Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Florida ranks all public schools

If you think people get competitive about school quality in Charlotte,  check out the latest from Florida,  a state that already grades schools from A to F.  The Florida Department of Education is now ranking all schools from highest to lowest,  based on test scores in the lower grades and additional factors,  such as graduation rates,  for high schools.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that Gov. Rick Scott touts the ratings as a boost to giving students a world-class education that points them toward successful careers.  Meanwhile, a teacher union leader decries the idea of rating schools "like shampoos" and says that test scores provide "very accurate measures of the size of the houses near a given school and the income levels of the people who live in those houses."

Back home, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is still working through its school-data problems.  Board Chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart and Vice Chair Mary McCray were planning to talk with interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh today about how to deal with inaccuracies in the latest school progress reports.  CMS had originally planned to release corrected reports Friday; the public information office now says it will take longer.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Ellis-Stewart, McCray ran low-cost campaigns

Ericka Ellis-Stewart and Mary McCray spent less than $15,000 each to win countywide seats on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, final campaign finance reports show.

That's a sharp contrast with the previous at-large election in 2007,  when the three winners spent $21,000 (Joe White) to $58,650 (Kaye McGarry).  The 2007 crew also pulled larger vote totals,  with first-place McGarry logging 59,392 votes to Ellis-Stewart's 35,341, the top tally in 2011.

A lot changed in those four years.  A lingering economic slump made fund-raising harder.  The field of candidates doubled,  from seven in 2007 to 14 in 2011.  Voter turnout slumped,  from 24 percent to 16 percent.  The most recent race had no incumbents,  while all three 2007 winners already held the seats.  And the local Democratic party broke with tradition this year by endorsing candidates  (Ellis-Stewart, McCray and Aaron Pomis)  and mobilizing voters for the school board race.

Ellis-Stewart,  who ran her own campaign,  apparently spent $13,900 on her campaign.  She didn't fill in the column for the running tally,  but that's the total from her three individual reports. That comes to about 39 cents a vote,  compared with 45 cents to 99 cents for the 2007 winners.

McCray, who finished second,  reports spending just over $11,000,  or about 42 cents a vote.  Third-place Tim Morgan,  who already held the District 6 seat,  spent just over $23,000,  or about 93 cents a vote.

Elyse Dashew,  who finished fourth,  was the race's big spender, reporting about $42,100 in expenses (about $1.79 a vote).  The school board race is nonpartisan,  which means there are no primaries and no parties listed on the ballot.  But Dashew,  who is unaffiliated,  was likely hobbled by having no political party pushing her candidacy.

Going into the 2011 school board campaign,  there had been speculation that it would take around $50,000 to win a seat.  That was fueled partly by Eric Davis'  District 5 campaign in 2009;  he spent just over $58,000 to win a decisive victory over one opponent, at a cost of about $3.26 per vote. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Churches renting schools: CMS says amen

The U.S. Supreme Court recently sided with New York City officials who say letting churches worship in school buildings violates the separation of church and state.  But Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools doesn't plan to change its practice of letting churches rent space after hours,  officials said this week.

The subject came up during an update on the district's  "community use of schools"  program at Tuesday's school board meeting.  CMS leaders acknowledged the ruling,  but said they don't believe it precludes CMS from continuing to count houses of worship among the  "educational, recreational, civic and cultural activities"  considered acceptable.

"We treat it the same as Mrs. Smith's yoga class,"  said Guy Chamberlain,  the associate superintendent in charge of buildings.

Board member Tim Morgan said he's relieved,  because many south suburban churches count on renting space in schools during their start-up years,  then moving into their own facilities when they can afford it.

In another mop-up item from Tuesday's meeting:  The proposed cell-phone stipend that generated so much buzz on this blog over the weekend was removed from the agenda.  No word on if or when it might reappear.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

CMS bonds in 2013?

After a long recession-driven slump in school construction,  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials laid out a $1.86 billion 10-year plan for school construction and renovation Tuesday.

Planner Mike Raible said the first slice of that plan could go before voters in 2013,  although county officials could also find other ways to provide money.  The last bond vote was in 2007,  when voters approved $516 million.

The plan includes just over $1 billion (in today's dollars) for building 52 new schools,  $717 million for major renovations at 113 schools and $96 million for smaller improvements at 32 sites.  That's 56 percent for growth,  39 percent for renovation and 5 percent for the smaller projects.

Board members got a two-inch-thick book laying out the individual projects, but that hasn't been released publicly yet.  It's the specifics that spark public debate,  as staff and the board decide which projects go to the top of the list.

Among the questions raised Tuesday:  Will CMS continue expanding its preK-8 model by building schools designed to combine those grades?  CMS already has more than a dozen schools that combine elementary and middle grades,  including eight preK-8 neighborhood schools launched this year.  Planners say the 10-year plan includes some opportunities to build more,  including one slated for Huntersville.

All clear on change now?

At a retreat Friday, all nine members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board gave the district's search firm the strongest possible signal that they want the next superintendent to be a "change agent,"  rather than a hold-steady leader.  The next day they realized they should define what kind of change they want.

They followed up in a conference call with Jim Huge of PROACT Search Tuesday evening.  Huge told the board his definition of change agent:  Someone who is  "totally dedicated to continuous improvement" and would make change within the board's theory of action.  "They will not make change for change's sake,"  Huge added.

The board agreed,  and went on to approve a job profile that PROACT will post  (I'd share a link, but I'm not seeing it on the CMS or PROACT websites yet).

I suppose superintendent profiles are a bit like online dating  --  the descriptions tend to be broad and idealistic,  and you only find out about chemistry after meeting face to face.  Once the public starts meeting finalists,  we may get a better sense about the "change" questions on many people's minds:  Will the next leader change student assignment?  The way money is distributed to schools?  The way schools are structured?  The way students are tested and teachers are evaluated?

In other Tuesday news,  the board started talking about a 10-year construction and renovation plan,  with the possibility of a bond referendum in 2013.  I'll post more about that soon,  but unfortunately,  CMS did not immediately share either its summary presentation documents nor the 2-inch-thick book of specific project plans with the public.  The public information staff is working on that and promises to have at least the summary linked today.  It's not ideal,  but I supposed if there's ever a time when some slowness is understandable,  it's one when the district is dealing with a principal's suicide and the resignation of a top data official.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Good classroom observations aren't easy

Classroom observations can be a vital part of a good teacher evaluation,  but only if the people doing the observing have been well trained and tested to prove they know what they're doing.

That conclusion, from the latest Measures of Effective Teaching report, won't come as a shock to teachers,  who have long complained that too many administrators do rushed or biased observations.  Nor does it surprised Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders,  who are working with the researchers funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to figure out how good teaching can be measured.  Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark says principals have been watching videos of classroom lessons and scoring them to develop their skill as classroom observers.

Districts across the country are trying to figure out how to recognize, recruit and reward teachers who can make a difference with kids.  Efforts to gauge effectiveness with number-crunching  --  such as CMS'  rollout of value-added ratings last year  --  have hit resistance.  But as the latest report indicates,  it's not easy to watch teachers in action and rate them, either.

