Occasionally, despite all the thousands of dollars that the Huntsville City Schools Board of Education spends on honing their public relations image each year (take the self-promoting billboard above as an example picturing from left to right: McGinnis, Wilder, Wardynski, McCauley, Ferrell, and Culbreath), sometimes the truth will out.
The board (excluding Culbreath who was likely preparing to watch the game) met on this unusual Monday night (most meetings occur on the first and third Thursday of the month, not Monday) to discuss many things, but as is their practice to schedule potentially controversial topics on nights when attendance would be low, they scheduled their discussion of changing Huntsville High School and Grissom High School from a traditional schedule to a block schedule to occur when most of those concerned with this change would still be at work or making plans to watch the game.
And yes, they knew that the changes they planned for HHS and GHS were controversial. They had held two “stakeholder” meetings at HHS and GHS to discuss the changes, and several students at Grissom had started a petition on Change.org to request that if the schedule must change that it be changed to a “modified block” schedule as opposed to the four by four block schedule.
As is their practice, the school board wished to avoid any display of public opposition. Scheduling the meeting to occur immediately before the national championship game would certainly help.
And so they did.
Despite this tactic, there were many concerned parents and students who attended the meeting to voice their views on the proposed changes.
Ultimately, those students collected 514 signatures on their petition in the few days prior to the meeting. As a result, their voices were heard, and they won. During the 2017-2018 school year, HHS and GHS will be switching to a modified block schedule.
Despite Wardynski’s authoritarian approach to education, occasionally, even he will acquiesce.
These students and parents deserve our thanks for standing up for what they believe in.
But more than that, they deserve our thanks for what Wardynski’s and McCaulley’s responses reveal about what’s wrong with the authoritative approach to leadership of our schools.
Below you will find a short video of the interactions between Wardynski, McCaulley and a Grissom student and an unidentified parent this past Monday. If you prefer reading the transcript, you may read it here.
So what do Wardynski’s and McCaulley’s responses reveal to us about the issues that our district faces as a result of the authoritative leadership style?
The District Hates Questions
I’ve written before about the irony of an educational system that hates questions. It remains true today. The board specifically scheduled this topic so that as few people as possible would attend. On Monday, a mere seven people showed up to ask questions. When the fourth was seeking additional details about how the process would work for athletic team practices, McCaulley dismissed her question by saying, “Let’s discuss that with you afterwards, more personalized conversation.”
The purpose of a public question at a public meeting is so that the public may receive answers. As is evidenced by the FAQ posted on Grissom’s website, this is a question that many people have had and that deserves a public hearing and explanation. (Sadly, HHS doesn’t seem to have followed Grissom’s lead in publishing answers to the questions asked at their public meeting. All that Mr. King seems to have published is the district’s talking points on the matter.)
Our district is failing because the superintendent has created an environment where questions are dismissed and those who ask them are attacked.
Wardynski Attacks Students “Expertise”
When a junior from Grissom stood to ask a question about the process of how the decision was arrived at to alter the schedule to a modified block, Wardynski had this to say:
Ferrell: So, just to double check, we’re not looking at traditional block for everybody. We’re looking at modified block for everybody?
Wardynski: [Speaking over McCaulley] Well, you know we’re getting pretty close to the expertise part of this business. So we don’t do the school system on petitions.
GHS Student: I understand.
Wardynski: We do it on expertise. The district hires professionals [points to Ferrell]. The board hires professionals to do this stuff. They govern. We run the school system. Uh, the determination of what is best for students is a professional decision. Uh, based on the input I’ve gotten from my principals, and what we’ve already done, uh, what I discussed tonight was, we’re going to move forward with the modified block. And we’re looking at the 2017-18 time frame. We want plenty of time to do the PD. Uh, we wanna do plenty of time to do it thoughtfully. If we learn something along the way, we’ll take that into account. Um, but uh, that’s kinda the way we’re headed, so I think the answer is modified block.
So in the face of a junior who is simply concerned about the quality of her little brother’s educational experience at Grissom, Wardynski’s response, rather than to detail for her the process of how he arrived at the decision to implement a modified block schedule at HHS and GHS was to repeatedly remind her that petitions don’t matter, the views of the students and public don’t matter, all that matters is the “expertise” of the “professionals” the board hires “to do this stuff.”
