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Superintendent Casey Wardynski surprises Huntsville with resignation announcement

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Dr. Casey Wardynski, Superintendent of Huntsville City Schools, says he will resign from his position tomorrow.

Wardynski announced this in an exclusive interview with WHNT News 19 at his home on Wednesday morning. His resignation will take effect Thursday, September 15 at 5 p.m.

He followed up with a news conference this afternoon, and it was a surprise to many in Huntsville, including board members who said they learned just this morning.

"It was sudden," said Board President Laurie McCaulley, as other board members nodded. "We weren't firing him. His contract is good until 2018."

Wardynski doesn't have another job lined up yet, but said he enjoys 'fixing things' and wants to continue doing that, possibly with education in Alabama. He said he plans to stay in Huntsville because he likes it here.  He's also planning to get married in December.

"There were many, many things I came here to do, and thanks to the board, a great city and wonderful teachers, they've been accomplished," said Wardynski. "Leaders need to be self-aware when it's time for them to do their next thing."

Karen Lee, CEO of Pinnacle School in Huntsville

Karen Lee, CEO of Pinnacle School in Huntsville

Wardynski is engaged to Karen Lee, CEO of Pinnacle Schools.  Pinnacle is an alternative school in the city, and an item concerning the company is on the agenda for the Huntsville Board of Education meeting tomorrow night.  Wardynski said he wanted to avoid any ethical issues, and made this decision to open the next chapter of his life.

"My wife died on the sixth of December. At some point, a superintendent is entitled to have a life. Early this summer, Ms. Lee and I began dating and I'm entitled to have friends," Wardynski said.

"The ethics laws talk about relatives, and I have talked with ethics attorneys and I shared with the responsible authorities here at the school system when I felt it was an issue -- my relationship. It's my intention, in December, to marry Ms. Lee and to have a life."

"As superintendent, it's important to be above reproach, so I'm always cognizant of those sorts of things. It's not an issue today, and it won't be an issue, but if I was to marry Ms. Lee while I was superintendent, it could become an issue. That would be a problem the ethics bunch could look at and probably resolve one way or the other.  As a leader you need to be self-aware."

Dr. Wardynski has been superintendent since 2011. Prior to this he was chief financial officer for the Aurora, Colorado school system. A retired Army Colonel, Wardynski was recruited by Broad Superintendent Academy, which seeks to train top executives -- in fields outside public education -- to lead urban school systems.

Dr. Wardynski was attracted to Huntsville because he had worked here several times in the past during his Army career.

He told WHNT News 19's Kristen Conner earlier today he made the decision to leave earlier this week. He said he has been thinking about it a lot lately, and feels he's leaving the school system in a good place. He said he feels the school system can sustain the changes made in the coming years.

"I've thought about it for several days, several weeks, and thought this was probably the best point," Wardynski said.

Wardynski has led the school system out of debt, turning a $19M deficit into a $40M surplus. He has also overseen a $270M capital plan which includes construction of several new schools.

Wardynski's term has not been without controversy, though. The system is in its second year of a multi-faceted effort to get out from under a 50-year federal desegregation order. The plan includes school rezoning, teacher reassignment and changes in how discipline is administered. Many teachers, parents and students were critical of his administration and how these changes have been implemented. Wardynski talked with us about many of these issues during an interview in August.

He was initially hired under a three-year contract, but asked for an additional two years, feeling he needed five years to implement workable changes in the school system.

"Coming out of last year, I felt we had a little bit more to do with the discipline system, with things that weren't quite right there, and the city felt the same way, so I didn't want to leave that undone. I was at a meeting yesterday at Columbia High School with our teachers in the Columbia High School feeder pattern, talking about discipline this year, the changes we've put in place, the Behavioral Learning Guide, some of the technologies to help teachers, and I got a much different impression. Teachers felt supported. They said the kids didn't come up to them this year and say 'there's nothing you can do' -- they feel like they have resources."

"We still have some kids who are 'frequent flyers,' but they can be dealt with, but I didn't want to leave that undone. It's important work. We've got to have schools where teachers can teach, where kids have respect for adults, and the other kids can get a good education."

He also wanted to make sure the budget was buttoned up.

School board

The Huntsville Board of Education has come under fire for consistently agreeing with Wardynski. According to Al.com, in reviewing board meetings available since November 2014, the current board has never voted 'no.'  Board President Laurie McCaulley said the board has been successful because members got received information ahead of time in packets, reviewed them, and came prepared in order to run more efficiently at the meetings.

McCaulley lost her seat to Michelle Watkins in last month's municipal election. Another new board member, Pam Hill, is also coming on. In our interview with Dr. Wardynski prior to his announcement, he said their criticism of him did not influence his decision to step down.

The near term

Susan Wardynski died in December 2015.

Susan Wardynski died in December 2015.

Wardynski lost his wife, Susan, to breast cancer in December 2015. He said in the near future, he wants to take her remains to West Point. He also wants to spend time with his children and take a vacation.