Judy Kidd,  president of the Charlotte-based Classroom Teachers Association,  raised that concern when CMS and the state of North Carolina rolled out new reports on ratings of teachers in all schools, based on a new state evaluation form.  She said she doesn't believe administrators are familiar enough with the new system to deliver solid ratings.

The CMS Talent Effectiveness Project and the state Department of Public Instruction are both moving toward evaluations that will incorporate good observations, value-added ratings based on test scores and other measures of effectiveness.  And the national researchers taking part in the MET study  (which includes CMS teachers who have volunteered to be interviewed and observed)  are trying to provide guidance.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Questions from a data flub

All of us who work with numbers know how easy it is to make a mistake.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools made one last week when it posted inaccurate (and still unexplained) results for a new on-time graduation-track calculation,  then was slow to recognize the error.  Late Friday,  interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh pulled the school progress reports offline, telling the school board in a memo that "several issues of data accuracy have come to light."  The reports will be reposted Feb. 3 "after the data has been fully audited,"  he said.

The incident poses some serious questions for a district that prides itself on being data-driven on everything from education strategies to accounting for public money.

Some numbers lend themselves to a common-sense reality check.  It's like stepping on a scale: If it's five pounds off, you might believe it.  If it's 50 pounds off you know the scale is broken.  For anyone familiar with high schools,  numbers showing fewer than 2 percent of all students have ever flunked a grade are a clear signal that the scale is busted.

Hattabaugh and his officials are facing questions about why they didn't catch the problem.  But I'm wondering about principals who got their school reports almost two weeks before the error went public.  At many of those schools,  the bogus numbers were wildly out of sync with reality.  Did anyone say  "Hey, this can't be right"?  If not,  are principals so overwhelmed by central-office data that they've stopped caring whether numbers are accurate and meaningful?  If so,  were they unable or unwilling to let their superiors know there was a mistake?

I asked Hattabaugh about that during the weekend school board retreat.  "They were probably just thrilled that it was a good number,"  he said, smiling.

I don't know if he's right.  But if his school leaders are happy with glowing but false data,  the problem goes deeper than a central-office flub.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Cell-phone stipends for CMS board?

In a billion-dollar budget,  $6,048 a year is barely pocket change.  But a proposal to spend that much on cell-phone stipends for the nine Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members stirred some lively discussion because of its symbolic impact.

"I think the last thing we want to do is even appear to increase the cost of the board,"  said Eric Davis,  who asked to have the $56-a-month stipend put on Tuesday's agenda so he could vote against it.  He noted the painful cuts the board has made in recent years:  "It's just not a smart thing for us to do."

Some board members were confused by the agenda item  --  which was understandable as the story came out at Saturday's school board retreat.

It seems newly-elected board member and chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart asked interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh whether she could get a CMS phone to use on board business.  Hattabaugh talked with Chief Information Officer Scott Muri and decided it would make more sense to offer a stipend that would cover a data plan than to buy phones.

CMS already pays $470 a month to the board chair and $370 a month to other members for expenses incurred during board business inside Mecklenburg County.  New board members may not have been aware of the expense allowance because it's folded into their monthly paycheck, Hattabaugh said.  He noted that school board members are paid less than county commissioners,  who get an additional  technology stipend.

Mary McCray,  who was also elected in November, noted Saturday that she had to buy a second cell phone to keep up with board calls and emails while protecting the privacy of her old line.

Davis,  Tim Morgan and Rhonda Lennon  --  the minority who have complained of being shut out of decisions made by Ellis-Stewart and the new Democratic majority  --  got wind that a cell-phone stipend might be added and asked to put it up for a public discussion.

It's unclear whether that item will actually come up Tuesday.  CMS attorney George Battle suggested giving staff more time to research options and report back.  Morgan suggested making it part of 2012-13 budget talks.

Joyce Waddell said she's open on timing,  but she thinks the board should settle the question in public:  "I don't want us to look like we're hiding things."

A p.s. that will amuse regular readers: When I asked Hattabaugh after the meeting for the amount of the current expense allowance, he grinned.  "You already have it on your blog,"  he said.  Christine Mast had emailed Chief Finance Officer Sheila Shirley to ask for details,  then posted the information in a comment.  Hattabaugh said he could resend the email, but Mast had it right.  So thanks,  Christine,  for helping out with the reporting!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

CMS board says 'I do' to Project LIFT

The leaders of Project LIFT are getting a warm reception from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, as they describe the CMS/LIFT partnership as an effort that unites westside families and corporate leaders in a chance to transform struggling schools and neighborhoods.

"Let's just go.  I'm ready to go,"  said school board member Tom Tate,  who said he was skeptical when the contract was presented before today's board-to-board confab.

"I can't think of a better partner to get married to,"  said Eric Davis,  referring to board Chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart's comment yesterday comparing the unprecedented partnership to a marriage.  "I'm in.  I'm all in."

The $55 million,  five-year plan for eight westside schools includes new efforts to put top-notch teachers in every classroom,  summer programs and year-round school to keep kids from losing academic ground during breaks,  technology for students and homes,  and charter-like flexibility for all public schools.  The philanthropy group would hire a lobbyist to work with the state legislature,  and pay the salaries of three administrators who would oversee the schools  (CMS would pay for two more staffers in that office).

"You have 100 percent blessing from me,"  said Rhonda Lennon,  who said she wants to see this kind of support, innovation and flexibility extended to all schools.  "Whether they're from the peninsula or whether they're from the projects, every child deserves it,"  she said.

LIFT board members said they're following the lead of CMS officials,  especially Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark,  in everything from pushing for flexibility to pursuing specific partners and strategies.   "They directed us.  They guided us.  They got us excited,"  said co-chair Stick Williams of the Duke Energy Foundation.

CMS board Chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart said the private money is "adding some muscle mass to help us do the heavy lifting."

Denise Watts,  the former CMS administrator who recently became LIFT's executive director,  would head the effort as a CMS employee whose salary is paid by Project LIFT and who would also report to LIFT's board.  She said the eight schools were chosen because they are at the bottom on virtually all measures of academic success,  and because spreading the money to more schools would dilute it.  But she and others say if results come in,  donors will be eager to replicate what works.

"When this community has shown success,  the money has always followed,"  said Michael Marsicano of the Foundation for the Carolinas.  If West Charlotte,  which now graduates just over half its students in four years,  were to hit 90 percent graduation,  "I guarantee this community will find the money to spread it across the system."

The LIFT folks gave the school board a 45-page draft of the group's strategic plan, and the board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a contract.


The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board has reconvened for the second day of its retreat feeling optimistic, but knowing huge challenges lie ahead.  Members say yesterday's talks helped them get past some of the hard feelings generated in recent weeks.  Facilitator Mary Kendrick, who was unknown to many members before the session started,  got rave reviews from everyone.

On Friday,  the board unanimously and enthusiastically agreed they want the next superintendent to be a "change agent."  Today they faced the tougher question:  What does that mean?

