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.