Commissioner Roland Raises Alarms Involving Charter Schools and Turkish Cleric

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Fethulleh Gulen
  • Fethulleh Gulen
A Tuesday morning press conference scheduled by Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland may, if Roland is inferring correctly from a set of documents he has come by, set off an explosion with consequences for his Commission colleague Brent Taylor, for former Mayor and Memphis school superintendent Willie Herenton, and for the charter school movement now gaining sway in Tennessee with the backing of Governor Bill Haslam's administration.

Roland announced at the close of Monday's regular Commission meeting that he would be holding the press conference at 10:30 Tuesday in the fourth floor Commission library and would be discussing a variety of questions relating to pending charter school operations in Shelby County. A follow-up press release indicated that he would "disclose the findings of an investigation into Charter Schools in Shelby County... after receiving a tip from a concerned constituent regarding a connection to a County Commissioner."�

According to documents made available to the Flyer and other media, the commissioner is Taylor, a fellow Republican with whom Roland has clashed on a number of matters. Taylor is listed as a member of the Board of Directors of the W.E.B. Dubois charter schools which former Mayor Herenton proposes to operate in Shelby County.

State Treasurer David Lillard cleared the way for the schools' operation when he overruled a rejection of Herenton's application earlier this year by the Unified School Board. The Board had cited financial reasons. Herenton has since begun negotiations with the Board and the County for the use of several surplus school buildings.

Roland's charges are several. He alleges that Taylor is guilty of an ethics violation by having improperly withheld information about his involvement with the Dubois schools when asked about his affiliations last year when he became one of several candidates to fill a Commission vacancy. He was ultimately appointed to the vacancy by a Commission majority.

Roland weights his charge against Taylor with allegations in the documents that the W.E.B. Dubois Schools are associated with the Harmony Schools based in Houston and with the Cosmos Schools, education networks under the domination of one Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamic cleric who was the subject last week of a lengthy New York Times article (a copy of which is provide in Roland's document pack).

The article and other materials attest to a range of opinion about Gulen, ranging from fears that he is masterminding a sinister Sharia-based world cult called the Gulen Movement to other, milder readings of the cleric as a pure educational crusader whose Islamic faith runs to the moderate variety. A characteristic of the charter schools he is alleged to be controlling, including one already operating in Memphis, is that the schools' faculty is overwhelmingly composed of Turkish nationals.

It should be said many of the school networks cited in the Times story and other documents, which by all accounts stress a secular curriculum heavy in math, science, and technology, deny a connection to Gulen. It should also be noted that Taylor, when asked on Monday about his involvement with Herenton's charter school application, said that he knew very little about the schools and had agreed to serve on the Dubois board as a courtesy to Herenton when he was requested to.

Herenton himself was quoted in The Commercial Appeal as denying any involvement with Harmony schools, acknowledging that he had claimed a relationship with the chain in his charter school application but saying he did so merely to "impress" state Achievement School District supervisor Chris Barbic.

"Either he's involved with them, or he's admitting to falsifying his application," Roland would counter when he finally met with reporters on Tuesday.

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