Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Civil rights and the news from Raleigh

Update at 2:50 p.m.: Turns out the projections for Wake's teacher cuts come from a state report that lays out projections for all districts. Read that report here. I'm posting a story shortly, but quirks in our software make it easier to post a link from the blog than from a news item.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will hold a national education summit in Raleigh this weekend, with a focus on school resegregation. National President Benjamin Todd Jealous is scheduled to speak Friday evening, with a Saturday panel on "Reversing Resegregation."

This lands, of course, at an interesting time for our state. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is grappling with huge budget cuts, which drove a recent decision to close several schools in African-American neighborhoods in 2011. The U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights is still weighing how to respond to complaints -- the total was at seven as of yesterday evening -- that those closings and other student assignment changes are unfair to black and Hispanic students.

Wake County Schools, which just became a majority-minority school system, is going through turmoil as a new school board majority prepares to shift to a neighborhood-based assignment system, scrapping the longstanding system that used family income to promote school diversity. CMS crossed the less-than-half-white threshold many years ago (currently about one-third of students are white), and beat Raleigh to the punch on the shift to neighborhood schools.

It's always interesting to check the News & Observer's education page. Among the other highlights from up the road: The Wake school board is preparing to interview finalists for superintendent, and officials are projecting huge classroom hits based on the likelihood of state budget cuts for 2011.

And there's a fascinating piece about the turmoil ahead for North Carolina's largest district, a title Wake claimed from CMS a few years ago.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Free ride to Harvard?

There's an e-mail making the local rounds saying that Harvard University has just decided to offer free tuition to students whose families earn less than $60,000 a year.

You haven't seen a news story because the decision was actually made about five years ago, according to Harvard's financial aid office. A staffer said the office is getting calls from across the country, as the e-mail has gone viral.

The basic information is sound: Students who are admitted pay nothing if their family income is less than $60,000. There's a sliding scale for incomes from $60,000 to $180,000.

The catch is you still have to get into Harvard, and that's no easy feat. But the message is a good reminder that extraordinary students may be able to get a top-notch private education without taking on a massive debt burden. A growing number of such schools, including Davidson College closer to home, have shifted to covering financial need with grants instead of loans, saying it helps them get the best students regardless of family wealth.

CMS's extra teachers: Do the math

"Weighted student staffing" is a crucial part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' strategy for helping disadvantaged kids. It's going to play prominently in tough budget talks that lie ahead.

That's a challenge. Weighted student staffing involves -- pause for a collective shudder -- math formulas. That makes it tough to understand, and even tougher to explain in the limited space of a newspaper article designed for people reading quickly.

I've been fudging through the early budget articles with a vague description of extra teachers based on school poverty. My colleague Eric Frazier did an excellent job Sunday describing how high schools that don't get much help from weighted student staffing are seeing some class sizes balloon.

Unfortunately, while the data on class sizes was correct, we fumbled the description of the weighted student staffing formula.

It's important for people to understand this calculation going into 2011 budget. I figure blog readers are a good place to start; you're likely to stick with it and even suggest ways to make it clear to less dedicated readers.

Weighted student staffing starts with the premise that schools get teacher positions based on enrollment. Assuming a ratio of one teacher per 25 students (actual ratios vary from 1:22 to 1:29.5, depending on grade level), a school with 1,000 students would get 40 teachers paid by the state.

CMS uses county money to provide more teachers for disadvantaged kids. Lunch subsidies to low-income families are used as a rough measure of disadvantage (yes, I know there are questions about those numbers; that's a whole different topic). Each child who qualifies for lunch aid is counted as 1.3 students in the CMS formula.

So consider two schools with 1,000 students each. School A has a 20 percent poverty level, or 200 low-income kids. (Twenty percent is low by CMS standards; that's where South Charlotte Middle landed last year.) School B has 80 percent, or 800 kids.

School A is tallied as having 60 extra kids, based on multiplyng those 200 by 1.3. That would net about two more teachers.

School B gets credit for 240 extra kids, or almost 10 more teachers.

