The amazing bus race!

Man triumphs over Machine once again…

WVNN Talk Radio Superstar Dale Jackson and I beat the bus!   We walked about 3 miles in 45 minutes, edging out Jason Marks (on the Huntsville Shuttle bus) by seven minutes.  Even though walking was faster, I was a hot mess when we arrived at the VBCC while Jason was air-conditioned and fresh.

Jason had to transfer buses once, but note that he saw a total of 11 people riding both buses (during evening rush hour).  The first bus was about 10 minutes late and Jason had to wait about 10 minutes for the transfer bus (route 9 to route 5).  Overall, Jason seemed to have an okay experience riding the bus, however, no one who has a car would trade the 10 minute drive for an hour on the bus.  Jason loves his Jeep even more now…

The Amazing Dale Jackson Beats the Bus

The Amazing Dale Jackson Beats the Bus

My interest in The Amazing Bus Race was to investigate Huntsville sidewalks.  Sidewalks are the fundamental basis of public transportation and it is silly to spend money on buses (or rail) without first having a good sidewalk system.  The rule of thumb is that people will walk about 1/4 mile to ride a bus or 1/3 mile to ride a train.  I took some pictures of the sidewalks (/light sarcasm) encountered during the race.  This is on Pulaski Pike south of Oakwood:

"Sidewalk" on Pulaski Pike

"Sidewalk" on Pulaski Pike

This is downtown on Holmes:

"Sidewalk" on Holmes Avenue

"Sidewalk" on Holmes Avenue

The City budgets about $300,000 per year for sidewalks (which doesn’t include the Federal stimulus money spent on new bus shelters).   Huntsville is paying $71,000 for a transportation consultant to “to recommend new routes and other improvements”.   If the consultant doesn’t recommend sidewalk improvements I’ll just consider it more money wasted on useless consultants.  The City would’ve been better off hiring someone to walk around the City listing sidewalk improvements.

The highly touted and totally stupid (for Huntsville)  Google Transit  was an epic FAIL.  Dale Jackson has more on that – I’ll just add that the people who ride the bus don’t have iPhones, and that people who have iPhones don’t (and will not) ride the bus.

Old and busted

Lack of planning by Huntsville City Schools…

Poorly sited trees at Merts

Poorly sited trees at Merts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New hotness – making informed decisions based on a long range vision…

I attended the HCS Board of Education meeting at noon today – which illustrates the sense of urgency that I believe Superintendent Dr. Casey Wardynski brings to the schools.  The Board has been meeting fairly often and on fairly short notice to make decisions, and I commend them for taking prompt action.  My Board member David Blair ‘attended’ the meeting via telecom – which is a welcome use of time and technology.

The School Board approved:

1) a Human Resources report hiring 18 people, mostly for replacements.  The schools still need to hire another 15 or so people to be approved at the next Board meeting.  Note that no classes are unsupervised and that substitute teachers are filling in for now.

2) Temporary agreements for 11 nurses through October.  The plan is for the State to train some nurses to cover multiple venues and then re-evaluate / rightsize the agreements for the next fiscal year.

3) a new job description for the Director of Community Engagement and Partnership Development.  This position seems to roll three current (but unfilled?)  positions into one job - replacing Public Relations, Grants, and Partnership positions.  The position was recommended by The Schools Foundation Speak Up program. 

IMO, Speak Up seems like a feel good PR program – nice website but not much substance; for example, Speak Up posted their Huntsville City Data Results on July 14, 2011, but the data ‘presented’ was from the ‘community engagement initiative’ of 2006 and 2007.  The presentation consisted of four PDF files (92 page, 41 page, 29 page, 41 page) listing ideas gathered at the meetings.  My guess is that the meetings covered more than education – comments about getting a Macy’s department store and more restaurants seem more appropriate for the Mayor’s business initiative.  There may be some nuggets in the files but there are no results.

Wardynski spoke about the University Place Elementary student who got onto the wrong bus Wednesday.  The child was expected to be on an after school bus but didn’t have the parental note – Casey said that the principal resolved that issue and that the bus procedures were “fine”.  The schools are looking at setting up a swipe card system to track students, in addition to the GPS and video on board the buses.

However, this afternoon a second child got on the wrong bus at Morris Elementary

The procedures may be “fine” but it seems like a mishap reduction stand down may be necessary.

***

Special education parent Russ Winn attended the meeting.  Winn posted ‘Perturbed by Change’ in which he includes this quote from Wardysnki:

The interests of the kids will always come first. I do have resource constraints… We’ve attempted here to make sure we have a plan that we can live with. That they won’t be perturbed by change.