"I'm still not convinced that there is a true commitment to a change agent,"  Tim Morgan said.  "Maybe everybody has a different view of what a change agent looks like."

Tom Tate agreed:  "What are the changes that we want?  Does change mean what we are doing right now we don't want to do anymore?"

"We use the same words to define so many different things," concurred Kendrick.

The audience at this morning's retreat is tiny but powerful: Stick Williams and Anna Spangler Nelson, co-chairs of Project LIFT; Michael Marsicano, head of the Foundation for the Carolinas; Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown, a LIFT board member who's also a leader in community health care; Denise Watts, a former CMS administrator who's now LIFT's executive director; and Howard Haworth, a former state Board of Education chairman who remains engaged in education advocacy.

Most of them are here for the most meaty item up today:  A proposed partnership between CMS and the philanthropic Project LIFT to run and revive eight westside schools. That discussion is about to begin.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

CMS mulls "marriage" to philanthropists

In the final hour of today's retreat,  the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board prepared for Saturday's talks on a groundbreaking partnership with Project LIFT to run eight westside schools  (read the draft contract here; the last page is the most interesting).

Members' reactions ranged from wildly enthusiastic to skeptical.  Project LIFT is the year-old quest by Charlotte-area philanthropists to raise $55 million to improve West Charlotte High and the seven schools that feed into it.

The nature of the partnership is complex.  CMS would create a new independent administrative zone made up of the eight LIFT schools,  and the philanthropists would pay the salaries of three administrators,  including Denise Watts,  a former CMS administrator who became LIFT's executive director this summer.  Watts would have authority to craft turnaround strategies,  recruit and approve staff and "request immediate reassignment" of staff who don't mesh with the plan.

A full story will be posted soon,  and I'll be filing again from tomorrow's follow-up talks. The board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the contract.


Jim Huge, the PROACT Search executive leading the hunt for a superintendent, asked the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board to rate their ideal candidate on a one-to-five scale. One is a leader focused on "managing what we've got;" five is a "change agent."

All nine members said they want a five.

That's the kind of thing that's going to help distinguish the CMS search, Huge said. Most search criteria are similar from one district to the next. For CMS,  which has a strong staff and an outstanding reputation,  one key question is whether the board wants to hold steady or keep shaking things up to create bigger gains for kids.

The board and Huge are working through a draft profile to use once CMS formally posts the job. Huge one thing he repeatedly heard during the public engagement process is that CMS already has a cadre of strong leaders in schools and central offices.  He said it's going to take an unusually strong superintendent to inspire and lead that crew.

After hearing members agonize over their differences and their fears that superintendent candidates could be deterred by public debate, Huge said that's not going to be a problem.  The way they worked out issues is a plus, he said.

Now they're talking about educators vs. nontraditional candidates. So far the trend is members prefer an educator but wouldn't exclude someone from a different background.


The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board agreed unanimously that they support the theory of action, though they want to rename it the "theory of action for change." As Chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart noted, though, the challenge will come as they try to put it into practice.

Now they're starting to talk with their search firm. Here's how the big-picture talks played out:

After the  "how to work together"  sessions, members broke into small groups, designed to mix new and old members, to talk about the board's mission, vision and core beliefs.

Tim Morgan, speaking for the first group (him, Ellis-Stewart and Tom Tate), says they're "all on board" with the mission and vision, and understand that "maximizing student achievement does not mean that every child is the same."

There's a question of what it means to say the educational culture is based on merit and individual achievement, Morgan says. He says it applies to everyone -- students, employees, etc.  "It's at all levels of the organization" and emphasizes personal responsibility, he says.

Ellis-Stewart says she supports the broad goals but thinks the challenge comes with execution:  "I think on paper they sound like great things I can easily support."

Eric Davis, speaking for himself, Richard McElrath and Mary McCray, says there's big-picture agreement, but his group wants more emphasis on the role and responsibility of parents, along with the challenges posed by poverty and the city/county role in dealing with that (McElrath is a big advocate of using zoning and housing policy to avoid concentrating poverty in urban neighborhoods).

Facilitator Mary Kendrick says white poverty is often masked or ignored because it's located in the suburbs, and asks for the board's reaction. She says she doesn't have Mecklenburg stats but this is a general trend.

Tate says the board's concern is high concentrations of poverty,  regardless of race,  and that tends to be in Charlotte.

Kendrick, who seems to be stepping outside the usual role of a facilitator,  presses the issue: "Oftentimes the child in the suburbs does not get the attention. ...  I don't want to get too deep into that issue but I do want to lift it up."

McCray, Rhonda Lennon and Amelia Stinson-Wesley, the new District 6 representative, agree there's poverty in the suburbs.

Davis's group says CMS needs a better method of reporting on how the district is acting on its theories.

The final group -- Lennon, Stinson-Wesley and Joyce Waddell -- seems focused more on wordsmithing. They wonder about the phrase "unleash innovation"  --  it just seems odd, Lennon says. They wonder if emphasizing "performance culture" has overemphasized measurable results over creativity.

Lennon suggested the board should restructure its meetings; with public comment at the start, she says, news media focus on "parents ranting and raving" rather than CMS reports such as a recent one on Reid Park initiatives. She said it's a mistake to leave such important reports until hours into meetings, when "there's not a single media and we're all looking for coffee."

Kendrick cautioned against putting public comment late, lest it discourage participation.

Davis suggested the board revamp its public comment structure. The current format  --  three-minute speeches with no reactions or comments from the board  --  is frustrating for the public and the board, he says.

McCray praised the board and interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh for making eye contact with speakers at the most recent meeting.


 "Singing Kumbayah" is a cliche among people who are skeptical about the team-building exercises that take place at retreats,  but now I've heard it actually happen.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board was mired in discussion of the rift between the new Democratic majority and the three others. Former Chair Eric Davis, an unaffiliated voter, and Republicans Tim Morgan and Rhonda Lennon says they've felt shut out of decision-making since the November election.

Davis broke some ground when he acknowledged that this might not be a new issue. He said he's heard that some board members felt like he failed to include them during his two years as chair.

Chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart, noting that  "I am new to my role as a board member and I am new to my role as chair,"  acknowledged that her early actions left some feeling excluded.  "I apologize for that. I am ready to move forward. I will do what I can do to become a better communicator, but I think communication is a two-way street," she said.

Lennon, who has been Ellis-Stewart's most vocal critic, responded:  "I'm sorry for whatever I've done that offended you.  Either we agree to move on or not."

"Do you agree?"  Ellis-Stewart asked.

"I'm here,"  Lennon said.

"But do you agree?" Ellis-Stewart pressed.

At that point, Vice Chair Mary McCray broke into the opening bars of the campfire song. "I can get my guitar back here in 30 minutes," added Tom Tate.


A little over an hour into the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board retreat, partisan clashes have come into the open.  The board is working with facilitator Mary Kendrick on laying the groundwork for healthy communication.

Everyone agrees the board should work for the good of all children,  but board member Rhonda Lennon,  who represents the north suburbs (and a Republican who has gone from being part of a majority coalition to being in a political minority) says district representatives need to speak for their constituents:  "No matter how much I like you,  I'm still going to represent my peeps,"  she told her colleagues.  "I have to work for the good of all children from the perspective of those who elected me."

Chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart,  elected by the new Democratic majority,  objected to the notion that the board has to be  "partisan and political. To the extent that we put labels on ourselves,  it stymies our ability to be different."

Lennon shot back that there have been partisan decisions made behind closed doors,  an apparent reference to the 5-3 vote to appoint a Democrat to the vacant seat representing the Republican-leaning District 6.  She said the board can't move forward until  "we have been honest about what's been going on."

Eric Davis,  an unaffiliated voter and the former chair,  cautioned the board about airing too many clashes in public, knowing that prospective superintendents are monitoring the news about CMS.  But he said the issues Lennon raised are crucial to moving forward.  "Ericka, this is your role,"  he said,  urging her to figure out how to deal with the rift.

Ellis-Stewart asked if there were concerns beyond the selection of the District 6 member. Lennon, with Davis nodding vigorously,  said virtually every decision made since the November election has left the non-Democrats out of the loop.  "Communication or lack thereof,"  added Tim Morgan, a Republican.

Vice Chair Mary McCray,  a recently retired teacher,  said she always tried to start her school year fresh,  and hopes the board will do the same.  "This is a fresh start for us, because it's a new day."

They're now talking about whether they can legally go into closed session to talk about board relationships.  "Call it personnel issues, because we're all on the payroll," Davis said.  Attorney George Battle cautions them that's complex terrain.


New board Chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart opened the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board retreat by acknowledging that "our first 30 days together as a group have been somewhat rocky,"    but told her colleagues she hopes the next day and a half will help them come together as a group that can focus on the achievement of students.

Ellis-Stewart told the facilitator she thinks one of the big questions in front of the board is "where we plan to go relative to reform and how we define it as a group," and added that assessment (or testing) is a big issue in the community.

Facilitator Mary Kendrick, a West Charlotte High alum  (see more about her background below)  is reviewing the basics with the board.  One of the subtexts of the new board is "who has the influence now?", and one exchange provided a glimpse of that tension. Kendrick told the board about the prep work she's been doing,  including meeting with  "some folks who are meeting to talk about the education of their children  ...  I don't know how visible they are."

"Do they have a name?"  asked board member Tim Morgan.

"I don't know their name," said Kendrick,  who said her brother invited her to the gathering.


I'll be posting periodically from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board retreat Friday and Saturday.  It's at the CMS Leadership Academy, 7920 Neal Road (governors village campus in the University City area), and it's open to the public.  For anyone who's interested, here's the agenda.

The main business items are the superintendent search and the district's agreement with the philanthropists trying to raise $55 million for Project LIFT,  a private effort to boost performance at westside schools. Approval of a Project LIFT contract is on the agenda for Tuesday's meeting,  though that agenda offers no details.

At least as interesting as the specifics will be the talk about how board members plan to relate to each other and what they think about the district's vision, mission and core beliefs.  As most readers know, the board has a new majority and new leadership,  and the first couple of meetings have sparked heated talk of changing values and urban/suburban rifts.

The facilitator will be Mary Kendrick of Greensboro.  The bio sent by CMS describes her as a  "motivational speaker;  facilitator;  executive coach;  anti-racism trainer;  and an Inclusion and Respect- Organizational and Leadership Coach, Strategist and Consultant."

"Mary’s Focus and Purpose is to serve as an advocate for human dignity and social justice.   She partners with and coaches leaders to achieve greater organizational effectiveness in support of progressive social change," it says.

She's being paid $1,500 for the retreat.  CMS didn't have other costs yet,  but meetings at the CMS facility have never been posh, in my experience.  Long gone are the days when I would chase the board to the Grandover Resort in Greensboro or the Hidden Crystal Inn in Hiddenite (a location I always believed then-Superintendent James Pughsley selected because it didn't have enough rooms for reporters to stay overnight).

Charlotte, Anchorage and the search

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board and its search firm,  PROACT Search,  are about to craft a  profile of the superintendent they'd like to hire.  One might expect it to look something like this:

"The successful candidate will have a demonstrated track record of success in leadership roles,  and in complex change management.  He or she will have a passion for the success of every child, and be committed to dramatically improving student,  school,  and district performance.  The successful candidate will have the staying power to be a visible leader in the district,  community,  and state.  The ideal candidate will be a results-oriented team player with the ability to execute immediately while remaining focused on long-term goals and strategies.  He or she will demonstrate effective partnerships with parents,  community organizations,  foundations,  unions,  higher education,  business,  nonprofits,  and the public sector."

That's not a leaked CMS draft, but the gist of PROACT's profile for the superintendent being hired in Anchorage, Alaska.  Reader Bolyn McClung forwarded the link to Anchorage's search as an insight into what might be ahead for Charlotte. Anchorage is several steps ahead in its process. That board narrowed about 150 applicants to five finalists, who were interviewed by Skype, then invited two to visit Anchorage in hopes of making a hire by the end of this month (read about it here).  CMS hopes to have finalists meet the public and make a hire in March.

It seems likely that the CMS checklist will include many of the same items as Anchorage's:  Leadership,  change management,  passion for children's success,  staying power,  partnership-building, etc.   But at least CMS can add an item to its community profile:  No snowshoes required.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Growing math gap is quirk of labels

I've often said data seldom provides clear answers about education, though it can help people ask better questions.

Latest example:  The case of the growing math gap.

When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools released its 2011 school progress reports this week,  Carol Sawyer was shocked to see that in elementary schools,  "the disparity between racial/ethnic groups in math"  had jumped from 22.9 percent to 32.5 percent.  Sawyer,  a member of Mecklenburg ACTS and an advocate for disadvantaged students, didn't think that looked right,  given that the socioeconomic gap in math was virtually unchanged.  Was it a CMS typo, she asked?

CMS data guru Chris Cobitz says his first thought was that she must be right.  None of the earlier analyses had shown a big slump in minority math performance;  in fact, CMS fourth-graders logged an exceptionally strong showing on the National Assessment of Educational Progress math exams last year.

But it turned out there was another explanation.  For the first time this year,  CMS carved off Pacific islanders as a separate ethnic group.  In 2009-10,  those students had been counted as Asians,  who traditionally perform well on exams.  So the 2009-10 "racial/ethnic disparity"  was based on the gap between pass rates for black and white students,  he said.  In 2010-11, the very small number of Pacific islanders logged the lowest overall pass rate,  so the latest racial/ethnic gap was based on the difference between them and white students.  The black-white gap showed little change, he said.

Cobitz says questions about the data are helpful,  not only to the concerned citizens who are confused but to CMS leaders trying to paint a clear picture.  "We want the feedback," he said.  Stay tuned for reporting on some other questions raised by the reports,  concerning graduation projections and teacher evaluations.

N.C. academic growth: Many left behind

The new Charlotte-Mecklenburg school progress reports have helped me to better understand North Carolina's formula for academic growth  --  and I'm a bit taken aback.

