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After awkward meeting, Ivey demands a new reopening plan from ALSDE

Frustrated lawmakers, including Gov. Kay Ivey, asked Alabama State Department of Education officials and board members to settle on a comprehensive plan to reopen Alabama’s public schools this fall.

Josh Moon

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Gov. Kay Ivey speaks at a press conference. (GOVERNOR'S OFFICE)

Do you want the money or not? That seemed to be the big question — a question that, oddly, summed up the feelings and the frustrations of many — at Tuesday’s meeting and work session of the Alabama State School Board. 

Frustrated lawmakers, including Gov. Kay Ivey, asked Alabama State Department of Education officials and board members to settle on a comprehensive plan to reopen Alabama’s public schools this fall so they could accept the millions in federal funds that Ivey is trying to dole out. 

“I’ve never encountered such a situation,” said state Sen. Jim McClendon, who was in Montgomery on Tuesday to present the Safely Opening Schools Program that he supports. “It’s $150 million. Do you want it or not?”

The SOS program, which is backed by the Alabama School Nurses Association and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers, would hire 300 more nurses and provide testing units, testing materials, thermal imaging temperature scanners and stand-alone first aid rooms for every school. 

Under the plan, students would be scanned prior to entering a school bus or entering the school by the scanners. Students with high temps would be quarantined and taken to the first aid room where a test would be administered. The testing units have the capability of returning results in 15 minutes and can be used to test for flu types A and B and coronavirus. 

It has a price tag of $150 million — with almost all the funding coming out of the state’s $1.8 billion of CARES Act dollars. 

Ivey, who is the president of the school board, invited McClendon, and Sens. Jabo Waggoner and Bobby Singleton to talk about the SOS plan. Singleton pleaded with the board to implement the plan and treat all schools and students equally. 

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Some board members seemed unmoved and raised curious questions. Cynthia McCarty said she heard from nurses who were concerned that the added duties of testing students would be too much. And McCarty said she was concerned that the extra nurses might not be enough to adequately test the students. 

Mackey, for the first time, talked about his new plan, which includes $50,000 for every school to use for COVID-related expenses. The request for funds related to Mackey’s plan was first made late last week — a new development after Mackey originally resisted including funding in ALSDE’s “roadmap” plan released late last month. 

His new plan, he said, “overlaps” with the SOS plan in terms of hiring more school nurses. But it stops short of mandating testing or requiring that local districts spend allocated money on specific items. 

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From the start on Tuesday, it seemed Ivey was unhappy with Mackey’s plan — which has also been heavily criticized by teachers and principals for its lack of specific actions and guidelines — and demanded that he provide reasons for why he was resisting the SOS plan.

Although, she did agree with Mackey’s resistance to testing — a surprising pivot for Ivey, who had been in favor of widespread testing in schools as late as Monday. 

Following his presentation, Ivey told Mackey to have a new proposal to her by Friday, and indicated that she wanted him to work with McClendon, Singleton and Waggoner.

It’s unclear to all involved at this point if that new proposal will include widespread testing, although it’s hard to imagine why it wouldn’t. The ability to quickly test students provides a level of security that likely will be favored by teachers and parents. 

And there’s another factor: Sports. 

A testing device that can spit out results in 15 minutes could be used to screen athletes, coaches and officials prior to games, dramatically reducing safety concerns. 

Alabama High School Athletic Association executive director Steve Savarese told lawmakers, and confirmed again later on Tuesday, that he supports the SOS program and any plan “that enhances the safety and well-being of our students.”  

Where that leaves things is quite unclear. McClendon said he was baffled by the entire meeting and why Mackey and ALSDE is resisting the SOS program. But he said he was willing to work with Mackey and Ivey to move things forward and “do what’s in the best interest of the students and teachers.”

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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FBI, DOE investigating potential fraud in Alabama virtual schools

The investigation of the virtual schools, and the allegations of improperly boosting enrollment figures to generate more tax dollars, would be similar to federal investigations of virtual schools in other states. As in those investigations, the alleged wrongdoing in Alabama involves tens of millions of dollars in tax money.