Casey was answering a question about the special ed consolidation using the Providence to Williams move as an example:  minimizing disruptions to kid’s educations through planning.  Let’s hope Casey comes up with a good plan that satisfies the needs of the kids and the taxpayers.

Winn also wrote:

…there was a time not too long ago when I thought that fighting the central office decisions concerning my son’s education was not terribly wise. I was concerned about retaliation and becoming known as Dr. Moore put it once, one of those “confrontational” parents.

Casey assured us that people won’t be punished for speaking up (remember C.J. Grisham), however while Dr. Moore may be ‘gone’, many of the people involved in retaliating against a parent for speaking up at a PTA meeting are still employed by the school system.  Winn’s concern is authentic and valid.  IMO until those involved are held publicly accountable the public cannot really trust the school system.

***

The dead trees at the Merts Center were planted in the wrong place – whoever planted them didn’t have a good long term plan for growth. That’s old and busted – let’s hope the schools have the new hotness.

New school CFO and IRL

This afternoon, the Huntsville City Schools Board of Education approved the hiring of Frank Spinelli as Chief Financial Officer. Crystal Bonvillian of The Huntsville Times wrote “Huntsville school board hires new CFO during special meeting”:

…Spinelli, a certified public accountant and certified internal auditor, served as a manager for BDO Seidman in New York, which today is part of the fifth largest international accounting and consulting network in the world. He also spent time at Reichmann International, a real estate holding company with headquarters in Toronto.

Board member Jennie Robinson said Spinelli has a strong background in finance, but also in project management and strategic planning.

As an employee of the board, Spinelli will have dual accountability, Wardynski said. He will report directly to the superintendent on a day-to-day basis but will also report to the board.

The school board meeting was focused and over quickly; in addition to hiring Spinelli, the Board authorized the rehiring of several teachers, including three special education teachers.  The board also voted to approve some temporary agreements which exposed the need to improve financial processes.  Superintendent Dr. Casey Wardynski noted “workflow issues” and commented that the system is “currently on paper and needs to be electronic”.  Casey also observed that funds need to be available before being obligated.

In real life…

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Giant Belgium wins best tasting tomato

The Huntsville Botanical Garden selected a Giant Belgium tomato as the best tasting tomato entered in the annual contest held this weekend.  (this years taste winner also won biggest weight at 1 pound 5 ounces).  Last year’s winner for best taste was a Cherokee Purple; biggest was a 2 pound 5 ounce ‘Delicious’.

In news from my garden, the Cherokee Purples I planted are starting to ripen – I’ve tried a couple and they are fantastic! 

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In other news, my lawyer friends are interested in Governor Dr. Bentley’s upcoming appointment to replace retired Madison County Circuit Judge Bruce Williams.  Several good counselors have suggested that District Court Judge Ruth Ann Hall will likely be appointed by Governor Dr. Love.  If Judge Hall is raised to the Circuit Court, then the Governor will appoint a new District Court judge:  Robert Rogers, Linda Coates, Bill Starnes, Patty Demos, and Claude Hundley are among those I’ve heard mentioned for the job.

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In more other news, the Birmingham News wrote a great article on the Jefferson County Sewer Bond mess:

Jefferson County officials are asking Wall Street creditors to wipe out nearly $1.3 billion of the $3.14 billion sewer debt as part of a plan presented in secret last week to resolve the lingering financial problems tied to the county’s sewer system bonds…

“The resolve of this commission is to fix the problem,” Commissioner Jimmie Stephens said. “If the fix is afforded through bankruptcy, so be it. If there is a fix available outside of bankruptcy, that would be much better. But, one way or the other this will be fixed.”

“The resolve of this commission is to fix the problem,” Commissioner Jimmie Stephens said. “If the fix is afforded through bankruptcy, so be it. If there is a fix available outside of bankruptcy, that would be much better. But, one way or the other this will be fixed”…

Why should we care?

Alabama officials say bankruptcy would be a stain on the state and have pledged credit enhancements to help the two sides reach an agreement. Credit enhancements could include letters of credit, lines of credit, or credit support for refinancing the debt in the form of a moral obligation agreement…

State involvement is a must for any settlement, county officials say.

The governor could call a special session for legislation that allows the transfer of the sewer system to a separate public corporation, better known as a GUSC, a Government Utility Services Corporation, which would oversee the issuance of new bonds and repayment of bonds…

However, the county and creditors must decide whether the corporation could file a Chapter 9 petition.

