Huntsville Superintendent Discusses DOJ’s Opposition to School Rezoning

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - It's a new day in Huntsville's battle to get out from under a decades-old federal desegregation order.

At this hour, there is a special-called Huntsville Board of Education meeting to discuss "student assignment."  We believe this meeting is in response to the Department of Justice's objection to Huntsville's school rezoning plan.  The meeting started at 8 p.m. at the Annie Mertz Center.

Casey Wardynski talked with WHNT News 19 in detail about why the city opposes the DOJ's plan.

"The key there, is what did the system do? The Singleton order, which we're under... is about undoing things the school system did to segregate the schools. Our schools, our local schools reflect the population in that area. We didn't control the change in that population over time," Wardynski said. "Johnson High School, Butler High School, all the feeder schools - you go back to 1974 when this order was first brought about with the Department of Justice's participation - those schools were majority white. Today, they're very much majority African-American students. We didn't do that. We don't have to undo that. That's a key point. How would we undo that. We'd have to do radical busing, bizarre levels of distribution of children."

"Hampton Cove is a long way [away]. Those schools are about 90 percent white. Johnson is about 90 percent black. The only way to change that would be extreme busing measures where kids are going to go across town," Wardynski added. "This is an order that's 50 years on. Bizarre is not what's called for. What's called for is practical. Practical means you can do it."

Another criticism from the DOJ is the Huntsville would build a new Jemison High School, close Butler, close Johnson, and put students in a school that will be overcrowded when they get there.

"That was a real classic in my mind," Wardynski replied. First of all, they also criticized building Huntsville High School's 9th grade Academy. Well, they agreed to that in March."

"So, they agreed that it was okay and now they're saying..." Steve Johnson clarified.

"And now it's not," Wardynski confirmed. "And their answer why it's not is, well, you could send them to Butler or Lee. Well, their plan doesn't have a Butler and neither does ours - so there's no Butler to send them to. So that's problem one. Now, the kids from Butler, we were going to send them to each of our high schools, based on their elementary school, Hereford's the northern one, so those children would go to Jemison, and when they add up their numbers, they come up with us having school capacity at 125 percent. I was like, 'We're not stupid - we're building the school. It's paid for. We're building it for the student body. We're building it for capacity, and we think it's 97 percent full. The reason for the difference - if you add up our plan, it comes up with our student body of about 24,000 kids. If you add up theirs, they've got an extra 1,500 kids that we don't have. How can you do that? Well, they have our kids that are in the magnet schools still in the magnets, but they also leave a place for them in the home school. If I did that, I'd have to put in place $58 million more school space. I don't live in a world of unlimited resources. I don't have the ability to print money. That may be their world, it's not my world, and no one's going to require us to do something so foolish. "

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The Department of Justice also talks about a 'academic imbalance,' saying students at the new Jemison High School won't have access to the same benefits kids at Grissom High School do, for instance.

"Our plan has a plan for improving access to AP instruction. They don't have a plan to do that. They just criticize. Well, you've got to have a plan if you're going to help us."

Several years ago, Butler and Johnson dropped out of A+ College Ready program, which is the state AP program.  AP enrollment dropped at both schools, Wardynski said.  He said there is new administration in place at Butler and Johnson, along with a new school board and new superintendent, and both schools are back in the A+ College Ready Program.

"We've done that without [the DOJ's] help," Wardynski said.

He also said the Department of Justice is unclear on the meaning of the International Baccalaureate program, which is in place at Columbia High School.

"Lots of Columbia student are in this - it's a majority African-American school," said Wardynski.  "All that IB adds up to the same thing as AP - college credit for a student, savings for Mom and Dad."

"They didn't know what IB was," Wardynski said, referring to the Dept. of Justice. "They didn't know how to compare it to AP. Well, if they're going to talk to us about education, let's get some people at the table who know about education."

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Q: The DOJ accuses the school system of having too many racially identifiable schools. Is that, in your mind, a fair accusation at all?

"Well, if it is, they did something worse," Wardynski replied, referencing Johnson and Grissom.

Under the DOJ plan, with the new Jemison, the Department of Justice's plan has it being even more African-American, Wardynski said, compared to the school board's plan, which factors in other zone lines to bring more diversity.

"The two biggest pictures on the wall [Johnson & Grissom] - they [the DOJ] make them more racially identifiable than we do."

Q: What do you want the parents to get from your reply to the DOJ?

"I think it circles back to expectations. We expect for all our kids to get an excellent education - personalization is important - to help that child reach their human potential at very high levels," said Wardynski. "We don't have low expectations - we've got very high for the kids, for the people working with the kids, for the schools, for the superintendent, for the school board, across the board. I think that's what parents have a right to expect from us, and they need to help us in that expectations piece. They need to expect a lot from their kids as we crank up the standards with the Common Core, don't worry about the easy A. Go after knowing something. Something that's going to make you valuable to a firm, make you valuable for the rest of your life."

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