Why care? Because CMS is pumping $48 million a year into putting just over 800 additional teachers into schools based on that formula. They're not exclusively in high-poverty schools, as the example above shows, but most of them are.

Starting at the Dec. 14 meeting, the school board will start studying ways to cut roughly $100 million from the 2011-12 budget, which they'll vote on in May. That $48 million is sure to get scrutiny.

As controversial as it was to close buildings, many would say it's far more important to keep good teachers with kids. Brutal choices are looming. That means those of us who care about kids and taxes will need to pay close attention -- even if that means dealing with math formulas.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Update: TV or not TV?

Update: Board member Tim Morgan raised the question of televising budget work sessions today (see discussion below if you're new to this post). Superintendent Peter Gorman said it would cost about $2,000 to tape a three-hour session, air it on CMS-TV and webstream it.

Several budget discussions will take place at regular meetings, which are already televised. Four special sessions are slated, the first in mid-February. Gorman suggested a total tab of $10,000 to allow for run-on meetings.

Trent Merchant, Rhonda Lennon, Joyce Waddell, Richard McElrath and Joe White immediately weighed in against spending the money. Morgan said he'd be willing to give up some of his travel money to cover the cost, and Eric Davis told Gorman he'd talk to board members and get back to him.

For what it's worth, $10,000 from a billion-dollar budget is roughly the equivalent of a person who makes $100,000 spending $10. But even a relatively small expense carries big baggage these days.

If you feel strongly about it one way or the other, you might want to let board members know soon. And of course, feel free to keep posting suggestions here.
Original post: This is far from the toughest decision facing the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, but let me pose a puzzler:

The board is staring down huge budget cuts in 2011.

Members just took a beating over public engagement in the first round of cuts, which included closing schools. Among the complaints: Vast amounts of vital information were presented during special meetings held in the middle of weekdays, when few could attend.

On Friday, they'll start another round of meetings -- again, with a special midday session at a little-known location (1 p.m., CMS Leadership Academy, 7920 Neal Road).

They already eliminated CMS-TV as part of this year's budget. They're still paying freelancers to tape and televise the twice-monthly regular meetings. But they don't televise work sessions and public forums.

Should they?

On one hand, it would be ironic and no doubt unpopular to approve an additional expense going into a long season of budget cuts. Superintendent Peter Gorman fought to keep CMS-TV, but board members decided there was no way to preserve that while laying off teachers.

On the other, CMS has an $18.6 million reserve fund carried over from last year's budget. I don't know the cost for more meetings to be taped, televised and webstreamed, but it'd be pocket change compared to that sum.

Other things being equal, I'm a big fan of making public meetings public, especially when so much is at stake. The Observer can report only a small fraction of what goes on in long board meetings. Broadcast media get even less. CMS posts a lot of documents and PowerPoints, but it's nearly impossible to get the full meaning without hearing the discussion.

Gorman says the board is likely to discuss the question of televising special sessions.

So what do you think?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Racing for reform

I recently posted an item raising the question of what role Charlotte-Mecklenburg school closings might play in North Carolina's quest for federal Race to the Top money. I cited a memo from Chief Accountability Officer Robert Avossa noting that the deadline for CMS's report to the state had been extended from Nov. 8, the day before the board's school closing vote, to Nov. 10, the day after.

Avossa rightly took me to task for asking the question without calling him to get an answer. The deadline was extended for the board's vote, he said this week, but it had nothing to do with impressing the feds to get  money. North Carolina's $400 million and CMS's $15 million share of that have already been locked in, he said.

So why did CMS need to report information about school closings and changes? Even though the money has been awarded, the federal government demands to know what changes are planned for the lowest-performing 5 percent of the state's schools. Districts must choose from a prescribed menu of options, which includes closing.

CMS has 15 schools on that list (see below), including four the board voted to close. Avossa and his crew needed to wait for the board to weigh in before being able to accurately report what would happen. For instance, the fate of Waddell High was up in the air until late that night.

Here's the "bottom 5 percent" list Avossa sent; he notes that the first 12 qualified based on pass rates on state exams and the final three because of graduation rates. I've added any changes to those schools that were approved Nov. 9.

