Wardynski–The Numbers Guy–Underestimates Cost of Contracts Again

Huntsville City School Board of Education

On Thursday, June 21st, the Huntsville City School Board approved Dr. Wardynski’s recommendation for a $21.9 million contract with Pearson Education, Inc. to convert the district from printed textbooks to a digital textbook learning system beginning in August of 2012. This contract was nearly $4 million more than Dr. Wardynski said it would be. Some numbers guy.

The board, as usual, approved the recommendation unanimously.

So beginning the first week of school a month and a half from now, our district will be using computers and tablets and not textbooks in all of our classrooms at all grade levels.

The Numbers Guy

Why is it that Dr. Wardynski, “a numbers guy” as some members of the board call him, regularly underestimates the actual costs of contracts when he discusses them with the board and the public? He did this with the Teach for America contract which doubled in costs, and now he’s done it with the Pearson contract. As you can see in reviewing the contract, the total cost for the six-year contract will be just shy of $22 million dollars ($21,902,845, to be precise).

And yet every time he referred to the cost when discussing it with the board he claimed that the cost was closer to $18 million.

Wardynski Talks Numbers

Here’s what he said:

On the cost side, we have a call to our parents tomorrow in which I get into a little bit of the cost side too. How does this work financially. Um, our best estimate to do this with textbooks, and our inventory of textbooks is quite old, uh we would probably make an investment somewhere around 15 to 19 million dollars. In paper. And that would involve warehousing and moving it around, all those things people are very used to seeing that went along with paper.

Uh, we don’t have 19 million dollars to buy new textbooks at a slug. [Ed. Note: This is why we don’t buy all brand new textbooks every year.] So that would unfold probably, the transformation of our textbooks bought here would unfold over probably the next four to five years. Piece by piece. So it would be Envision Math, and then it would be something to do with history, and then maybe something to do with literacy, and that would flow in over time, and we would have the paper products.

So what we’re really doing is saying we’re not going to go that route, we’re going to go the digital route, and we’re going to spread those costs over the six years of our engagement with Pearson. And so, that cost, say it’s 18 would be 18 divided by three. [Ed. Note: I’m fairly certain he meant to say “18 divided by six” at this point, as 18 divided by three is six million rather than three million.] We do have money to do three million dollars a year to buy a subscription to have everybody immediately on the new curriculum.

Every new textbook to be digital available through the computers. And so the financials are sorta a wash, but it’s a timing issue. The upfront cost of doing business the old way were prohibitive, and frankly unaffordable. The new way of doing in business where you buy a subscription, or software as a service, levels that cost out so you don’t have that huge entry fee, and so it’s economically, it’s, it ends up being very similar numbers, but the second set of numbers are actually doable because of the way the finances lay out.

So the estimate he offered the board and the public for the cost of our paper textbooks was $15 – 19 million. The estimated cost of the digital contract with Pearson was $18 million.

If his numbers, estimates, and claims were correct, and considering that he has an iPad with a copy of the contract directly in front of him while he’s talking to the board (who also have a copy of the contract in front of them), you would think that he would be able to offer an estimate that is fairly close to being correct, wouldn’t you?

No One Corrects Him

At the very least, you would think that at least one of the, on average, twelve people in the room whom are looking at the contract while it’s being discussed could do math in their head and let the superintendent know that he’s underestimating the cost of the contract by four million dollars.

The superintendent has a copy. All five of the board members have a copy. The CSFO, the director of Operations, the director of empowered schools, the director of managed schools, the deputy superintendent, and the board attorney all have a copy of the contracts when the superintendent is discussing them, and yet not one of them managed to add six numbers to let the superintendent know that he was underestimating the total.

But that would require that someone in that room be more interested to an open and honest discussion than they are in simply advancing the Broad Foundation’s agenda as presented by the Superintendent.

So this new digital learning environment will cost between three and seven million more than the paper texts.

And this doesn’t include the cost of the hardware which the district is leasing from HP at a cost of about $2.3 million per year.

HP Lease Has No Numbers

Interestingly, we can’t actually get more precise than this rough estimate as the actual contract with HP doesn’t have any actual figures included in it. That’s right, the published contract has no figures included in the contract. I wonder what exactly the board approved on May 21st? I wonder if even they know?

So, assuming that the superintendent was correct when he claimed that the HP lease contract would cost “about $2.3 million per year,” the total cost for the next six years is actually closer to $35 million and not the $18 million that Dr. Wardynski claimed. In other words, this transition to a digital learning system will cost about $16 – 20 million more than paper textbooks will cost. Assuming, of course that the other numbers the superintendent has presented are more accurate than the Pearson estimate was.

That’s not exactly, as the superintendent claimed, “sorta a wash” is it?