So, let’s look at those professionals for a moment.
Dr. Casey Wardynski had a sum total of 11 months experience in education before becoming the superintendent of Huntsville City Schools.
Mr. Aaron King, principal of HHS, worked as a Chemistry teacher for a five years before being hired as Wardynski’s “Director of Transition” to serve as Wardynski’s aide-de-camp for about seven months before being promoted to the Director of Operations for another few months all the while with the guarantee that he would be named as a principal of a school soon. In July 2012, he was named the principal of Huntsville Middle.
This despite the fact that he had not obtained his Leadership Certification from the state of Alabama at that time. He was issued an “Alternative Certification” for a year that expired in June 2013. He served as the principal of HMS for a year with no certification. He was awarded his Leadership Certificate on August 13, 2014 and was named principal of HHS in June 2015.
Mr. King’s primary expertise seems to be his ability to follow orders unquestioningly.
Ms. Ballentine was a Teacher on Special Assignment at Westlawn and the Principal at Jones Valley Elementary before being named principal in June 2015 shortly after June Kalange had been given a contract extension that was to, in Wardynski’s words, take her through the opening of the new Grissom in 2017. Change comes quickly these days for principals.
While Ms. Ballentine has been a teacher in the district for about 20 years (and she seems to be doing a good job in her first year at Grissom) neither of the principals cited for their professional expertise at Monday’s meeting have even a year of experience as principals at the high school level.
The lack of experience is not the fault of these principals (although Mr. King’s seeming difficulty at passing the leadership certification is certainly on him). Dr. Wardynski is the reason so few of our principals have extensive experience in the schools where they are serving.
As he holds no educational expertise himself, Wardynski does not value expertise and experience in others. And this is a significant issue in our schools.
He has successfully run off more than a thousand experienced teachers and administrators over his four-year tenure. As I wrote in September, since Wardynski has arrived there has been a steady decline in teachers with more than a Bachelor’s degree and a steady increase in those holding only a Bachelor’s degree.
Wardynski’s attempt to browbeat a junior at Grissom High by claiming that the experts made this decision is not supported by the evidence.
McCaulley wrapped up the discussion by attempting to point out to the junior that “Oh, you’ll be gone” as if the student had no reason for asking the questions she was asking. It’s a pity our board doesn’t see the value of being concerned for the education of others.
The superintendent’s and board’s claimes of expertise are not supported by the evidence of their actions over the past four years.
Our district is failing because students are dismissed for their lack of expertise.
Parental Input is Dismissed
Once the student from Grissom politely thanked Dr. Wardynski and the board for their time and demonstrated for them how to behave with grace and honor, she was followed by a parent who had this to say to Dr. Wardynski:
Parent: First of all, one of the principals mentioned that this was not a problem for the band directors. The band directors I’ve spoken to are very much in disagreement with that idea. So, um, I don’t think that it’s a smooth transition for band. Uh, my question though is more of a process kind of question. Um, you’ve indicated, Dr. Wardynski, that we are moving forward with this. We have been led to believe that the school system is looking for parent input. Um, if the decision has already been made, why are we pretending like we’re looking for input?
Wardynski: [Speaking over parent] I said we’re moving forward. I didn’t say we’re there. As we got 18 months to evaluate. If we don’t seem something we like, we can adjust. We’re not implementing it this year or next. We’re implementing 17-18, if it proceeds as we anticipate. The system has to take a direction, though, cause we have to resource. Uh, we have to give our principals some idea of where we’re gonna end up. Um, so, my guidance to them was, we’re moving in the direction of modified block for 17-18. Uh, let’s begin the professional development. If we learn something along the way that tells us that this is not a good choice, then we’ll adjust.
Parent: Well, you know, you mention that schools can’t be run by petition.
Wardynski: Um, hm.
Parent: But I do think that parent input is incredibly important. Parents see up close and personal what their kids are going through. Many of the parents, at least in this town, are teachers. or former teachers, and they have some valid concerns about where we are going. So I think that the school board would be, it would be a good idea for the school board to pay attention if the public puts together petitions or what have you, to listen to those concerns. [Takes his seat.]
