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Opinion | Problems continue for Montgomery’s first charter school

Josh Moon

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Montgomery’s first charter school remains a first-rate mess. 

As former LEAD Academy principal Nichole Ivey-Price prepares for another hearing in her ongoing wrongful termination lawsuit against the charter school, a number of current and former LEAD employees have told APR that the environment at the school remains one of near-chaos. 

Perhaps most surprising, the employees said that Unity School Services — the management company led by Soner Tarim, the controversial charter school guru with questionable ties to a Turkish religious movement — is no longer involved at LEAD. 

According to the employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear that they would face retaliation for speaking about the situation, Tarim and his top employee haven’t been at LEAD in weeks and office duties usually performed USS have instead fallen on other staff members and volunteers. 

“We were told quietly that Soner quit and isn’t associated with LEAD anymore,” said one employee. “No one knows what’s going on around here, but you can look at the front office on any day and know something isn’t right. It’s nothing but volunteers.”

I tried to contact both Tarim and new LEAD principal Ibrahim Lee. Lee failed to respond to detailed questions. Tarim never returned messages. 

The issues go far beyond Tarim’s apparent departure. 

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According to several teachers, three more LEAD teachers have resigned in the last few weeks causing a significant staffing shortage. So significant, in fact, that several non-certified teachers have been hired to fill open positions. 

A copy of a personnel list that was approved at a recent LEAD board meeting was provided to APR. That list had five teachers’ names. Four of the five lacked certification, according to state records. One person on the list, a LEAD employee said, hasn’t completed a background check. 

In addition, LEAD employees told APR that the school’s office is often staffed with volunteers. That isn’t necessarily uncommon for elementary schools, but what is uncommon, they say, is that the volunteers have access to private student records. 

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“You can’t do what they’re doing and not expect a problem at some point,” said a LEAD teacher. “It is so obvious now that this school was not even close to being ready to open. Whoever approved this never spent a day here.”

Fortunately, the majority of the Alabama Charter School Commission members who approved the opening of LEAD — despite clear and obvious issues and shortcomings — have been removed from the commission and replaced. 

But that doesn’t solve the issue for Montgomery students. 

And desperate parents in Montgomery hoping for an alternative in a school district that has faced more than its share of challenges over the years. 

LEAD was sold to desperate people as a beacon of hope. But from the start, it appeared to be little better than a scam.  

There was never a plan to create a different sort of school. There was never a plan to address specific issues within Montgomery. There was never any indication that LEAD administrators, including board president Charlotte Meadows — who used the publicity of the school as a springboard to be elected to the Alabama House — had a plan for success that extended beyond not following tenure laws. 

Maybe, if nothing else, LEAD will put to rest once and for all the absurd notion that tenure laws are somehow the difference between Alabama’s worst schools and Alabama’s best schools — all of which are operating under the same tenure laws. 

In one semester, LEAD is already on its second principal and has lost nearly half of its original staff, according to current and former employees. There have been issues with payroll, with employees receiving proper pay, being compensated for training and having their pay cut arbitrarily. 

There have also been sickening accusations of LEAD administrators working to push special needs students away from the school. 

And none of it should be a surprise to anyone who paid attention to the fiasco that unfolded during LEAD’s application process — when professionals who determine the readiness of charter schools all over the country told Alabama’s commission that LEAD wasn’t fit to open. 

For political reasons — and for financial reasons — LEAD’s application was pushed through anyway. And defenders of this farce blamed the negative press on “anti-choice naysayers” or tied the criticism to a dislike of Meadows. 

The place has been a catastrophe since the doors opened. Just as the authorizers predicted.

And Montgomery students and parents are once again left with an empty promise.

 

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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