Huntsville City Schools cuts ties with Pinnacle Schools during contract dispute

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Following Pinnacle Schools CEO Karen Lee's decision to end certain Pinnacle services to Huntsville City Schools students, the school board voted to end Pinnacle's contract with the school system.

Lee said earlier Thursday that they could not continue to fund programs that they were not being paid for.

Thursday night at the school board meeting, the dispute over contracts and costs got even more public. Interim Superintendent Tom Drake was very clear in his assessment of their side of the story: "Pinnacle's decision to send students away today was a substantial breach of contract," he told audience members. "In light of this, any trust that previously existed between the board and Pinnacle has now been destroyed."

He said that's why he asked the board to terminate its September 2014 contract with Pinnacle for services. It ends October 28, 2016, which is next Friday.

The board still has not paid the invoices they've been looking into, asking for more than $200,000 to be paid to Pinnacle Schools.

Instead, they will consider legal action. Thursday, the board voted for Tom Drake to pursue legal remedies if necessary.

"I'd like to settle this without litigation because it is expensive. But there comes a point when we have to go and get back your taxpayer money," said Drake, later commenting, "the invoices sent by Pinnacle did not comply with the contract."

Pinnacle Schools' attorney was present at the meeting. He attempted a rebuttal, stating, "They're offering us pennies on the dollar for our expenditures."

His request to speak was rejected by board members and the board's attorney after he warned the audience, "Learn the true facts of this matter. They don't want you to learn the facts of the matter."

Board President Laurie McCaulley said, "You're out of order!"

"This will be a serious problem with the Department of Justice," he warned.

"It may be," replied McCaulley.

Drake also detailed the board's decision to start a program they're calling LAUNCH, which will serve the affected students. It will be the Huntsville City Schools alternative school at the Huntsville Center for Technology, where they've renovated rooms. The building is secure, said Drake, and ready for students. They will have 8 campus security officers, along with two resource officers there.

"We are going to use the same resource officers who are presently at Pinnacle," he said, noting there will also be metal detectors on-site. He said the school system has three behavioral interventionists on board to help, along with guidance counselors. He said the school system was ready in case Pinnacle programs disappeared, and they have been working quickly for an answer.

The board also voted Thursday for Drake to start a contract with The Enrichment Center (Eagle) for mental health service, to get additional  therapists for the program. They are looking for seven therapists: one that will serve LAUNCH and place the remaining six will be in each of the high schools.

"We are working to minimize the impact of this unexpected transition," said Drake. He added the staff are also working on the academic side. "To protect our students' academic progress, we are working with the students to set them in a curriculum similar to what they were using at Pinnacle," he noted.

Family members of Pinnacle employees spoke out on behalf of Pinnacle, asking the board, "How have you gotten to this point? Are you just not going to pay your bill?"

Attorneys for both sides continue to negotiate the issue.