Thursday, January 27, 2011

Metal detectors, loaded guns and a change of heart

A few observations, now that I'm coming up for air after Tuesday night's marathon budget-cut meeting (yes, you can watch it on video now):

It's a sign of the tense times that everyone attending that meeting not only had their bags searched, as usual, but went through a metal-detector wanding. CMS Police Chief Bud Cesena said the new security measure wasn't prompted by the Tucson massacre or even the guy who opened fire at a Florida school board meeting in December. He said he's just concerned about the anger boiling around school closings, possible layoffs and cuts to popular programs. The scans will continue through the budget process, he said.

Given all that context, some people were startled to hear board member Rhonda Lennon talk flippantly about having her gun loaded to shoot down proposals. Lennon said today that she's learning to shoot and had been working with her firearms instructor earlier that day, which probably influenced her choice of metaphor. No, she's not planning to pack heat for board meetings, she says; she just has fond memories of shooting with her dad. And Lennon, a Republican, says she's not trying to emulate a certain high-profile GOP woman: "I didn't even think about Sarah Palin."

And finally, CMS mom Vanessa Infanzon sent a blog link that provides a nice counterpoint to some of the tension. Infanzon was among many parents upset about school closings this fall. Her son, Ben, is doing well at Oakhurst Elementary and she didn't want it to close.

"I was really fighting the unknown. I made the assumption that the unknown would be bad," she writes.

Ben, who has disabilities, was assigned to Highland Renaissance Elementary for 2011-12. Infanzon recently called the school and got her first pleasant surprise: The principal is Valerie Todd, who led Plaza Road Pre-K when Ben was there. After a heartwarming phone message from Todd, who remembered Ben, Infanzon visited the school. Now, she's realizing change might work out for the best.

"When we fight something, we usually get it in our heads that whatever the change will be, it will be a negative experience," she writes. "I am reminded of Who Moved My Cheese? In this leadership book, the mice go into work every day to get their cheese and then one day they come in and the cheese's location has been suddenly moved. The mice freak out, like mice do. In the end, the mouse that survived this change was the one with creativity, ingenuity and the ability to be flexible. I want to be that mouse."

What's up with CMS busing?

Update Thursday: Spokeswoman LaTarzja Henry confirms that the purpose of this release was to remind parents that the bell schedule CMS released earlier this month is subject to change. The board didn't vote on actual hours; instead, they authorized Superintendent Peter Gorman to carry out the general plan he'd outlined, which includes staggered schedules and seven-hour days for elementary students.

Henry says no one's planning massive changes to the proposed schedule. But tinkers may be needed as the budget evolves. For instance, Bright Beginnings centers aren't part of the proposed schedule, but if the board saves some or all of them they would have to be factored in.

With all the anxiety floating over possible busing cuts, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools threw a curve ball with a press release sent after 5 p.m. Wednesday.

"More changes to CMS transportation possible," read the headline (see full text below). "Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will continue to develop cost-saving changes to its transportation schedule, CMS officials said Jan. 26," the text continued.

My eyes widened. To recap, the board OK'ed changes in school hours to make more runs next year. Some parents complained, but it's probably the least controversial cut they'll make all year.

There was also talk of eliminating magnet busing for 2011-12, but Superintendent Peter Gorman didn't recommend it and no board members made a proposal on Tuesday. That apparently killed the prospect for the coming year.

I got Associate Superintendent Guy Chamberlain, who oversees busing, by cell after work. He hadn't seen the release, and was a bit puzzled as well. But he agreed with my best guess: Officials are just reminding parents that the published bell schedule isn't set in stone. The idea of staggered schedules and seven-hour days for elementary kids is locked in by the board vote, he said, but CMS could still tinker with hours for individual schools.

Would the staff eliminate services for anyone without another board vote? "Absolutely not," Chamberlain said.

Here's the CMS statement:

More changes to CMS transportation possible

CHARLOTTE, N.C., Jan. 26, 2011 – Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will continue to develop cost-saving changes to its transportation schedule, CMS officials said Jan. 26. The district has proposed new start and end times at some schools so that the bus fleet can be used more efficiently and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education approved the recommendation at its Jan. 25 meeting.

The changes are needed because CMS and the Board of Education anticipate having to make $100 million in reductions to the 2011-2012 budget. The budget cuts are needed because of a shortfall in state funding, the largest single source of money for the district budget.

The Jan. 25 vote marks an important milestone in the transportation process for next year, but not the final chapter, CMS officials emphasized. Proposals before the Board, such as a recommendation to reduce the number of Bright Beginnings classes, could make further adjustments necessary.

“While the proposed bell schedule establishes the framework for the new bell tiers and a seven- hour day for all elementary schools, it is still subject to change pending further Board decisions throughout the budget process,” said Carol Stamper, executive director of transportation. “The steps we’re taking in transportation to save money are one part of a complex, interdependent process.”

Families making decisions about transportation needs for the coming year should use the proposed bell schedule as a guide but be mindful that there may be additional changes, Stamper said.

The proposed changes to the bell schedule as of Jan. 26 will save the district $4 million in 2011-2012.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

CMS explains new teacher recruiting project

A new teacher recruitment effort that raised eyebrows among layoff-weary schoolteachers will be paid for with federal money, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials said today. The New Teacher Project, a national nonprofit group that helps school systems recruit teachers, is opening an office in Charlotte and will be helping CMS recruit up to 100 teachers a year. It specializes in helping non-teachers make the switch to teaching; it charges school systems fees for helping them find effective new educators.