The state's  "expected growth"  calculation is key to state ratings and other measures CMS uses to gauge how well its schools and officials are performing.  It has been explained to me as roughly translating to an average of a year's academic gain per student,  based on their performance on state exams (read the state's description on pages 4-5 here).

So I was looking at West Charlotte High's progress report and scratching my head.  If,  as the CMS document reports,  only 64 percent of last year's students demonstrated at least one year's progress,  why did the school get a "high growth" rating?

The answer lies in CMS's explanation,  the clearest one I've seen yet:  "Each student is expected to perform as well  (or better)  on the End-of-Course assessment as he or she did,  on average,  during the previous two years.  Average Growth for a school is calculated by comparing actual performance to expected performance and then averaging the difference across all students and all subjects.  ...  Across the state,  about half of students typically meet or exceed this growth expectation.  To earn the high growth designation,  a school must meet the average-growth standard described above and also have more than 60% of its students make expected growth."

So a student who has performed poorly in the past will go in with a relatively low projected performance.  And up to 40 percent of students at any given school can fall even further behind,  making less than the gains expected based on their past performance,  while the school still gets a "high growth" rating. That helps explain why CMS and the state have so many "high growth" schools (just over 81 percent statewide  met or exceeded the growth standard last year) while proficiency levels remain persistently low at some of those same schools.

It's also worth noting that Ardrey Kell and Providence high schools,  two of CMS' top performers, had 65 percent of students making the expected gains last year,  a number barely above West Charlotte's.  In cases like that,  a significant number of strong students who have little trouble clearing the  "grade level"  bar on exams are still falling short on the progress they're expected to make.  Districtwide,  about 40 percent of students logged less than a year's gains.

Kudos to CMS for including a measure that gives a clearer picture of what lies behind the averages  --  and how many students are continuing to fall behind.  The real challenge,  of course,  lies in figuring out what to do about it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

CMS report: Fine print is fascinating

How many teachers from the schools that closed this year lost their jobs with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools?  How much Title I money are high-poverty schools getting , and how do they spend it?  What do the numbers show about students being suspended?

All of those items are in the data tables that came with a report interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh presented to the school board in December.  (Read the full report here.)  The report focuses on 42 schools that saw change this year because of closings,  mergers and other changes related to the 2011-12 budget.

The answers:

*Of 341 teachers in 10 schools that closed,  61 did not return to CMS this year.  Only eight of those left because their contracts were not renewed.  Among 36 schools CMS categorizes as "impacted" by changes,  243 of 1,704 teachers did not return to CMS,  and 44 of those were "nonrenewals."

*Three high schools that hit the 75 percent mark for students receiving lunch aid  (Harding,  West Charlotte and West Meck)  got more than $600,000 each in Title I federal money to aid high-poverty schools.  For elementary and middle schools listed,  the Title I budget is generally in the $200,000 to $300,000 range.  The report lists how each school is using the money.

*The numbers show a significant jump in suspensions at many of the schools that saw change,  from South Meck High to Alexander Graham Middle to Barringer Elementary.  The increase is far more than changes in enrollment would predict,  and CMS officials aren't sure why that's happening,  other than to say this is a transition year.  A couple of schools bucked the trend:  West Meck High lost students and saw a reduction that's out of proportion to the change  (but the schools that got those students have seen suspensions spike).  And Alexander Middle merged with Davidson IB,  which closed;  so far Alexander has fewer suspensions than both schools combined during the same period last school year.

Friday, January 13, 2012

CMS per-pupil spending report is out

This is kind of a do-it-yourself blog:  For those of you who might want to spend your weekend crunching Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools numbers,  the 2010-11 per-pupil spending report is online.  Click here and look down the list (it's marked "new").  CMS is also posting progress reports on each school that include a lot of other data.

I've got to finish a story on those school progress reports before I can go home for the weekend,  so you won't get any insights from me on what the per-pupil numbers show.  I will offer a brief guide to CMS acronyms and jargon:

"Perf comp"  is the composite pass rate on state exams,  which include reading,  math and science in elementary and middle schools and various End of Course exams in high schools ("perf" stands for performance).

"Focus school"  indicates whether a school gets extra money based on the poverty level.

"SPR"  has me stumped;  can any of you insiders help us out?

"Teacher FTE"  means "full-time equivalencies,"  a way of counting employees in which two half-time workers would count as one FTE.  It's a basis for calculating student-teacher ratios.

  "EDS %"  is  "economically disadvantaged students."  Commonly known as the school poverty level,  it's the percent of students who receive federal lunch subsidies.

Give preK-8 schools a checkup?

To really get a feel for how things are going at Charlotte-Mecklenburg's new preK-8 schools,  a panel of volunteers should be sent in to do a checkup,  says Dr.  Becka Tait.

Tait  --  a pediatrician,  CMS parent and member of the League of Women Voters Education Committee  --  told the school board it should revive its Equity Committee to get beyond the data at these eight new schools,  which will play a crucial role in getting kids from impoverished neighborhoods ready for high school.  (Read more about the preK-8 schools in Sunday's Observer.)

"It's time to ask those students 'How are you doing?' " Tait said. Volunteers could flesh out staff reports,  she said.

Equity  --  the concept of making sure all schools get what they need to educate their students  --  may be the biggest question looming for the new school board and the superintendent they hire this spring.  There are sharp differences in the community about how to define and execute equity,  and the current board will have to hash out its own approach.

The Equity Committee illustrates the challenges.  In 2002,  as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was moving from court-ordered desegregation to a neighborhood-based student assignment plan,  the school board created the panel to monitor and report on progress.  Over the years,  the committee did some interesting research that included extensive school visits and data-crunching.  But there were always questions about what the board expected and what it would do with the mandatory annual reports.

By 2009,  when an election brought in five new members,  the committee's existence was controversial.  Some in the community and on the board viewed it as a holdover from the battle over busing.  Others thought it was an essential voice for schools and communities that might be overlooked.  There were rifts,  sometimes rancorous ones,  among committee members who represented different views.  The then-new board voted to end the requirement for Equity Committee reports,  and the committee stopped meeting in spring of 2010.

Now there's a new board majority.  The revival of the committee is probably not the top issue on anyone's agenda.  But the bigger questions of equity  --  how it's defined, what it means for schools across Mecklenburg County and how the community is engaged  -- loom large. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

More about CMS raises

Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh says he'll pitch about half a dozen more "asks,"  or increased spending that requires extra county money,  to the school board in the coming weeks.  But the $25 million to $30 million he's seeking to give all employees a 3 percent raise is by far the big-ticket item.

Mecklenburg County commissioners' Chair Harold Cogdell said Wednesday it's too early to comment on the likelihood of CMS getting that sum.  It's big, he said, but he understands the need.

The county,  which has about 4,200 people on its payroll,  budgeted $10 million in the current year to give merit raises averaging 3 percent,  Cogdell said.

CMS,  which employs about 18,000,  hasn't had money for widespread raises since 2008-09 (individuals who changed duties or took part in merit-pay pilots have gotten bumps).  Hattabaugh and his staff are trying to convince the community that an across-the-board raise is overdue. See the video created by CMS staff here, and read the CMS budget presentation, which includes the case for raises starting on page 36, here.

