Privatizing Education

HCSBoard Seal

Public education is under attack nationally and locally here in Huntsville under the guise of “private organizations can do our jobs better.” Or as Dr. Wardynski puts it, “they provide services that we can’t.”

This isn’t true.

If a service can be provided, it can be provided by the public. The public may choose not to provide it, but it can be provided.

So it comes down to cost. Even though Wardynski likes to down play this as a part of his decision making, it usually is the primary reason why services are offered or withheld.

This is certainly the case with our soon to be approved contract with The Pinnacle Schools, which is designed to outsource our services to “problem” students.

So it would seem that the superintendent who in September announced that he didn’t believe in closing schools, is planning to close yet another one. (Providence Middle, Huntsville Center for Technology, Whitesburg Elementary/Middle, Chapman Elementary/Middle, Mt. Gap Elementary/Middle, New Century all make the list.)  The Seldon Center, a program designed to be a stopgap for students facing expulsion, will be closed in February and privatized by moving the students to The Pinnacle Schools.

In doing so he offered two justifications: The Pinnacle Schools offers services that Huntsville City Schools “can’t,” and that privatizing the services will save money.

Let’s look at the first claim first: The Pinnacle Schools offers “diagnostic, assessment, education and intervention services for troubled teens, ages 12-18, and their families. Our programs are based on a medical model with 24-hour medical/nursing care.”

First, there appears to be nothing troubling about this organization. It seems that Ms. Karen Lee found herself in a situation where the school system wasn’t meeting the needs of her child, so she started an organization that would. Such action is indeed praiseworthy, and although I know quite little about it, I believe that The Pinnacle Schools is a fine organization.

However, there is nothing, absolutely nothing in that list that couldn’t also be provided by the school system, or the school system working together with other public organizations.

The school system is simply choosing not to do this. (And in many situations, we are offering services that Dr. Wardynski claims we aren’t offering. I assume that this is merely a lack of experience on his part rather than a deception, but on the 5th he claimed that Huntsville City doesn’t have “access to licensed therapists.” While he wasn’t clear about which types of therapists he was referring to, the system does indeed have access to and currently employs licensed therapists. Again, if the system wished to make this a priority, it could indeed have access to licensed therapists.)

But it will save money, right? On Thursday, January 5th, Dr. Wardynski claimed that Pinnacle could offer more services at a savings of about $7,000 per student. He claimed that Huntsville City spends $18,000 per Seldon student and that Pinnacle would offer more services for approximately $11,000 per student. (As you can see in the contract, this amount is somewhat questionable.)

And yet, this $11,000 per student does not include many cost centers that the system will still be required to pay under the contract. (You may download a copy of the contract here.)

The system will still pay for the following:

  • A1. Referral and Placement: HCS will designate a referral official to provide documentation supporting the referral. Furthermore, not every student referred to TPS will necessarily be accepted. (2)
  • A2. Assessment: HCS will provide extensive communication with TPS. (2)
  • A8. State Testing: “HCS will be responsible for any state testing that referred students may be required to take each year. HSC Accountability and Research will provide certified staff to administer all mandated Alabama State Department of Education Assessments” (3).
  • B5.b. IEP Implementation: “HCS may assign a certified special education instructor employed by HCS to visit the identified students at the program and consult with program teaching staff regarding adjustments related to academic or behavioral services for the identified students” (5).
  • B5.c. IEP Implementation: “Additional IEP services that fall outside the general scope of instructional strategies such as but not limited to speech therapy and other accommodations, will be administered by HCS outside the hours in which the identified students attend the program or adjustments can be made in the daily schedule to accommodate any HCS personnel that need to meet with the identified students to administer the additional IEP services” (5).
  • B6. Food Service: “HCS will be responsible for preparing and delivering required meals for RAISE Program students each weekday” (5).
  • B9. Program Evaluation: “The RAISE Program’s effectiveness will be evaluated based on criteria determined by both HCS and TPS. HCS will provide all necessary demographic and achievement data for students enrolling in the RAISE program” (5).

I wonder if those costs were included in the evaluation “proving” that TPS will be cheaper to operate than Seldon? Somehow, I doubt they were.

Additionally, while Ms. Lee stated that Pinnacle would be able to meet the requirements of the IEP, the very first paragraph under B5. IEP Implementation says, “a. HCS, the parent and the student must acknowledge that the identified student will be held to the same standards of conduct, academic progress expectations and attendance requirements as any other RAISE Program students” (5).

As a parent with a child who has an IEP, it’s clear to me that Ms. Lee has no understanding of what an IEP is. The basic premise of an Individualized Educational Program is that the individual student is held to individual standards of conduct, academic progress expectations and attendance requirements. That’s the main point of having an IEP.

But I don’t blame Ms. Lee for this. She is, by her own admission, new at working with students having an IEP. The problem doesn’t lie with her or The Pinnacle Schools, but rather with Huntsville City Schools’ leadership not understanding the purpose of an IEP.