Teachers have questioned why this is happening, even as the district makes plans to lay off as many as 600 teachers to help close a $100 million budget gap. Asked about this Wednesday at his weekly press conference, Superintendent Peter Gorman said the project is aimed at recruiting hard-to-find teachers of math, science and exceptional children. (Finding "effective" teachers in those areas, he said). Asked how it would be paid for, he said federal Race to the Top dollars. No local money would be involved.

Asked how much it would cost, Gorman's aides later sent an e-mail showing it will cost $1.7 million over four years. CMS officials insist this program won't replace existing teachers with career-changers from other professions. Some teachers say they don't buy it.

Only the layoffs themselves, and the criteria CMS develops for them, will tell for sure.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

CMS budget ax falls; Bright Beginnings spared for now

11:58: and after six hours, the meeting's adjourned. Thanks all for tuning in.

11:47: Outgoing CMS athletics director Vicki Hamilton's giving a presentation on the new reality of pay-to-play fees in middle and high school sports. CMS has raised just over $1 million in participation fees, community donations and ticket sales surcharges.

11:36: Motion to postpone Bright Beginnings vote until Feb. 8 passes 8-0. Chairman Eric Davis says whether or not it ultimately survives isn't just a question for the school board members, "it's a question for this entire community." He and others say they hope to see businesses, nonprofits or philanthropic groups step up and help.

11:25: Merchant on Bright Beginnings and his desire to hold off on voting: "I'm concerned we're going down this path in an overly fatalistic way when in fact better choices may be available ... the situation is dire, but it's not hopeless."

11:15: Joyce Waddell now has a motion on the floor to postpone the Bright Beginnings vote until the board's first meeting in February. Rhonda Lennon says if no solution is found (i.e., outside funding), she says she's voting to cut Bright Beginnings in two weeks.

11:12: Appears Bright Beginnings vote may not happen tonight. Gorman says board members keep telling him they're not ready to vote and want more time, and he's willing to go back and look for more options. But he cautions that he doesn't have any ideas. Anyone who wants to save Bright Beginnings needs to get busy, he suggests.

11:07: Cuts to weighted student staffing passes 6-2, with Joyce Waddell and Tom Tate voting against it.

10:53: Tom Tate says he isn't comfortable voting to cut extra teachers for low-income students. "I fear again this is one of those things that's going to be seen as balancing the budget on the backs of our most needy students ... I just don't think it's absolutely necessary to do this today." But Tim Morgan and Rhonda Lennon say they will support it.

10:50: Waddell's motion fails 3-5, with Waddell, Tom Tate and Richard McElrath the only votes in favor. Trent Merchant moves approval of Dr. Gorman's plan to cut extra teachers for low-income students.

10:42: Joyce Waddell has proposed postponing the vote on cuts to Bright Beginnings and teachers for low-income students until the board's first meeting in February. "We're not just making cuts, we're closing entire schools...and we said we were finished with closing schools."

10:40: Motion to change the bell schedules passes 7-1, with Kaye McGarry the lone dissenter. (Coach Joe White is absent).

10:27: Apologies for going radio silent for a while there. Internet connection problems -- hopefully resolved. Still no vote yet on the budget cuts.

9:45: Trent Merchant says only the highest-priority items on the budget-cutting list stand a chance of surviving at this point. Thiose items include teacher positions in grades 4-12, teachers assigned to help low-income students and academic support positions at schools

9:42: Tim Morgan notes that magnet transporation is "noticeably absent" from the proposed cuts. Gorman says his team decided that, if they are going to offer magnets, they have to make it available to all students -- i.e., even those who can't get there without transportation. Gorman to Morgan: "If that ($100 million) budget shortfall turns into $130 million, we could be in a different place, sir."

9:37: Gorman and board members are talking about plans to possibly privatize some services. Tim Morgan says he wants to look into privatizing more transportation services, as well as internet technology and other areas. "With the budget the way it is, now is the time to move forward," he says.

9:18: Board members have begun debating the cuts, but no one yet has said they will refuse to make the kind of deep cuts Gorman says must be made. Kaye McGarry questions whether CMS is paying administrative costs for grant-funded programs the district doesn't necessarily have to be running.

9:05: Gorman tells the board "these aren't budget cuts we like or we want or we prefer." These, he says, are the best of the bad choices available to the board in a bleak budget year. He says cuts have been most severe in high schools, and he's put them highest in priority for restoration should the budget outlook improve.

8:58: Board is now hearing a presentation from CMS finance officer Sheila Shirley, outlining the proposed cuts.

8:56: Board votes to put off approval of their proposed legislative agenda. Vote was 8-0 (Joe White's absent). Board members said they didn't feel it was ready.

8:45: CMS spokesperson LaTarzja Henry says the technical gremlins plaguing the live-streaming can't be solved tonight.

8:40: Richard McElrath, speaking about the board's legislative agenda, said he wants the board's desire for more flexibility with its calendar to be listed as a specific point of (desired) action by the legislature. He gets backing on that from Tom Tate. The controversy over using the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as a snow make-up day obviously is still reverberating with the school board members.

8:26: Trent Merchant gives a wag of the finger to the parents who have come before the board tonight complaining about how state and county officials need to get behind CMS. The proposed cuts on the agenda aren't "new news," he says, nor are the needs CMS says it has. Why haven't people been more active? "Shame on you. And I mean it," he said, prompting murmurs from the audience. "Get to work."

8:11: And after two hours of sometimes emotional speeches by parents, students and activists, the public hearing has drawn to a close. The board's debating its 2011 legislative agenda now.

7:48: Moving speech just now by the mother of an autistic boy at one of CMS' pre-K centers slated for closure. She said her son never spoke until enrolled in Bright Beginnings, and now is learning to socialize with other children. "My husband told me I was wasting my time by coming down here," she said, sobbing. "But I'm praying I'm not...I'm beginning you not to cancel these classes."