Please understand, I’m not a Luddite. I love technology. The first word in the title is “geek” for a reason. (By the way, “Palaver” means “conversation” or “discussion” if you were wondering.)

I know that technology can help us do many things. It is a useful tool.

It is not, however, an end in itself. Technology is a tool for a teacher to use. It is not a teacher itself.

And our teachers’ salaries are still frozen despite having nearly an extra six million dollars a year to spend on tools for them to use to teach with.

We seem to be rolling in funds for the things the superintendent wants.

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


  1. “But that would require that someone in that room be more interested to an open and honest discussion than they are in simply advancing the Broad Foundation’s agenda as presented by the Superintendent.

    So this new digital learning environment will cost between three and seven million more than the paper texts.”

    But that’s OK. Snark

    Also not mentioned, nor considered in this whole Digital Deal are the children who don’t have access to the Internet at home, lost/stolen computers, and protecting students from online sexual predators.

    What if parents don’t want their children to have access to the Internet, or be responsible for a lap top computer?

  2. There’s a lot wrong with moving to electronics.

    In both middle and high school (Madison City System), I was given the opportunity to try electronic textbooks (PDFs) alongside regular ones. While I claim to be a huge computer-savvy techie, I really didn’t care for the PDFs, they never even came close to textbooks. The textbooks were heavy, absolutely, but they weren’t distracting to read, and didn’t hurt my eyes as much during long study crams. And trying to do homework off a tablet or laptop screen was an awful experience.

    At this stage, I firmly believe that the use of technology in schools is a huge mistake. Nearly everything I’ve seen, from SMART boards to iPads, has been an extremely expensive buzz word that serves no purpose than to disrupt the teaching methods my instructors are comfortable and knowledgeable with.

    There is no excuse for any school system to waste money in this manner, hours of my life have been wasted watching a teacher combat a mis-aligned projector, I feel very sympathetic for the additional hours that will be wasted for current and future students.

  3. Does anyone read any of the contracts? (And how much money goes out in legal fees?)

    Explain this to me: The Pinnacle Contract, p. 6,
    Contract Terms,
    C1 Period: “The initial period for this Agreement will be . . . February 2012 to July 2012. . .
    C2 Costs: T”he program costs are as follow: 2011 – 2012 (short academic period) . . .5 contractual beds at Elk River Treatment Program . . .for the period January 1, 2012 – July 31, 2012.”

    Here we have 3 different start dates: Feb. 2012, 2011, and January 1, 2012.

    How did 2011 slip in there?

    The contract was approved by the Board at the January 19, 2012 Board meeting, so why was the start date for paying $750 a day for [5@$150] teepee spots January 1? What did Huntsville’s taxpayers get for their money those days?

    And of course, none of this even touches on a big unanswered question: why, if Seldon Center was still operating until May 2012, did the contract with Pinnacle begin months before it was needed?

    1. Only you and me, I would guess. You would think people interested in directing education would at a minimum enjoy reading.

      1. Okay, I think I do understand the dates question correctly – but check it out to see for yourself. The 2011-2012 period is referring to the fiscal school year in which the contract would begin. January 1, 2012 to July 31, 2012 refers to the specific time frame (by academic semester) in which services would begin being provided and was written well prior to the actual approval. Actual service provision was not provided until the first month following board approval and was specified when on the version presented to the board for approval. The overlap of Pinnacle and Seldon was intended to be a transition period (much like the phased transfer of Providence Middle students to Williams Middle). As I understood the info presented (and the actual occurrences), new assignments to Seldon were halted, but students already assigned there would serve their full assignments before Seldon closed. This is just an explanation of what I heard presented and not an opinion on the value of the choices.

        1. Check register does show first payment of $360,000 to Pinnacle as occurring in early February, not January.

          I know for a fact that one new student was transferred to the Modified Education Student Services (formerly Homebound) at Seldon on February 29, 2012.

          1. Seldon Center handled four separate programs. As I understood the explanation presented at the school board meeting, the “initial contract” was for disciplinary Alternative Placement services only. Homebound was not supposed to be part of the contract for the 2011-2012 academic year, but was to be added for the 2012-2013 academic year if the initial review was satisfactory and the contract was continued. I have understood since that time that some (and maybe eventually all) Credit Recovery services are going to be provided by Pinnacle – negotiations were in discussion but not finalized. The last piece provided by Seldon is the Distance Learning Program (some call it the “Homeschool Option”) which is separate from the Homebound Program. That is definitely being transferred somewhere – I thought it was the new Lee High School and was being revamped, but am not certain about that piece.

