Education About-Face


By Ellis Eskew

Just over two years ago, the Huntsville City School system was on the brink of state take over.  They were nearly 20 million dollars in debt, with many other problems plaquing the school system. The school board hired a new superintendent... and things began to change.

"The school system was in a little bit of shock," said Superintendent Dr. Casey Wardynksi.

Retired Army Colonel Casey Wardynski describes the situation he walked into as Huntsville's new school superintendent in July 2011.

"The state had come in to help Huntsville recover from a financial situation distress. I think the school system was 19 million dollars in deficit," said Wardynski.

It was the worst debt of any school system in the state of Alabama.
Not to mention, the state law also requires an 18 million dollar surplus to operate.

"Things I did right away when I got here...we looked at the pay schedule and adopted the state's pay schedule," said Wardynski.

Demographers recommended closing nine schools.
The school system merged others to make the most of its space and  took a closer look at how it conducted business.

Within two years, the system went from a 19 million dollar deficit to 25 million in the black.
Wardynski also wanted to change the way he hired employees even bringing in more employees with military training-- not just educational training.

"So logistics for operations, for CFO-- we're looking for folks with CPA degrees."

Wardynski wanted to make sure he was also hiring the very best teachers.

 "I think Huntsville may be one of the few systems in the United States where we hire all teachers. Typically what happens, schools hire teachers. So the principal has to recruit, the principal has to interview," said Wardynski.

But here in Huntsville, the teachers are hired by the school system and placed in the school where they fit best, so all schools will have top teachers.

Huntsville Middle School principal Aaron King was one of Wardynski's hires.

"I think a lot of people in education, we make the mistake of we prepare for 2013 and it looks like 2013 for the next 20 years. That happened to this district some time ago," said King.

King comes with a military background and has much respect for Wardynski's non-traditional leadership.

"With his forethought, he's not planning for 2013. He's planning for a district that is constantly in fluid motion, constantly innovating, constantly getting better, and he's building a culture around that," said King.

So how does that relate to Montgomery?
Montgomery Public Schools will be looking for a new superintendent in the coming year.
Mayor Todd Strange says Montgomery could learn from the Huntsville school system.

"I've stayed in touch and in tune with what is going on up there. That is a really good model for us to follow," said Strange.

Although, Strange says a military background or a doctorate is not necessary for a superintendent.

Wardynski says, for him, it's all about building a firm financial foundation, hiring talented teachers, and also making sure children are the focus and not the adults.

"We need to tie the money to the kids I think more directly," said Wardynski.

And leaving a system legacy that will live on...

"What you want to do is build a system that the next superintendent can build on," said Wardynski.

Today, the Huntsville City School system is operating in the black. And their new innovative technology is attracting attention from school system across the country.

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