Smoke and Mirrors: Spinning the Superintendent’s Record

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.

Infrastructural Advances

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?

Fiscal Advances

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.

Fiscal improvements are fairly easy to make once these changes are taken into consideration.

Academic Advances

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.

McNealEmailMcNealEmail 1

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?

“Bold Steps”

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.”

As the Times reported, “Birney was elected board chairman and he immediately placed Blair and Robinson in charge of the superintendent search.”

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.

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


  1. Where do I start? I’ll start at the beginning of your post, but forgive me if I stray. Every time the board meets they have a pep rally…they love to toot their own horn and not have anything to toot about. As you can see, most teachers didn’t want to attend their pep rally. I will say I had several teachers voice their concerns to me about not attending. Most were nontenured teachers and were afraid for their job. To me, it’s a sad day when you have to be afraid you’ll lose your job for that reason. There isn’t one thing we can celebrate unless we celebrate the superintendent and the board achieving the all time high of test taking. We would still be on the brink of financial ruin if Wardynski hadn’t manipulated our money situation. Money cuts should have never been in the expense of our special edu. kids. In fact, more money should be spent there getting help for the special ed teachers. Are our kids learning more than they were 30 months ago? NO! NO! NO! Teachers are told to focus on math and reading. At least 30 months ago teachers were allowed to really teach. We didn’t have scripts written for us that told us exactly what to say. We could teach and have teachable moments. I’m almost surprised students don’t have scripted parts as well… Print the test out ahead of time so that teachers may teach to the specific test that their students may cheat? Surely the powers that be would never expect a teacher to cheat because that’s not expected of our students. Wait….maybe it is because we would never want a student to fail a grade. It is ALL a bunch of smoke and mirrors! I just hope the mirror breaks soon for Wardynski and most of the board members and the smoke clears soon for the students and teachers!

    1. How sad is it that things are so bad now that we look back on the NCLB hell of 30 months ago as halcyon days when “teachers were allowed to really teach”? I shudder to think that, at the rate things are going, today might someday look like “the good ole days.”

  2. Even though I know how bad things are, I never fail to become infuriated all over again when I learn new specifics like the ones you have reported here, Russ. Thanks for getting this information out there. As Ed Driscoll said in another context, it’s Potemkin villages all the way down with these guys.

    For anyone who hasn’t seen it, this post on how to recognize when your school system is infected with the Broad Virus is worth a read. It’s scary how many of these items apply directly to what we are seeing in Huntsville:


    But here’s the thing: This isn’t just Wardynski or the HCS board. This is the new way of things. Look at the way the educational establishment has circled the wagons over Common Core. According to them, anyone who is against it is just a moron who hates kids. Just weeks ago, the superintendent of city schools down in sleepy little Arab used an al.com op/ed to compare opposition to Common Core to the Salem witch trials. When I contacted the school board down there about their superintendent’s reprehensible rhetoric, they defended him to the hilt. Again, in little Arab, Alabama.

    Add this to the stuff I’ve seen going on in Madison City and Madison County, and I have concluded that there are no superintendents anymore who are not clueless jerks obsessed with data and utterly unconcerned with teachers or kids. I have known superintendents in my life, but I cannot recall any in the past who were like this.

    Meanwhile, we’ve got the CEO of Netflix — yet another billionaire with an education messiah complex — publicly encouraging the elimination of elected school boards. All those pesky, pushy parents and their demands just get in the way of needed reforms. After all, as Melissa Harris-Perry has told us: “We’ve always had kind of a private notion of children. Your kid is yours, and your responsibility. We haven’t had a very collective notion of ‘These are our children.’ So part of it is we have to break through our kind of private idea that ‘kids belong to their parents’ or ‘kids belong to their families,’ and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.” Your kids belong to Bill Gates because he bought them (but his biological children will still attend a blessedly Common Core-free private academy, thank you).

    See, the guys like Wardynski and Gates know what is best for our kids. Our job is to stop complaining, put on our cheerleading skirts, and make sure there are a whole lot more than 85 people at the next HCS pep rally.

    1. It seems that for every “expert” touting the importance and necessity of Common Core, there are an equal number of “experts” with an argument for why Common Core is detrimental. My simple question is this: a few decades ago the United States was a world leader in technology and the quality education it offered. In fact, many students from all over the world chose to come to the United States to study. Having said that, did we have a “Common Core” set of standards in place back then? If not, then something must have happened resulting in us being overtaken by many countries around the world when it comes to educating our children. So we think that instituting these Common Core standards will do the trick? No, all that will do is allow government to reach deeper into our lives and put a lot of money into the pockets of corporations and consultants that are clamoring to get into the education business. In my opinion, the root of our demise lies in the destructive culture we have allowed ourselves to adopt. The family structure has disintegrated, drugs are rampant, prisons are overcrowded, television and movies are spewing out more garbage every year, the music industry and the trashy lyrics fill the ears of the young every day, and worst of all, we have a government that, not only turns a blind eye to all of this, but goes so far as to encourage handouts and entitlements, which continue to obliterate the incentive for people to achieve on their own. So…..we think that by implementing Common Core in our schools we are going to turn this country around? Good grief!

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