Thank you, Crystal Bonvillian. Innocent Until Proven Guilty. Nepotism.

Crystal Bonvillian, education reporter for The Huntsville Times, is a brave woman worthy of respect. In today’s Times, she has a lead story, “Huntsville school officials defend alternative school after owners’ sons face drug charges.” Well done, Ms. Bonvillian. She is also seeking to discover what is going on in the HCS classrooms following the 1:1 Learning Initiative I-pad / laptop / Pearson curriculum thrust: “How is the Huntsville schools district’s digital transition working for you?”.

Bonvillian reports that Karen Lee, CEO of Pinnacle, said “‘My sons are innocent until proven guilty.'” That’s true. But the question I raised in yesterday’s post, did Lee tell Wardynski and the Board about the arrest before the lucrative contract with her company was signed, remains. [Update 9/14 evening: “When my sons were arrested I let them know and that was before the board vote took place,” said Karen Lee in an interview with WAFF. I didn’t think anything could surprise me. I was wrong.] Whether she did or not apparently doesn’t matter when it comes to Board member David Blair’s opinion: “‘If everybody got judged by their kids, a lot of people would be in big trouble.'”

As a commenter on noted, “Compare this to Wardynski’s ‘off with his head’ response when Grissom’s football coach was charged with a DUI while mowing Grissom’s field.” Point well taken.

Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Charles Lee, Jr. and Eric Lee aren’t convicted of trafficking. Maybe they were just at that house to deliver a fruitcake to Stephanie Porter, it being the holiday season and all, and had nothing to do with the “24 pounds of marijuana and about $37,600 in cash during the bust” or the “weapons, including shotguns and rifles.” I find it very odd that a reasonably intelligent woman like Porter (see comments here) was stupid enough to get caught again this summer with four pounds of pot. Make of that what you will.

When you look at mugshots over at the Madison County Jail site, smiles are few, and people who look like they are about to burst out laughing rarer still. Here’s the trio of interest here: Charles Lee, Jr., Eric Lee, and Stephanie Porter. Doesn’t Eric look like he is thinking, what in the hell have these two gotten me into this time?

It’s just weird. So Eric is too old for being one of the bad kids in the teepee, but Ma Lee needs to keep an eye on him, and so installs him at Elk River. Or maybe he was already working there as a counselor (does the Board ask for resumes of their contractors’ employees? Isn’t that kinda standard? What’s his degree in? Any relevant training?).

Bold as brass, but here’s another consideration: doesn’t the HCS have a rather extreme nepotism policy in place? See Redeye’s blog and geekpalaver. An owner’s son as employee? No prob, according to Wardynski, since Lee will be  “removing him from the Elk River program and he will be working other duties.”

Board member David Blair, who lives just down the hill from the Lees, is still a big fan of Pinacle’s. He claims,

. . . he and fellow board members looked carefully at the issue of whether to close the Seldon Center and go forward with Pinnacle before their January vote.

“We looked at Pinnacle, their past performance, their methods and the whole-child offerings for our kids that are struggling and are having some discipline problems,” Blair said. “Pinnacle has a proven track record.”

Problems, problems, problems, Mr. Blair.

Pinnacle’s past performance, which he alludes to, was as a very costly, private school.

Pinnacle’s curriculum, as I understand it, is delivered digitally. As we all know, presumably much of all the HCS’s curriculum is delivered digitally these days — when it is delivered at all. So why did the alternative education program need to be contracted out to a private school-of-sorts? Why couldn’t the Seldon crew have used the same technology and software that Pinnacle’s staff gets up and running?

But most important, to me, are Pinnacle’s Elk River programs, the private prison that Huntsville taxpayers are supporting to the tune of $750 a day, every day (now at $193,500).

What’s its track record? What is the track record of any of these wilderness camps? Again, if you can stomach it, watchCongressional Hearings Regarding Deceptive Marketing Practices, Torture, and Death at Behavior Modification Programs for Teens.” Visit the HEAL website, where “you will find links to lawsuits, news articles, and survivor websites detailing the abuses experienced at these facilities.” Elk River isn’t one of the horror stories yet, but aside from any moral or ethical arguments, how about running some cost-benefit analysis for this boondoggle, Mr. Blair? Or paying an unannounced visit? Talking to ex-staffers and inmates?

You want to know why I keep banging my keyboard about this? It’s simple. I’m appalled that children, even badly behaved children, have so few civil rights, including a right to legal representation, privileged communication with a legal representative, and protection from abuse and false imprisonment. And for people to make money, a lot of money, taking advantage of this, is despicable. Got it?


The Pinnacle Debacle: Who Knew What When

Update 9/14 evening: “When my sons were arrested I let them know and that was before the board vote took place,” said Karen Lee in an interview with WAFF. I didn’t think anything could surprise me. I was wrong. It seems that it was the Huntsville City Schools Superintendent and Board that

  1. Thought this unimportant,  and/or
  2. Banked on the public not finding out or not caring.

Update: If you go here, you can search current and released inmates at the Madison County Jail. While the municpal news wire reported that bond for the four suspects was set at $1 million each, the bond listed for the Lee brothers is $25,000 each. Stephanie Porter’s was $1 million, but has been revoked because of her second drug trafficking arrest while out on bond. The fourth suspect as reported by the news wire, Corey McDonald, does not show up as a current or released inmate.

