About the HCS Board Meeting 7/7/11

I attended my first HCS School Board meeting July 7, 2011, and I was struck by how what I was seeing seemed minimally connected to what information is readily available for public scrutiny. So my assessment is based on my position as an audience member watching a  performance. I have no interest in a blow-by-blow. You can see the meeting for yourself  at the HCS site.

Best Bits

First, I was very impressed by the demeanor of Dr. Wardynski. If his actions prove consistent with his expressed commitment to basing his decisions on what is best for the students, then I am cautiously optimistic about the future of the HCS. He can’t do it alone, however.

My favorite three minutes were courtesy of a citizen’s comment. One Dr. Scales confirmed what I’ve suspected for the past month: Steve Salmon of Education Planners is no more a demographer than I am. Scales says he checked with the professional association for demographers, the Population Association of America, and Salmon is not one of its members. I just visited the website, and James Wilson also does not appear in their directory. Well done, Dr. Scales. Welcome to the world of DIY investigative journalism.

He then proceeded in about a minute to list what took me seven posts to cover, that is, the main faults of Salmon’s Facility Utilization Study:

  • No problem statement.
  • No methodology.
  • Incomplete and missing data.
  • No analysis.
  • No conclusions.
  • Recommendations are not supported by data.

Earlier in the evening, Dr. Wardynski said he would be meeting with Salmon on July 8. My fantasy is that the not-demographer has been summoned to Huntsville for a verbal thrashing.

An Interesting Exchange

The third item under Work Session on the agenda reads: “Bus Rules — p. 55-56.” Now, whether you look at the Bylaws published on the HCS site or those designated as revised 4/21/11, “citizen comments germane to an item on the Work Session agenda may be allowed,” but citizens have to sign up to speak before the meeting. (Questions about these Bylaws were raised during the meeting, and my impression is that there is no consensus regarding which ones are in effect. I’ve looked at Minutes for meetings prior to 4/21/11 and I can’t find when the revision was first proposed.) The problem is that if citizens lack information regarding Work Session items, for example pp 55-56 (pages of what?), how will they know ahead of the meeting time whether they have questions or comments on a topic?

Anyway, from what I could piece together, Dr. Richardson recommended cutting back on bus aides as a cost-savings measure and implementing a no- or low-tolerance plan for dealing with any misbehavior on the bus for all grade levels. Nobody is going to argue, I hope, that behavior on the bus which endangers the riders’ safety can be tolerated. But the impression I got is that the issue is punishment for bad but not risky behavior, like using profanity. I got the impression that the penalty for just about anything has been changed to being kicked off the bus for 3 days. (I’d much rather tell you the facts rather than repeating I got the impression, but those are not for my eyes — or yours, apparently.)

The problem wasn’t stated like this, but my analysis of the disagreement is that it comes down to this question: If the same punishment is meted out for the same behavior to two kids but the practical consequences of the punishment are radically different, then can the policy be just?

Board Member Dr. Jennie Robinson, who represents the affluent Southeast, began the discussion by asserting that riding the bus is “privilege and not a right.” Board Member Laurie McCaulley said she had been contacted by a single mother of an elementary school kid who lives off Balch Road and had been kicked off the bus for 3 days for using bad language. She had no car and no way to get him to school (probably about 7 miles — lucky he doesn’t live on Dogwood Flats, 19 miles away from its zoned elementary, Providence).

Let’s think about this, starting with the privilege vs. a right issue. We agree that in the US all kids have a right to a public school education. This doesn’t mean that they can’t lose the right temporarily through suspension or permanently through expulsion, but there are guidelines in place (I assume) regarding what kind of behavior gets you in that kind of trouble.

Now then, if the School Board is making the rules about who can and can’t ride the bus, then it seems to me that it is claiming, in effect, that when the child boards the bus, he is under its authority — he is, for all purposes, at school. And thus, would it not follow that if a kid has a right to attend a public school, he has a right to ride the bus, that it is no more a privilege than is attending classes? Attending school isn’t only a right, it is a legal obligation of the parent and kid.

