TAKING ACTION: Exclusive interview with Pinnacle Schools CEO Karen Lee

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Pinnacle Schools invoices are under the microscope right now. The Huntsville City Schools Board of Education and interim superintendent Tom Drake are reviewing them, president Laurie McCaulley told WHNT News 19 Monday.

Drake announced last week that he ended the APP program over which the invoices were requesting payment. It is set to come back up at a board work session Thursday. McCaulley said they are on the lookout for taxpayers' money before they pay Pinnacle for services.

Pinnacle Schools and Karen Lee, its President and CEO, have been in the spotlight since the abrupt resignation of former superintendent Casey Wardynski. She spoke only with WHNT News 19 Tuesday about why she think the APP Program was terminated.

"That can only be personal and political," she commented, "because it certainly did not keep in mind what was right for these kids."

The Assignment for Positive Progress Program

Lee said the APP program was meant as a transitional program. Pinnacle had used a classroom in each of the Huntsville City Schools high schools. Students in the program were trying to transition from the alternative school, back into their regular school. The classrooms were where they'd meet with all kinds of resources and staff to support those students, she said, stating she considers it a good and extensive program.

"These classrooms are well staffed with excellent educators who know the kids and know how to get to the kids. They are state certified, highly qualified teachers. Licensed therapists," she explained.

Jennifer Bellman, who worked with the students in APP, said, "They had teachers, support staff, behavior interventionists that genuinely cared about them that could give them the one-on-one attention that they needed." She added, "I don't think [critics] understand the kind of connections and the kind of needs our students were providing for those students.

"The sad part is we had a relationship with these kids," explained Lee. "We have been cut off from them." She added that it happened without warning, and without any way for the Pinnacle team to explain to the students what happened.

Lee said 60 students were in the APP program, and they were seeing a difference in those students at the time the program was pulled and moved in-house by the school system.

McCaulley said Monday that Huntsville City Schools has assigned staff and counselors to the affected students and the board is still evaluating whether or not the program can remain in-house.

Lee fears what will happen not just for the students who used it, but the district, without APP. She said, "Of course, of course," discipline problems would increase in the district. She claims through APP and other Pinnacle programs, discipline problems had been reduced so far this year. The school system has also implemented its Behavioral Learning Guide this year, which school leaders say has made a big difference. Discipline is a subject closely monitored by the Department of Justice as Huntsville seeks unitary status under a federal desegregation order. Lee said without APP, the consent order's requirement for discipline will be affected.

The Invoices

Lee explained some aspects of the invoices WHNT News 19 wanted to know about. To view them, click here.

The charges are per unit per month for students in each of the programs. Some students, including those in the Hi-5 program (a special ed behavioral program) are written on the invoices as 4.61 and 4.62 units, where other students are counted as .5 or 1 unit.

Lee said for the Credit Recovery program, students can enter at any time per month, so they aren't always charged for the full month. As for the Hi-5 program, she said the students they serve have individualized needs.

"Those classrooms are weighted differently, and appropriately," said Lee. "It's a very small classroom setting, just six kids and a special education teacher. Those kids are very intense to handle," she said. "They do not operate like a traditional classroom setting."

She said the program is weighted so highly on the bills because, "The needs of those kids are intense. You can only put six kids in that classroom but you also have to have the support staff to be able to control the behaviors. It doesn't sound like an awful lot of kids, but it is difficult to handle. Those classrooms are going to cost more, that's just the size of it."

She also answered to the overages seen on the bills. Overages are applied to children over the 125 contracted to the RAISE program, and she claims the district has more than the contracted amount of students in RAISE, but also overages for the specialty classrooms that were added.

"The thought that we over billed is ridiculous," she said. "For the district to not come to me and ask me, can we really look at this? We need to understand this?" She continued, "We provided a service to the district which has been certified by the board of directors and paid. The thought that all of a sudden we have over billed for services that were asked for us to perform and deliver... absolutely not true."

She said critics need to understand what kinds of behaviors they're dealing with at Pinnacle.

"It takes a lot of people," she said.

Lee argues that the Pinnacle work is worth the cost, telling WHNT News 19, "There is not a program that we have or a service we perform that the school system can do as well, or better, or cheaper."

Next Steps

Lee said she believes her trust with Huntsville City Schools is gone.

"I've had a wonderful experience with Huntsville City Schools. I've had a good relationship with Huntsville City Schools. Not one that with a stroke of a pen, would end like this."

She said Pinnacle services in the future in Huntsville, are threatened by the removal of APP and what she sees as the termination of the relationship she had with HCS. Pinnacle is still contracted with Huntsville City Schools for its RAISE program, with a variety of other services to students who need additional support.

"When this contract is up for renewal, I certainly will not be renewing my contract. I'm not interested in working with the district that I've worked with for five years, and if this is how our relationship is going to end, I don't think there's a lot that can be done to repair the trust that I used to have with them."

She hopes to see resolution, though.

McCaulley has said a cost analysis is underway, and we expect to learn more at Thursday's board work session. WHNT News 19 will be at that meeting to bring you the latest on this story.