HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - It's safe to say Dr. Casey Wardynski has a lot on his plate. As Huntsville's Superintendent of Education, he oversees a system with more than three dozen schools serving 23,000 children.
The system is also in the midst of a battle to gain unitary status. Huntsville City Schools have been under a federal desegregation order since the 1970s. The legal battle is coming to a head again as Huntsville draws new zone lines and attracts new attention from the Department of Justice.
Both sides are due to file new court documents on Monday, March 10. Dr. Wardynski joined us this week for Leadership Perspectives, our in-depth segment on local issues facing the Tennessee Valley. He talked about the school system in great detail, but was careful not to step in certain areas due to legal implications with the DOJ challenge.
He did agree to talk with WHNT News 19 again on Monday after the court documents are filed. Check WHNT.com then to see it.
In this interview segment, Wardynski first talked about how Huntsville City Schools have gotten to this point.
"For 50 years, Huntsville City has been working with the U.S. Department of Justice and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund towards a point in time when we'll be judged to be a unitary system -- we're treated as if we're one system. This is all sort of from the perspective of a court," said Dr. Wardynski. "When they looked at Huntsville back when this order was put in place, what they said is you look like two systems, one for African-American children and one for all the other kids. A system that is protecting all its children, treating them all equally, would look like one system. So that's the difference between a dual system and a unitary system. Our goal, any decent city system, and world-class system, wants to be a unitary system. That's our goal, and we think we're well on our way to being there."
Soon after the latest rezoning announcement, the DOJ filed a challenge. Dr. Wardynski said the DOJ's information is outdated and the school system is challenging it in court. He said Huntsville has changed over the decades. The schools' makeup is different and people have moved.
"Their filing gives one the impression that it's 1974 still. It's not. It's 2014. People have
moved. The school system didn't do that, people did that," said Dr. Wardynski. "What the school system is supposed to do, under the Singleton Order, to achieve unitary status, is undo anything it did to segregate the system. Well, we didn't move people around the city. If we had done things to put kids in separate schools, we'd have to undo that. But if people have moved in, if people have moved around, if people have stopped having babies, which affects who's in schools, we didn't do that. That's important."
Wardynski also said it's important to note the lawyers on the case have changed. He said the new DOJ lawyers are younger, and haven't been on the case this whole time.
"We're building $200 million of new schools -- the Department of Justice agreed to all that. But in this motion they filed on Feb. 26, they criticize that? When you're building new schools and closing others [older ones], that's going to affect the zone lines," Wardynski said.
"Whether they were paying attention or not, I can't say, but we certainly were. We immediately went to work and presented to them in April our plan for zone lines."
From April to November, Wardynski said the school board pushed to try to get the DOJ to talk about zone lines.
"Schools are going to open, we're going to have a new school sitting here with tornado shelters, wonderful facilities, and not know who we're going to put in it."
The Department of Justice came back with a response in late December. Huntsville's lawyers spent much of January trying to work out various parts.
Wardynski said the DOJ's plan contained several oddities, including having students from Monte Sano Elementary going to Chapman Middle and Lee High Schools, down Bankhead Parkway in a bus.
"Anybody from town knows you don't send a school bus down Bankhead Parkway. It's got too many hairpin turns, there's no guardrails... if they had known anything about the local community, they would have known that. That's bizarre," Wardynski said.
"You add up the math. How many kids are in these schools? Our math adds up to our school system. Theirs doesn't. Where did the extra kids come from? You just go on and on and on. So, that's why we're very confident, that's why we made the presentation we made, and I think that's why the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said our plan is constitutional. They're unopposed."
Wardynski said the federal government didn't provide details Huntsville City Schools asked for through the negotiating process. He cited a new zone map the DOJ released late in the process.
"That's not good faith. If we're going to negotiate, talk to us about what you'd like to do."
Again, Monday, March 10, is the newest date to watch. The court expects more filings from each party -- Huntsville City Schools, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund at the U.S. Dept of Justice.
Dr. Wardynski says many things have changed in Huntsville City Schools since the 1970s. We asked him to pick one thing that stands out, in his mind.
"I think it's expectations. Expectations drive everything, from a news station, to a corporation, to a school system," Wardynski said. "If I expected different outcomes from one set of children from another, that would sort of create a license to treat that other set differently. Well, they're not going to be able to do as much. Well, that means we don't need to invest as much, we don't necessarily need to put the resources here, this other group can do better, I expect... you sort of treat them differently. The expectations of the 60s are not the expectations of Huntsville today. Huntsville expects to be a world-class city with everybody playing. Huntsville expects for all its citizens to flourish and to be a city where that can happen on a world-class scale."
"That's what this school system is expected to do," he added. "I expect it of myself, I expect it of my staff, I expect it of my principals, of our schools, and I expect it of our children. I expect they can all learn, I expect they can all achieve at high levels, and that drives my expectation of how we treat them. I know they're individuals, my job is to deliver personalized education, where we find that thing that's going to click, set a fire in their belly to learn, and they can reach their potential. And, I don't decide what their potential is, we just put the resources in place and those expectations in place that drive them toward their maximum potential."
The school system has changed the way it hires teachers and how it assigns them. He said this change was put in place to serve the best interests of the children.
"My job, I believe, is to get the very best teaching talent we can get, and I use the word talent because I think talent is critical. I'm not looking for competent. I'm looking for excellent. If you're going under the knife, you want the best doctor you can get," Dr. Wardynski said.
"We get the very best teachers. We've got 15,000 teachers applying this year for 150 jobs. That's alot of talent. We're going to pick the very best. We have teachers help us pick them... we're getting them centrally, then assigning them locally to meet the schools' needs."