Now let’s look at what happens to two kids, both kicked off the bus. John lives in a household with  at least one car. Paul lives in a household with no car. John lives 4 miles from his school. Paul lives 19 miles from his school and there is no public transportation. John’s mom or dad or nanny loads him into the car and complains for the 10-minute ride to school over the next 3 days. Paul stays home, picking up 3 days’ unexcused absences, 3 days of zeroes.

John’s driver feels hassled. Paul may as well have been suspended. Question: had John and Paul both broken whatever rule in the school building that they broke on the bus, would they have each received a 3-day suspension?

If you have resources, if you have a car and money for gas, being kicked off the bus is no big deal for your kid. But if you don’t, it is. If you have money, you don’t need to think about what you’d do if you didn’t. But if you are making the rules for those who don’t, spare them an occasional thought, please. Yea, life isn’t fair. But that gives us no excuse for not being as fair as we can be or for making provisions that acknowledge the reality that life isn’t fair.

What provisions am I thinking about? How about the kid can ride the bus if accompanied by a parent or guardian? The miscreant would be mortified, and such a punishment would deter others who would hate to be squashed against their scowling mom all the way to and from school for 3 days.

The most universally effective provision would be to take advantage of the buyer’s market for those hiring and to choose the bus aides wisely. Don’t go for someone who has never commanded people. Find retired teachers and drill sergeants of the finger-shaking, in-your-face, if-looks-could-kill, don’t-even-think-about-it variety. Hell, you might not even have to pay them. Where can I sign on?


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A Message for Dr. Wardynski, Superintendent, Huntsville City Schools

Welcome to Huntsville. I hope that what I am going to tell you, you already know, and that what I’m going to suggest is on your agenda. So I will be brief.

In your Entry Plan, you named identifying three things going well in the Huntsville City Schools as one of your goals. Surely, New Century Technology High School must top the list.

  • It is the only school in North Alabama to be named one of America’s best 500 public high schools in the US by Newsweek in 2011.
  • It is a US News Silver Medal School.

The NCTHS graduation program lists 74 graduates in the Class of 2011. Of these:

  • 47 earned advanced diplomas [64%]
  • 45 were Pathway Completers
  • 36 were award advanced diplomas and were Pathway Completers
  • 1 earned an appointment to the US Air Force Academy
  • 24 reported having won at least one merit scholarship [32%]; 51 scholarships are listed, but the final total could well be higher since these figures are based on what information was available before the graduation program went to press.

Consider the demographics of the self-selected 2010-11 student body of 304 (142 female/162 male) pupils:

  • 16 Asian
  • 126 Black
  • 32 Hispanic
  • 1 Indian
  • 129 White

Also, 41.45 % qualify for free or reduced charge lunch. No other school in the City approaches such a racial or ethnic and economic balance.

It would be great to have the resources to enhance all programs at this high school, but the HCS does not. It costs nothing, however, to appreciate and, especially, protect such a school. NCTHS is not a problem and should not be made one.

Unfortunately, such an obvious analysis is not universally shared: one of the poorly executed Facility Utilization Study’s recommendations is to move NCTHS to Lee High School. However,

  • No money would be saved by moving New Century; Dr. Richardson acknowledged this at the fifth school closure public meeting.
  • A move could reasonably be expected to lessen the involvement of local industries in the School’s programs. NCTHS is now located in the same building occupied by Columbia High School in the southwest corner of Cummings Research Park. This is not a residential zone. The property was first secured for New Century to facilitate partnerships with Research Park tech companies, none farther than a 5-minute drive in light, low-speed traffic unlikely to pose problems for new drivers. Lee High School, in contrast, is 10 heavily traveled interstate miles and 20 minutes away from Research Park.

This brings me to my suggestion. Tell the Board to strike this recommendation. Remind them that they hired you to solve problems, not to create new ones; that it is foolish to make a change that would do no good and may well do harm; and that when people and programs are working well, sometimes – often, perhaps — the best thing to do is to stay out of their way and let them get on with it. End of discussion.


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Huntsville Board of Education Neglects Routine Homework But Travels in Time

The Board of Education,  Huntsville City Schools, has failed to do its routine homework for six weeks. Today is July 5, 2011. As of 9:20 am, the last set of minutes posted on its website for a regularly scheduled bimonthly meeting was for May 17, 2011.

