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Opinion | Alabama Charter School Commission finally did its job

Josh Moon

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Finally, the Alabama Charter School Commission is doing its job. 

On Monday, the Commission voted to revoke the charter for Woodland Prep, the beleaguered charter school in Washington County, and it took steps to force LEAD Academy, the steadily failing charter in Montgomery, to provide the Commission with necessary information to assure it is operating appropriately. 

It’s about time. 

The Charter Commission is the state’s lone line of defense ensuring that approved charter schools can and do provide a quality education that compliments the existing public school structure and makes good use of public tax dollars. And up until this point, there were plenty of questions if the Commission ever planned to take that responsibility seriously. 

And then Monday happened, and a little faith was restored. 

Credit where credit is due, this change in competency for the Commission is mostly due to the people who screwed up the board in the first place: Gov. Kay Ivey, Senate President Del Marsh and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon. 

After building an initial Commission that seemed far more interested in pushing through the applications of charter schools than adhering to rules and regulations put in place by the Legislature, Ivey, Marsh, McCutcheon and Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth blew it up last year. (It should be noted that Ainsworth didn’t have an original selection, having been elected to office in 2018.)

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Facing a growing number of angry lawmakers and thousands of angry constituents, the Commission saw five new members be appointed last year. And there was a distinctly different feel to the appointments — moving away from the politically connected to former educators and nominees with experience in job training programs. 

That change was brought about by the outrage generated over the Commission’s approval of LEAD and Woodland. 

Those approvals followed the Commission completely disregarding regulations that required charter applicants to meet certain standards and gain the approval of a national certification organization. Neither group did. 

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But the Commission circumvented those regulations and ignored the recommendations of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers — a group the state paid handsomely to evaluate the applications of would-be charters. 

The NACSA rejected the applications from both Woodland and LEAD and cited specific issues — mostly dealing with their incomplete plans for operating a functioning school. 

The NACSA questioned LEAD’s financial projections and basically laughed at the proposed personnel figures. For Woodland, the NACSA raised questions about the school’s fundraising potential and was skeptical of the company hired to operate the school. 

You’ll never believe this: Those exact shortcomings led to myriad problems for both schools, which led to Monday’s showdown between the new Commission and the leadership from LEAD and Woodland. 

Honestly, it’s embarrassing that it ever got to this point. And it wouldn’t have if the Commission had simply followed the laws. 

But that wasn’t the goal under former chairman Mac Buttram. Instead, placing politics over principle and forcing through inferior charter applications seemed to be the goal. 

That was definitely the case in Montgomery, where local officials and some influential state leaders went to bat to get LEAD pushed through the process. The city desperately needed a charter — or really any shiny object — to take the eyes off its dreadful public school system, which city leaders and the wealthy whites have spent the last half-century destroying through systemic racism and underfunding. 

It’s to the point that the school system is driving away new families and making it difficult for Montgomery to service its debt. 

Charters were going to be the answer. And it didn’t matter if the charter was a good school. It just needed to be operational, so the folks in charge could point to this new school and proclaim it better simply because it wasn’t under the control of the local school board. 

In reality, LEAD had no business ever opening its doors. It was unprepared and under-staffed, and the NACSA had it nailed. 

Now, with barely more than half the school year gone, the overwhelming majority of LEAD’s staff has quit or been forced out. The new principal was forced out just weeks into the job, and then filed a lawsuit letting the world know that the school is unsafe and its management team shady. And the group managing the school quit, bailing on a five-year contract. 

Things are even worse for Woodland, which couldn’t manage to even get its building constructed. It was back before the Commission on Monday to ask for yet another extension to get off the ground. 

Woodland is not popular in Washington County, and a room full of people traveled to Montgomery to speak against the charter. 

The commissioners did not hold back on officials from either school. After berating those officials for several minutes, the Commission voted to deny Woodland’s request for another extension and revoke its license; the Commission also voted to give LEAD officials 30 days to satisfactorily answer a number of questions about its operations, and to complete a number of basic steps. 

It was a pleasant change.

 

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Education

House passes Tier III retirement for education employees

Brandon Moseley

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Tuesday, the Alabama House of Representatives passed a bill to expand retirement benefits for education employees.

House Bill 76 is sponsored by State Representative Alan Baker (R-Brewton).

Baker said that Tier III benefits for educators is necessary to encourage teachers to stay in education and to recruit new teachers to the state.

Rep. Thomas Jackson (D-Thomasville) said that this bill addresses “the brain drain on our educators.”

In the wake of the Great Recession, legislators stripped education employees of the ability to retire with full benefits before age 62. This was a cost savings measure as every retired education employee is an enormous drain on the state’s education budget, particularly since the cost of healthcare benefits skyrocketed after the passage of the affordable care act in 2010. At age 65 education retirees are less costly to the state because Medicare picks up roughly 80 percent of their healthcare cost. A retired teacher younger than that, under tier III, would cost the state as much for healthcare as a current employee.

Baker said that his bill, titled the Education Workforce Investment Act, would cost less than a one percent pay raise would.

HB76 would change the retirement structure for public education employees hired after 2013. These changes include allowing employees to retire with benefits after 30 years of service even if they haven’t reached age 62 and would basically undue the cost savings package passed eight years ago.

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Baker said that this was necessary to address the growing teacher shortage in the state.

“We have a shortage among educators, particularly we recognize the teachers in the classroom,” Baker said.

Rep. Harry Shiver (R-Stockton) thanked Baker for bringing that bill, “We need to help the education community.”

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Representatives voted unanimously 105 to 0 for the bill.

The bill now moves to the Alabama Senate, where it is controversial.

Thursday, Alabama Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) said that the House bill goes too far. The Senate favors Tier III benefits for teachers, but opposes them for other education employees. The Baker bill includes: bus drivers, education aids, school lunchroom workers, security guards, nurses, clerical people, janitors, etc.

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) defended the House bill.

“They are all part of the education profession because of that we are trying to recruit people to fill all of the pool for the whole of education,” McCutcheon told reporters on Thursday.

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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

Staff

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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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