Josh Moon

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(APR GRAPHIC)

The FBI and the U.S. Department of Education have been conducting a lengthy and wide-ranging investigation into multiple virtual schools in Alabama, focusing specifically on those schools falsifying student enrollment records to drive up state reimbursements, potentially costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars over the past five years, several sources and various documents and recordings obtained by APR show.

The investigation, the sources told APR, is centered on two schools in Limestone County — the Alabama Connections Academy in the Limestone County system and Renaissance Academy in Athens City — but is not limited to those schools. The sources each participated in interviews with the FBI and DOE in this investigation and asked for anonymity out of fear of losing their jobs. 

APR was provided a recording of agents from the FBI and DOE conducting a joint interview with officials in Limestone County, and asking specific questions about the virtual schools in those districts, the superintendents in charge and about irregularities involving student enrollments. 

The home of Athens City superintendent Trey Holliday was raided by FBI agents in June, and the Bureau confirmed at the time that the raid was part of an ongoing investigation. 

In addition, three sources have confirmed to APR that officials working at the Alabama State Department of Education have been interviewed by the FBI and DOE and the state has provided records and other information to aid in the investigation. The sources each have intimate personal knowledge of the investigation, but spoke on condition of anonymity because they’re not authorized to provide such details.

When asked for an official comment on the investigation, a spokesperson for ALSDE directed APR to the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama. 

A spokesperson for the USA Middle District office declined to comment or confirm the existence of an investigation — a standard response when an investigation is ongoing but has yet to produce indictments — but did acknowledge the raid of Holladay’s house in June.  

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The investigation of the virtual schools, and the allegations of improperly boosting enrollment figures to generate more tax dollars, would be similar to federal investigations of virtual schools in other states. As in those investigations, the alleged wrongdoing in Alabama involves tens of millions of dollars in tax money. 

In less than three years, Limestone’s general fund budget has swelled from a reserve balance of around $2 million to now more than $20 million; Athens has experienced a similar uptick in revenue the last five years. 

Sources told APR that investigators also suspect that there has been illegal personal gain by both school system employees and individuals working with third parties that operated the virtual programs, and indictments could come before the end of the year. 

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In 2015, the Alabama Legislature passed a virtual school bill, allowing for school districts to operate one of two kinds of virtual schools. Local school boards could decide to operate their own virtual school, contracting with an outside entity for only the software and platform, but otherwise hiring teachers and controlling the school like any other in their district. Or local school districts can contract with an outside entity to provide all of the services — from hiring the teachers and monitoring classroom performance to aligning with state standards and meeting the needs of disabled students — and the local central office would serve as a simple pass-through for payments. 

Those payments are also key. Under that virtual school bill, students enrolled in virtual schools earn the district the same in per-pupil funding as a student enrolled in traditional schools. So, even if a child in the Black Belt is enrolled in a virtual school hundreds of miles away in Limestone County — and several reportedly are — and never sets foot in the county or a local school building, Limestone still gets the $6,000-per-pupil allotment for that student. 

This setup, of course, makes virtual schools extremely profitable — both for local districts and for the outside companies hosting the schools. 

Limestone’s Connections Academy, the largest virtual school in the state with more than 2,500 students enrolled this school year, falls into the second category of virtual schools — one in which the outside company, Pearson, handles all functions and Limestone gets a small percentage each year for serving essentially as a pass-through. APR requested a copy of the Pearson-Limestone contract but it had not been made available prior to publishing. 

Those types of contracts, however, have raised red flags with several local superintendents and even with officials at ALSDE, all of whom see massive potential for fraud and waste. At least two bills have been pushed since the passage of the original virtual schools bill that would close loopholes and put extra safeguards in place. Neither passed. 

“We’ve been sitting on a time bomb, and everyone knew it was ticking,” said one county superintendent. “There has never been enough oversight of these schools. Even when you saw the horror stories in other states, no one did anything.”

As it stands, companies, such as Pearson, are allowed to make almost every decision, and local officials are oddly and surprisingly unconcerned with how the schools make decisions. Or even what decisions they’re making. 

For example, Limestone County officials, including two superintendents and multiple employees, couldn’t tell APR or the FBI and DOE approximately how many teachers were employed at its virtual school. In addition, they didn’t know how those teachers were hired, if they were required to be certified or if they were adhering to Alabama standards. 