No minutes have been posted for the June 2, 2011, meeting, which included the first presentation by the “demographer,” or for the June 16, 2011, meeting which included the decision to throw some more money into the “demographer’s” boss’s coffers. Correction: The June 16 Minutes first have to be approved before posting. However, Minutes for a May 24 meeting appear on a newswire post but not on the HCS site.

No agenda has been posted for the July 7, 2011, meeting. Update: an agenda for July 7, 2011, was added to the HCS site late on July 5, 2011. However, the Board changed its Bylaws on April 21, 2011, to restrict citizen input:

“Citizen comments regarding topics on the Business Meeting agenda are permitted during the time allotted for comments as set forth in paragraph seven and shall not be permitted at any other time during the business meeting.”

The revision also states that

 ”Citizen comments on a topic germane to the Work Session agenda may be allowed at the conclusion of board member questions and comments. . .”.

I don’t know how to interpret that “may,” but I fear that “may” is not the same as “will” in this case.

Does the Board figure that if it restricts comments to “topics on the Business Meeting agenda” and Work Session agenda but doesn’t publish these agendas prior to the meeting, then pesky parents and others will stay home?

By the way, the information on the change to the Bylaws is from a newswire service (see page 10 of the 74 pp pdf) –not the Huntsville City Schools’ site.

Also appearing on the newswire are what appear to be Minutes from a May 24, 2011, meeting (page 1). First thing on its numbered list is “Minutes” including “May 27 (3 sets), May 28 (2 sets)**.”

This is interesting for several reasons. First, a May 24, 2011, meeting isn’t listed on the HCS website’s page, Minutes 2010-2011. Secondly, the double asterisks, although they appear again on page 3, are undefined. Thirdly, and most oddly, the School Board appears to be engaging in time travel. How else could Minutes for May 27 and May 28 appear in a May 24 Minutes?

This One’s for John Peck, Editorial Page Editor, Huntsville Times

Usually reading a Huntsville Times editorial is like encountering the Scarecrow of Oz before he realizes he has any brains. Remember when Dorothy asks which way to Oz, and the Scarecrow replies by telling her to go one way, then turns around and immediately tells her the opposite is an equally good option, and then returns to his first suggestion?

So I was surprised to see something resembling an assertion in John Peck’s editorial, “Welcome, Mr. Schools Superintendent.” Peck, editorial page editor, writes:

“And while [Casey] Wardynski must ultimately be the one to present school closing recommendations to the board, some pressure will have been lifted off of him by a demographer’s study that the school board is mulling. That study recommended closing four elementary schools and four middle schools, closing Butler High School and relocating New Century Technology High School to the rebuilt Lee High School – but not until the 2012-2013 school year.

What is outrageous about Peck’s summary is the unquestioning assumption that “some pressure will have been lifted off of Wardynski by a demographer’s study.” What is Peck suggesting here? It sounds like Peck thinks that Wardynski doesn’t need to  read the demographer’s study critically, consider the consequences of the Board’s “mulling,” or pay the slightest attention to the comments gathered in the five public meetings. All Wardynski need do is just sign off on the demographer’s recommendations.

At first I thought, does Peck not read his own paper? Obviously he doesn’t bother running an occasional Google blog search for “Huntsville City Schools,” or he would know that time after time after time members of the Huntsville community have challenged the validity of the demographer’s findings. When I looked again at the Huntsville Times’ coverage of this debacle, I realized that reading his own paper wouldn’t get Peck very far. Still, the comments al.com readers posted on articles regarding the school closure meetings should have sparked his journalistic curiosity.

If we are lucky, Wardynski will be bright enough to recognize that the Huntsville Times is bought for the sports pages, obituaries, classifieds, movie and TV times, and comics.

If we aren’t lucky, and Wardynski says to himself, ”That Huntsville Times crew, they are really on the ball!”, then nothing and no one can help us.

Huntsville City Schools 2011 Debacle, Part 1. What $70,000 + Buys These Days

I’m going to assume that if you are reading this you already know that the Huntsville [AL] City School System has managed to go $20 million into the red. What to do? Fire teachers and aides. Obviously. And hire some consultants. Of course.