The creditors have insisted that the corporation be prohibited from filing for bankruptcy while county officials have said they don’t control the state Legislature and cannot predict in what form the bill might be adopted.

Looks like the legislature may get called to two special sessions: coastal insurance reform and JeffCo debt.

Salty Nut News

Huntsville is the brewing capital of Alabama with Straight to Ale, Yellowhammer, and Blue Pants making great craft beers in the Rocket City.  Salty Nut Brewery is planning to have their “brews in bars by Mid-to-Late October!”  according to this Aleheads interview with founder Brent Cole:

We love craft beer and have a blast brewing beers that we come up with. It’s really exciting! The best part is brewing and then letting other craft beer lovers try our brews.  It’s rewarding to have someone enjoy drinking what we make!

We are a fully functional LLC now, we are in the process of signing a lease for our brewery location, we have ordered fermenters, and will be ordering the brewing equipment this week, and are also in the process of selecting a distributor.  We are trying to take all of the necessary steps to being set up correctly.  We will apply for our manufacturer’s license in October (yearly cycle renewal)…

Our first brew is our flagship brew; we are huge hop heads and love IPAs, so naturally we wanted to brew an IPA.  This one is called HopNaughty IPA.  We felt the name was fitting; it’s full of hops and…well…beer can make you naughty, so that’s that…

Alabama beer laws have come a long way thanks to the Free the Hops organization and the craft beer lovers in the State.  I think the future looks bright, and lest you think that sounds cheesy, let me explain: Hopefully, in the near future we can have larger container sizes which will allow for Alabamans to have more craft brews available to them.  This will open up the window for more styles and more flavors, which is what the beer lovers want.  Brewpubs will slowly but surely start to pop up and we hope to be in this market in the future. We want a one-stop shop for people to taste/try and take home our brews.

Thanks to all the Alabama legislators who voted for the Gourmet Beer Bill and the Brewery Modernization Act (aka the Jobs Bill).  It’s not often that you actually get to create jobs and expand freedoms through legislation – cheers!

“Mean as a snake” Democratic Party Chairman visits Huntsville

Alabama Democratic Party Chairman Justice Mark Kennedy visited Huntsville today for a reception at Amendment XXI downtown.  WVNN’s ‘cyberbullying coping counselor’ Dale Jackson and I attended the event, along with more than 50 local Democrats.

Self-described “mean as a snake” former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Kennedy gave a good speech highlighting the challenges faced by Alabama Democrats and some of his improvements to the State Party organization.  Personally, I thought Kennedy seemed to be a pretty nice guy, but when someone tells you they’re mean as a snake you ought to listen…

Kidding aside, Kennedy said that the State Party would stop charging candidates for voter lists and that the Democrats would focus on “taking back the courthouses” across Alabama.   The Party is sending training teams throughout the State instructing activists on how to hold meetings, including how much lemonade to serve for how many people.

Kennedy complained that the PAC to PAC transfer ban killed Democratic Party fundraising – I say good riddance to money laundering and shady backroom deals.  As a judge, Kennedy ruled in favor of the White Hall casino – saying that the slot machines were actually bingo machines instead of slot machines.  I’ve seen (and um, ‘investigated’) bingo machines, and IMO if he can’t tell the difference between bingo and a slot machine I’m happy he’s on their side…

Non-partisan Huntsville City Schools Board of Education member Laurie McCauley attended, as well as my former State Representative Randy Hinshaw.  I really do enjoy talking with my friend Randy and I got to meet former candidate for State Representative Jenny Askins: I wrote about her non-approach to political issues in a terribly snarky post  “Whatever YOU want” (however I didn’t write that Askins is the “Democrat version of Sarah Palin”). [Reactionary edit - the link appears to be broken, but this refers to an AL.com commenter who wrote the following on 7/12/2009:  "Askins is hot, but her response to the debate invitation that “people elect legislators, debates dont elect legislators” is insipid. She is the Democratic version of Palin."]   I’m pretty sure from her demeanor toward me that she reads the blog…

I also got to speak with countrycat of Left in Alabama, with whom I share an interest in gardening.  BTW my heirloom Cherokee Purple tomatoes are almost ready – this is my first year of growing them and I’m eager to know if they really are the “best tasting tomato” and “almost like candy”.

