Have you heard how wonderful the Huntsville City Schools district is doing lately? I’m sure you have. After all Dr. Wardynski has been touting his successes as often as possible of late. And he’s been joined by the members of the board of education like David Blair and Jennie Robinson who are running for other offices this fall.
In 1975, Jimmy Breslin wrote about the Nixon impeachment in How the Good Guys Finally Won:
All political power is primarily an illusion. . . . Mirrors and blue smoke, beautiful blue smoke rolling over the surface of highly polished mirrors, first a thin veil of blue smoke, then a thick cloud that suddenly dissolves into wisps of blue smoke, the mirror catching it all, bouncing it back and forth. . . . If someone tells you how to look, there can be seen in the smoke great, magnificent shapes, castles and kingdoms, and maybe they can be yours.
Building Castles and Kingdoms
Maybe you heard about the pep rally that the superintendent and school board threw for themselves on March 18th. If you were a district employee, you certainly heard about it. Every district employee received the following email encouraging them to attend this celebration.
Despite the encouragement from the Director of Community Engagement (sent via the Superintendent’s administrative assistant), only about 85 district employees showed up for the “Community Support Gathering for the Huntsville City Schools Board of Education and Superintendent.”
There are approximately 1,300 teachers working in the district, and they were all encouraged to show up to stand on the steps to celebrate the “remarkable academic, fiscal, and infrastructure [sic] advances” the district likes to tell everyone that they’ve made over the past three years. Wanting to make so sure that remarkable message got out, the Director of Community Engagement wrote each speaker a five minute speech to communicate all of their talking points for them.
Let’s make that point one more time: the superintendent’s administrative assistant sent out an email to every employee in the district, and about 85 people showed up. That doesn’t even represent the full staff of the Merts building, who were already there.
So let’s talk about the “remarkable . . . advances” the district has made in the past three years.
As we’ve discussed regularly on this blog, the district has made most of their “infrastructure [sic] advances” by running off at least 672 employees of the past 30 months. Many of those who chose to leave were among our best and most dedicated teachers. Their loss is irreplaceable.
But perhaps that’s not what the director of community engagement meant. Perhaps the real “advances” she’s talking about are the hiring of so many consultants that when asked about one consultant at the March 6th board meeting, the superintendent has to ask, “which ones? We hire a lot of consultants around here.”
Or perhaps she’s referring to the claims of the LEAN Frog consultant that found “significant opportunity for fraud” in the operations of the district. This is the same consultant who was paid nearly $30,000 without a contract and without any documentation. (When I asked when the board approved the $30,000 we spent on his assessment, no one could produce any record demonstrating board oversight of his hiring. Mr. Spinelli claimed that there were “no documents responsive to your request.”)
Is this the kind of “infrastructure advance” that the board was celebrating last month?
The board and superintendent regularly tout their fiscal responsibility when it comes to the financial turn around from being, as Melissa Thompson (former HCPTA president) said on March 18th, “a system on the brink of financial insolvency to a system that now has not only stability, but also has a strong capital campaign that will touch every district in our city and that will really pave the way for a very bright future for our kids.”
It’s important to remember where this funding came from.
- Wardynski cut $7 million dollars from the Special education budget from $27,588,027.77 in FY2011 to $20,414,163.53 in FY2012. 11% of the student population was responsible for 61% of the cuts that were made to bring us back from “financial Insolvency.”
- He transferred $9 million from the capital fund into the general fund.
- Oh, and he ran off 672 employees in 30 months.
Fiscal improvements are fairly easy to make once these changes are taken into consideration.
This is where the rubber really hits the road, isn’t it?
Are our children actually learning more than they were 30 months ago?
For my children, the answer is unequivocally no. My daughter hasn’t had a school assigned writing assignment in the past two years. There just isn’t time anymore. She’s too busy taking math and English standardized tests.
On her last progress report, she had 27 math grades, 24 English grades, 4 social studies grades, and one science grade.
In the Rocket City, my girl who is in the gifted program (S.P.A.C.E.) had one science grade in her last progress report.
As I said, there just isn’t time for anything else.
Altering Graduation Rates
But isn’t Wardynski constantly touting the improvements graduation rates over the past couple of months? Specifically, he’s claimed that graduation rates are up 14 percentage points from 66% to 80% across the district.
This is fantastic news, isn’t it?
It is until you learn that the teachers at Grissom High school were told on Wednesday, March 12th by Mrs. Edith Pickens, Director of Secondary Programs, during a faculty meeting that if they believed that a student had earned a grade less than a 60 (D-) for a class, that the teacher would have to document the following before assigning the student the earned failing grade:
- The teacher must contact the student’s parent(s) a minimum of three times.
- Email is not considered a valid form of contact. The teacher must speak with the parent.