The City of Huntsville came up with $100,000 for consultants. One of these, Steve Salmon, has been deemed a demographer. Salmon works for Education Planners, Marietta, Georgia. He was an assistant superintendent before entering the consulting racket. Education Planners provides four examples of their work on their webpage. Frankly, I’m not impressed. Salmon’s colleague, James Wilson, would have you believe, based on his comments at a June 16, 2011, public meeting that Salmon has been conducting demographic surveys since 1975.

In any event, Salmon was paid $70,000 to conduct a Facility Utilization Study.He hasn’t attended the community meetings to discuss his results, but Wilson has been sitting in his place. Now the School Board has decided to pay Wilson $500 a day  to sit in for Salmon at these meetings. These meetings last 2 hours.

Dear Reader, this is one sloppily prepared Facility Utilization Study.

Please click over to the HCS site and open it in another window so we can read it together.

  • Page 2: “Agenda.” Is this what — inadequately –takes the place of a table of contents?
  • Page 4: Irrelevant cut-and-pasted graphic
  • Page 5: Irrelevant cut-and-pasted graphic
  • Page 6: Largely irrelevant cut-and-pasted graphic
  • Page 7: Irrelevant cut-and-pasted graphic
  • Page 8: Irrelevant cut-and-pasted graphic
  • Page 9: Irrelevant cut-and-pasted graphic
  • Page 10: Irrelevant cut-and-pasted graphic
  • Page 11: City of Huntsville New Annexations Map. This is a public domain map not prepared by The Demographer but taken from this site: Huntsville The Star of Alabama Geographic Information Systems. Taxpayers already paid once for this map.
  • Page 12: Cut-and-pasted page from Huntsville Development Review March 2011.
  • Page 13:  Cut-and-pasted contents page from Huntsville Development Review March 2011. Why include only the table of contents?
  • Page 14 map is lifted from here.
  • Pages 15, 16, 17: Possibly original.
  • Page 18: An outdated version of the chart titled “Demographic Summary” on the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce site.
  • Page 19: Possibly original.
  • Page 20: Another not-quite-a-contents page
  • Page 21: Another cut-and-paste job
  • Pages 22, 23, 24, 25: Enrollment history of City Schools — provided by the City Schools
  • Page 26: Live Births Based on the Year Students Enter 1st Grade. What??? Isn’t this title backwards? And since the cut-off date for entering first grade is September 1, how can a graph using January 1 to December 31 data be accurate? Looks real fine — until you think about it.
  • Page 27: Now our live births six years later are charted and divided by Huntsville City, Madison City, and Madison County schools.
  • Page 28: Now we are back to a table, and we find that, for example, that 3,821 live births were recorded in 1999 and in SY05/06 there were 1737 kids in K and 1829 in 1st grade, presumably throughout the Huntsville Metro area. What relevance does this have for the Huntsville City Schools? Because live birth data is 1/1/ to 12/31, we can’t even really say that we started out with 3821 kids and can account for 3566, meaning that  255 kids moved away, died, are being home schooled, or are in private schools. We can’t really say anything useful at all.

We’re halfway through our $70,000 report. But I think I’ll leave you waiting for the rest, which will include internal inconsistencies, and much, much more!
To be continued….

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Huntsville City Schools 2011 Debacle, Part 2: What $70,000+ Buys These Days, cont’d.

Let’s continue our analysis of Steve Salmon [aka The Demographer] of Education Planners’ $70,000 document.

Go over again to the Huntsville City School’s site and open up the report. Ready?

  • We left off at pages 29-30, Enrollment History. I can’t make heads or tails of this. Can you?
  • Page 31: Enrollment Projection Process. This fails as even another not-quite table of contents since the items listed don’t appear in the following pages. Where is enrollment broken down by school and grade? Where is there a discussion of attendance zone changes? Feeder patterns? Impact aid? Cost per student?
  • Page 32: Wasted page

Page 33: High School Transfers 2010-2011. This one exemplifies the quality of this report.

First, there are seven high schools in the Huntsville City Schools. Let me repeat that. There are seven high schools in the system. NOT six. SEVEN!!

The compiler of this chart seems to think there are six high schools in the system.

Is it really too much to expect that someone who has been paid $70,000 to make recommendations regarding the Huntsville City Schools know how many high schools are in the system?

