Five years into the job: a sit-down with Superintendent Casey Wardynski

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - After 30 years in the Army, more than half of it spent at West Point, retired Colonel Casey Wardynski was looking for a new challenge.

He found it, courtesy of the US Postal Service.

As Wardynski tells the story, he got a letter from a non-profit. "This note, this letter, said, 'how would you like to help address the biggest challenge facing America?' That's the kind of challenge I like," he says.

Wardynski was recruited by Broad Superintendent Academy, which seeks to train top executives - in fields outside public education - to lead urban school systems. "So, I checked with them and said, 'would Huntsville be one of the potential places where there would be a leadership opportunity?' They said yes. I said, 'well then, I'm interested.'"

Wardynski was one of 14 candidates chosen for that year's program. Upon completion, in 2010, he took a job as chief financial officer for the Aurora, Colorado school system. "But my goal was always somehow to end up in Huntsville, to lead the Huntsville City School system."

Wardynski had a long history with the city. He did his basic officer course at Redstone Arsenal in 1980. In 1985, he returned for his captain's course and his son was born at Huntsville Hospital. From 2004 to 2010, he was at Redstone Arsenal four or five days a month, working on projects for the Army.

In 2011, he made the city his permanent home, when he accepted the job of Huntsville City Schools superintendent.

Huntsville felt like a calling to him - then and now.

"You know, there's a vacancy down in Montgomery now and there were people who asked me if I would be interested in that and I did give it some thought but we've got a lot of work to do here," he says.

The superintendent adds, "we're entering our second year of this consent order. It was about 50 years in the coming. We've still got a lot going on with regard to improving education. The Board of Education and I are a good team."

Since 2011, Wardynski and the Board of Education have turned a $19M deficit into a $40M surplus, overseen a $270M capital plan and restructured the school system.

Recalling the deficit, he says, "I wasn't really worried about the money problem. I worked with money and the government for thirty years. I was sort of the Army's chief economist. When they had a problem, they called my outfit at West Point. Usually, you can solve money problems in government. The things that are hard to solve are leadership problems."

In fact, the superintendent says he saw the system's financial problems as an opportunity.

"Because that's sort of a reset. It lets us reset the allocation of resources. They were probably skewed in the wrong direction back then. In fact, I know they were. Operations was using way too much and doing too little. There was not enough being directed to programs for kids, not enough to meet the needs of children who were struggling...really didn't worry too much about the financial thing other than, frankly, getting the state people out of here so we could get going."

However, dealing with people proved more problematic. The superintendent encountered strong opposition, as he sought to terminate employees who weren't meeting expectations.

"The leadership when I arrived here didn't seem like it was all pointed in the direction of the kids future...I think in my first two months, I recommended the board fire a principal who was running a business out of the school, who had phonied up the evaluation of every teacher in the school. That pointed to a pretty weak leadership culture."

Digging deeper, he found even more problems.

He says, "we had principals who were carrying out epic levels of sexual harassment, who were going on for 10, 15 years. That can't exist. You can't have a decent workplace when that's going on. We had examples of teacher behavior where the teacher didn't come to school for the first weeks of school - ever. That sends a message to the kids. That classroom had the worst discipline in the school because it just wasn't important to her, it wasn't important to them."

Wardynski moved quickly to remove such school personnel.  Other school employees found themselves reassigned, not always a popular decision.

He continues to be criticized in person and online. A petition at change.org, calling for his resignation, has hundreds of signatures. A Facebook page was also created called Fire Wardynski.

"Change is not easy for humans and then, it's really not easy for bureaucracies. School systems are bureaucracies."

Another change for the system - the digital one to one initiative.  Huntsville City Schools became the largest school system in the country in which every student had a laptop. A huge shift from the previous technology policy.

"We had about 8,000 lab computers in the schools. I think 85% of them were eight years or older. That means you don't really have technology. The school's wifi was whatever the PTA's had provided. My computer in my office couldn't receive an email from anything more modern than Windows 2003 version and it was 2011. That's just not acceptable."

"Getting Huntsville City Schools pointed in a direction that supported the needs of the city and our kids meant some changes. We're now in a world where things are changing so quickly. I can't imagine graduating kids from high school who aren't pretty facile in a digital environment - laptops, iPads, knowing how to work in a network environment - where you can collaborate without being physically in the presence of somebody," he says.

As Dr. Wardysnki looks to the future, he will continue to always put the children first. They are his mission.

Meeting their needs, will likely require more change down the road.

"Kids are not cars moving down an assembly line. You don't throw on the chassis in the first grade. By fifth grade, we're ready to throw on an engine and at the end, we throw on the hub caps. Kids learn in different areas at different rates. So ultimately, the system is heading in a direction where we'll probably have kids in grade bands.

"They can be moving fast in math, maybe a little slower in science, maybe a little faster in reading... It's easy for us to organize things so that - by this date - this child will know X. But what happens if they don't? They start falling through the cracks and the more cracks they fall through, the more likely it is they're going to drop out or they're not going to have a successful experience and be ready to go to college or have a great career."

"My first job is close the cracks, organize this thing around kids and their needs and looking out 14 years into what they're going to need. Because our PreK kids are 14 years from graduation. So, what's the world going to look like 14 years?"

"If I had been a superintendent in 1940 or (19)50 or (19)60, odds were it was going to look a lot like today and it did. But looking out 14 years from today, the world is going to be entirely different."