7:30: The public hearing is nearing the home stretch. More speakers now are pointing to what they see as racial and socioeconomic inequities in the budget cuts. Levester Flowers, head of the Save our Schools group that fought against the closure of Waddell High, said he counted $35 million in proposed cuts "all coming from one section of the community." Veronie Gamble, a Waddell supporter, told the board: "It seems as if you guys are attacking the children who need help most."

6:50: Kelly Stevens, a grandmother who says she struggled to learn to read in school, gave an emotional plea for Bright Beginnings. Comparing her own shattered self-esteem as a child to that of her 5-year-old grandchild, she said Bright Beginnings and other preschool programs are critical to keeping today's children from the fate she suffers. "I know it's hard," she told board members. "The money--where does it come from? I don't know, but does it have to come from the people who need it most?" The crowd gave her a standing ovation as she returned to her seat.

6:37: CMS officials planned to stream tonight's meeting online, but they've just sent word that they're having difficulties and it isn't working at the moment. Will update when word comes that the connection's been fixed.

6:34: Many speakers who've signed up are here to speak on behalf of Bright Beginnings. One of the first, Annabelle Suddreth, says her nephew went from a struggling elementary school student to a thriving middle schooler with the help of solid help in preschool. Suddreth, head of A Child's Place, a program for homeless children, asked the board to postpone its decision until later this spring when it will have a better sense of its budget options. Board members haven't seemed inclined to do that, but a long line of Bright Beginnings supporters are apparently ready to make a last-ditch attempt to change their minds.

6:19: Blanche Penn, the community activist who usually delivers fiery condemnations of the school board's cuts to minority and low-income schools, was one of the first speakers on the budget cuts. She was surprisingly polite, noting that others had asked her to "be nice." She told the board: "We hope you will think hard and long about all our schools...not only your districts and your friends."

6:05 The board meeting is underway, with a full house in attendance at the Government Center. Activists, educators and parents with young children in tow have taken up nearly every seat, as well as much of the two balconies. Security getting in seemed tighter than usual, perhaps not surprising given the emotions the millions in cuts have generated.

Buzzword bingo: Obama vs. Gorman

For anyone seeking entertainment while you watch Obama's State of the Union address tonight, The Alliance for Excellent Education has created bingo cards to help viewers tally whether the president uses such education-related phrases as "school improvement grants," "Race To The Top," "innovation" and "China."

Of course, if you're reading this blog, you're more likely to be watching Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' big budget-cut meeting tonight (CMS-TV Cable 3, or webstreamed  here). Which raises the question: What would you put on a CMS Budget Buzzword Bingo card? "Do less with less"? "Protect the classroom"? "FRL fraud"?

This isn't as much fun without such classic Larry Gauvreau phrases as "blinks reality," "not rocket science" and "bells and whistles," especially when Associate Superintendent Guy Chamberlain would fire back with "Actually, I am a rocket scientist" (he was, in a previous life) and "I don't know if you've noticed, but all schools have bells." But I'm guessing you readers have picked up on some pet phrases of the new crew.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Should CMS slash sports?

As CMS looks for big-ticket, non-academic items to slash from next year's budget, some of you have asked about the cost and value of sports.

A presentation on that topic is slated for Tuesday night's school board meeting, and there's some interesting advance info posted with the agenda. High-school athletics has a $3.4 million budget covered by county money, while middle-school sports is budgeted for $1.25 million.

The various fees and charges designed to cover the cost of middle-school sports have brought in just over $725,000 so far this year, with another $322,000 coming in from community donations, according to the report (the spring season is still to come). As I understand Superintendent Peter Gorman's plan for 2011-12, middle-school sports would go away, leaving the high-school participation fees and ticket surcharge to help offset the cost of high-school athletics.

Expect to hear more about this proposal Tuesday. The sports report is slated late in what promises to be a long meeting, starting at 6 p.m.; watch live on CMS-TV Cable 3 or online. Gorman and soon-to-retire Athletic Director Vicki Hamilton will flesh that information out at a Wednesday morning news conference.

Cutting middle-school sports is not one of the early-decision items on Tuesday's agenda, so expect board members to continue debating and asking questions into this spring. As always, if you want to give them your views directly, there are contact links with this blog.

New CMS teacher hiring project raising eyebrows

Everybody knows Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has been laying off teachers here of late. That's why some people want to know why a national non-profit group that helps school systems find teachers is setting up shop in Charlotte this spring and is currently advertising for a $70,000-a-year coordinator to help recruit up to 100 teachers annually for CMS. The group, called The New Teacher Project, says it operates in more than two dozen cities, helping school systems end educational inequality by helping recruit effective teachers and by advancing best practices in effective teaching.

Some observers have asked why CMS would be getting involved in this kind of project at a time when its laying off so many existing teachers. "How does this look politically and to the public?" one person wrote in the comments section to an Observer story.

The answer, says school system spokeswoman LaTarzja Henry, is that CMS isn't trying to hire outsiders to replace laid-off teachers. She said CMS is in a partnership with The New Teacher Project to help plug vacancies in hard-to-fill subject areas such as math, science and teaching exceptional children. She said CMS still has vacancies in those areas, despite the fact that so many laid-off teachers are looking for jobs. The New Teacher Project has expertise in finding non-traditional candidates for the jobs, she said. It gives them intensive training that helps them get licensed to teach and become effective educators.