And their inability to answer those fairly basic questions came after Limestone County had been duped once into virtual school fraud scheme that cost the district millions of dollars and more than 100 laptop computers.   

The Investigation

According to Mark Isley, the former human resources director for Limestone County Schools, an investigator from the FBI and one from the DOE showed up unannounced at the system’s central office last September and began grilling then-superintendent Tom Sisk, Isley and others about the virtual school in Limestone County and a similar school in Athens, where Holladay served as superintendent. 

A recording of that interview was later provided anonymously to APR, and the two investigators can be heard asking specific questions about the enrollment figures in Limestone’s virtual school, whether the system had verified the authenticity of each student enrolled and how much interaction the Limestone virtual school had with the Renaissance school in Athens. 

“They clearly knew way more than they let on, and you could see that as the interview progressed and they laid out evidence of fraud taking place,” Isley said. “I was not shocked. I think anyone who was honest would tell you that they either didn’t know hardly anything that was happening in that (virtual) school or they suspected something wasn’t right.”

The two agents also asked Sisk in-depth questions about Limestone’s first attempt at operating a virtual school in the 2016-17 school year. On the recording, Sisk said that he signed a contract with an entity named Educational Opportunities to provide a full virtual school and enrolled more than 200 students. 

“Two to three months into it,” Sisk said, officials from ALSDE contacted him and told him that the students enrolled in the Limestone virtual school were also enrolled in private schools around the state. On the recording, one of the agents asking questions provides Sisk with a letter that was sent in 2017 by Sumter Academy to parents of students at that now-defunct private school. The letter informs parents of a new virtual opportunity in which their students can be “dually enrolled” in both Sumter and a virtual school hosted by Limestone County. The letter also offered free laptops to students who signed up. 

Limestone County never recovered the laptops it provided to Educational Opportunities. 

“I guess we can see where our laptops went,” Sisk says to the agents. 

A week after the interview with the FBI and DOE, Sisk resigned at Limestone County to take a job superintendent’s job in Tennessee. He resigned shortly after taking the job when it was learned by that school system that his doctorate degree was allegedly purchased from an online school in Pakistan. 

Reached by phone, Sisk declined to comment, saying “I’m retired now. Limestone has a new superintendent who can answer your questions.” 

The Isley Problem

During the interview with Sisk, it becomes obvious, as the FBI and DOE agents pepper him with questions and press him for specifics, that they suspect a certain level of collusion between Limestone County — or, at the very least, its virtual school provider — and officials at Sumter Academy. The agents press Sisk to explain how Sumter could be offering a stipend and laptops to students who sign up without Limestone being in on the fraud. 

Sisk maintains that he had no clue about any of it and shut it down as soon as he was informed by ALSDE officials of the potential fraud. 

What happened to that potential fraud — and whether it was ever reported or investigated by state or local officials — is unclear. Neither Sisk nor ALSDE would discuss it. But on the recording, Sisk is quite adamant that he knows nothing about what happened to Educational Opportunities and never chased down where the district’s 100 laptops ended up. 

But that virtual school would not be Limestone’s only problem. Following the interview, Isley said he told the FBI and DOE agents of current, equally-troubling issues with Limestone’s current virtual school, Connections Academy. 

Among the issues: Connections was failing to follow guidelines for serving disabled students, putting at risk millions in federal funding, and there was a huge discrepancy between the teacher units for which Pearson, the company that operated Connections Academy, was billing the state and the number it appeared to actually employ. 

According to Isley, who was responsible on forms sent to the state for “placing” teachers — essentially the act of accounting for the teacher units that were provided by the state by showing where those teachers were employed within the district — Pearson was claiming more than 100 teacher units, yet Limestone had placed no more than 23. 

“That’s all I could find, and I thought it was weird and that someone should look into it,” Isley said. “I’m in charge of HR, you know. It’s my job to make sure the teachers are there.”

Isley isn’t alone in his concerns. Two other sources, including one long-serving financial officer currently working for a school district in Alabama, viewed Connection Academy’s teacher data and concurred that a large discrepancy exists. 

