A proposed (and mostly built) charter school in rural southern Alabama, which has EB-5 (immigrant investor) funding and ties to a conservative Islamic cult, appears to be on the road to extinction.
That the cult (which is Turkey-oriented) and an out-of-state landlord (from Utah) could be seeking to create an additional school in a rural county with a shrinking school population is a reflection on the looseness of both the EB-5 and the charter school systems, the first at the federal and the second at the state level.
But the seven-to-one decision of the Alabama Public Charter Commission (APCC) on February 2, to start the revocation process for the license of Woodland Preparatory School, in Chatom, Ala., was an indication that grass-roots democracy is still alive and well.
The citizens of Washington County, Ala. — some 50 miles north of Mobile — revolted against the school, partly for fear that it would undermine funding for the local public schools, and partly because of the 15 percent management fee that was to be imposed on the direct costs of Woodland Prep by the cult-related entity, Unity School Services of Sugarland, Texas.
In Alabama, if not elsewhere, a charter school can be imposed on a locality by a state agency, in this case the APCC, without a local body, such as the school board, being involved in the decision. Before we get to the details of recent anti-Woodland Prep decisions by the commission, and separately by a state court, it would be useful to outline the role that EB-5 can have in charter schools, and to introduce some of the players in this little drama.
The Role of EB-5. The EB-5 program is designed to create jobs; how a new school that will take one job from the public schools for every one it creates can be regarded as a job-producing process is a mystery, but the EB-5 program has ruled that it's OK. Every investment (now $900,000, but until quite recently $500,000) is supposed to create 10 full-time jobs.
EB-5 moneys are not usually invested directly in the schools themselves, which are often non-profits, but the money goes to the landlords, which can be for-profits. Just how many investors (which would have been at the $500,000 level) there are in this school is not known. Their presence, however, is mentioned in the lease Woodland Prep signed on September 28, 2018, with its landlord, American Charter Development, a Utah for-profit.
Given the apparent prospective demise of the school, it is highly likely that the EB-5 investors will lose both their investments, and maybe their green cards as well. It will not be the first time that EB-5 investors in such schools have faced losses, as we have reported previously.
The Cult and Its Texas Base. The cult-associated entity mentioned earlier is Unity School Services, managed by Soner Tarim, who for years ran the Harmony Science Academy, a set of Texas charter schools affiliated with the followers of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric now self-exiled in rural Pennsylvania.
One of the hallmarks of the U.S. Gulen schools is the extent to which they avoid hiring unemployed citizen teachers and staff, often preferring to hire fellow Turks using the H-1B foreign-worker program. Harmony, during the years 2015-2019 filed papers with the U.S. Labor Department seeking 357 foreign workers, mostly from Turkey. Given the way the H-1B system works, they probably were able to hire about one third of that number. (Woodland Prep is not operating and has, to our knowledge, not sought to hire overseas teachers and administrators.)
At least one set of Gulen schools, Dove Schools in Oklahoma, has been charged with paying excessive rent to Gulen-controlled landlords to siphon off school funds to other cult activities. For more on the Gulen operations, see Mark Hall's documentary film Killing Ed and this "Sixty Minutes" episode on CBS.
The Landlord from Utah. In the Alabama case, however, the landlord is not controlled by the Gulen cult. It is American Charter Development; it is building what looks like a near windowless structure on what had been a trailer park, with some parts of the tract having some drainage issues. (A photo of the proposed school building is on the front page of the January 17 Washington County News.)
ACD has built many other charter schools and has played a role in the controversial one in Cornelius, N.C.
The Cult's Washington County Allies. There is a board of directors for Woodland Prep, five local residents apparently recruited by Tarim. The board is a skillful mix, consisting of an African-American woman with banking experience, a Native American (this was Choctaw territory), and three whites. They are the nominal board for the non-profit school, and it is not clear if they were paid for their services. None of them, according to Betty Brackin, one of the onlookers at the APCC session, were present at the recent hearing. There were three representatives of the school at the meeting, but none were from Washington County. Most of the rest of the 50 or 60 people at the APCC session were opponents of the school; some had chartered a bus to attend the session. Others had arrived by car. The distance from the proposed school site to the state capital is a daunting 172 miles.
The Decisions. The opponents of the proposed charter (including some people associated with the local board of education) filed a suit in the state courts seeking to dis-establish Woodland Prep, charging, among other things, fraud on the part of Tarim.
The charter's lawyers, at a hearing on January 21 in the Chatom courthouse, first sought to clear the room of observers (most of whom were opposed to the school) and to seal the court's records. This motion was denied by the presiding judge, Gaines C. McCorquodale, who said, according to one of the attendees, that he was pleased to see so much interest in the matter. The judge heard, but did not immediately rule on, another motion by the school's lawyers, to dismiss the suit entirely. He has since ruled against the motion to dismiss; routinely such a ruling means that there will be a trial on the merits, but in this case the whole matter might be ruled moot.
This leads us to the February 2 decisions of the Alabama Public Charter Commission. It was asked by the charter school to extend the deadline to get a certificate of occupancy, as it was having problems completing the building (as well as securing the needed number of pupils). The commission voted that request down by seven to one, and then moved to begin the process of revoking the school's license — something never done before in the history of the state — according to this news website. It may take as long as 60 days for the February 2 decision to be ratified by another commission vote; that earlier vote could be overturned.
With the commission voting as it did, and the judge keeping open the case to end the license, the chances of Woodland Prep surviving seem to be dim.
Earlier in the February 2 hearing, there was much criticism of another charter, LEAD Academy of Montgomery. That school, which is operating, once had — and may still have — a management contract with the cult-affiliated Unity School Services. The reporting on this variable is hard to follow, but according to the just-cited account, "Tarim is no longer working at the charter school."
The local press coverage, incidentally, did not, as far as I could see, mention either the EB-5 money or the one-step-away association with the Gulen movement. See, for instance, this Associated Press story.