I'm still awaiting details on how many such positions are open now in CMS, and on what the contractual arrangements are between CMS and The New Teacher Project. Will update when I get them.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Forecast for magnet busing

At the risk of making myself look foolish, I'm going to hazard a prediction about Tuesday's school board meeting: Magnet families will be spared further cutbacks in busing for 2011-12, but they still won't be able to breathe easy.

Superintendent Peter Gorman did not recommend magnet-busing cuts as part of his $100 million plan, but he has urged any board members who want to go that route to put their plan up for a vote next week, before the magnet application period ends Feb. 7.

What I'm hearing from board members this week is that there's no such proposal with enough votes to pass (remember that things could change by the time they bang the gavel). It's not clear whether anyone will roll something out for a vote. Rhonda Lennon, who's been the most vocal about cutting back on the cost of magnet busing, says she'd like to find a way to do that short of eliminating all transportation to magnets, but can't figure out how.

"I don't have a solution," she said Thursday. "I think it's just too complicated to figure out in this short a time."

But if magnet busing gets a pass for 2011-12, Lennon says she will be "leading the charge for a wholesale magnet review," starting right after this year's budget talks are over.

Another twist to look for Tuesday: Joe White will be absent, based on vacation plans made long before anyone knew there would be a big budget vote in January. That creates potential for 4-4 deadlocks on proposed cuts to Bright Beginnings, weighted student staffing and new bell schedules. It still takes five votes for any proposal to pass (and Gorman does not have tie-breaking power).

Other odds and ends:

Apologies to anyone who was hoping to participate in last week's live Q&A. I was mentally gearing up that morning when my mom called to say my dad had fallen and broken his hip. He's doing great, and back at the Observer we're still trying to figure out the best ways to answer all the questions that are flying. CMS has answered several queries we've gotten from readers, and more are in the hopper.

Raleigh's school-board controversies are generating national attention -- and chuckles. The N.C. Public School Forum's Friday Report has a good synopsis that includes a link to the Colbert Report clip. I've been hearing about it for days and am eager to get home and watch (my work computer isn't good with video).

Finally, the MLK Day controversy has created a lot of buzz about what's normally the world's dullest topic: N.C. school calendar law. Here's a link to the law. CMS officials would love to get some of those restrictions lifted. If you're interested in weighing in, there's a link to the Web page with legislator contact information at the right of this blog.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Live chat and budget links

Eric and I plan to do a live Q&A on the latest twists of CMS's bleak 2011 budget plan from noon to 1 p.m. Friday. Since Tuesday's presentation on possible cuts, which would eliminate just over 1,500 jobs, we've been trying to get answers to some follow-up questions. We hope to have some clarity on proposals that stand to shake up families, neighborhoods and livelihoods at one of Mecklenburg County's largest employers.

Still, it's a sure bet that our answer to many questions will be "We don't know yet." In some cases, a reader will think of something we haven't asked. In others, Superintendent Peter Gorman and his staff may know the answers but not be ready to make them public. And sometimes even Gorman may not know exactly how some items will play out. Spokeswoman LaTarzja Henry says CMS officials aren't crazy about the rapid-fire format of online chats (we'd love to have had Gorman answering the questions himself), but she has promised to help us track down answers when the session is over.

The pace of all this is challenging. Normally, in January the superintendent and his staff would be starting to draft a budget plan behind closed doors. They might be sounding out board members in private, but public proposals would be months away. This year CMS has has lifted the curtain early to give the public a glimpse, let more people have their say and avoid late-breaking decisions that leave schools and families in turmoil. From that perspective, it's easy to understand why officials aren't ready to roll out exhaustive details of a work in progress.

On the other hand, they lifted the curtain knowing that what it revealed would create a collective gasp from the audience. No one can be surprised that the thousands of people affected by proposed cuts want to know more. So we'll be pushing to make sure the curtain doesn't drop too quickly.

The budget crisis has jarred a lot of people into caring about a process so complicated it can make your eyes roll back. CMS and the state are both posting information to help people understand. We've created a new section of budget links (to the right, under our mug shots). For budget newbies, there's some great "here's how it works" material. For data-divers, there's a lot to be found if you click around (keep checking for updates).

Besides the obvious links, I've included, a private site by Bolyn McClung, a certifiable CMS junkie. I can't vouch for every fact on his site, any more than I can promise there won't be errors or spin on official sites. But he's digging out some good stuff and seems to be more interested in informing than opining. The Charlotte Chamber and Mecklenburg Citizens for Public Education have announced a campaign to share CMS budget information; we'll be checking the MeckEd site to see when it has anything ready for viewing. If you know of others, let us know.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Charter ramp-up

The state legislature hasn't even convened yet, but the Republican majority has vowed to quickly lift the cap on charter schools. The N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools, headed by former state Sen. Eddie Goodall of Weddington, is wasting no time. The group is taking sign-ups for a Feb. 7 seminar on starting new charters (click the link for details).

One of the things I'm curious about is how much monitoring there will be. If charter operators can get the money with little or no oversight, we're bound to get some bad apples in the new barrel. But expanding the state's charter-school staff to handle new applications and supervision may be a tough move with education money shrinking. I asked Rep. Thom Tillis of Cornelius, who's been tapped as speaker of the House, about that when we talked in late December and he said such details haven't been hashed out. It'll be interesting to watch.


Shifting gears, reader Charles Gregory sent me a link to this Washington Post article on Raleigh's student-assignment battles and how they're connected to tea-party politics and the national debate over high concentrations of poverty. The headline signals a pretty one-sided perspective, but the article explores a variety of views.

Whew! About the budget plan ...

Wow. The pace of breaking news in the electronic age is really interesting. Some blog readers were breaking news during Tuesday's budget meeting based on employee emails, and follow-up questions were pouring in before Superintendent Peter Gorman had even opened his mouth to start explaining his plan. Keep them coming; we're figuring out the best ways to answer them.

