Thursday, December 16, 2010

Outside eyes on CMS

These are challenging times for public education, and those of us in Charlotte aren't the only ones keeping an eye on how Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is dealing with education and budget challenges. Here's a sampling of some interesting items:.

First, the Orlando Sentinal offers an outsider's take on CMS, noting the clash between racial turmoil at home and acclaim nationwide. "How could this school system be simultaneously viewed as hero and villain?" reporter Richard Fausset asks.

On the acclaim front, The Broad Foundation sends along a data brief on 30 large urban districts where black, Hispanic and/or low-income students outperformed state averages. As noted in Fausset's article, the foundation named CMS one of the nation's five best urban districts this year. CMS, Wake and Guilford county are among 18 districts nationwide where black students outperformed state peers, while CMS is the only Carolinas district recognized for success with Hispanic students.

And on the turmoil side, here's a look at the letter from the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Office asking CMS for student-assignment data as it launches an investigation into complaints about 2011 school closings. I've filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the complaints, which should be arriving soon.

The most intriguing item isn't specifically about CMS, but about the difficulty of turning around low-performing schools. Greg Garrison of Charlotte was kind enough to tweet me a link to a Christian Science Monitor article based on a Thomas Fordham Institute study that examined low-performing schools in 10 states, including North Carolina.

I've only scanned the study, titled "Are Bad Schools Immortal?" In North Carolina, 19 charters and 174 regular schools that were weak in 2002 and 2003 made little progress in the ensuing five years, the study reports. That was pretty typical for what the researchers found nationwide.

"Both of North Carolina’s public-school sectors need to improve their efforts to eliminate bad schools," the study says. "This may prove more fruitful than investing time and resources in turnaround efforts. The findings from all ten states reveal that turnarounds are extremely rare. For those who put the closure option aside in hopes that schools will make dramatic improvements, these results suggest they are likely to be disappointed."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

CMS budget candor gets rocky start

You may have heard Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board Chair Eric Davis make an impassioned speech yesterday about the importance of candor and communication in 2011 budget talks.

Or maybe you didn't. If you pooped out after, say, three or four hours of last night's six-hour board meeting, you missed the budget talk, which took place from 10:45 to 11:30 p.m.

If you did stay up, you watched the board whip through 49 PowerPoint pages of budget data, as well as an analysis of how much money could be saved by various busing cutbacks. But you couldn't have followed along, because those documents hadn't been provided to the public.

At its best, CMS does a fine job of presenting public information on its Web site. There's a link for budget information, where the reports presented last night were posted today.

There's also webstreaming of televised board meetings. Davis and Superintendent Peter Gorman bumped up the value of that service by announcing last night that they'll find the money to videotape special budget sessions in 2011 without tapping the education budget. Gorman talked about getting grants or donations to cover the estimated $10,000 cost, while Davis, Rhonda Lennon and Tim Morgan have voiced willingness to give up some of their budgeted travel money.

Still, Tuesday's kickoff of 2011 budget talks wasn't CMS at its best.

The budget session was scheduled after four long presentations, guaranteeing a late-night time slot. Davis said today that "we just had a lot to cover," and all the items were important.

Anyone who was interested in the previous four reports, on transportation, testing, performance pay and teacher effectiveness ratings, could click on the online agenda and check out details in advance. Except that the transportation documents did not include the item of highest public interest: An analysis of savings generated by busing cuts.

And looking at the agenda item for the budget was a study in contrasts. No detailed documents there; just this description: "An update will be provided on the 2011-2012 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education budget."

On Monday, I left Davis a voice mail asking for specifics. I e-mailed him, Gorman and spokeswoman LaTarzja Henry, asking for documents and details that would let me tell readers what to expect. Davis deferred to Gorman and Henry. Gorman e-mailed that he wasn't aware of any documents.

The only clue came from a press release sent late Monday afternoon, saying CMS officials would talk about possible busing cuts at Wednesday's news conference. Based on that, I called Associate Superintendent Guy Chamberlain, who provided an outline of what would be on the table Tuesday night.

As for documents, printouts of the budget PowerPoint were handed out at the start of the meeting. The busing analysis was released only after Transportation Director Carol Stamper referred to it during the meeting.

Henry said the reports weren't ready until shortly before the meeting, and the delay in handing out the transportation analysis was a mix-up. I don't doubt her word. But I have some experience with priorities and deadlines, and I can tell you this: If the head honcho makes it clear that getting information out before the meeting is a priority, the staff will make it happen.

There's nothing easy about getting the community to buy into painful decisions about budget cuts. Some people will stick to sound-bite criticisms and simplistic solutions no matter what CMS leaders do.

But I've been impressed by the number of people willing to work hard at understanding complex education issues and relay good information to their PTAs, neighbors and friends. Those are the folks Davis, Gorman and the board need to work with.