New Century Technology High School is missing from the chart. Keep this in mind, since one of the most bizarre recommendations made is to move it.

But let’s spend some time fully appreciating the subtleties of page 33. It is a chart that is set up like a mileage chart in an atlas: choose your starting point and look across to your destination. A city can of course be a starting point and a destination for different travelers at different times (but not at the same time) and so there is always a null set in such a chart when the horizontal element and the vertical element are one and the same. You know what I am talking about, I’m sure.

In my universe, a person can only be in one place at one time, and trans, as in transfer, implies movement from one place to another. It is thus logically impossible to transfer from Butler High to Butler High, from Grissom to Grissom, from Johnson to Johnson, and from Lee to Lee. But according to this chart, 1 Butler, 1 Grissom, 3 Johnson, and 1 Lee kid did just that.

When I raised a question about this at the June 16 meeting, $500-a-day Wilson told me that it was possible to transfer from Butler to Butler, etc., that I just didn’t understand the data, that these could be cases where the student returned to her home school.

No, no, and no.

Think about it. Mary is zoned for Butler. She transfers to Lee. She is now a Lee student. She ceases to be a Butler student.  That is what it means to transfer. Mary then decides to leave Lee and transfers to Butler. Now she becomes a Butler student. But she came from Lee to Butler. She didn’t come from Butler to Butler.

But wait — there’s more! Go ahead one page to page 34, Lee Students Overview. According to the Quick Facts box, Lee has 769 total students. Of these, 486 have an “address in district” and 283 have an “address outside district.”

Now, if a student goes to Lee but resides outside the Lee district, would we not agree that she has transferred from her zoned school to Lee?

So on page 33, we would expect to find 283 in the slot designated for total transfers to Lee, right?

And what do we find? Not 283 but 171.

Why? Well, which is it? I haven’t a clue which figure is accurate. I have no reason to believe either figure is. But I ask you: Is it really too much to expect that a $70,000 report present internally consistent figures? Are we really expected to take seriously the recommendations that appear in this report? Note I don’t say that follow from this data — because they don’t.

But that will have to wait. I’m only up to page 34/62.

To be continued…

Huntsville City Schools 2011 Debacle, Part 3: What $70,000+ Buys These Days, cont’d.

Before I return to The Demographer’s Facility Study, allow me a brief comment on something that doesn’t appear in the report: the impact of private schools on growth in the Huntsville City Schools.

Within walking distance of the facility that New Century Technology High School shares with Columbia High is the new 87,000 sq. ft., 55-acre campus of Pope John Paul II [JPII] High School, formerly known as Catholic High. This $13 million facility opened in fall 2010. Founded in 1996 with 60 freshmen and sophomores, JPII’s enrollment is now 348.

The Diocese of Birmingham and private donors did not decide to invest so much money in expanding this school without good reason to believe that it will continue to grow.  I wonder, did anyone, for example the school board members, or Demographer Steve Salmon, ask PJP2 if it would let them have a look at its demographic forecasts?

Maybe I will ask. I would certainly be interested in comparing studies conducted by JPII to Salmon’s.

And JPII isn’t the only private school with an enrollment that is growing way out of proportion to that of any of the Huntsville City schools. There is Randolph, which opened a second campus last year to accommodate its growing K-12 programs. There’s Madison Academy and Westminster Christian, both gaining students. And so on.

Now, a lot is made of the impact BRAC families are going to have on HCS, but this might not be as significant as forecast.

We all know that rightly or wrongly Alabama has a poor reputation in the US, well, worldwide, to be frank. Thank God for Mississippi, right? Dare I suggest that folks coming into the state from Virginia might be a tad apprehensive about enrolling their kids in the HCS?

Private school tuition at JPII, Randolph, Westminster, Madison Academy, etc. is prohibitive for many Huntsvillians. But the BRAC folks are coming from areas with a higher cost of living, higher home prices, and higher private school tuitions. They have solid and stable incomes.

So I think this is a valid question: just how many BRAC families who have already arrived have enrolled their kids in the HCS? How many who are coming plan to do so?

It’s not a question Salmon considered worth asking, not for a measly $70,000.
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