For those who are just catching up, CMS has posted all of yesterday's documents here.

And if you want to watch the meeting, it's webstreamed here. I'm wondering what bonus features they've included; it's listed as five hours and 30 minutes, and the meeting was over in about four hours. If anyone has 5 1/2 hours to spare, watch it and let us know. At any rate, it's great that CMS pulled off its first live webcast on a day when icy roads made it so difficult to attend (apparently some Mecklenburg residents can't get the CMS cable channel).

One correction for those of you who read our print version: No one is going to see their school day lengthen by 90 minutes. That was garbled as an item passed through the editing chain on deadline. A dozen schools will see their start times change by 60 to 90 minutes, but that doesn't necessarily change the length of the school day (proposed new schedules are at the first link above). All elementaries, regardless of when they start and dismiss, will be on seven-hour days next year, 45 minutes longer than this year.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Gorman's plan cuts 1,500 jobs

6:15  Final announcement: With schools closed, tomorrow's follow-up news conference with Gorman is canceled. We'll still try to get some questions answered.

 6:05: Budget discussion is over. Sorry my posts got slim toward the end; trying to write for early icy-road deadlines. Remember, no school in CMS tomorrow.

6 p.m. Davis: What cuts did you reject? Gorman: Eliminating magnet busing, making deeper cuts to weighted student staffing, making classes even larger or including younger grades.

Davis: "I don't like any of these, but it's what we have to do."

5:46 White: "If I were king for a day I'd decree universal pre-K." But I agree we can't keep paying for it from K-12 money when it's so tight.

5:44 Joe White: I hate to cut middle school sports "but I don't know how to save it." Make sure community groups use school athletic fields so they're not wasted.

White and Lennon both say longer elementary-school day is one of the few good things in this plan.

5:40 Tim Morgan: How many of the 1,516 jobs being eliminated are teachers? Gorman says he'll get answer.

5:33 Lennon: Pre-K is valuable but I support plan to cut. "We cannot continue to pay for pre-K with our shrinking K-12 budget." Would like to see cuts to magnet busing, maybe expand shuttle stops (she's not arguing to eliminate altogether). Gorman says he doesn't think more shuttles would work with current staff.

Lennon says loss of middle-school sports "does not sit well with me" but she understands need to cut. Says CMS will work with other groups to create new opportunities for sports, pre-K.

5:27 School is closed tomorrow.

5:26 McGarry: Stop using lunch-subsidy numbers to measure school poverty and spend money to help disadvantaged kids. Says the numbers are not reliable enough. CMS should demand W2s from parents applying, she says.

Davis: "I don't want to show my W2 to some volunteer at a school. ... There's no doubt fraud occurs, but the fact of the matter is the child doesn't commit fraud."

5:19 CMS TV comes up again. Eric Davis notes the only thing running now is board meetings and reruns of old CMS footage. Gorman says there's also footage of Ed Sec Arne Duncan's visit shot by "other providers." He says CMS TV is not an expense.

5:14 Gorman: "These cuts are absolutely devastating to CMS."

 Kaye McGarry: Why not restructure administration? Gorman: We have done that and cut admin jobs for last four years.

5:12 Gorman says if board wants to cut magnet busing, do it this month, but "I would not recommend that cut at this time."

5:10 Gorman says he does not recommend cutting magnet busing for $100 million plan, but if cuts were to be worse this could come up.

5:09 Bright Beginnings cuts would cut enrollment from 3,200 to 1,178. Proposal closes all pre-K centers and BB classes at Hickory Grove, Lebanon Road, Long Creek and Winding Springs elementaries. BB classes will be only at Title I high-poverty schools. "This is one we do not want to do," says Gorman, but it saves $10 million.

5:06 Changing school schedules will save $4 million "but will be a disruption for a great number of people," Gorman says. More than 80,000 students will see schedule change. Early decision needed so parent can make decisions about magnets.

5:01 Elementary school day would go from 6 hr 15 min to 7 hours. All but 45 schools will see some change in schedule. Twelve will see their schedule change by 60 to 90 minutes. Longer days already being done at current K-8 magnets. "This is a challenge" for faculty -- longer days and bigger classes.

5 p.m. Gorman asks board to vote this month on weighted student staffing so high-school principals can adjust class schedules for 2011-12.

4:57 Eliminating 1,516 jobs includes 154 Bright Beginnings jobs that had been paid for with federal stimulus money that disappears.

4:55 Almost $4.3 million for various incentive and recruitment bonuses would go.

4:53 Change in weighted student staffing would eliminate 134 of about 800 teachers CMS provides based on school poverty. Proposal also eliminates assistants in grades 1 and 2.

4:51 "Eliminate one support position at each school" means instructional support, such as academic and literacy facilitator, counselors, librarians. Schools would decide what to cut. 164 jobs total.

4:48 Gorman says support cuts include 50+ custodians cut, 20+ campus security guards gone. Middle-school sports would be eliminated. $4 million in transportation cuts are from changing start times (discussion of magnet busing to come).

4:37 Grim dates ahead: May 15 teachers will be notified if they're on the layoff list.  Administrators get layoff notices by June 1 and teachers get final notice by June 15.

Gorman says "dates to be announced" for community meetings. He asks board to add a public-comment period for Jan. 25 meeting because of budget votes (second meeting of the month normally doesn't have them). Eric Davis says absolutely.

4:35  Haven't dozed off; Gorman is just going through the background we've heard before. New recommendations should be up soon.

4:25  CMS has got the proposed bell-schedule changes posted.