"Hopefully CMS will keep everyone posted about their discussions coming up," wrote one parent who attended the meeting and e-mailed me today to see where she could get the busing analysis. "I realize they have a dismal budget to work with, but right now a lot of parents are scared what is going to happen. We just want to be part of the process to come up with solutions."

Monday, December 13, 2010

The free-lunch fraud flap

With Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' poverty level creeping up and 2011 budget cuts looming, a long-running debate over the validity of school poverty numbers is ratcheting up.

CMS, like districts nationwide, uses eligibility for federal lunch subsidies to gauge school poverty (the formal term these days is "economically disadvantaged students"). The district recently released those numbers for each school. The total rose from about 51 percent of all students last year to 53 percent this year.

The cutoff for lunch aid is higher than the federal standard of poverty -- up to $40,793 for a family of four to get a reduced-price lunch, compared with $22,050 for the same-size family to be classified as living in  poverty. Eligibility is based on an honor system; with rare exceptions, CMS doesn't ask for proof of income.

Those exceptions are a small sampling that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the lunch program, requires to be verified. In 2008, the Carolina Journal, a publication of the conservative John Locke Foundation, noted that many of the families audited in CMS and other N.C. districts either failed to provide documentation or had their benefits reduced or ended based on proof of income (read that article here). The Journal talked about fraud and lying; state officials talked about family errors.

CMS's most recent sampling turned up similar results. According to Child Nutrition Director Cindy Hobbs, CMS checked 236 applications. Of those, 128, or 54 percent, maintained their benefits. Fifteen percent didn't respond, 13 percent were found not to be eligible and 18 percent were moved into a different category (most went from free to reduced-price, though a handful went the other way).

Whether you believe those numbers derive from lying, honest mistakes or a combination of the two, they do raise questions: Are thousands of families getting government aid they're not entitled to? And is CMS doling out millions of dollars in school aid based on squishy data? This year more than 74,000 students are classified as "economically disadvantaged" based on lunch applications; even 13 percent would amount to almost 10,000 who aren't really qualified.

In 2008, some board members' call for a systemwide audit of lunch applications died quickly. The USDA foots the bill -- more than $38 million for CMS students last year -- and makes the rules, and the feds don't allow that.

Many who are willing to let kids keep eating free lunches still cringe at CMS using those numbers to allot teachers (see previous blog post on that subject), supplies and other aid, especially now that the district is facing roughly $100 million in likely cuts next year.

"It's riddled with fraud," school board member Kaye McGarry said recently. "When you have millions of dollars that are allocated on those numbers, to me that is ludicrous."

McGarry agrees some schools need more help than others, and she offers no specifics on how to identify them: "It just seems there has to be a better way."

Trent Merchant, who was new to the board in 2008, initially agreed. He worked with CMS staff as they experimented with other data to identify kids who need extra help, such as the number of disabled or gifted students or those learning English. As Merchant recalls, formulas that were far more complicated yielded virtually the same results as using lunch status.

What about basing aid on the percent of students who test below grade level? After all, some middle-class kids can't read or do math, while some from low-income homes do great. But it's easy to see the downside of that: "Congratulations, Principal Smith; your staff did a great job! Your school's test scores rose so much that you'll lose three teachers next year."

The bottom line, Superintendent Peter Gorman and his staff keep saying, is that school poverty levels are the strongest, simplest predictor of academic struggles. For now, they're likely to remain the basis for aid.

But in a year filled with tough choices, don't expect this battle to end.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Newspapers and the view from Amay James

If you get angry when a blog item isn't full of hard-hitting news and analysis, please click away now. I figure I've spent enough time with spreadsheets and officials to bask in an occasional feel-good moment.

And if "community helper day" at Amay James Prekindergarten Center doesn't make you smile, there may be no hope for you. A parade of 4- and 5-year-olds came through dressed as doctors, construction workers, soldiers and scientists (you'd think one kid could have put on a trench coat and a hat with a press card in it, but no). My favorite: A boy in military camouflage who told me he wants to be a veterinarian, but he'd also like to be Spiderman.

My props were pretty feeble next to the uniformed pilot with a model plane, the landscapers who were potting pansies and the police who pulled their squad cars into the parking lot. Just for fun, I brought an American Girl miniature version of a manual typewriter. It brought nostalgic smiles from several teachers, but none of the kids could identify it. A camera? A cash register? A robot?

Several knew what my laptop computer was. The really depressing part? They had a harder time identifying a newspaper. Most gave me blank looks, though a few said they'd seen their parents reading one of those.

"My daddy does," one girl said eagerly. "In the bathroom!"