What that discrepancy means, however, is unclear. On paper, it should be impossible for such a gap, because the state requires each district to submit a detailed report of all teachers employed, their years of service and their certification levels. Those numbers are compared to the teacher-unit funding each district receives, and adjustments are made. 

Still, there seems to be an issue somewhere. Current Limestone County superintendent Randy Shearouse told APR that Connections Academy planned to employ roughly 107 teachers for the upcoming school year. That would be a slight decline in teachers despite an enormous uptick in students — Connections will have nearly 600 additional students this year. 

Shearouse, who was named superintendent in June, said he couldn’t speculate on the numbers because he hadn’t been on the job long enough to dig into them. He also said he was mostly unaware of the investigation of the virtual school, having only heard about it. 

For raising the concerns, Isley was promptly shuffled out at Limestone in a very public fashion. He was placed on leave last January for reasons that the district refused to reveal, although it hinted to media outlets that Isley was the subject of an investigation. (Limestone’s attorney actually argued in a court filing that the district had no duty to inform employees why it placed them on paid leave.) A short time later, the district began termination proceedings against Isley, a former county superintendent who had been on the job less than two years. 

In documents submitted to the state department of education, Limestone listed four reasons for its decision to terminate Isley mid-year, including the very odd charge of improper dumping of a Christmas tree and ornaments at a thrift store and a discrepancy with how Isley documented time off. 

Dates on the supporting documentation, obtained by APR, shows that Mike Owens, who was serving as the acting superintendent at the time, didn’t collect a single piece of evidence to support terminating Isley prior to placing him on leave. In fact, two of the incidents happened months before — one of which Isley discussed with Owens — and didn’t receive a reprimand of any kind. 

Isley eventually settled with the Limestone system and agreed to a forced resignation. He remains unemployed. 

“The guy is a boy scout,” said Isley’s attorney, Shane Sears. “Even when it’s to his own detriment, he’s going to do the right thing and speak up. That’s what happened here. All you need to know about this is how they reacted to what he was saying.”

A Bigger Issue

The investigation being conducted by the FBI and DOE clearly has not stopped in Limestone County. Sources confirmed to APR that in addition to state and Limestone/Athens officials interviewed, the FBI has also talked with people connected to Sumter Academy and to officials at a virtual school in Eufaula, as well as to numerous people affiliated with multiple third-party virtual school providers.

Their focus, in each instance, involves virtual schools inflating enrollment numbers in order to secure more federal, state and local funding. Sources told APR that the FBI and DOE are exploring a variety of avenues by which those numbers have been inflated, including enrolling private school students, homeschool students and prisoners. 

The latter appears to be the primary issue in Athens, three sources familiar with that investigation told APR. The Renaissance Academy, which was started in 2015 in Athens, began enrolling prisoners the same year, pulling in more than 600 enrollees from Alabama’s prisons around the state, and pulling in the $6,000-plus-per-pupil funding that went with them. 

But according to sources, the Renaissance school did a particularly poor job of tracking those prisoners, and investigators have found instances of long-since-released prisoners still being on the Renaissance rolls. 

“Dr. Holladay has been an educator for over thirty-five years,” said Holladay’s attorney, Joe Espy. “There are no charges pending against him and if any are filed, he will vigorously defend them.”

Holladay is not alone in hiring legal representation. At least two other individuals involved in either the Limestone County or Athens investigations have hired Montgomery attorneys. 

Whatever comes of potential criminal charges, though, there is little doubt that state lawmakers have to find ways to secure the virtual school setup, and to instill some level of oversight. 

“This is like the wild west out there right now,” said a longtime ALSDE employee. “People have quickly figured out that no one is watching what’s going on here and they’re taking advantage. We’re talking about millions of dollars lost to fraud. And, oh, by the way, the schools they’re providing aren’t great either. This can’t go on.”

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Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program gets more national attention

The article analyzed a recent study that found that students who attended the program were “statistically significantly more likely” to be proficient in both math and reading than those who did not.

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The state’s First Class Pre-K program gives children advantages in math and reading that last into middle school, far longer than the gains studied in other high-quality pre-K programs, according to an article published in the International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy.

The article analyzed a recent study that found that students who attended the program were “statistically significantly more likely” to be proficient in both math and reading than those who did not.