4:19 Gorman reminds board that they can revise his proposed cuts, but if they pull something off the list, something new will have to be cut and there aren't many good options left.

4:15  Gorman says cuts are "uncharted territory" that will provide a "true test" for staff, students and community. "We try to make cuts as far away from the classroom as possible." Some think that's only teachers, he says, but "when you cut a psychologist or a social worker, you have impacted the classroom."

4:10 Gorman: "There's going to be a lot of changes coming quickly, and that can lead to rumors and misinformation." He urges board members to be accurate and correct misinformation when they hear it.

4:08  Presentation on 2011 budget beginning. Gorman says he's presenting "our best thinking for an additional $100 million in budget cuts. These cuts will affect everyone in CMS in some way. They will affect everyone in our community, whether you live in the suburbs or the city."

4:05  Lennon notes that many schools with strong PTAs participate in SchoolMates, where they share some of their money with a high-poverty school.

4 p.m. Richard McElrath says per-pupil spending calculations should include booster clubs and PTAs. Tim Morgan says even at schools with strongest fund-raising, it's not nearly enough per pupil to make a big difference.

Gorman notes that at a school with 1,000 students, a PTA would have to raise $1 million to boost the per-pupil spending by $1,000. But he says PTA money does make a difference: "It's not the volume of those dollars, it's the flexibility of those dollars."

3:55  Kudos to CMS -- they do have live webstreaming up and running. Great timing on a day when it's hard to get to a crucial meeting.

3:54  Rhonda Lennon notes that Districts 1 and 6 (north and south suburbs) are at the bottom of per-pupil spending, but they're getting good results. "It's clearly not throwing money at these kids that are making them proficient." Says it "hurts me with my constituency" to have to explain why their kids get so little spending.

3:52  Joe White says having five principals for five small schools at Olympic is an example of somethign that adds expense but also boosts academic results. Asks Gorman if he's on target; doesn't get a simple answer."We like to get the best results for the lowest cost," Gorman says.

3:50 p.m. Trent Merchant says new progress reports are "exactly what we asked for."

"I think the calculation of return on investment does make sense. It's helpful and timely to have this information now," with the prospect looming of cutting the investment.

3:45 Only about two dozen people are left in the audience, with the budget presentation still to come. But I suspect a lot are watching on TV. Does anyone know if the live webstreaming worked?

3:35: Tom Tate questions "return on investment" figure -- the schools with neediest students generally look the worst. Says it's confusing. Gorman says it's only one piece of the school-success picture. "It's one factor. It's the newest factor."

Gorman adds that even the full school progress report isn't enough to judge a school. You've got to be there, he says.

Meanwhile, here's a budget background document CMS sent along.

3:25 p.m. I'm trying to figure out the bell schedule sheet; maybe you CMS employees who are reading along can help. It looks like most schools would see changes, and maybe longer school day for elementary schools? Presentation should be coming up; hope they'll explain.

3:10 p.m. Staff is starting a report on school progress measures. This will include the per-pupil spending report that has generated a lot of discussion.

This year's progress report includes prominent display of per-pupil spending, plus a unique-to-CMS "return on investment" measure that shows how each school rates on student growth compared with spending, says Chris Cobitz of accountability staff. "This is the first year we are reporting this about our schools."

3:02 p.m. Public comments are over; board is moving to business items.
Presentation lists "potential future recommendation" to cut busing for all magnet students, about 12,000 kids. Not clear what that means; presentation indicates it should be an early decision so families would know before choosing magnets.

3 p.m. Early decisions Gorman is seeking: Scaling back on weighted student staffing (extra teachers based on student poverty), changing bell schedules to streamline busing,  reducing BB classes from 175 to 70. BB cut is actually about $10.4 million, spread into a few categories in presentation.

2:55 p.m. OK, here's the link to the document. The 2011 recommendations start on page 26. And this has a few key pages that weren't on my hard copy, so I'm about to digest those. -- ADH

2:45 p.m. Brett Loftis of the Council for Children's Rights tells the board that many who wanted to speak about Bright Beginnings couldn't make it because of icy roads and the time change. He urges the board to schedule another session for public comment: "I would hate for us to trade expediency for involvement in the process."
-- ADH


2:30 p.m. Speakers are pushing the importance of Bright Beginnings in preparing students to learn. BB serves 4-year-olds who show deficiencies in the skills they need to start kindergarten, regardless of family income.

It's not clear yet what a $2 million cut would mean for the program; it's a relatively small slice of the total BB budget.

CMS has handed out paper copies of Gorman's presentation, but it doesn't seem to be online yet. Officials say there will also be a report on changing "bell times," or school start/dismissal schedules, to save money on busing. -- ADH


2:20 p.m. The presentation Superintendent Peter Gorman is going to give later in this meeting outlines 1,516 job cuts, as part of a plan to cut just over $100 million in 2011. It's not clear how many of those would involve layoffs; sometimes vacant positions are eliminated.

The biggest cut -- 1,045 jobs and just over $61 million -- would come from schools. Among the items listed in the presentation: Cutting teachers and assistants, and increasing class sizes by an average of two students in grades 4-12.

The plan calls for cutting $8 million from building services, $4 million from transportation, $3.2 million from career-technical education and $2.1 million from Bright Beginnings. Details coming later in the meeting. -- ADH 

The meeting chamber is about half full, as the 2 p.m. meeting that will feature about $100 million in tentative budget cuts begins. All board members made it despite icy roads; Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools sent a four-wheel drive vehicle to get Rhonda Lennon from the icy north suburbs. A state official who was supposed to speak couldn't get here.

About 20 speakers have signed up, including advocates for magnet schools and Bright Beginnings prekindergarten. Speakers will be heard before the budget presentation.