Before the recession,  CMS followed the lead of state legislators,  who cover a big chunk of the CMS payroll.  If the state gave,  say , a 3 percent raise to teachers and others who are state employees,  CMS would match that for county-paid workers.

But with no money for raises in the state's 2012-13 plan  (approved last year as part of a two-year budget),  CMS hopes county commissioners will agree to pick up the part that would normally come from the state  --  about 71 percent of the $25 million-plus, the CMS budget office calculated Wednesday.  And that additional supplement to state-paid workers would become an ongoing annual expense from the county budget.

Cogdell says he's keeping an open mind,  but he wishes CMS had led with plans for cost savings and creative efficiencies.  "When the first thing you do is asking for more,"  he said,  " it does create some level of skepticism."

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

CMS 'bang for buck' report coming

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will roll out its annual school progress reports on Monday, with more details than ever.   Numbers on per-pupil spending and "return on investment,"  a CMS gauge of how much academic growth each school gets for the taxpayers' bucks,  generally garner a lot of interest.

The school board got a preview Tuesday night, and members'  discussion previewed some of the back-and-forth likely to happen in the community.  At the end of the long presentation, you'll find maps plotting spending and returns  --  plotted in red, yellow and green  --  for each neighborhood school.  Red signals a school that's not getting as much academic growth on test scores as officials would expect for the amount of spending,  while green schools are doing better than expected.  Not surprisingly,  large, suburban schools with relatively low spending are the most likely to land in the green.

Board member Tom Tate, who represents an east Charlotte district with many high-poverty schools,   questioned the value of such labels.  Parents are likely to believe that red is bad,  he said,  when it may just signal high need and a lot of expensive support programs.  Chief Information Officer Scott Muri agreed,  citing the small,  high-poverty Reid Park Elementary as a "red" school that's serving children and families well.

Rhonda Lennon,  who represents the north suburbs,  took the opposite tack.  A green rating may signal overcrowded schools that aren't getting enough money,  despite strong achievement,  she said:  "To me the green light should send up a red flag for parents. ... There's very little money being spent on a tremendous number of kids."

Ericka Ellis-Stewart,  the newly elected board chair,  said CMS has done a better job of spelling out what it does to help urban schools than suburban ones.  "I'm not hearing what is necessary to meet the needs of suburban schools,"  she said.  Muri said it's up to each school to use its data to create a plan that top administrators and the board can support.

Hattabaugh told the board he recommends keeping current programs, such as extra teachers and money based on student poverty,  but acknowledged that as poverty numbers rise,  it's more challenging to provide enough support.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Battle of the bells continues

Parents who don't like the later school day that debuted this year will take their case to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board tonight.

Families from middle schools with a 9:15 a.m.  to 4:15 p.m.  schedule have formed a Bell Schedule Committee and surveyed faculty,  parents and students at 10 schools.  A majority of all groups opposed the later day,  saying it interferes with extracurricular activities and homework.  They also said students are tired,  unproductive and badly behaved after 3 p.m.

The group plans to present a detailed PowerPoint during the board's public comment period.  They hope to persuade the board that the ideal school day runs from 8 to 3.

The later schedule was introduced to save money by letting buses make an extra run after picking up or dropping off students from schools with earlier schedules.  CMS spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte said Monday evening that interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh is reviewing bell schedules,  but she had no details about what he's considering and when he'll bring a plan to the school board.  She said she doesn't know if Hattabaugh will announce next year's bell schedule before the magnet application period closes Feb. 13.

Monday, January 9, 2012

CMS: No budget bombshells yet

It was one year ago that Peter Gorman laid out a plan to cut $100 million from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools budget by eliminating 1,500 jobs. On Tuesday interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh kicks off budget planning for 2012-13, but spokeswoman Kasia Thompson says it won't be that kind of detailed outline.

Last year the board had already spent months discussing school closings and other cost-cutting measures.  The unusually early budget proposal came in response to projections that CMS would face a third year of dire cuts  --  or,  the skeptics might say,  in time to mobilize parents and advocates to lobby for more money.  In the end,  CMS avoided the worst of the cuts and layoffs.

This year brings three new board members who have never done a CMS budget,  and Thompson says the plan is to start with a broad-strokes presentation.  Hattabaugh has already said he doesn't expect to lay off teachers,  though there could be some job cuts in other areas.  And he has said he'll unveil a proposal to ask the county for money to give teachers raises.

The 3:30 p.m. meeting at the Government Center is open to the public.

How public is public's business?

In the section of N.C. Open Meetings law that lets elected officials hold closed meetings for personnel matters,  it clarifies an exception:  "A public body may not consider or fill a vacancy among its own membership except in an open meeting."

Does anyone believe the decision to appoint the Rev. Amelia Stinson-Wesley to the District 6 school board seat was made in the open meeting?  Of course not.  Board members made no secret that they were conferring by phone  --  and,  as the meeting time approached,  in small groups clustered in back rooms and halls at the Government Center.

Likewise,  before the board opens its official meeting Tuesday,  members will meet in small groups with interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh and other top staff to preview the issues they'll discuss.  It's legal because they're careful to avoid a quorum.

Truth is, all public bodies have discretion to decide how public they'll be  (and our state legislators seem to be exploring new frontiers).  At one extreme,  a board could be so obsessed with openness that every discussion among members and staff would take place in formal public meetings  (which presumably would last days instead of hours).   At the other,  meetings could be brisk vote-counting sessions to formalize decisions made privately.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board,  with three new members,  two new leaders and a new political alignment,  must now decide where to place itself on that spectrum.  There's already been some jostling over that.  After two applicants were nominated for the District 6 seat,  former board Chair Eric Davis made a motion asking that each member explain his or her thinking on the selection.  "The public has a right to know how we made decisions. This is how we build trust,"  he said.  Richard McElrath disagreed,  saying that it demonstrates a lack of trust to compel anyone to explain a vote.

Davis' view prevailed,  and members went around the table talking about why they preferred Stinson-Wesley or David Knoble.

Two years ago,  when five of the nine members were new,  the group spent quite a bit of time talking about how to air views without descending into personal sniping.  They also talked about the challenge of airing strong disagreement,  then rallying around a board decision.

The new group plans to hold its first retreat Jan. 20-21.  How they'll work together and how they'll earn public trust are bound to be discussion topics.  And this time around,  the members who were in the majority in 2009 will be in the minority.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Wake schools get money from Meck corruption

If the folks in the south suburbs are miffed over local school board politics, wait until they get a load of this: Wake County public schools will get more than $240,000 from the sale of disgraced House Speaker Jim Black's land in Matthews, according to News & Observer reporter T. Keung Hui.

Black turned over 9.5 acres in Mecklenburg County to help settle his fine for a 2007 state corruption conviction, Hui reports. The sale was supposed to net $500,000; in reality it's going for just under $300,000.

So why can't Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools claim the fine, based on the location of the land and the origin of the busted lawmaker? According to the article, Wake won out because the prosecution was handled in Raleigh.