          2. Ms. B: The contract that was available online this winter says that the short academic term (Feb to July will cost $360,000 and will be for 75 student slots ($4800 per student).and $159,688 for “5 contractual beds” at $150 per bed per day [159,688/750=212.9 and there are 213 days from Jan.1 to July 31, 2012 (this is leap year).

            Which of the four populations Seldon served were to comprise the 75 slots is not specified.

            So the questions remain:
            1. What 75 students were served for $360K from Feb to July at Pinnacle, including the time when Seldon was still open?

            2. How is it that the contract was not approved by the board until Jan. 19, but five contractual beds were paid for in the teepees for a period of 213 days rather than one of 194 days? Was the amount paid for the teepee beds changed in the final contract?

          3. Havealittletalk: I have not been able to access to contract to review the actual terms. If you could tell me where to view it, I would be grateful. I am familiar with Pinnacle and the general terms of placement agreements.

            1. The 75 students were the estimated number of seats for new assignments that HCS anticipated needing for disciplinary Alternative Placement during the second semester (whether at Seldon or at Pinnacle). We will not be privy to what students were actually placed there as giving out that info would be a violation of federal law under FERPA. We can, however, get the actual number from the budget expenditures report that is made public.

            2. The teepee beds were also an estimate based on past history at Seldon. These 5 beds were the maximum anticipated need for new placements during the second semester. These beds are for children who cannot or refuse to function in the Alternative Placement setting. It is a behavioral treatment program that is a 6-7 month duration (depending on the child’s progress). When a child enters, he/she stays for the duration of treatment. This is an alternative to being expelled from Seldon or Pinnacle. I wish I could answer about the amount in the final contract, but I have not been able to view it. I expect that there is a method for adjusting for actual number of days and that the contract authorized the maximum allowable number of days.

            1. Ms. B:

              Here is a link to the Pinnacle Contract: https://eboard.eboardsolutions.com/Meetings/Attachment.aspx?S=2061&AID=14496&MID=739

              By the way the minutes for the January 19, 2012 Board meeting [http://www.hsv.k12.al.us/dept/merts/admin/board/minutes/Minutes_11-12/1-19-12.MIN.pdf] say that the Pinnacle Contract is attached. It isn’t, but it may have been at one time. Compare the minutes for the 2-25-12 meeting which do include contracts approved — odd that in some cases the contracts are included w minutes, but not always.

              February check register is here: http://www.hsv.k12.al.us/dept/merts/Finance/Financial_Reports/Feb_12/Check_Register.pdf and shows payment of $360,000, which agrees with what I quoted above about 75 slots at $4800. As I mentioned before, the Elk River fees (5 beds @ $150/d each) does not appear in any of the check registers thus for posted for 2012 (last posted is April’s).

              But we are straying from my main question. Why did the HCS begin its contracted services with Pinnacle while Seldon still was in operation?

              Let’s say that the HCS decided to change bus companies at the end of the 2011-2012 academic year. Would it make sense to pay New Bus Company in February for services that Old Bus Company would continue to provide through May 24, 2012? I don’t think so.

              I realize that confidentiality rules preclude any info about individual students who were at Pinnacle in the spring, as they should. However, since the check register shows $360K, which is what Pinnacle charged for 75 seats, that is probably going to mean that the only answer we will get is that we paid for 75 seats through July 31. Whether the seats were filled or empty is the interesting question. It would also be interesting to know which categories of students were in those seats.

              1. Thanks for attempting to help me with links. I wasn’t able to look at the contracts. The check registers will not give you the information about how many seats were used, but it is possible that the actual Budget Expenditures figures will show or in some way reflect actual seat use numbers. This will be on accounting reports published periodically – I am not sure how to access them – but can be requested from your board rep.

                As to the overlap, the 75 seats in the initial contract period were for disciplinary Alternative Placement only. This was clearly stated at the Jan. 19 meeting. In a bus services contract there would be no need to overlap services and a simple one-shot change would be appropriate. In behavioral and psychiatric services such as Alternative Placement, the change would necessarily take place gradually. If a child is assigned (“sentenced”) to Alternative Placement at Seldon for 12 weeks, there is no authorization to move that child – even if Pinnacle opens during that child’s week 3. Moving the child would constitute a new penalty (“re-sentencing”). All students already assigned to Seldon were to finish out those assignments – preventing a disruption in the rehabilitative process as well as avoiding legal challenges. No new students were placed at Seldon after Pinnacle’s opening date. This is a phased transfer of services – much like you would see in a hospital environment when one contract ends and another begins. This approach allowed Seldon employees to finish out the contract for the 2011-12 year without employment disruption and gave them a chance to find new assignments within HCS – which also avoided unnecessary legal challenges with HEA.

