Huntsville City Schools, Pinnacle go to court over contract termination

Dr. Casey Wardynski, former superintendent of Huntsville City Schools, testifies in court on Nov. 1. (Shane Hays/WHNT News 19)

Dr. Casey Wardynski, former superintendent of Huntsville City Schools, testifies in court on Nov. 1. (Shane Hays/WHNT News 19)

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Things continue to heat up between Huntsville City Schools and Pinnacle, a company that recently saw its contract terminated for services with the school system.

Both sides appeared before a judge Tuesday afternoon in regards to a lawsuit Pinnacle recently filed.  Attorney John Wilmer, representing Pinnacle, called two witnesses, former Superintendent Casey Wardynski and Pinnacle Schools CEO Karen Lee, who are engaged to be married.

Wardynski resigned as superintendent in September, saying he didn’t want his relationship with Lee to create a conflict. His resignation was a surprise to everyone, including school board members who learned hours prior to his public announcement.

On the stand, Wardynski said board members had asked him to stay when he tried several times before to resign, and finally he decided to make the decision and stick to it in September.

He also talked about Pinnacle’s programs, asserting they were a great value for what the school system paid.  He said they significantly helped improve graduation rates and decrease discipline issues within the schools.  Pinnacle provides alternative school services and additional programs for students with behavioral issues.

Wardynski also specifically addressed the APP Program, for which Pinnacle invoiced the school system. These invoices sparked further investigation into the charges. Wardynski said APP was a direct result of the school system’s desire to comply with a federal consent order and born out of concern for the district. He said it was to reduce discipline problems in the schools when students who had been in Pinnacle programs attempted to return to their regular schools. He said APP was designed as that middle ground, a stepping stone for the students to be supported in the process. Wardynski mentioned there was a need to have this kind of supportive program within the schools to avoid segregation issues.

Wardynski said Pinnacle created these programs at the request of the school system, and the prices were negotiated.

As far as their relationship is concerned, Wardynski did answer questions about it. Wilmer asked him when he met Lee, and Wardynski said it was during a tour of Pinnacle back in 2012. He had been looking for vendors to serve as an alternative school.

Karen Lee took the stand next.  She said without injunctive relief, Pinnacle will likely go bankrupt.  She said she has had to lay off 50 employees with 25 more to possibly come soon.  Lee said she has reached into her own pocketbook to help her business survive and maintain a minimal staff.  She also claims Huntsville City Schools is trying to hire employees away from her.

Lee said the school system, as of Tuesday, now owes $800,000 to Pinnacle. To reach this figure, she’s including the unpaid invoices along with a November 1 payment in the contract Huntsville City Schools terminated.

Attorneys did not call any more witnesses.  Chris Pape, an attorney for the school system, said he would dispute “virtually everything” in Pinnacle’s complaint, and he believes the court should not revive an already terminated contract.  He said the board members have immunity because they are state employees, and the judge should not grant relief in this case.

Pape also argued any more changes for the students would not help them.  The judge said he would take everything under advisement and rule at a later date.

Following all of this, attorneys from either side had no comment.  A representative of the Alabama Education Association was in attendance, and said he would not like to see more money spent on attorneys and hearings.

Background

Pinnacle is suing school board members and the interim superintendent, Tom Drake.  The company also wants a judge to force the school system to pay up to $800,000 worth of unpaid invoices and reinstate a terminated contract for alternative school services.

Pinnacle attorneys have filed for injunctive relief, and a temporary restraining order on the school system’s actions.

Tuesday morning, Huntsville Board of Education members named in the lawsuit filed a response.  They claim the board cannot be bound to follow a contract it already terminated and ask the court to deny the temporary restraining order Pinnacle requests.

The board members also claim the board is subject to immunity from tort claims as a state agency, saying they shouldn’t be compelled or controlled to fulfill the contract.  They claim there is no immediate harm to Pinnacle, or irreparable harm either.  They also claim Pinnacle wants to make up for a loss of revenue, but a lawsuit would hurt the board more.

They add reinstating programs for Pinnacle students that the board already shut down would be one more transition for those students, and claim the “board has grave concerns” about yet another “unnecessary” transition.

Where are these students now?

Huntsville City Schools has created an in-house program, LAUNCH, to provide alternative schooling services for affected students. The students are sent to the Huntsville Center for Technology for this program.

The school system is also trying to contract with additional counselors and therapists to support this program.