CMS magnets: What are your odds?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools launched its online magnet applications for 2012-13 today, and kicks off the school-search season with its magnet fair on Saturday.  One of the biggest questions prospective magnet families have is, "What are the odds of getting in?"

That's impossible to predict with certainty,  but you can get a pretty good idea by checking lottery results from prior years.  Some schools consistently generate long waiting lists,  while others have room for all or most who apply.

There are no major changes in lottery programs or neighborhood school boundaries for 2012-13,  though a few magnets are continuing to expand grade levels.  One twist this year:  Families who want to apply for a transfer based on medical issues or "extreme hardship" for the coming year can start the process now,  rather than waiting for the magnet lottery to end.

"That was the question we got from parents:  'Why do we have to wait?'  We asked ourselves that question,"  said student placement official Scott McCully,  who decided to let both events happen at the same time this year.  Children of CMS employees are also eligible for transfers without having to cite medical problems or hardship.

p.s.  A couple of people have asked whether CMS plans to revise bell schedules for 2012-13 and/or back off on the longer elementary school day that started this year.  I started asking that question on Tuesday but haven't gotten an answer yet.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The role of campaign cash

Wilhelmenia Rembert's $150 campaign donation to school board Chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart may have torpedoed Rembert's hopes of being appointed to the board.

Rembert,  an at-large board member from 1998-2003 and former board chair,  was by far the biggest name among the 12 applicants for the District 6 seat filled today.  Rumors had been buzzing for weeks that the board's Democratic majority wanted to add her to the roster.

Going into this afternoon's meeting,  word was that the eight members were split between Rembert and David Knoble.  But if Ellis-Stewart had recused herself from voting for Rembert,  Rembert likely would have fallen short.

There's no law or policy against appointing a campaign donor, and I don't recall that the question has come up in the four previous appointments I've covered.  But suburban Republicans Rhonda Lennon and Tim Morgan were arguing that appointing a donor would undermine public trust in the board.  Morgan had announced he would not vote to appoint Bolyn McClung, a Pineville Republican who donated to him,  Ellis-Stewart and former board Chair Eric Davis.

Before Tuesday's meeting, McClung gave Ellis-Stewart a letter withdrawing his application for the seat, saying he became convinced that voting for donors would taint the process (Bolyn, if you're reading, I'd love for you to post the statement).  Ellis-Stewart opened the meeting by reading McClung's letter and saying "while that is allowable,  I will say for me personally that does not represent that our votes can be bought."

"I would like to support Dr. Rembert,"  Ellis-Stewart told the school board,  but said she was swayed by the community service and focus on children demonstrated by the Rev. Amelia Stinson-Wesley, who got the votes of the five Democrats after negotiating that went to the wire.  The move blindsided south suburban Republicans who had been taking aim at Rembert's political record.  They were skeptical of the Democrats' assertion that the choice had nothing to do with the fact that Stinson-Wesley was the only other Democratic applicant.

Stinson-Wesley, a relative newcomer to Mecklenburg County, is neither a politician nor a party activist.  She's been more focused on overseas work on violence against women and children,  but says her "mommy friends" in Pineville urged her to apply for the vacant seat.  She said even she was surprised to get the nod.  Making her pitch to the board Tuesday,  she had acknowledged the skills and experience other applicants brought to the board and noted that she might not be the best qualified among them -- a remark that was generating some smirking commentary among opponents afterward.

Stinson-Wesley now steps into the public spotlight as CMS tackles such tough issues as a budget and a superintendent search.  She does it knowing some of her most prominent new constituents, including Morgan, are openly skeptical of her ability to represent them.

"It is what it is.  I am who I am," she said.

Her time spent working in war zones of southeast Asia may just prove to be her best preparation for this job.

Stinson-Wesley is surprise D6 choice

The CMS board has chosen the Rev. Amelia Stinson-Wesley, a Pineville minister and nonprofit director, to fill the District 6. She was one of two Democrats who applied. See the discussion below:

4:40  Ericka Ellis-Stewart says she's heard that D6 is conservative, Republican, white district. "Based on the numbers, that is true."  But we have four localities -- Charlotte, Pineville, Mint Hill and Matthews -- and "it's not just a one size fits all."  She says it's about who puts needs of children first. "I would like to support Dr. Rembert ... at the same time, we have individuals like Rev. Stinson who have worked in the community."  That's a majority for Amelia Stinson-Wesley. She gets five formal votes.

4:38  Eric Davis says "we lack significant analytical skills" on the board. Also wants to honor district approach. He had three finalists -- Bolyn McClung, who withdrew; Wilhelmenia Rembert, whom he admires; David Knoble, who is his choice. Considered Stinson-Wesley but doesn't think she matched Knoble.

4:35 Richard McElrath says he gave star ratings as he reviewed applications. "I ended up with four stars by one name, and that name was Amelia Stinson-Wesley." Said he'd like to see a Latino member but "there's going to be time for those other issues."

4:30  Tim Morgan says David Knoble interviewed principals, teachers and families about needs of D6. He says only four of 12 applicants bothered to call Morgan beforehand, and Stinson-Wesley wasn't among them. Morgan calls her "very nice, very well spoken, but folks, I don't know where she really stands on D6 issues. She has not run this campaign like an election, which I think is necessary." Morgan defends Knoble's interest in privatization of some CMS services.

4:27 Mary McCray, who lives in D6, says Stinson-Wesley shows calm passion and is best choice.

4:25  Joyce Waddell: Stinson-Wesley showed good knowledge of issues, passion for education and passion for District 6.

4:25  Tom Tate says he was surprised on reviewing notes to realize he preferred Amelia Stinson-Wesley. Says she showed good mix of concern for D6 and whole district and "said she wanted to see our students soar."

4:20: Rhonda Lennon says it's not about who she likes, it's about what voters of District 6 want. Says south suburbs have been "woefully neglected" in school construction. She supports David Knoble.

4:20 p.m.  Process is generating debate. Davis, Tom Tate and Rhonda Lennon it's important to explain thought process. Approved unanimously -- and Ellis-Stewart immediately calls for a vote. Davis breaks in and says his motion was to explain before voting. They're starting.

4:10 p.m. Tom Tate nomintes the Rev. Amelia Stinson-Wesley, a Democrat. Tim Morgan nominates David Knoble. Stinson-Wesley appears to be the compromise, after suburban opposition to Wilhelmenia Rembert.

Eric Davis asks that each member speak about the choice. Richard McElrath objects to the idea of compelling anyone to explain a vote.

4:05 p.m  Bolyn McClung withdraws from consideration because he has made donations to current Chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart, former Chair Eric Davis and Tim Morgan. Ellis-Stewart notes that the question has been raised about whether it's a conflict to vote for a donor, and says "I will say that for me personally, that does not represent that our votes can be bought."

Morgan praises McClung for withdrawing to protect public trust, and says "a cloud of impropriety" will hang over the process if board members vote for donors. Wilhelmenia Rembert, viewed as a leading contender, gave to Ellis-Stewart.