SHCA Legislative and Superintendent Forum

Me and Ben and about 300 of our closest friends attended the South Huntsville Civic Association Superintendent reception and legislative forum this evening at Grissom High School.  This was HCS Superintendent Dr. Casey Wardynski’s first public meeting in his new job, and the SHCA invited every member of the South Huntsville legislative delegation to help welcome Casey. 

State Senator Arthur Orr (R), Senator Paul Sanford (R), Senator Clay Scofield (R), Representative Mike Ball (R), and Representative Howard Sanderford (R) were on hand to answer questions during the forum.  BTW it feels really good to be writing (R) after all of those seats.  Huntsville City Councilman John Olshefski was also on the panel.  Read on for Casey’s speech and the Q&A…

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SHCA Forum with Superintendent Wardynski

From our friends at the South Huntsville Civic Association:

The South Huntsville Civic Association will host a legislative forum with new Huntsville City Schools Superintendent Dr. Casey Wardynski and other local representatives on Monday, July 11, at 7 PM in the Grissom High School Auditorium.  Our community is most pleased to welcome our new Superintendent.  We anticipate an informative evening, and we look forward to seeing you there!
 
Monday, July 11th
Grissom High School Auditorium
7:00 PM
 
Confirmed forum participants:
 
Huntsville City Schools Superintendent, Dr. Casey Wardynski
City Councilman John Olshefski
State Representative Mike Ball
State Representative Howard Sanderford
State Senator Arthur Orr
State Senator Clay Scofield
State Senator Paul Sanford
 

Casey is OUR Superintendent

Three of the five members of the Huntsville City School Board voted for Casey Wardynski to be OUR school Superintendent,

Retired Army Colonel Wardysnki (who prefers to be called Casey) developed the America’s Army video game for the US Army, taught at West Point for 15 years, improved Army personnel policy, and learned about education at the Broad Academy (which is the premier education policy center in the US).

Casey speaks in terms of “feasibility and efficacy” and also gets glowing comments from those who’ve worked with him.  Several people have told me that you will work your butt off to please him, because he inspires that level of commitment.  Having known leaders like Casey, I’m excited for our schools.

***

The school board meeting was held at City Hall in (correct) anticipation of a large crowd.  As a prelude to the selection of our new superintendent, the demographer hired by the city gave his report.  Quick look (with more after I review the full report):

High School:
1.  Close Butler High School
Middle School:
Either 1a)  combine Davis Hills, Ed White, and Westlawn into middle school at Butler, or 1b)  close Davis Hills MS to Ed White and Chapman
Either 2a) close Whitesburg MS to Mountain Gap and Challenger or 2b) close Mountain Gap MS to Whitesburg and Challenger
Elementary School:
1)  close Monte Sano to Blossomwood
Either 2a) close Whitesburg ES to Chaffee, Weatherly, and Jones Valley or 2b)  close Mountain Gap
3) close West Mastin Lake ES
4) close Montview ES

Non-zone:
Move New Century to the new Lee High School

Celebrate Success!  The rate of 9th graders advancing to 10th grade (which is a critical transition) improved from 78% to 91% in the past five years.  That is huge.  Why? How? Who?

Kudos to the City of Huntsville for funding the demographer Dr. Steve Salmon.  The report should be available on the HCS website soon.  Public meetings will be held very soon (like starting next week) for comments.

My first guess is that Salmon didn’t look outside current school zones for consolidation; in fact, one of his recommendations was for the school system to establish a student GIS.  This recommendation complements the databases proposed by all three candidates for superintendent.  Note that one of my concerns is that members of one of the most partisan and hateful (and cheatful) political organizations would have access to any school database developed by the school system.  Privacy should be a fundamental concern for administrators – we’ve already seen Huntsville schools punish parents for speaking out – what could they do with more data?

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Kudos to Topper Birney for running a good selection process.  My only complaint (shared with The Huntsville Times) is that the board went into closed executive session to talk about “the good name and character” of the candidates.  If “good name and character” was still an issue after downselecting to the top three candidates, then the process was flawed (were any of the three candidates bad characters?). 

IMO the board went into special session to try to get a 5-0 vote (which didn’t happen).  Casey was supported by David Blair and Jennie Robinson (and all right-thinking people), while Dr. Dan Brigman was supported by Alta Morrison and Laurie McCauley (and the AEA).  Morrison mis-remembered Casey’s interview to criticize him while McCauley was just plain “unfair” (saying that Casey wouldn’t relate to inarticulate people).   Birney was the swing vote. 

More later.  For now, congratulations to Huntsville.