Speculation: Considering the paucity of media attention, I doubt that Superintendent Wardynski or the Board learned that the two sons of Pinnacle Schools CEO Karen Lee had been arrested for drug trafficking the morning after she presented the proposal for contracting with the Huntsville City Schools to provide alternative education formerly administered by the HCS via the Seldon Center. (If you’re just joining us, read the previous two posts.)

Question: Is it plausible that Pinnacle CEO Karen Lee did not know before the contract was signed with HCS that her sons had been charged with drug trafficking?

Answer: Doubtful. The boys likely did not each have $25,000 readily available or the resources to keep the story out of The Huntsville Times.

Reasonable Conclusions: Before the contract was signed, Karen Lee had two choices:

  1. Tell the Supe or any of the Board about the arrests.
  2. Don’t tell the Supe or the Board.

Option 1. Considering the value she places on “character,” one would think that she would tell the Supe or the Board. It may not have a direct impact on the work Pinnacle does, but sooner or later, the truth will out, and it would prove (is proving?) mighty embarrassing to the HCS.

Let’s suppose she did tell the Supe or at least three Board members. That would mean they entered into this contract knowing that Lee’s claims for programs like hers, based on her own kids’ experiences, were dubious at best. Likely? I doubt it. That, if you trust Lee, is exactly what they did.

Option 2: Lee is a businesswoman with a lot of financial resources and clout in the community. Not telling would mean a good chance of getting a lucrative contract. I think this is the more likely scenario.

She was running a risk, but having kept the story out of the Times, she and the Board and the Supe probably thought she they could get away with it.

She made two miscalculations:

  1. Anything that ever was online will surface, sooner or later.
  2. She didn’t factor in how many of her staff would return to civilization, disgusted and disillusioned.

Now what? I haven’t a clue. But while we are thinking about what the Board really knew about Pinnacle when they signed the contract, I have another speculation and question.

Speculation: Did the Supe arrive in Huntsville thinking, what I need are some teepees where I can a handful of bad kids since that would surely establish order in the HCS? Could be, but I think it more likely that someone who stood to profit by an HCS – Pinnacle agreement brought Pinnacle to him. I haven’t found the connection to the Supe or to any of the Board — yet — but see number 1, above.

Questions:  Since January 1, 2012, when the HCS started paying $750 a day ($192,750 as of today, the 257th day of 2012). to reserve five teepees at Elk River:

  1. Has the Supe or any of the Board paid a surprise visit to the camp? Oh, wait. How do you pay a surprise visit to a place without an address in a remote location? And if the visit is scheduled, you might as well stay home.
  2. Have any of them talked to one of those released from the teepees with provisions in place to preserve anonymity or at least lessen the risk of reprisal for telling their stories?

I doubt it.

HCS Board Meeting, 8/4/11. Thank you, Dr. Wardynski for Taking a Stand Against Corporal Punishment

Dr. Casey Wardynski, the new superintendent of the Huntsville [AL] City Schools,  proposed at the School Board meeting this evening that corporal punishment be eliminated within the system. I guess this will be put to a vote next meeting.

Thank you, Dr. Wardynski.

Thank you for having the common sense to suggest that if an officer is not allowed to beat a soldier who breaks a rule, then surely an adult educator should not be permitted to use corporal punishment on a child.

Thank you for having the insight to suggest to the Board that giving an adult the right to hit a child while decrying bullying in the schools just doesn’t make sense.

I don’t know why in 2011 the HCS still had a policy regarding procedures for hitting kids. I guess I assumed that if in the 21st century it still did, and this is not unusual, I believe, among Alabama schools, then the situation was simply hopeless. In fact, one of the reasons why when my son was born in 1989 I never thought about sending him to public school was because I couldn’t bear to think of that happening to him. I knew too that even if he turned out to be a well-behaved kid, as he did, that wouldn’t be enough to keep him safe from overgrown schoolyard bullies. When I was growing up kids got hit for crimes like coming in last running laps at PE. I wasn’t willing to take that chance.

Three out of five Board members commented.

Laurie McCaulley said she thought the teachers and administrators in the schools would be relieved because now they wouldn’t have to worry about being sued. Of course, they could have avoided that pain simply by not hitting kids, but I won’t quibble.

David Blair expressed concern that teachers and administrators will know that they are still allowed to touch kids if they need to do so to break up a fight. I don’t see the connection between denying ritualized infliction of pain for punishment and preventing kids from doing damage to each other. It’s a little like confusing delivering a hard, brutal punch to a defenseless person’s midsection and performing the Heimlich maneuver.

And speaking of confusion, there’s Dr. Jennie Robinson. She seems to think that like Dr. Wardynski, she has just now arrived in Huntsville. She was enthusiastic about his proposal (good), but this begs a question, does it not? If it is such a good idea now, why didn’t she work toward the elimination of corporal punishment when she was first elected to the Board in 2002? Or the next year, 2003? 2004? 2005? 2006? 2007? 2008? 2009? 2010? Last month? I went 25 pages deep into a Google search for “Jennie Robinson” + Huntsville and found no indication that she has ever taken a stand against corporal punishment. Why not?

Later, Robinson also acted as if she had been pressing for a report on Special Ed staffing for months. Pressing whom? Guess who offered up a report tonight? Dr. Wardynski. (I wonder what Dr. Ann Roy Moore accomplished this week to justify continuing to collect her pay?)

Must Dr. Wardynski do everything himself?

It remains to be seen, however, if the data he was supplied is accurate. I hope heads roll if it isn’t.

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.


Comments on this post appear here.

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 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.