Any cynics who kept reading may be wondering: With the roughly $22 million Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools spends on Bright Beginnings prekindergarten facing scrutiny in 2011, was this a CMS plot to win me over?

I'll admit to being a sap for cute kids. Further, I'll admit to this bias: I'd like to see every one of those children have the best possible shot at becoming doctors, pilots or Spiderman (by 2023, that may be a better career path than newspaper reporter).

Maybe I've still got my rosy shades on, but I think most of us agree on that. Caring about kids doesn't preclude differences of opinion about the best way to reach them with the money that's available. A robust debate about that is coming, and I'll be right in there trying to tease out the facts.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Televising CMS budget meetings

Joni Trobich, president of the Mecklenburg PTA Council, recently sent the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board a plea to televise or otherwise record upcoming budget sessions. Not only are tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs in the balance, but Trobich says the stakes are even higher: "We risk civic unrest, and deep racial and economic division in our community over decisions that are not understood by the public."

Many of the board's budget talks will take place during regular meetings, which are televised and videostreamed on the CMS Web site. The next one, on Dec. 14, falls into that category.

But the board has also scheduled four special work sessions in 2011, which will not be available unless CMS finds about $10,000 or comes up with another plan for taping, airing and streaming. Board member Tim Morgan has suggested pulling from board members' travel allowances, but several of his colleagues balked at spending any public money to televise budget-cutting sessions.

Trobich has some ideas (read the full note below). I'm intrigued by some blog comments suggesting CMS use students. I'm sure that's not as easy as it sounds, and I suspect it can't be done for free. But it seems like the right combination of motivated students, tech-savvy faculty and business partners could do the work while giving students some marketable skills.

 Here's what Trobich has to say:

To our School Board Members;

Today I write not as president of the PTA Council, but as a citizen very interested in education policy. It is critical to the well-being of our city to make all "open" school board meetings available to the public. To continue the policy of only televising "regular" board meetings is actually endangering the peace and civic engagement of our community.

I know of your efforts to engage the public in the comprehensive review; I know that significant efforts were made in the summer, and our community did not respond adequately. We are somewhat spoiled here in Charlotte; we take our "world class" schools for granted, and many of us do not take the trouble to get involved until something happens that affects our school or our household.

In the past, when school cuts were announced and the public was caught unaware, we could go back and see the proceedings of meetings, and we could watch the replay of the meetings (including the budget work sessions where all the important factors in the decisions were discussed) on channel 3. This fall, when school closings were announced, parents, staff, and community leaders felt blindsided, and had no way of going back to the discussions to find the reasoning behind the decisions. Without this background, even those trying to understand were not able to understand why these ideas made sense.

Please do something to keep the public informed as to these decisions; I have been in attendance at many of the budget work sessions, but there are huge numbers of citizens that cannot attend due to work obligations, and still want to understand the process. I recorded and transcribed one of the budget work session meetings and sent it out to our PTAs; it took days (and nights) to accomplish this, and I cannot do that on a regular basis.

Please consider the following possibilities:

  • Provide a digital audio recording of the proceedings of every open meeting that is not televised. A member of the public who is interested in what happened at the meeting could view the powerpoint presentation, provided on the board website, and listen to the digital recording and understand the reasoning behind the proposals. It should be posted immediately after the meeting is concluded. The advantage here is that it is very cheap and does not require special expertise - a digital recorder with USB connection can be purchased for less than 50 dollars which will create a very good quality recording that can be posted as a file on the website.
  • Provide a video recording (as we did before) available on the board website and run it on Channel 3. The obligation to inform the public is certainly worth the tiny amount of funds that is required.
  • Provide a software transcription of the audio recording of the meeting immediately on the website afterward, with the disclaimer that the method used may produce less than perfect quality, and is provided to allow immediate review of the meetings proceedings by members of the public who could not attend.

  • Use a "Flip" camera to provide a video of the meeting. Although it would not be the quality we are used to, we are in a different budget climate than ever before, and the public will understand that. It would be far more informative than the naked power point presentations that we have now, and better than an audio recording alone. Again, this is a very cheap option. A Flip camera which will produce a video tape instantly for Youtube costs less than 130 dollars, and is available at dozens of stores in Charlotte immediately.

Without doing a better job of informing the public, we risk civic unrest, and deep racial and economic division in our community over decisions that are not understood by the public. I believe we have only seen a tiny fraction of the unrest that will occur unless we do this differently.

Thank you for your service to our community. Although I have disagreed with many school board decisions over the years, I have never felt that decisions were made based on "back room" agreements, or were being made arbitrarily without insightful discussion.

All of our citizens should be assured that these wrenching decisions are based on reasonable discussions of costs and benefits to the community, and that they are invited to participate.

Joni Trobich
Mecklenburg PTA Council