Off The Books Spying Program $1 Million

Draft Website Page--SAFe

Anyone said anything interesting today on Social Media? Nevermind, I’m sure that Wardynski and his SAFe Team headed by “Security Consultant” from T&W Operations Chris McRae knows when you are sleeping and awake . . .

So it seems that Huntsville City Schools, since at least January 2014 and possibly since as early as May 2013, has been quietly spying on Huntsville City Schools student activity on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit in a supposed effort to identify potential gang activity.

There’s been an active discussion of all of this on Facebook, AL.com, Twitter, and the news since Stephens’ story broke this morning. The school board members have had to answer questions of what they knew about the program and when (and they, as is typical, have about seven different answers – Blair and McCaulley both had two differing responses to what they knew when), and Wardynski even had to have an impromptu press conference on the steps of Merts this afternoon. (Mrs. McCaulley seems to believe that much of this is simply funny, judging by her grin when Wardynski began talking about our “brazen children.”)

WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

Please go read and watch the reports that I’ve linked to. It seems that Robinson and Blair have strong opinions, not about the district spying on kids, but rather on the press letting people know that the district is spying on kids. Robinson believes that our children are “really bad people” who “want to do really bad things in our schools.” Blair believes that the only thing wrong about all of this is that the media actually published information about the district spying on our kids saying, “this kind of stuff puts kids in danger.”

That’s right, talking about adults spying on our kids, puts kids in danger.

But instead of pointing out, yet again, the inane way that Robinson, Blair, and McCaulley handle any situation like this, I think our time is better spent seeing what we can learn about Security Consultant McRae and his company T&W Operations.

T&W Operations: Inventory and Evidently Spying Specialists

McRae has evidently been tasked with setting up a program to read about 24,000 Facebook pages of students in the district. According to his LinkedIn Account, he began working as a “Consultant to the Huntsville City Schools Operations Directorate” with T&W Operations in January 2014. He has been “Contracted to assist the Huntsville City Schools create and organize a student anti-violence initiative.”

One problem with this is that it seems that McRae has been hired as a consultant to HCS without the benefit of a contract. Yep, that’s right, just like our hiring of LeanFROG, we’ve hired T&W Operations’ McRae to “create and organize a student anti-violence initiative” without any oversight, board-approval, or even a basic contract.

The district has, since 2012, had two contracts with T&W Operations. The first was approved by the board on August 16, 2012 to “conduct an inventory of all non-expendable property.” The total for that contract that expired in August 2013 was for $595,452.96.

Recomm T_W Operations Professional Services Contract_17118ctf0jy45ru5s5i45vx4tvv55

Clearly it’s okay for us to know that T&W Operations can count. Evidently they were so good at counting, they were, in July 2013, hired to develop an inventory system known as the COLTS Hosting system for a total of $400,147.00.

Recomm. COLTS Software Licensing Contract_23939ctf0jy45ru5s5i45vx4tvv55

So the Huntsville City Schools Board of Education has approved two contracts with T&W Operations over the past two years to conduct and build an inventory system for tracking district equipment. The total of both of the contracts is $995,599.96. The second contract for the COLTS Hosting System appears currently active.

So what’s the problem? Well the problem is that we’ve paid T&W Operations a total of $2,107,034.68 since August of 2012.

That means that we’ve written checks totaling $1,111,434.72 without a contract of any kind. Here is a list of the checks we’ve written to T&W Operations:

 

T&WOperations2012-2014

And therein lies the true problem.

Who Is Spying on the Spies?

It’s fairly clear from the Keystone Cops routine our board members were playing this afternoon, that if they had heard anything at all about the SAFe spying program, it was shared with them in passing and not in detail in say a public board meeting as required by state law. And since the superintendent has not brought a single recommendation to the board that is related to this program, the simple answer of who is spying on the spies is no one. 

That’s right, it would seem that this spying program that may have cost us as much as $1,111,434.72 has not been overseen by anyone.

In June 2014, after receiving reports that the district was indeed spying on students, the ACLU wrote to Wardynski requesting information about this spying program. The letter requested this extensive information from the district within 30 days, or July 23, 2014. WAFF followed up the request with a request of their own for information about the program.

So far as has been made publicly available, neither the ACLU’s nor WAFF’s request has been honored.

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One would think that the board members would have asked Wardynski about the spying program at that time, but it would seem that a couple of them were too busy running their campaigns for other offices, and the other three were evidently just not interested enough to ask.

Spying Far More Widespread Than Wardynski Admits To

So, what conclusions can we draw from this?

First, make your kids aware that every single thing that they put online can and will be held against them. Nothing that is posted online is private from anyone. I am convinced that the legal opinions that WAFF received concerning the privacy issues are probably correct. If you put the information online, you’d be better off posting it on a billboard. Fewer people would see it.