1. Billingsville Elementary.
2. Bruns Avenue Elementary (becoming preK-8).
3. Druid Hills Elementary (becoming preK-8).
4. Reid Park Elementary (becoming preK-8).
5. Sedgefield Elementary.
6. Thomasboro Elementary (becoming preK-8).
7. Walter G. Byers Elementary (becoming preK-8).
8. Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle.
9. Hawthorne High School.
10. Pawtuckett Elementary (closing).
11. Bishop Spaugh Middle (closing).
12. J.T. Williams Middle (closing).
13. West Charlotte High.
14. West Mecklenburg High.
15. E.E. Waddell High (closing).

Monday, November 15, 2010

Coach gets ready for "blind date"

This week Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member Joe White will be sworn in as president of the N.C. School Boards Association, representing 115 local boards.

It will be an interesting role for the retired coach, known for his die-hard Democratic politics and his tendency to speak bluntly. He'll be getting to know the first Republican-dominated state legislature in more than a century, fighting for school spending at a time when revenue is deflating like a punctured beach ball.

House and Senate Republicans will caucus this week to pick new leaders. The Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonprofit advocacy and research group, recently described the prospect of getting to know new powerbrokers with a penchant for budget-cutting as "the worst blind date of their lives" for people who depend on state money.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Waddell/Harding details

When my editor asked me to do a live chat on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools today, my biggest fear was being embarrassed by dead air. I thought three days after the marathon school-closing meeting, people might be burned out on CMS issues.

Wrong! An hour-long event turned into more than two hours of rapid-fire questions that were still pouring in when we stopped taking new ones at 1 p.m. (read the archived chat here). It was odd to be on the receiving end of the barrage, but very cool to realize so many readers are asking such smart questions.

Several people wanted details of the proposed Smith/Waddell/Harding shuffle. I promised to post the map and projections that CMS e-mailed yesterday, so here it is.

I can anticipate your follow-up: What about the other schools that will change? I'll start tracking similar documents now and let you know if and when they're available. Update: The guy who handles this is out of town today, so it'll be next week.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

School closings, the Democrats and other bits and pieces

A few thoughts as we all catch our breath after Tuesday's dramatic school board meeting:

Will the turmoil in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools hobble Charlotte's chances at getting the Democratic convention in 2012?  That question is floating, with some protesters threatening to lobby against Charlotte's selection.  On the one hand, it can't be good to have African Americans, including some well-established Democratic leaders, saying school-closing decisions smack of racism.  On the other, school-board craziness in many big cities makes Charlotte look tame.  I don't know much about the specific situations in Minneapolis, Cleveland and St. Louis, the competition.

Will school closings help CMS and North Carolina get federal Race to the Top money?  A savvy CMS observer* posed that question, and it's intriguing.  The Friday before the vote, CMS's chief accountability officer, Robert Avossa, sent board members an update on the $400 million NC is seeking, with CMS standing to pull in $15 million as its share over a four-year stretch.

As this person noted, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan generally considers it a sign of reform-minded seriousness when districts close low-performing schools.  And Avossa's report contains this interesting note: "Districts must submit a Race to the Top plan to the NC Department of Public Instruction by Nov. 8.   DPI granted our district’s request for a deadline extension to Nov. 10."

The vote to close schools was Nov. 9.

North Carolina must submit its proposal to the feds by Nov. 22, so we'll see what happens next.

*This conversation happened during the blur of Tuesday's meeting, and I can't recall whether it was a "keep my name out of this" proposition.  But the observer in question is a regular blog reader and may feel free to claim credit.

What challenges lie ahead as CMS merges current Waddell students and Harding IB students into a new version of Harding High next year? My colleague Eric Frazier is exploring that question. If you have experience with other high-school mergers (via boundary changes, for instance) or up-close knowledge of the Waddell-Harding situation and are willing to talk for a story, e-mail him at efrazier@charlotteobserver.com.