CMS afternoon meeting is a go

Despite icy roads, the school board is moving ahead with its snow-schedule 2 p.m. meeting today, Superintendent Peter Gorman says. As everyone probably knows by now, this is the one where he'll lay out plans for about $100 million in possible cuts to the 2011 budget.

Eric Frazier and I have both made it in and will be posting live updates to this blog.

Still to be seen is how many board members, signed-up speakers and interested audience members can navigate the streets and break away for the earlier time (the normal 6 p.m. time would have meant more driving after dark, when the ice could be even worse). If you're having a snow day at home, it'll be aired live on CMS-TV Cable 3.

The agenda and some background material is available here. Details of Gorman's budget plan are not being released in advance; a link should be posted shortly after the meeting begins.

You can also get video of the meeting here. Normally it's available after the meeting, but CMS folks are hoping they can get it to stream live today.

Monday, January 10, 2011

CMS defines key school budget terms

With CMS studying an array of cutbacks to plug a budget gap of as much as $100 million, many parents and civic leaders are paying close attention to the unfolding budget deliberations. The school board is slated to talk budget issues at its meeting tomorrow evening, weather permitting. CMS' recent release of per-pupil, per-school expenditures generated a lot of interest last week. The list included expenditures for "school activity fund," a term that has left a lot of readers scratching their heads. What, they asked, does that exactly include? Superintendent Peter Gorman late last week e-mailed school board members a document that explains that term, along with weighted student staffing and other budget items that figure to loom large during this spring's budget discussions.

Perhaps more importantly, the document Gorman gave the school board also provides an overview of the various factors that can influence per-pupil spending. Considering the intensity of the debates that always erupt surrounding questions of equity (and the fact that some of the poorest schools receive twice as much as some of the wealthier schools), those factors are worth studying. You can take a look here.

Eric Frazier

Friday, January 7, 2011

What about the lottery money?

As school budget talks crank up, so does a chorus of questions about where the money from the N.C. Education Lottery goes.

N.C. Department of Public Instruction has posted a brief explainer here.

For county-by-county breakdowns, go to the Lottery Commission's site (click Beneficiary Brochures for details).
-- ADH

Geek alert: CMS per-pupil spending

CMS has posted its latest chart of calculations on per-pupil spending by school, as board members prepare to start figuring out where to slash tens of millions of dollars for the coming year.

Eric Frazier,, is doing the story on the numbers. Since we're still working getting him hooked up on this blog, I'll share the good and bad news for those who like to do their own number-crunching.

The good: CMS is sharing great info about spending, academic performance, student/teacher ratios, teacher experience, poverty and race. And they've included enough detail that you can see how the staff did their calculations.

The bad: It's nearly impossible to read on the PDF files they've posted. (If you know any tips for making that work better, please share.)

The good: The public information office sent us an Excel version and is checking out the N.C. Department of Public Instruction's system that lets users download data in Excel.

Eric and I can pass along the Excel version with those of you who want to study the chart. Contact Eric if you want to discuss issues for the story; if you just want the geek sheet, I can help at

Thursday, January 6, 2011

CMS's Band-Aid solution -- literally

Kimberly Helms, a Northwest School of the Arts parent, posted an interesting comment on yesterday's story about budget cuts in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She noted that the school nurse had recently passed along a list of items she'd like parents to donate for the school health room: Kleenex, ginger ale, crackers, bottled water, cough drops, sanitary napkins, and hard candy for diabetic students.

"I nearly cried when I read it," Helms wrote. "It's a shame a school nurse can't even give a kid a tissue or a drink to comfort them."

School nurses have long turned to parents and other partners to stock the health rooms, says Maria Bonaiuto, school health director with the Mecklenburg Counth Health Department. Except for the sanitary napkins -- CMS recently stopped supplying those -- the wish list isn't related to budget cuts, she says.

In fact, Bonaiuto gives credit to CMS school health specialist Nancy Langenfeld and recently-retired Assistant Superintendent Barb Pellin for finding "a couple thousand dollars" in shrinking budgets to make sure the neediest schools have basic health supplies.

At some high-poverty schools that don't have PTAs raising money, "there were times when literally there was not a Band-Aid in the house," Bonaiuto said. Now there's a central supply of bandages, thermometers and other essentials. But yes, she says, nurses continue to ask for help supplying such things as soft drinks to settle stomachs and snacks to help a hungry student get through the day. (Bonaiuto isn't sure cough drops should be on the wish list -- if students can go to the nurse for a cough drop, "they'll come get it like candy.")

Bonaiuto notes that plenty of people are pitching in to make sure needy schools aren't shortchanged. Some strong PTAs team up to support a high-poverty school. Other schools have faith, business or community partners who help with extras for health rooms. And several parish nurses -- nurses hired by houses of worship to serve a community -- work with school nurses to make sure kids get what they need.

"Lots of people in this community reach out," Bonaiuto says. "It's nice."

I caught up with Helms (not related to me) by cell phone and filled her in on the various efforts to stock school health rooms. She was glad to hear there are no new cuts and glad to hear CMS is doing something to fill gaps. Her next stop? Going to the store for some ginger ale to send in with her daughter.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Budget cuts: Wild ride ahead

It looks like we're going to get three extra months of budget uproar, now that Superintendent Peter Gorman says he's going to release a rough draft of a 2011-12 budget plan for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on Tuesday. He'll release his suggestions for making about $100 million in cuts and ask the board to vote on some time-sensitive biggies on Jan. 25.

It doesn't take a Ouija board to predict that hundreds of jobs will be on the block. Cutbacks in busing, Bright Beginnings prekindergarten and additional teachers to help children of poverty are likely to be on the vote-in-January list, with additional layoffs looming into spring and summer.

