas, M.D. is a second-year emergency medicine resident and was the first USA Health resident to rotate in Orange Beach. Thomas said that the experience opened his eyes to the constraints paramedics endure while working in the field, particularly when responding to calls in rural areas of the county.

“There are locations they respond to that may be in the middle of the woods, or down a dirt road someone only goes down once every couple of weeks,” Thomas said. “They have to lug their supplies and the stretcher to the house, assess and care for the patient, and then bring them to the ambulance.”

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The medics are limited by the supplies and tools they have with them, Thomas said. “It’s much different being at a hospital with all the resources at your disposal versus working from an ambulance with limited capabilities.”
Thomas earned his medical degree from the American University of the Caribbean. He took a nontraditional route to emergency medicine. As a resident in USA Health’s Family Medicine Residency Program, he rotated in the emergency department at University Hospital and was attracted to the field.

After graduating from his family medicine residency in June 2019, Thomas was offered a spot in the new Emergency Medicine Residency Program. Dr. Thomas was given approval from the American Board of Emergency Medicine to start as a second-year because of his months of training in emergency medicine during his family medicine residency.

Economic developer Dr Nicole Jones told the Alabama Political Reporter, “Response time is critical, especially in rural areas and areas that have longer distances to medical facilities than urban counterparts. The partnership between USA Health emergency medicine residency program and Orange Beach paramedics and fire rescue is a win-win situation. Both parties learn from one another and gain a deeper understanding of the pre-hospital setting, and most importantly, having professionals available in emergency situations with unique skill sets can ultimately save more patients’ lives.”

The partnership is mutually beneficial for USA Health’s emergency medicine residency program and Orange Beach’s paramedical and fire-rescue services. By adding the resident physicians the paramedics are able to provide a higher level of care to patients.

“I love to hear the interaction between our staff and the residents,” said Orange Beach Fire Chief Mike Kimmerling. “Even when they’re not running calls, there is a tremendous amount of knowledge being transferred in their conversations.”

The residents gain more diversity of exposure in Orange Beach than in a larger city like Mobile, Henning said. “Most fire and rescues in large cities are close to hospitals, so the transport time is usually 10 minutes or less, whereas in Orange Beach the time could be significantly longer. When they are able to render care for a longer period of time, they have the chance to sharpen their skills and have more patient exposure.”
Dr. Henning said that Orange Beach also gives the residents the unique experiences of working on fire and rescue boats.

Henning said that before starting the EMS rotation, the residents are required to be fully licensed by the state and to have completed an online medical direction course. If any questions or concerns arise, Henning and other emergency medicine attending physicians with USA Health are always available to provide their medical direction. Residents cannot start the EMS rotation until their second year. As the first class of residents graduate to their second year, six residents will rotate throughout the academic year. Third-years have the option to do an additional EMS rotation.

(Based on original reporting by USA Health’s Lindsay Lyle.)

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Economy

Alabama Workforce Council delivers annual report touting improved career pathways

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The Alabama Workforce Council (AWC) recently delivered its Annual Report to Gov. Kay Ivey and members of the legislature. The report highlights the many and varied workforce successes from 2019. It also outlines policy recommendations to further solidify Alabama as a leader in workforce development and push the state closer to Ivey’s goal of adding 500,000 credentialed workers to the state’s workforce by 2025.

Gov. Ivey acknowledged the recent progress stating, “the continued efforts of the AWC and the various state agency partners in transforming our workforce are substantial. Significant work has been accomplished to ensure all Alabamians have a strong start and strong finish. We will continue to bolster our state’s economy through dynamic workforce development solutions to help us reach our ambitious goal.”

The AWC, formed in 2015, was created as an employer-led, statewide effort to understand the structure, function, organization and perception of the Alabama workforce system. The goal of the AWC is to facilitate collaboration between government and industry to help Alabama develop a sustainable workforce that is competitive on a global scale. 

“This report details the tremendous efforts of the dedicated AWC members and their partners who have greatly contributed to the progress of building a highly-skilled workforce.” noted Tim McCartney, Chairman of the AWC. “To meet ever-growing job needs of an expanding economy, we have put forth recommendations to bring working-age Alabamians sitting on the sidelines back into the workforce to address our low workforce participation rate.”

Included among the many highlights from the report are:

  • Created the Alabama Office of Apprenticeship to support apprenticeships and work-based learning statewide.
  • Established the Alabama Committee on Credentialing & Career Pathways (ACCCP) to identify credentials of value that align with in-demand career pathways across Alabama.
  • Furthered foundational work toward cross-agency outcome sharing through the Alabama Terminal on Linking and Analyzing Statistics (ATLAS).
  • Commissioned statewide surveys to better understand the characteristics, and potential barriers, of the priority population groups (during record-low unemployment) identified as likely to enter or re-enter the state’s workforce. 
  • Provided technical assistance, support staff and grant writing services to a cohort of over 30 nonprofits from across the state enabling them to expand services and directly connect more Alabamians to training and economic opportunity. Services helped cohort members secure over $6.4 million in grant money through various out-of-state grant programs.
  • Identified and evaluated 17 population segments of potential workers and determined the likelihood of adding members of those respective population segments into the workforce. Within this process, issues affecting the state’s labor participation rate were also detailed. 

Vice-Chair of the AWC Sandra Koblas of Austal USA commented, “the energy around workforce development in Alabama right now is incredibly exciting. We are working together with businesses, nonprofits and agency partners to reduce barriers, increase opportunities and grow the state’s overall economy.”

The full report can be viewed here.

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To learn more about the Alabama Workforce Council please visit: www.alabamaworks.com/alabama-workforce-council

 

 

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Education

Committee hears state plan to address student mental health

Jessa Reid Bolling

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State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey asked the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee for funding to put more mental health professionals in schools. 

While addressing the committee, Mackey said that having more counseling available for students will help to not only address student mental health but to also help teachers who are “overwhelmed” with trying to make up for the lack of counseling services. 

“Teachers are the frontline on good mental health for our students,” Mackey said. “They have to do a lot of the work but teachers are not therapists. They don’t have time to do it, they’re not trained to do it and teachers in our state are absolutely overwhelmed with the problems that are coming into their classrooms. 

The Alabama State Department of Education in collaboration with the Alabama Department of Mental Health created the School Based Mental Health Services Program (SBMH) in 2010 with the goal of ensuring that children and adolescents, both general and special education, enrolled in local school systems have access to high quality mental health prevention, early intervention and treatment services. 

The collaboration places a certified mental health professional, hired by the mental health department, in a school system to be available throughout the school day, with an estimated cost of $50,000 per site, according to Mackey. 

Mackey said in his presentation that there is a need for far more of these therapists than he is requesting but that there simply are not enough of them available to be hired. He also noted that seeking the help of social workers and organizations like the Department of Human Resources to fill that need for more school counseling would ultimately harm their existing duties. 

“If we put students in therapy but then they’re going home to a dysfunctional situation, then we’re just spinning our wheels and that’s why we’ve got to have community collaborations and we’ve got to have these other strong agencies like Mental Health (Department) and DHR to support the work with the communities.”

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Alabama State Senator Jim McClendon (District 11) said that he has heard from “frustrated” teachers who have to take on responsibilities apart from teaching. 

“They were kind of depressed, the teachers were, simply because they felt like they weren’t able to do the job they were hired to do because they were doing so many other things,” McClendon said.

In the 2019 Fiscal Year, nine mental health centers were added with the $500,000 appropriation in FY19. There are now a total of 72 school systems participating in School-Based Mental Health. Mackey says there will be 82 by the end of this year and asked for funding for 20 more after meeting that goal.

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