While programs like Head Start and Tennessee’s pre-K program have been shown to lead to significant educational improvements when children enter kindergarten, those benefits appear to experience a “fadeout” within a year. 

The new research followed students through the 7th grade. Further research should examine the persistence of benefits through high school, according to the article, which was published by researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, ThinkData and the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education.

The research “is reassuring and supports accountability for continued investments and expansion,” the article concluded.

The journal that featured the article is a publication of the National Institute of Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

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Selma residents will discuss renaming Edmund Pettus Bridge at Aug. 7 virtual event

Micah Danney

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The historic Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

A group of Selma residents, in response to the latest push to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge, has organized and will host a virtual town hall meeting to discuss the proposal.

The forum can be viewed live on the Facebook page of the Selma Matters Campaign on Aug. 7 at 6 p.m. The group encouraged members of the public to attend.

The event will include “leaders from across the country who bring a wealth of knowledge to the various aspects of considering the name change” and will feature Selma locals, including “foot soldiers” of the Civil Rights movement. It will be moderated by LaTosha Brown, a Selma native and co-founder of Black Voters Matter, and Bernard LaFayette, Civil Rights activist and co-founder of the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth, and Reconciliation.

There have been several initiatives launched over the years to rename the bridge, which bears the name of a Confederate general and reputed grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. The current push is by The John Lewis Bridge Project, a nonprofit formed to rename the bridge in honor of the late Rep. John Lewis, who led the historic march for voting rights across the bridge and into the batons and fists of white State Troopers and deputized citizens in 1965.

The nonprofit was formed in June, when Lewis was ailing with cancer. Lewis had responded to a previous attempt to rename the bridge in his honor by politely declining it in an editorial. His office did not comment when the current initiative was announced.

Residents of Selma, some of whom were on the bridge in 1965, or had relatives who were, have resisted efforts to rename it. Some argue that its name has become synonymous with the struggle for political and human rights that made it famous. It’s a landmark in the global landscape of freedom struggle sites, and is under consideration for UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

The latest petition had a goal of 500,000 signatures. It has surpassed that since Lewis died, and the goal was increased to 1 million signatures.

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“In recognizing this rising effort, the Selma Matters Campaign has dedicated its focus on ensuring the citizens of Selma are given the opportunity to voice their opinions and not be left out of the decision-making process that directly impacts Selma,” the group said in a statement.

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Exposure notification app for college students launches pilot phase

Micah Danney

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Screen captures of the GuideSafe application. (UAB)

College students across Alabama and anyone with a .edu email address are being invited to participate in an anonymous Exposure Notification System app for iPhone and Android users. The app launched in a closed pilot phase on Monday that will allow up to 10,000 downloads for each phone type.

The app is part of the GuideSafe platform, a suite of tools designed to help people reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. It features a tool called HealthCheck, which allows users to report COVID-19 symptoms, and another called Event Passport, which uses an algorithm to assess whether a person is safe to attend a gathering of 10 or more people or not based on the responses they log in HealthCheck. 

The GuideSafe platform encompasses the Stay Safe Together and Testing for Alabama initiatives. Participation is voluntary and designed to protect users’ privacy while anonymously alerting each user to potential exposure to someone who has tested positive in the last 14 days. The exposure notification system assigns random numbers to each user to keep them anonymous to each other and to the system.

The app will be made available for mass public download later this month after the pilot phase ends and the app’s performance is assessed.

GuideSafe is the largest-scale testing initiative for higher education in the nation. It uses exposure notification technology developed jointly by Google and Apple.

Alabama is one of the first states to launch the technology, which is part of the state’s program for safe entry to campuses of higher education. Gov. Kay Ivey allocated more than $30 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for the plan.

The pilot app was built by the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Birmingham-based MotionMobs, in partnership with the Alabama Department of Public Health.

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“We have worked extremely hard to leverage research and innovation, community service, patient care and education to make a positive difference in this pandemic,” said UAB President Ray L. Watts. “This new app – using Google- and Apple-led technology and created by UAB faculty, staff and MotionMobs for the people of Alabama – is a necessary tool in our effort to return to college campuses safely this fall.”

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