Tuesday night's live coverage of the school board meeting on CharlotteObserver.com was a record-buster, drawing 3,748 viewers and 844 reader comments. (Read the record of the live chat here.) I was too busy writing for print to take part, but we're following up with a live chat at noon tomorrow.  Join in and I'll do my best to field your questions.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Happy anniversary, school board

I was pestering board Chair Eric Davis with what seemed like the millionth question about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' monster review of student assignment on Tuesday when it hit me: It's just one year since he and four other board members were elected.

Davis, Rhonda Lennon, Richard McElrath, Joyce Waddell and Tim Morgan were all voted onto the school board -- and to their first elected office -- this time a year ago. And what a year it's been.

Say what you will about this crew, but you can't call them slackers. They've plunged into what seems like a nonstop season of budget cuts, tackled some major policy issues and pushed through the current quest to revamp schools. They've created a schedule of meetings that's hard for me to keep up with, and it's my full-time job. Some of them have full-time jobs apart from the board, as well as young children to care for.

And they do seem committed to tackling tough issues with dignity. They've clashed with each other and with constituents over race, class and how to educate children, but they haven't resorted to ugliness, at least from what I've seen.

For the most part, citizens have responded in kind. For all the pain and anger floating around the proposed school closings, it's been inspiring to watch high-school students ask questions that would make a reporter proud. Parents and teachers have brought in-depth research and well-told stories to the table.

I couldn't help grinning last night when an adult speaker at Olympic High said his mother had seen him on TV speaking at a previous forum and was distressed by his behavior. He apologized, and explained how he'd been caught up in the heat of the moment.

"My points were valid," he said. "My tone was not."

What a great example of admitting a mistake while standing firm on what's important. I suspect everyone will need to take a deep breath and regroup after Tuesday's vote, however it turns out.

Because as demanding as this year as been, all signs point to a rockier one ahead.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

College football and CMS fantasy

Alert readers may have wondered why I suddenly decided to blog about football this morning. The answer: It wasn't me. My editor, Mike Gordon, has access to this blog, as well as to his own about college football. In one of those slip-of-the-mouse moments, he posted his musings here. (I actually watched the Georgia-Florida game he wrote about, but somehow missed the sidelines drama.)

While I'm letting other folks do my work, anyone who still has a sense of humor left about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' student-assignment turmoil might get a kick out of this column by Creative Loafing's John Grooms. I suspect he's not the only one to fantasize about just how crazy these sessions could get.

And for all the die-hards who are still sticking with it, I'll see you at Olympic High tonight. Eric Davis says this is public forum No. 15 ... but who's counting?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Harding High: Paranoia justified?

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

That wisecrack has been running through my head since last week, when I logged on to CharlotteObserver.com before hitting the road and learned Harding High had been added to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' closing list at the last minute.

Months ago, when Superintendent Peter Gorman started talking about closing schools, I heard from Harding parents and faculty who were convinced he had their school in his sights.

The Harding crew had good reason to be edgy. It was just a few years ago, when the economy was good and teachers were scarce, that CMS was letting underqualified faculty teach advanced math classes in Harding's math-science magnet program.

Last year, what started out as a battle over boundaries in southeast Mecklenburg somehow sprawled into a plan to pull magnet students out of the westside Harding -- a plan that emerged months after the school board was supposed to have made its decisions for 2010-11. Harding boosters fought off the most-feared changes, only to be bushwhacked again in the spring with a change in busing. The late-breaking "shuttle stop" plan, created to save money in 2010-11, meant students at Harding and 10 other magnet schools wouldn't get neighborhood pickups and dropoffs this year.

With the busing changes making it tougher to get to Harding and admission requirements making it tougher to get in, Harding's enrollment slumped from 1,043 last year to 894 this year. Still, I wasn't convinced Harding was on the death watch. A $19 million renovation had been completed in 2009, bringing state-of-the-art science labs to a school that specializes in science. Harding's performance on 2010 state exams was strong, and its graduation rate was among CMS's best. At the back-to-school news conference in August, Gorman specifically noted that Harding's enrollment was down, but said it often takes a couple of years to rebuild after a magnet starts weeding out students who aren't ready to tackle the advanced courses.

