Federal judge hears school rezoning plans - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

Superintendent questioned in day 1 of rezone hearing

The hearing on the rezoning plans began Thursday morning. The hearing on the rezoning plans began Thursday morning.
Police set up barricades at the federal courthouse in Huntsville in preparation for possible protests. Police set up barricades at the federal courthouse in Huntsville in preparation for possible protests.

After months of debate, the Huntsville City School District and the Department of Justice will finally took the stand in a federal courtroom Thursday morning.

Thursday's hearing is a showdown on school rezoning plans between the Huntsville City School Board and the Department of Justice. 

The district's plan would close some schools, open new ones, and shift some students around.

The plan was denied by the Department of Justice, who brought its own plan to the table instead. According to the DOJ, Huntsville's plan does not integrate schools and in some cases creates more segregation. School officials disagree, saying their plan corresponds with the needs of the students.

The disagreement has caused rifts in the community as people take both sides of the issue. Now a federal judge will decide which plan will officially take hold in a decision that could shape Huntsville for years to come.

Police set up barricades at the federal courthouse ahead of the hearing in an effort to organize possible protests.

During the hearing, Huntsville City Schools Superintendent Dr. Casey Wardynski maintained that his plan would better diversify the district.

He testified about the programs he has brought to the system since taking the helm in 2011. These include nutrition programs and the digital changeover initiative.

Dr. Wardynski went over the specific changes the district's plan would entail, including the new Grissom and Jemison High Schools, construction efforts at Huntsville High. He said that each new school has a tornado shelter to "handle anything Mother Nature throws at them."

The school board's attorney asked Wardynski what considerations went into their version of the rezoning plan. The superintendent cited money, transporation, safety and technology factors went into creating their plan.

Wardynski said he considered majority/minority issues in the plan. He said school transfers are now based on a lottery system and not first-come-first-served, which he said is a fairer system.

The judge asked for clarification on diversity issues, specifically asking why some families don't enroll in Blossomwood Elementary. Blossomwood is one of several campuses the judge has visited in the past days and weeks. The superintendent replied that one interpretation is that some parents feel the "grass is greener elsewhere."

Wardynski discussed individual schools' contributions to the goal of keeping diversity high in the rezoning plan. For example, Morris Elementary, he cited, would move from 58 percent African-American students to 51 percent under the plan. Huntsville High would change from 10 to 12 percent; Grissom from 7.6 percent to 12.4 percent. The figures do not include majority/minority transfers, the superintendent said.

In cross-examination, the attorney representing the Department of Justice questioned Wardynski on the racial makeup of Butler and Johnson High Schools. Wardynski confirmed that Butler offered 8 advanced-placement courses, compared to Grissom's 20 and 14 at Huntsville High. He answered affirmatively when asked if there are inequities at Butler compared to Huntsville and Grissom based on Common Core standards.

Dr. Wardynski said that the district's plan drew the rezoning lines in a way that would not cause a Title I school to lose its funding.

The judge asked about private donors who contribute to schools, after seeing a plaque at Blossomwood thanking a donor. Wardynski said not all schools are given private donations, and there are multiple ways people give to schools. He said the use of those funds is at each school's discretion depending on its needs.

"Education is a stepping stone to life," Wardynski said when asked about the value of diversity in education by the judge. He said diversity helps kids learn and "grow up into America, which is a pretty diverse place."

Wardynski said he couldn't comment on decisions related to the timing of announcements about school reassignment because of confidentiality reasons and that the land-buying process is still in progress. He said a lot of discussions took place within the community regarding the feeder plans.

After Wardynski was dismissed from the stand, Huntsville City Schools Director of Strategy and Innovation, Edith Pickens was called up. Pickens said she would be working with district leaders and principals to implement the student assignment plan.

Pickens was asked to talk about improvement efforts at Butler and Johnson. Pickens said at Johnson, staff turnaround helped officials fill positions based on certain strengths and focus on a new vision. At Butler, new leadership and strong professional development  allowed for growth. Both campuses have more floor space than is needed for current enrollment levels, Pickens said, and so some areas of both campuses are cordoned off so they can focus on instruction rather than management.

She was also asked about the definitions and statistics regarding advanced placement and magnet classes. Pickens said the school system has seen a 34% increase in overall AP participation, and a 58% increase in minority participation. She said the digital initiative and the pre-k program have helped build growth in AP.

The attorney for the DOJ asked Pickens if the U.S. would be involved in the Huntsville plan, as the district and consultants review programs with the goal of developing the plan. Pickens replied that it is an education plan, so it will be written by consultants and educators. Individuals who work for and are hired by the district will be in charge of making those plans.

"One reason the court is trying to get all the information it can before making a decision... is when then there is a significant student reassignment plan, there is a level of disruption," the judge told Pickens. "When you do this, you don't want to do this often and you want to do it right, is that correct?"

"Yes," replied Pickens. "At Huntsville City Schools we are about student achievement."

Following Pickens' questioning, the judge recessed court for the day. Testimony will pick back up at 9 a.m. Friday.

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