Another easy prediction: Critics will accuse Gorman and the board of trying to scare people into lobbying state legislators and county commissioners for more money. There's no doubt that the prospect of firing teachers and cutting popular programs arouses people more than general budget forecasts, no matter how dire. And of course CMS leaders want support for the most money they can get in a dismal year.

But they also make a pretty convincing case for early decisions. Remember last May, when the school board voted to yank neighborhood busing for thousands of magnet students? Families were understandably outraged that CMS was reneging on promises made during the  January application period.

Early decisions are creating a clash with board Chair Eric Davis's vow to get extensive public engagement. With votes looming in less than three weeks, there won't be time for a lot of public forums and special meetings on some items, Gorman says. However, he noted that he's gotten an anonymous donation to cover the cost (about $8,000) of taping, airing and webstreaming four special budget meetings later in the year.

The rush also poses challenges in getting details posted in advance. Democracy is best served when board members, reporters and interested members of the public all have access to complicated material and proposals before a meeting begins. If people watch board members debating mystery handouts, they can't really follow the discussion.

CMS officials aren't arguing in theory, but they say advance release isn't realistic when so much budget information is being cranked out so quickly.

So ... expect Tuesday's agenda and some supporting material, including a breakdown of last year's per-pupil spending at each school, to be posted here tomorrow. But documents connected with Gorman's budget-cutting plans won't be available until the meeting starts, he says. Spokeswoman LaTarzja Henry says she's working on getting them posted online at the same agenda link as quickly as possible, so anyone who's following from home or brings a laptop to the meeting can read along.

P.S. I'm happy to report that Eric Frazier is officially joining me in education coverage, at least for the duration of the budget crisis. He'll be joining me on this blog as well.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

One-percent solutions

"There's not one big thing. There are one hundred one-percent solutions."

That quote, from a leader of a charter chain that's been successful with urban students, has been sticking in my mind as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools goes into the next round of budget-slicing.

It's from "A Chance to Make History" by Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America. She lays out a lot of thought-provoking ideas about what it takes to break the cycle of failure for low-income and minority students. Among them: The best predictor of teacher success may be such personal characteristics as leadership, resilience and high energy, rather than any combination of credentials and skills. One charter chain has given their teachers a battery of psychological tests, "searching for the disposition of teachers who are getting the best results," she writes.

One of her central arguments is to stop searching for "silver bullets and silver scapegoats," instead acknowledging that it takes a lot of small, difficult changes to make a big difference.

At first blush, that clashes with the sense of urgency that she and many others bring to the quest for better urban schools. "Incremental change" is almost a dirty word in such circles. And Kopp is not counseling anyone to be content with a smidgen of improvement each year, in hopes that kids will be doing fine by, say, 2030.

She does warn that no one approach -- not small schools or small classes, not more money or more technology, not charters or vouchers, not even Teach For America -- can turn the tide.

"The achievement gap in America is massive," Kopp writes. "If we think in terms of mapping student performance on a one hundred-point scale, the black-white achievement gap appears to be about thirty-five points. Meanwhile, virtually all of the strategies mentioned in this chapter, even if we accept only the most optimistic research about their impact, might close the gap by only one, two or three points."

That's sobering. New efforts and reform strategies tend to be sold as The Big Answer -- perhaps understandably, since their creators are trying to rally taxpayers, politicians and/or grant makers to invest millions of dollars. And yes, reporters also tend to be more captivated by silver bullets than one-percent solutions.

I'm remembering how back in the 1990s, CMS rolled out Bright Beginnings prekindergarten as something close to an inoculation against failure. Keep the kids from falling behind in kindergarten, the pitch went, and they'd sail through school on par with more advantaged peers, graduating from high school and going on to lives free of poverty and prison.

Now the first Bright Beginnings tots are in high school and hard data is scarce. But it's clear that the pre-K is more like a year of being fed -- it's far better than malnutrition, but it doesn't mean much if many more years of healthy meals don't follow. It may be more than one percent of the solution, but it's far from 100.

Starting this month, Bright Beginnings and a whole lot of other programs face scrutiny and possible cuts. It's sort of like a high-stakes game of Jenga. CMS officials say they've already pulled out all the easy blocks. Now they've got to slide out a lot more pieces -- and hope the tower doesn't collapse.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Seeing red on Tuesday

If you see a lot of red clothes in schools tomorrow, that's probably because it's "Wear Red for Public Ed" day. Local educators are putting the word out on Facebook.

The sponsor is a group called Save Our Schools Million Teacher March.

I can't tell much about this group from the Web site, but founder Chris Janotta is an education blogger and language arts teacher in suburban Chicago. Plans for a 2010 Million Teacher March apparently fell through, but there's a move afoot to try again this year, along with smaller, easier efforts to rally support for teachers who feel besieged by budget cuts and reform efforts.

I know -- this isn't the meatiest blog post to kick off the new year. Trust me, there will be plenty of news bubbling up this month, as the state legislature and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board delve into 2011 budgets. Plus Mecklenburg Ministries and the Levine Museum of the New South have big pushes coming to support and discuss public education in Charlotte.

Meanwhile, I hope everyone enjoyed a little holiday breather. When I wasn't covering airport news (during the holidays, everyone's a general assignment reporter), I used the slow time to read an advance copy of Wendy Kopp's "A Chance to Make History" (more about that to come).

Next up on my reading list: Gene Maeroff's "School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy." Not only did he do some of his research in Charlotte, he's a former education reporter who is now president of the school board in Edison, N.J. Now that's a journey I'm curious to learn about!