Let that sink in for a moment and ask yourself this, in what bizarro world have we fallen where a parent has to defend his right to be involved in his child’s education to the superintendent of the schools?
This one interaction should clearly demonstrate one of the main issues that this district faces: the leadership of our schools doesn’t give a damn what the parents of students in the district think.
This is why, Dr. Wardynski, petitions are a necessity in this town: because you are dismissive of any view that is not your own, no matter where it comes from.
Saying that you’ll “listen” after you have made a decision isn’t listening.
Our district is failing because parental involvement is dismissed as unimportant by our superintendent.
Teachers Are Threatened for Talking with Parents
The final problem our district is facing is seen without prompting from a student or a parent. It comes once all the students and parents have sat down. The following statements from Wardynski and McCaulley came after the parent had taken his seat:
Wardynski: Again, there’s 18 months to be heard. And I will be visiting with the band directors at Huntsville and Grissom to double check. I’ve already visited with Grissom’s. And I have a different impression of their thoughts on the modified block.
McCaulley: I think that the proper, uh, protocol for your band directors that you’ve spoken with, is for them to communicate their concerns with their their administrator. Cause they know that’s the proper protocol, you know, uh, for that time. But anyway, are there any more questions at this time before we move forward?
I suspect that the band directors of HHS and GHS both had uncomfortable conversations with the superintendent this past week simply because they shared their honest opinions about what these changes in scheduling will do to children’s education with a parent.
And really, does anyone other than perhaps Wardynski believe that a teacher feels free to give him her (or his) honest opinion about anything?
As seen with his interactions with a student and a parent who were concerned enough to come to a two and a half hour meeting on a Monday night, it is clear that Wardynski doesn’t give a damn about anyone’s opinion if it differs from his own.
If he’s willing to be rude to a child and a parent (who pays his salary), how do you think he will treat a teacher who, even following “proper protocol,” disagrees with him?
At best, he will be dismissive to that teacher. At worse, that teacher will be forced to look for another job.
Over the past four years, Wardynski has run off at least 1,239 district employees who either retired or resigned to get away from him and his policies that are quite often harmful to our students.
In order for education to be successful, teachers must be free to express their opinions and thought to students, to parents, to administrators, to the superintendent, and to the board of education without fear of retribution.
Our district is failing because our teachers are threatened for having and expressing an opinion.
In short, those four reason are the reason our schools are struggling, our teachers are leaving, our parents are rushing to pull our students out of our schools. Any school district that attacks questions, attacks students, attacks parents, and attacks teachers is doomed to failure.
And when it happens, Wardynski will take his golden parachute with Pearson or ACT or some other Eli Broad approved organization and leave us to pick up the pieces.
But, to end on a hopeful note, this past Monday clearly demonstrates that despite his denials, protest does matter.
We just need more of it.
And so I invite you to comment below. (You may do so anonymously or publicly.)
If you are a student concerned about your school’s direction, share your concerns below.
If you are a parent who believes that parental involvement should mean more than just smiling and nodding yes as the board seems to always be doing, share your voice below.
If you are a teacher, currently employed, retired, or one who has recently left to go to a district that actually values you, share your experiences below.
If we speak out, they will hear us. Feel free to use this site (or any other you wish to use) to make your voice heard.
I’m not a fan of Dr-W. I don’t like that parent’s (and student’s) opinions really don’t matter in HCS. I especially don’t like that HCS teachers are discouraged from speaking with parents. Seems like “leave it to the experts” is in direct contradiction to “we need more parent and community involvement”. As usual it seems that the government has forgotten that they work for us (we the people.) Or even the old saying “the customer is always right” might be even be applicable. The students (and parents) are the customers for the HCS. Without us, HCS would not exist. That’s my expert opinion.
The parents and students, but mainly parents need to start putting pressure on Wardynski and the board. Mainly Wardynski because the board isn’t allow to have an opinion, he makes all of the rules.
If this administration, board, and Dr.Wardinski are genuinely concerned with how to better our schools within this district, then why not hold a community involvement meeting at one of the homeschool coops within this city and just ask one simple question: “Why did you as a parent or guardian, decide to homeschool your child instead of sending him/her to this public school system?” Or better yet, “Why did you pull your child out of this school system?” The answers would be very telling as to what the problems of this school system really are.