If Dr. Wardynski had any experience at all, or perhaps if he were willing to listen to those who do, he would know not to sign this contract with that statement.

But he doesn’t. Or he doesn’t care.

And that’s why he wants to privatize education in the city of Huntsville. He’s not actually committed to public education. He doesn’t understand it. He doesn’t believe in the value it offers a community.

He’s privatized the hiring and training of principals. He’s privatized the hiring of unqualified “teachers.” Now he’s privatizing the services we’re offering to some of our most vulnerable students.

He was placed into his position by corporate interests. This $1,596,000 for the RAISE program (for up to 125 students at a rate of $12,768 per student) and $433,438 for five beds at the Elk River Treatment Program (at a rate of $86,687.60 per student) for the next year is just the beginning of his paying them back.

The Board will likely approve this $2,029,440 contract on Thursday.


"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.


  1. Just to add something here Russell…..the estimated figure given by THEM of 18k for service cost for EACH student , is INCORRECT because they have calculated in that budget that have nothing to do with the actual student population that are proposed for the “move”
    They have calculated in cost of 2 other programs within the seldom center that WILL NOT be part of this “move” I.e. the Home School program …..and as IEP’s ARE NOT being m met…..how is it possible that whichever student under Special Ed when moved to TPS will all of a sudden MAGICALLY have IEP’s that will be adhered to?….. just more ” doo doo” cooking in the crock!

  2. Just to add something here Russell…..the estimated figure given by THEM of 18k for service cost for EACH student , is INCORRECT because they have calculated in that budget that have nothing to do with the actual student population that are proposed for the “move” They have calculated in cost of 2 other programs within the seldom center that WILL NOT be part of this “move” I.e. the Home School program …..and as IEP’s ARE NOT being m met…..how is it possible that whichever student under Special Ed when moved to TPS will all of a sudden MAGICALLY have IEP’s that will be adhered to?….. just more ” doo doo” cooking in the crock!

  3. If only the Board answered questions, it would be nice to know:

    1. How is Pinnacle going to “guarantee” that students will show up? [from al.com 1/12/11: “And the district would have a guarantee that students were present and getting their education and treatment. There is no such guarantee at Seldon.’There are days when we have no kids there and a bunch of teachers present,’ Wardynski said.”

    2. Why hasn’t Seldon been required to function? Why has the Board let this problem develop? [Maybe Ann Roy Moore could have consulted on this during her “consultancy.”]

    3. “Part of the problem, [W] said, is that the Seldon Center does not have a residential component for those students who need around-the-clock guidance. “Round-the-clock” “residential component”: Two ways to enforce this if kid is over 14: kid signs self in, or kid is committed by the Court. You can’t force a kid over 14 to enter a residential treatment plan — that would come to what, false imprisonment? The 14+ signs self in or there is a court order. “If a student did not, or could not, adhere to the rules of the day program, he or she could be transferred to the more intensive program at Elk River. The Elk River campus is a 60-bed facility licensed by the state’s Department of Youth Services. It is physician-directed and has 24-hour medical and nursing care”– if he signs self in, or if there is a court order. If and only if.

    5. Does a School Board really want to get into the business of court-ordered mental hospital committals? if Pinnacle can guarantee that kids will receive treatment, that to me suggests a SECURE facility. Voluntarily, 14+s can check in any time they like, but they can never leave — at least not until the insurance benefits run out. Involuntary commitments? Be careful, be very, very careful.

    4. Round the clock residential facilities are EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE.

    5. “Students would be referred to the program by a designated representative of the school system.” Let’s hear more about this.

    6. So other than the round-the-clock facility, which has some serious legal strings attached (see 3), what can Pinnacle do that Seldon, if kids were required to attend, can’t? And the required to attend, the showing up, shouldn’t be such an issue. If the kid is in so much trouble he requires Seldon, he has probably been adjudicated deliquent, and school attendance is part of probation. No show=violated probation=send a squad car.

  4. Many do not know but the Seldon Center staff created a proposal to address concerns of the center and to better meet the needs of the students sent there. I am trying to get it to anyone that is willing to read it before a decision is made on the Seldon Center.

  5. from the Pinnacle contract…

    The fee paid to TPS by HCS is not dependent upon the number of students referred to the program by HCS or accepted into the program by TPS. The fee being paid to TPS is in consideration of TPS obtaining and maintaining at all times during the term of this Agreement a facility and staff capable of providing an alternative education program to 125 students referred to TPS by HCS.

    Sooo, HCS will be paying the full amount to Pinnacle whether there are 5, 10, or 125 students in the program. Seems like Dr. Wardynski had a problem with Seldon because HCS had teachers there whether or not the students attended.

    One other thought…

    The Pinnacle contract talks about students being referred and accepted into the program. What happens to students that are not accepted into the program? Did Seldon have the option of accepting or refusing students?