3:55 p.m.  Negotiations are going on up to the last minute. Board members Tom Tate, Eric Davis and Rhonda Lennon have emerged, while the others are still, in Lennon's words, "huddling."  They can't legally hold a closed meeting to discuss a school board appointment, but they can confer in small groups in back rooms and halls. Tate says he doesn't anticipate a unanimous vote.

The room in the Government Center is starting to fill with applicants and a few observers.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Washington Post: CMS did what?

It's not exactly the kind of national attention Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools celebrates,  but the district made Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss' year-end quiz.

"The year 2011 was monumental in education  --  monumentally good or monumentally bad, depending on your view,"  Strauss wrote.  Among her trivia questions was:

Why did the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District try out 52 standardized tests in the spring?
a. To detect cheaters.
b. To find the best test for a new accountability program.
c. To pick standardized tests in every subject so teachers can be evaluated by student scores.
d. It didn't because that would be preposterous.

The correct answer was c, although an even better one would be:
e. The number actually went higher than 52.  By the end of the school year even testing officials were having a hard time keeping track,  as they tried to keep up with all the high school electives.

Since then,  though,  Superintendent Peter Gorman has moved on and interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh has eased off on the rollout of new tests for teacher ratings.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The District 6 plot thickens

Update to correct party tally: There are six unaffiliated, four Republican and two Democratic applicants. I've been labeling E. Thomas Bowers a Democrat, based on his Facebook page describing his political views as "Progressive Democrats" (tried to look up his registration, but "E" doesn't work for the online search). Yesterday political consultant Lawrence Shaheen, who was Tim Morgan's campaign manager, tweeted that Bowers was a registered Republican. We were both wrong: Bowers told me this morning that he was a Democrat until President Obama supported the Bush tax cuts, at which point he switched to unaffiliated.

There weren't a lot of shocking statements when the 12 applicants for the vacant District 6 school board seat spoke Tuesday.  But the fact that newly elected board Chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart and Vice Chair Mary McCray wrote up questions for the candidates without consulting their colleagues  --  and that those questions included nothing specific about District 6  --  may fuel speculation that suburban Republicans Tim Morgan and Rhonda Lennon will find themselves on the sidelines of the selection.

Lennon confronted Ellis-Stewart about that at the end of the meeting,  urging applicants to email her to tell her what they consider the top issues for the south suburban district and how those differ from the issues for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools as a whole.  Morgan,  whose at-large election created the two-year vacancy,  stayed quiet at the meeting but said afterward he'd also have liked to ask about district specifics.  McCray, a District 6 resident elected at large,  asked that all board members get copies of applicants' answers.

Most of the speculation has swirled around Wilhelmenia Rembert,  one of two Democratic applicants  (the other is the Rev. Amelia Stinson-Wesley; read all applications here).  Rembert was appointed to an at-large seat on the school board in 1998, elected countywide in 1999 and defeated in 2003.  She was then elected to an at-large commissioners' seat in 2004 and defeated in 2006. She chaired the school board and was vice chair of the county commissioners.  She's a longtime resident of south suburban Charlotte  --  she lives just inside I-485 -- but it's far from clear that her own district would elect her,  given its tendency to choose Republicans.  However, Democrats hold five of the eight board seats that will be voting on the appointment.

Morgan,  who spent a good bit of the campaign reminding people that he would not get to hand-pick his successor,  said Tuesday that  "I have a favorite,"  but wouldn't name that person.  My guess,  confirmed by someone who probably knows,  is David Knoble.  Like Morgan,  Knoble is a Republican with ties to the homebuilding industry and a history of Boy Scout leadership.  He talked about some of the same issues Morgan does,  such as refining the current plan to "incentivize teachers" and saving money on transportation and school cafeterias.  And he's got kids in a suburban school,  Community House Middle.

A question that could arise is whether the newly elected at-large members will recuse themselves from voting on people who contributed to their campaigns.  Ellis-Stewart got donations from Rembert and Republican applicant Bolyn McClung,  and Morgan got a donation from McClung.  McCray said none of the applicants donated to or volunteered in her campaign.

Two applicants,  Angelica Castaneda-Noorbakhsh and Aida Bertsch,  told the board they could be a voice for the growing Hispanic minority.  Both are unaffiliated voters from Colombia.  So far the CMS board has not had a Latino member.

Most applicants talked about their passion for public education,  their experience in business and/or civic life,  and the importance of hiring a good superintendent, spending wisely,  supporting teachers and building community trust and involvement.  There's always at least one applicant who uses the process to  tweak the noses of the school board,  and Larry Bumgarner filled that role Tuesday.  He opened his 10-minute question-and-answer period by asking how he could get his parking validated,  then told the members he didn't want to emulate them,  urged them to "take the blinders off, folks,"  and riffed on the "crappy cars" that many teachers drive.

There's bound to be a whole lot of phone-calling, emailing and horse-trading going on between now and 4 p.m. Thursday,  when the board reconvenes to make a choice. Public comments won't be allowed at that meeting,  but constituents are free to offer their views to the board (contact information here).

Meet the District 6 dozen

The 12 people seeking appointment to the remaining two years on the District 6 school board seat will make their pitch to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board at 1 p.m. today.  Meanwhile,  here's what they said in their applications.

Update: Board Chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart, who said last week the board could discuss applicants and even select one today,  opened the meeting by saying that will happen at a second special meeting on Thursday.

This appointment will provide a gauge of how the current eight members feel about district representation.  The idea of districts is to give each geographic area of the sprawling county  --  in this case, the southern suburbs  --  a voice on the board,  even if that voice belongs to someone who might not appeal to voters countywide.  The registered voters of District 6 are 41 percent Republican,  30 percent unaffiliated and 29 percent Democratic.  They've repeatedly chosen Republican Bill James as their county commissioner in partisan elections,  where the District 6 Republican primary winner is considered the strong favorite.  They've also consistently selected Republicans in the nonpartisan school board elections.  Expect to hear Tim Morgan,  whose at-large election in November left the seat vacant,  and fellow Republican Rhonda Lennon argue that means the board should fill the vacancy with someone of similar politics and philosophy.

On the other hand,  Democrat Wilhelmenia Rembert brings extensive school board experience and has been elected countywide to the school board and county commissioners.  Democrats now hold five of the eight seats (District 6 will be the ninth, and former Chair Eric Davis is unaffiliated),  and Rembert's supporters will likely note she's a longtime resident and voter in that district.

Complicating the party question:  In November's at-large election,  the top three among District 6 voters were Republican Morgan,  unaffiliated Elyse Dashew and Democrat Ellis-Stewart,  according to the Swann Fellowship's post-election analysis.  Larry Bumgarner,  an unaffiliated voter who's applying for the seat,  came in sixth among the district's voters.

Another twist:  Hispanics represent a fast-growing minority in Mecklenburg County and its public schools,  but so far they've haven't sought school board seats.  Some in that community are eagerly watching Angelica Castaneda-Noorbakhsh,  who is active in Hispanic/Latino groups and has applied for the seat.  She would bring a missing voice  --  but it might not be the voice of District 6,  where only about 2 percent of registered voters say they're Hispanic.