I did not realize how unhappy I was working there until I got another job. I moved to south alabama and even here the reputation of HCS IS VERY KNOWN! They are aware and they are talking. This administration listens to the stakeholders (teachers, administrators, parents and students). They still employ their support directly with the system and it shows in their professionalism. They receive professional development as well. Late start days are in place for professional development (teachers come in on time and students come one hour later) I am new here and the support is overwhelming. Since I began here I have driven home crying because of the treatment I have received! I was so stressed over the treatment and hostile environment at HCS. No comparison. My new environment is conducive to learning for me, my fellow faculty and the students here. The majority of my fellow educators are at the masters level in education and experience. They don’t have a high turnover and it shows.
I have learned from my experience in HCS but in the short time I have been in this new system I have surpassed that. My focus is no longer on how to satisfy a system full of rules, regulations and hostility but to take care of those who need my knowledge and experience.
Thank you for sharing. I’m happy that you’ve found a home, but I hate that it wasn’t here.
“My focus is no longer on how to satisfy a system full of rules, regulations and hostility but to take care of those who need my knowledge and experience.”
The homeschool families would probably say the same ” my focus is no longer on how to satisfy a system full of rules… but to take care of those who need my knowledge and experience.”
See (sarcasm) …, HCS is driving teachers to find the job they love (somewhere else) and parents are moving their children (some to homeschooling) so the kids can learn from those whose first job is to take care of those who need knowledge etc. That’s another victory HCS should document in nice charts and talking points. You could say that HCS is encouraging teacher and student excellence through it’s expert (insert adjective) treatment of the same. Too bad for those that remain in the system.
We need to learn how to replace the super and the board. What type of arogance does it take to say “you’ll be gone by then” to a child who is trying to express concern for an upcoming change. And to say” we don’t run HCS by petition”. Why not just say “I make all the decisions and I don’t care what anyone else says”. That would be honest at least.
And that bill board is a dumb idea. Who thought of that? Probably an expert.
David Driscoll is the agent we’re buying billboard space from. He and Rena Anderson (Director of Community Engagament–PR) likely came up with it together.
Russell it amazes me the misinformation you constantly posts about HCS. If it’s so bad why are your children in HCS. I do not buy the billboards and Rena doesn’t have a role. Once just once get the truth right. Or are you just on a vendetta. Take your energy and make our schools better. Join the team.
Thank you so much for taking the time to follow my blog and for sharing your views here.
First, on June 4, 2015 your company, The Driscoll Group, received a contract supplement to a 2013 contract for the “Community Communications Media Plan.” For this the district was to pay you $45,000. Additionally, you are to be paid $27,000 for the “creation of media products.” During the board discussion, Dr. Wardynski and Mr. McGinnis repeated said that you would be procuring space on the digital billboards across the district. Here’s a link to the contract if you’ve forgotten: https://eboard.eboardsolutions.com/Meetings/Attachment.aspx?S=2061&AID=49818&MID=3077
Additionally, Ms. Anderson quite often gives the board reports on her activities concerning “Public Affairs Highlights.” Part of these highlights is her taking credit for the digital billboards. Here’s a link from one of those:
If you and Ms. Anderson aren’t participating in the purchase of the billboards, who is?
Second, thank you for the invitation to join “the” team. No thanks. I am a part of a team that cares about what students think. I am a part of a team that thinks that parents do have something important to say about education in this city. I am a part of a team that recognizes that teachers are actually experts and are part of the solution rather than the problem.
If you would like to join that team, you’re more than welcome. But be aware that we won’t be able to pay you the $263,619.42 that the district has paid you for your services from October 2013 through November 2015 (the most currently available check register.)
We would certainly welcome your expertise.
All the best,
Thank you, Russell! I am on your team, along with 1,244 educators and support personnel who voluntarily left a broken system!
Thanks Jenn, but it isn’t “my” team. 🙂 I am, however, proud to be sided with so many excellent educators.