    1. Excellent catch. I missed that part last night. They also charge 900 per day for students over 125.

      There’s no discussion about what happens to the unaccepted students. I don’t think they’ll be at Seldon though since they’re talking about closing it. I supposed unaccepted students are simply expelled.

  6. 1) Seldon cannot turn students away. Even those who come in March, are passing none of their classes and cannot mathematically gain a credit or even qualify for credit recovery (40-59), cannot be denied. Seldon essentially becomes a daycare. There are also court appointed students who have no desire to be in school and who’s sole purpose is to act up in order to be suspended because probation officer and judge says said child must PHYSICALLY be in school. Yep, daycare again.
    2) There has NEVER been a day in my past 3.5 years there where I have had no students. NEVER
    3) Seldons main problem is our hands are tied and we can’t do anything. If h weed out the students who have no desire in the world to be there and are simply showing up to avoid jail or so mama can collect a check, we could work wonders. But no, we are a dumping ground for the weakest links and the most troublesome students, then throw in a few (very few) who just made a stupid, “heat of the moment” decision and is an otherwise amiable, respectful, kid who desires to better himself.
    4) Seldon offers many programs: alternative school for expelled students, home school (yes how is it that HCS has a free home school division no one knows about), homebound for sick kids, etc. , Neaves center (yep, we have to educate the jailbirds) and used to be but currently phased out concurrent Ed program for students wanting to get a GED. Seems like they will move the alternative school, not sure what’s going to happen to any of the other programs.

    1. “Homebound” students will also receive services via The Pinnacle Schools. I believe that Neaves will remain, but it’s hard to say.

      Thanks for all the information, Special K! And as always, for reading.

      1. It’s important to get a straight answer about the Elk River component of the contract. Is it a boarding school, to which parents can admit kid, or is it a psychiatric hospital?

        Pinnacle’s website doesn’t mention charges. It does say: Options for Financial Assistance/Student Loans. Student loans are an option for parents considering a private education for their child. Financing your child’s education and treatment with a student loan allows you to make low monthly payments over a period of time. Collateral is usually not required for health care loans and unlike mortgage loans, health care loans are often less expensive to obtain. These loans can include all of your educational expenses such as tuition, student transport/escort fees and airfare. TPS maintains a relationship with two behavioral health loan companies. To research the possibility of financing your child’s tuition contact My Medical Loan at (800) 788-0711, American HealthCare Lending at (800) 625-7412, ext. 100 or Clark Behavioral Health Financing at (888) 755-3080. and
        <"" A Hospital without Walls, we support the medical needs available in a traditional hospital,… a flexible length of stay is available at Elk River, it shouldn't be compared to a boarding school for troubled teens. Boarding schools are typically a long-term option. Elk River programs are designed as short-term therapeutic programs with year-round academics.

        I’m not saying that there aren’t kids who could benefit from such an environment. I imagine there are hundreds, if not thousands, in the HCS who would.

        But funding a psychiatric hospital stay for a select few is simply not what public school tax monies are for.

        And if this service can’t be provided to all kids who need it, then is it what a public school system should be doing?

        Is it a way to keep a select class of students whose insurance plans don’t provide for 8 week or year-long psychiatric hospitalizations out of Neaves or state hospitals?

        And the un-select? Dumped by the wayside.

    2. As Special K suggests, Seldon could function if those that shouldn’t be there weren’t.

      Showing up and being disruptive should not suffice for meting probationary requirements.

      Most of the kids in Neaves aren’t there for violent acts. They AREN’T the ones who should be there — the violent and disruptive are.

      Part of the problem then is with the Office of the District Attorney and judicial system. Put the non-violent and non-disruptive on probation and send them home.

      Make the transition from Seldon to Neaves a reality for those whose behavior violates others’ rights.

      Concentrate at Seldon on the “few (very few) who just made a stupid, ‘heat of the moment’ decision and [are] otherwise amiable, respectful, kid[s] who desire to better [themselves].

      I also think it was ridiculous to raise school leaving age from 16 to 17. Why demand attendance of kids who have no intention of learning? Now the minimum age to get a GED is 18, 17 with special permission, 16 if from private schooling situation.

      Set the GED age to 16 — maybe even 15 — no strings. If kid passes it, then help him find a job, and be done with him.

      There are also a number of very bright kids whose school lives are miserable — let them take the GED and enroll in a community college or wherever they are accepted.

      Or subsidize their private educations in a more congenial environment, you know, like a Pinnacle for kids who haven’t misbehaved but who have been victimized by others’ bad behavior. Why not?

  7. Russell,
    this article was printed yesterday. Just passing it along as an FYI…

    From The New York Times:

    New Definition of Autism Will Exclude Many, Study Suggests

    Changes to the way autism is diagnosed may make it harder for many people who would no longer meet the criteria to get health, educational and social services, researchers say.


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