- Each of these contacts must be clearly documented.
- At least one of these contacts with the parent must be a face-to-face meeting with the parent.
If the teacher doesn’t have documentation supporting these contacts, the student who has earned a failing grade in a class must be given at least a D.
It’s fairly easy to improve student graduation rates when high school teachers (at one of the best high schools in the city and state) are forced to jump through these types of hoops before they can assign an earned grade to a student.
Sadly the story doesn’t end there.
Altering Benchmark Test Results
Well, surely if we can trust anything Wardynski says, we can trust the testing results, right? I mean, he can’t alter those can he? And the SchoolNet Benchmark exams shown to the board on January 16th clearly showed that our students were dramatically improving over the year, right?
These tests results are completely objective and therefore a completely reliable in assessing the success of the superintendent’s approach to education. They are also the best possible way of evaluating teachers, right?
Well, it would seem that perhaps that’s not the case.
On March 4, 2014, Dr. Cathy McNeal, the Director of Assessment and Accountability sent out the email below. It was sent to what appears to be every principal in the district along with most of the senior administration of the district including Dr. Barbara Cooper the Assistant Superintendent of Huntsville City Schools. It does not appear that Dr. Wardynski was CC’d on this one, but clearly every but him received this email.
The Subject? “Schoolnet Deleting test for students and Reopening Benchmark Assessments.” It was marked with a High Importance flag and states:
Edmondo [sic] has Schoolnet directions attached for training from the Schoolnet Assessment Administration Workbook.
The instructions for deleting student tests are in the highlighted area, (Assessment Admin workbook – page 37).
You may view the rest of the email in the two pages below.
In short, Dr. McNeal has sent out to principals at least (who may receive a financial bonus if their students do well on the test) specific instructions on how to:
- Print the test out ahead of time so that teachers may teach to the specific test that their students may receive;
- Print out the answer sheet for the specific test the student will take;
- Monitor specific student’s progress on the test to potentially determine which students might be rushing through the test or struggling with specific questions on the test;
- Clear specific responses to answers on the test; and
- Reset the test so that the student may take the test multiple times.
Please understand, I have no reason to believe that any principal has actually modified any students’ tests. Nothing in this email states that a principal should alter a student’s test results. That would be terrible, wouldn’t it?
All that this email does is tell principals and potentially individual teachers (supposing that this were passed along to teachers by a principal), exactly how to do these things.
Suddenly, the SchoolNet benchmark test doesn’t look quite so objective anymore, does it?
The superintendent and the board of education are regularly claiming that they have made dramatic, bold, and remarkable academic, fiscal, and infrastructural advances. When they bother to cite any evidence of these advances, they are citing evidence that they themselves have complete and total control over. If individual principals have the ability to alter test results, the district as a whole does as well.
And they have not proven themselves to be trustworthy in the past.
Dr. Wardynski, during his February 27th press conference concerning the Department of Justice’s response to the district’s rezoning plan made an astonishing claim that I’m sure made the district’s school board members quite happy. He said that the DoJ plan fails to acknowledge changes in the district over the last two and a half years: “Uh, we’ve got a new board, largely a new board in the last two and a half years, and a new superintendent.”
No, Dr. Wardynski, we do not have a new board. No, we do not have “largely a new board,” either. These board members, with the exception of Mr. Culbreath, were all members of the board when the fiscal situation was “on the brink of insolvency.” Laurie McCaulley was first elected in 2008, Blair came on board in 2010 (after taking a term off), Robinson and Birney both started their terms in 2002. In short, these four people led the district to the brink of insolvency, and now they’re trying to claim that they’ve led it back.
In November 2010, Robinson, Birney and Blair were having secret, and at a minimum unethical, meetings to “discuss board business, including the search for a superintendent and who might be the next school board chairman.”
Conducting these meetings out of the public eye and completely off the record is a clear and direct violation of the Alabama Open Meetings Act.
As Times Editor, John Peck wrote, “These board members acted arrogantly in their disregard of the law and the public trust. It’s a poor way to start off their term. The public should watch to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
After running off 672 district employees, refusing to require the superintendent to even have contracts with the consultants he hires, making Special Education responsible for 61% of the cuts to the budget, and overseeing the degradation of the academic standards that have guided this district for decades, now Robinson and Blair at least want your vote for city council and state senate. Wardynski, well, he just wants Pearson to give him a great job where he doesn’t have to respond to irritating questions from the public or the press.
The public should have indeed been watching, but with the dismantling of the press in this town, that became increasingly harder to do. But that’s no excuse. These are, after all, our children. And it’s clear that Wardynski, Robinson and Blair are completely unconcerned about them despite their claims to the contrary.
This is all just smoke and mirrors on their part as they seek out other jobs. The smoke is clearing; the mirrors are breaking.