There are, of course, private records that the district is required to keep private, but these are being given away to companies like Pearson without parental consent. It’s hypocrisy in the extreme that McCaulley was concerned about FERPA violations today. The board and district is only concerned about violating FERPA when they aren’t the ones doing it.

Second, as there has been zero oversight of this program by the board members, there is absolutely no reason that we should believe Wardynski when he says that this program has only been used to spy on minors exhibiting gang related or violent activities. In fact, we would be incredibly stupid to believe that this program has not been used to spy on teachers, district employees, and troublemaking parents like myself as well.

(I know for a fact that Wardynski reads and has others read and follow everything I write on this blog. This was confirmed for me as far back as July 2011 when he was making threatening calls about my having written about a meeting I had with him a few days before the start of his first school year. At a time when he should have had a laser-like focus on getting school started, he was calling people to find out who I was, and why I would be upset that he didn’t know if the district would meet IEPs or not. His pattern of snooping and probably creating an “enemies list” is not new.)

Third, this district is in the habit of paying private contractors exorbitant funds to do whatever the superintendent wishes without any documentation, contracts, or board approval.

One has to wonder about that final point. This board has approved every single recommendation the superintendent has ever brought to them. Every single one. There has, in fact only been about four recommendations that weren’t supported unanimously. There was, in other words, no reason why the board needed to be kept in the dark about this latest expenditure.

And it leaves us wondering: how many other millions of dollars is the superintendent expending without anyone’s knowledge? And how many other companies is he selling private student information to?

It’s, as I’ve said many times before, far past time for Wardynski to resign.

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

20 Comments

  1. Fox reported this news at 4:45 am on Thursday Sept. 25; asked if the NSA was involved in the spying of which the NSA reply was no.

    1. The NSA released the following statement yesterday:

      “The National Security Agency has no record that it passed any information to the Huntsville school district, and the description of what supposedly occurred is inconsistent with NSA’s practices. If NSA personnel were to learn about a possible threat to a person’s safety, such information would normally be provided to the federal agency or department that has subject matter responsibility for acting on the threat information. Moreover, NSA does not make recommendations regarding school safety programs.”

  2. Russ, you took the words right out of my mouth with your comments about FERPA. When I read what Ms. McCaulley said yesterday in her interview I almost fell out of my chair! These kids are being data mined and info sold off to “Organizations conducting certain studies” without parental consent.

  3. I am truly impressed with your investigative reporting. It takes time and effort to uncover such information. I really appreciate all the folks that are helping you uncover/disclose such information too. I’m constantly amazed at the truth/facts you are able to bring out into the open. Thank you so much, and I thank all your spies that help you. They are doing a great service by bringing the truth to light. Keep up the great work.

      1. First, some info for you…an email was apparently mistakenly sent by the supe to some (if not all) of HCS employees yesterday eveinging. It was evidently meant to only be sent to HCS’s director of communications. it read: don’t send anymore emails or release anymore information regarding this. thnx w. the email was rescinded/erased from the teachers accounts almost immediately.

        now, that said, HCS can use technology to spy on our kids and teachers but the teachers have not been able to get to their lesson plans for 3 days and my son and daughter have not been able to get to much of their curriculum over the same three days? maybe we are focusing our technology efforts in the wrong place?

        finally, am i really supposed to believe that a former army colonel, that probably went to army war college where he was trained in national security issues, truly believed a story that the nsa had tipped us off. he believed that the nsa broke about 4 laws because of a gang picture. everyone brags about the fact that he is a retired colonel. given the story he is telling he is either the dumbest retired colonel of all times or he believes we are the dumbest city of all time.

        1. I believe the email was about the internet issues wasn’t it? Your comments make it appear that Superintendent Wardynski was referring to the secret spying program. Does anyone have a copy of this email. I’d love to see this!

      2. Well, what I should have said is, I thank you for taking the time to read the information and put the pieces together. I know from experience it is time consuming, and I thank you.

        1. Trust me when I say, I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons. I want my kids to get a good education. But thanks for reading and for saying thank you, Debbie. I do appreciate it.

  4. Mr. Winn, Thanks for putting this information in one place. If the Huntsville City School System were transparent in its dealings your website would be rendered obsolete. I hope that when I am elected on October 7th you will be able to take a few years off. I was astounded by Elisa’s response to this issue. Perhaps you can take some time to compare and contrast our campaigns again before election day.

    1. Mr. Knowles,

      Thanks for reading. I appreciate the sentiment behind your hope that I could take a few years off. I would be happy to. I hate writing about all of this.

      However, until and unless I see my children’s education dramatically improving, until and unless I see a district that cares and values teachers and public education, and until and unless I see a board that does its business in the light of day, I will continue to watch and write.