                1. Ms. B,
                  I’m not sure why you can’t get the contract to open; a dialog window should appear allowing you to dowmload an Office file.

                  The explanation that the spring was a transitional time makes sense, but I am curious why the contract wasn’t set up to reflect this. Unless 75 new disciplinary students were at Pinnacle the first day the contract went into effect, then money was lost. The contract has provisions for what the HCS will pay if more than the contracted number of slots are required, but not if the ones contracted are not used. Thus, during a transitional phase, it would have been reasonable to add, for example, 15 kids a month over the next 5 months.

                  None of this explains why the services Pinnacle provides were not extended to the “homebound” kids who instead were left in the lurch without teachers or subs for two weeks this spring. It doesn’t seem quite right, does it, to leave behind those who are struggling as the result of illness or injury — that is, through no fault of their own — even as huge amounts of money are expended to make sure that there are plenty of spaces for those who require being “sentenced” to an alternative school.

                  1. I think that my software is too old or I may need a login ID for eBoards or maybe I am just doing it wrong. I will try to look at the contract again later this week.

                    The initial contract was written for a minimum number of seats needed for the semester – regardless of placement date. The cost per seat appears to be a base price which is usually figured from a cost-plus averaging method. If I remember correctly, it was a prorated price per seat for the initial start-up period. (Figuring costs on a per day basis can turn into an accounting nightmare.)

                    Homebound is a completely separate service that was still administered through the Seldon Center. Kids serviced through Seldon are served on a “temporary transfer” basis. During the last 2 weeks of the year, those kids are all transferred back to their original schools for exams and final grades. This is not a new procedure. Homebound kids received their final grades from their original schools. All Seldon kids who graduated went through commencement for their regular high schools. These students were not left without teachers for any period of the 2011-12 school year.

                    1. Ms B: You speak of how things should have been: “These students were not left without teachers for any period of the 2011-12 school year.”

                      I know how they were for nearly two weeks in April 2012 (on the Monday this stretch began, there was a clueless sub).

                      I urge you to ask, with the assurance of confidentiality, those who were at Seldon (if my livelihood or my child’s well-being depended on my answer, I’d be scared: fortunately, I am now, I believe — I hope — beyond reach), if there was in fact a period of days in April 2012 when the homebound teachers were reassigned.

                      If need be, get my contact info from geekpalaver and I will provide you a sworn affidavit. I don’t make such claims lightly or from ignorance.

                    2. huntsvillealfail: Thank you for offering. I don’t want you to be any more at risk. My thoughts are with your family.
                      Clueless or not, a sub is still a teacher. No doubt, the transition was a mess, Homebound (medically restricted) students have great flexibility with timelines – with the exception of graduation schedules – and that is as it should be. I am not an expert on this particular program – but it is not intended to replace regular school, just to keep those students on track as much as possible. Bungling the transition of services is not the same as refusing to extend the services. That was my only point.

                  2. I did finally get to read the contract. The 75 seats are the minimum contracted with provisions made on a per seat basis for additional seats (goes up to 125 this fall). The 5 beds at Elk River are the minimum contracted with additional beds available on a per bed basis. The Alternative Placement and Homebound (not home school) are the only services included in this contract. Minimums are required in order to allow Pinnacle to adequately staff – stated right in the contract. Pricing will be renegotiated if they continue into the 2013-14 year. I am still hearing that Credit Recovery Services may go to Pinnacle (separate contract?).

  4. also not mentioned are the students that cannot take the tests at computer screens due to medical or seizure issues.

  5. Lovely.

    BTW, when The Huntsville Times printed the usual press release from the superintendant’s office (At least that’s what I assume it was. I sure as heck haven’t seen much evidence of journalism on their part), it was reported that this contract was so much cheaper than the $12M it would have cost to buy the computers from the State’s bid list. Bwahaha!

    I KNEW that the figures provided to the Times were too fuzzy.

    Time to send another email to my school boad rep. Maybe one of these days I’ll hear back from him.

    And you know, when this guy was hired I KNEW that we’ll end up buying out his contract. Seems we need to speed that up so the school district doesn’t go broke. But hey, he’ll get his 92.something reviews all the way up until the state steps in again.

    1. “Time to send another email to my school boad rep. Maybe one of these days I’ll hear back from him.”

      I think it’s time to Occupy the School Board and remind the School Board they work FOR us. But that’s just me.

  6. As I said from day one we will be buying this man out of his contract real soon…. BOE all members need to be replace when he is gone as well. I have never seen a group of people that do not read or do their math homework on this guy. I like the fact their are going with the ebooks (for high school students) never did I sign up for the ebooks for (elementary students) this take away the standard fundmentals of education from them. I can not even address this man because all I see is ~FRAUD~

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