Harding had been in play for changes in 2011-12, but the plan to close the school came as a shock. On Sunday, Oct. 24, CMS posted details of a plan to close Waddell High and move Smith Language Academy. At 2:30 p.m. the next day, less than four hours before a public forum to discuss that plan, Harding parents got an e-mail saying CMS now wanted to save Waddell and close Harding to make room for Smith.

Reaction has been predictably explosive, not only from Harding boosters but from Smith families who say the new plan isn't as good for their kids.

The explanation from CMS leaders left plenty of room for questions. Apparently, after prodding from members Joyce Waddell and Richard McElrath, they belatedly decided that the guiding principles the board approved in August made it more logical to close a magnet than a neighborhood school.

Now there's a scramble to craft compromises before the music stops Nov. 9. On Monday, Harding leaders sent the school board a list of 26 good, pointed questions they want answered by Thursday. Among them: What really went on behind the scenes leading up to the Waddell/Harding switch? Why dismantle a successful school?

And the last one seems especially poignant: "How does the Board justify continuously targeting Harding University with major mandates over the last three years? What other CMS High Schools have been treated similarly?"

I hope they get good answers.

Monday, November 1, 2010

CMS closings: Dollars and sense?

While I was vacationing last week, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools posted a more detailed account of the costs and savings projected from the big school shakeup. I've been trying to make sense of it, with help from CMS planner Dennis LaCaria.

It's not the easiest chart to read, but you'll notice that the biggest projected savings come from "personnel," with no specifics offered. LaCaria said the proposal does not involve cutting classroom teachers. The assumption is that if a certain number of students move from, say, Spaugh Middle, which would be closed, to new preK-8 schools at nearby elementaries, the teaching positions would move to those new schools.

The job cuts -- an estimated 60 to 80 if the school board approves all proposed changes next week -- come from principals and assistants, school librarians, counselors, secretaries, custodians, cafeteria workers and others that would become redundant when schools close or merge. The biggest personnel savings, a little over $1 million, is listed at Harding High, a westside magnet that was added to the closing list just last week. The plan calls for moving the IB magnet to Waddell and the math/science magnet to Berry. Plenty of support staff would apparently disappear.

According to the finance plan, moving Smith Language Academy, a K-8 magnet, into Harding's newly renovated campus would cost more than $900,000. That's for installing smaller toilets and other facilities, LaCaria said. He disputed rumors that the switch would require hauling trailers to Harding; the three-story school includes enough first-floor classrooms to house the youngest children, as required by law.

If the plan goes through, Smith's middle-schoolers would inherit the state-of-the-art science labs that opened as part of Harding's $19 million in renovations last year. Berry's labs aren't quite as current, but the school offers "very good instructional space," LaCaria said.

Other points that require some explanation:

Busing costs are not yet calculated for several of the plans. That's because district officials will have to figure out bell schedules and other details, LaCaria said. He said the current assumption is that this year's controversial "shuttle stop" plan for some magnets will remain in force.

Two of the plans -- turning Winding Springs Elementary into a neighborhood school and making Cochrane Middle cover grades 6-12 -- will actually cost CMS more. LaCaria said the Winding Springs plan avoids the eventual cost of building a new school to relieve crowded Hornets Nest Elementary. And he said shifting some students from Garinger High to Cochrane will be a break-even plan in about five years.

The plan to turn Irwin Avenue Elementary into CMS office space includes an unexplained "miscellaneous" savings of almost $236,000 linked to moving people from the uptown Education Center to Irwin. LaCaria says that's because CMS would move other staff out of leased space and into the newly-vacant Ed Center offices.

And finally, it's still hard to say how many students would see major changes under this plan. CMS's tally includes everyone in any school on the list. For instance, a proposal to move about 50 students from Community House to South Charlotte Middle is listed as affecting about 2,400 kids, the combined enrollment of the two schools. Using that method, almost 28,000 students would see some kind of change in programs or enrollment.

About 21,000 more attend schools slated for "targeted assistance" to improve academics, image or student mobility. With a budget of $0 -- that's right: zip -- for 21 schools, it's hard to imagine that's going to be a huge deal.

So ... some of you have a jump start on me. What are you thinking and asking as you crunch the numbers?