Thank you again Russell for bringing the current issues of HCS to the forefront. I attended the question/answer forum at Grissom regarding block scheduling. It was promoted as a chance for parent participation about block scheduling, but it became apparent during that discussion that the decision to go to block scheduling had already been made. Had we known in advance, our questions could have been tailored to which type of block scheduling suits our students better. And during that discussion, we asked what the teachers felt about it and were advised that the teachers were not asked for their opinions. Who better than a qualified teacher should be asked their opinion on this matter? It is unfortunate that our inexperienced administrators in the Ivory Tower are not only dictating policy, but discouraging our students
from petitioning, speaking out and standing up for what they believe in. This is the time in their lives that they should be encouraged to do just that. I could go on, but you have so eloquently spelled it out in your blog. Thank you again for your persistence.
Yep, that’s the typical approach: decide THEN (and only if you must) discuss.
I should have gone to the meeting, to voice my concerns, but I am sure that I would not have gotten the opportunity to voice them due to all of the trouble that we have had with teachers quitting at Grissom this year. My son is in 10th grade and two of his core teachers quit before Thanksgiving. They have hired a new English teacher, but we still do not have a History teacher yet. It really upsets me the state of our schools.
Watching the video that you posted really made me sick at the treatment of the student and the parent. Dr. Wardinski just dismissed the student’s concerns acting like she was “brainless” when in fact she is the voice of many. And, McCaulley, laughing saying that the student will be “out” was a slap in the face…
I am hoping that things change quickly for the better, because I do not know how much more any of us can take.
Get rid of Dr. W and fire McCauley if possible! They both are an embarrassment to our
Public school system that is suffering from poor decision making! They are working from their own personal agenda and not for the good of HCS!
I’m not afraid, and I am employed by HCS. I am a HCS graduate, have 5 education degrees, and have spoken out against many things at school board meetings in the past. As stress and hurt for my system has been internalized, it has had a direct impact on my health. My husband prefers that I don’t use my energy to come to board meetings — to only be offended. Since I did not come to this particular board meeting, I had not previously heard these belittling and rude comments made by my school board. My heart aches at how parents, students, and “professionals” (translated TEACHERS, in my opinion) are being treated. If life was fair, EVERYONE would be treated with respect.
Came really close to accepting a teaching job with Huntsville City Schools recently. Very fortunate that I had some “inside sources” inform me of the grave mistake I would make if I accepted this death trap of a job. I feel for the parents, especially the children, of HCS. King is indeed a Wardynski “do boy” as is many others in the system. The leadership of HCS has no idea how to really lead.
I often reflect back to how blessed I am for NOT taking a job with HCS. Best of luck Huntsville community.
Also…. Ran across this. Wardynski & BOE need to really look at this:
Agreed. I don’t believe that he is capable of change in this area.
“The students provided a well-considered descrip- tion of toxic leaders: ‘Destructive leaders are fo- cused on visible short-term mission accomplishment. They provide superiors with impressive, articulate presentations and enthusiastic responses to mis- sions. But, they are unconcerned about, or oblivious to, staff or troop morale and/or climate. They are seen by the majority of subordinates as arrogant, self-serving, inflexible, and petty.’5”
It’s like someone has a Romper Room looking right into the central office. . .
I would be interested in hearing from the “experts” that are guiding the decisions for the early childhood grades pre-k through third.
I am a retired teacher of high school and jr. college levels. I taught at Grissom and Johnson High Schools when they were first opened in the open class room style. That was obviously a disaster. Professional authorities in education have concluded that that concept is a no go. I am deeply concerned that the new Grissom High School will be open classroom style.
I am also very concerned when I talk to teachers in the Huntsville system and they relate that they are so overwhelmed with administrative paper work that they don’t have time to prepare for the classroom. They say that each day they have another form to fill out for the central office. Few of them look forward to going to work and are actively looking for another job, or can’t wait to retire. The work environment in this system appears to be hostile and intolerant to any opinion other than that of the superintendent. With the
percentage of the population in this city holding degrees in higher education, I am stunned that
this situation is allowed to continue. Where are the leaders in this community? A yearly 20% turn over in
teachers should get someone’s attention.
This situation helps neither the teachers, the students, nor the condition for learning.
Thank you for your service and for your voice here.
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