      One of the costs of democracy is the responsibility to pay attention and ask questions. That’s a debt that will never be paid off no matter who is in office.

  5. I would like to echo those who say thank you for being the media we wish we had instead of the media we have. Now if I could just convince you to be the kind of School Board member we wish we had instead of the School Board member(s) we have, we would be cooking with gas. 🙂 Seriously Russell, thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you do, and for all you will continue to do. We shall overcome….. someday.

    “One of the costs of democracy is the responsibility to pay attention and ask questions. That’s a debt that will never be paid off no matter who is in office.” Amen and Amen.

  6. Not surprising. I worked for the company. We essentially were Nazi book burners that went in and took teachers’ stuff over the summer without their knowledge.

    1. Just for clarification: the company you’re speaking of is T&W Operations? When you say, you went in and took teachers’ stuff, what are you referring to? Material left in the classroom over the summer was “taken?”

  7. Russell, I have respected your comments and fervent passion to confront policies and wrongdoing by this atrocious school board. I’d like to open Pandora’s box a bit regarding this “spying” issue. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of Wardynski or the horrid spending by this administration, but I’d like to open up this conversation. I think we all remember Columbine and Sandy Hook. And aside from these two, there have been countless others that don’t quite get the publicity. What if…a tragedy occurred in our schools? Would we do a little Monday morning quarterbacking and rant about why wasn’t anyone ever monitoring what was going on? First off….the laptops that these kids use in our schools belong to the school system. The servers through which they access internet belong to the school system. Working here at NASA the first thing I see when I sign onto my computer is a warning that “this computer is property of the government and is subject to monitoring, including keystroke monitoring, etc. Violation of policy could result in termination, fines, or criminal charges.” The bottom line is, if the students are using the laptop for what its menat to be used for, then there’s no problem. The moment they sign into the internet cloud, it’s public domain. I teach my kids that the minute they put anything out there on the internet (Facebook, Instagram, etc.), it becomes public and they have no assurance of privacy whatsoever. Do I want the school to spy on my kids? Honestly…I have no problem with them random monitoring. You have to be a complete fool to think that evil, drugs, and pornography does not exist in our schools. It does. Introducing our students to laptops was one of the worst ideas I have ever seen. Now we have to deal with the consequences.

    1. I appreciate your opening the conversation. I will be responding soon in detail (Monday’s are my busiest days this semester), but I wanted to say that you do raise a valid point that I will address soon.

      Also, thank you for taking the “risk” of arguing with me. Despite what some have said about me, I really do value opposing viewpoints. It’s how I learn cause I know that I don’t know everything.

    2. I agree that evil does exist in this world. I also agree that monitoring what a child does with district property or on district property is absolutely the purview of the superintendent and the district.

      I disagree that the district has a responsibility to monitor my kids after school, on their own time, or on their own property. One would think that the district would prefer to draw the line there; that is, after all, the true pandora’s box. “Peek not through a keyhole lest ye be vexed” as Stephen King once wrote.

      Is the district going to take responsibility for all social ills that they see while spying?

      What policies/standards does this team follow for what they act upon and what they choose to ignore? Who watches the watchers (since not even the board can agree if they knew about the program or not)? These are the issues that I primarily have.

      Don’t we also have other agencies who are already doing this very same work? Is not the police department doing this? (Mayor Battle implied as much.) What about the source that supposedly started it all, the NSA, who is seemingly spying on everyone, everywhere? Do we really need to spend nearly $160k for 9 months of services by a security specialist to duplicate work? I find that work hard to justify.

      And finally, as I have said before, I am convinced that the true purpose of this spying program (or monitoring program if you prefer) is not to spy on kids, but rather to spy on teachers and district employees.

      I absolutely agree that we need work to avoid another school tragedy. The question that we need to ask, however, is exactly how will we do this?

      I do not believe that this is a proper or effective means of addressing the problem.

      Instead of spying, our schools should be doing what they actually exist to do: educate. They should be educating parents on what to watch for. They should be educating children concerning proper behavior both IRL and online. They should be engaging in studies that help us to understand why a child would might attempt something like Columbine. These are the jobs for educators.

      Spying is the exact opposite of education. Education must be free, open, engaging and transparent. Spying is, by its nature, none of these things, and it doesn’t belong in our schools.

  8. Interesting conversation Wardynski had on the Dale Jackson show this morning. It seems no one called him out on a very glaring “mistake” he made. He stated that he had received “this call from an area code 202, assuming it was the NSA.” When asked if he got the name of the caller, he said no. Well, did he get the name of the agency calling? Again, he answered “no.” The kicker is….the NSA is located in Maryland and has an area code of 410. Need I say more?

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