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.
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.
“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.