Friday, June 29, 2012

CMS market raises reach $17,000 a year

"Market adjustment"  raises for 254 salaried Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees will range from $180.95 to $17,201.60 a year,  according to a summary CMS sent Thursday evening.  About 5,800 hourly workers will get raises that range from $5.16 to $1,040 a year.

Those raises will be in addition to the 3 percent across-the-board raises that got so much attention during budget talks.  They're based on a 2007 study comparing CMS pay with what people were making in comparable jobs. The school board approved a plan to make wages more competitive,  but the recession stalled those adjustments shortly after the first round of pay bumps in 2008.

The obvious questions: How many people are getting a $17,000 raise, who are they, and why that amount?

I don't know yet.

After the school board approved a raise plan Tuesday night that included the market adjustments,  I requested a list of positions eligible for the market bumps and a range of those raises.

CMS is on a four-day summer schedule,  and spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte sent the summary 20 minutes before offices closed for the week.  She said she knew I'd ask about the upper range,  but couldn't get an answer before everyone dispersed.  A more detailed breakdown will take more time to compile, she said.
(Update 1:30 p.m.: Stalberte just called to say employees haven't been notified of their market adjustments, pending a final decision on the state budget and the county raise money, so CMS can't release specifics yet.  I guess someone has a nice surprise coming!)

Here's what I know:  Teachers and other certified staff,  executive staff and school board members are not getting market raises.  Human Resources Chief Daniel Habrat said at the meeting that most of the 254 salaried staff who will get those raises are assistant principals.  Other salaried job categories CMS lists as getting market raises are administrative assistant, administrator, analyst, assistant director, coordinator, director, engineer, executive director, manager, principal, After School Enrichment Program assistant, recruiter, specialist, supervisor and "other exempt staff" ("exempt" is HR-speak for non-hourly workers).

The length of time a salaried employee has been in the job determines how close CMS will get them to the "market value" of their job,  with the least experienced landing at 77 percent of market value and those with four years or more getting 98 percent of market value  (read the explanation CMS sent here).

Obviously this begs for more explanation,  and I'll try to get it next week.

During Tuesday's meeting,  Habrat said teacher assistants, bus drivers and cafeteria workers make up the largest group of hourly employees getting market adjustments.  The summary lists 46 positions getting the bumps, including custodians, grounds workers, school resource officers and secretaries.

Meanwhile,  the 3 percent across-the-board raises  --   the first most employees have gotten in four years  --  are scheduled to take effect July 1, with the money showing up in the August paycheck.  However, Gov. Bev Perdue's announcement today that she'll veto the budget approved by legislators throws everything back up in the air.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The K-8 debate continues

The New York Times recently posted an online debate question that's of great interest in Charlotte:  Do adolescents fare better in K-8 schools or traditional middle schools?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools launched eight K-8 schools (actually preK-8) in 2011-12, created after the closing of three high-poverty middle schools.  At midyear, there were some serious challenges with discipline at the new schools. Now that a full year has wrapped up,  I'm hoping the school board will get a report on academic performance, discipline, teacher surveys and other measures that might gauge how well this new setup worked for almost 5,000 students.

If there were a clear-cut advantage to one structure or the other,  there wouldn't be much room for debate. In the Times forum, former Los Angeles Superintendent David Brewer makes just that point: Changing the grade-level structure is too simple a "solution" for the problems of educating kids in high-poverty schools. He concludes that the K-8 structure has some advantages if there's lots of support.

Paul Vallas,  who has been superintendent of several districts,  argues for "a more nuanced system" for adolescents, with small, separate middle-school buildings on elementary campuses.  At least some of the CMS preK-8s are using that system.

The middle school debate is important for everyone in Mecklenburg County.  When the CMS board talked about future school construction, one of the questions was whether new schools should be designed to combine elementary and middle grades.

Addition: While I'm tossing out reading material, EdWeek has a fascinating (but long) educator roundtable going about whether the traditional school schedule is outmoded. Contributors raise points about the length of the school day and year  --  again, hot topics here -- but they also discuss whether there are just better ways to use teachers' and students' time.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

London check: Cut but not sent

Piecing together the picture of school board Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart's attempted London trip has been a lot like the old story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant. You get a bit here and a bit there, but the full thing isn't clear.

Christine Mast,  a Huntersville accountant,  added an important piece when she got a response from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools that reconciles why Ellis-Stewart could say CMS cut a check for the $4,800 trip while CMS officials said no check was sent to the Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored the trip. As you may recall,  Ellis-Stewart signed up for the five-day trip, which was supposed to depart May 19.  Flight delays led to the trip's cancellation,  but questions arose immediately afterward about how Ellis-Stewart,  who had less than $300 left in her travel budget,  had planned to pay.

E-mails released almost a month after I requested them show the chamber staff repeatedly asking Ellis-Stewart where her payment was. On May 15, after another chamber query,  Ellis-Stewart emailed that "The check has been cut and (CMS Chief Financial Officer) Sheila Shirley will be sending it over."  When I asked spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte to get Shirley or interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh to confirm whether a check had been cut and/or sent, Stalberte replied that no check was delivered to the chamber.  Ellis-Stewart,  meanwhile,  insisted it was her understanding that the check had been cut.

Mast made a formal request for a copy of the check. She got it on Friday afternoon,  with this explanation from Shirley:

A check payable to the Charlotte Chamber was cut on April 2, 2012 as requested 
by the Superintendent.  Funds were available in the board's total travel budget 
line item.
The check was held by the Superintendent pending board authorization which would 
have occurred in one of two ways:
1)Individual board members transferring their available travel funds to cover 
the remaining amount needed, or 
2)Full board approval of the expenditure in an open meeting
Neither of these occurred, thus the check was not released and has been voided.  

There you go:  Simple and clear. Seems like Ellis-Stewart and/or CMS officials might have offered that explanation earlier  --  though,  of course, questions remain about how things got to this point and what Ellis-Stewart would have done had the plane taken off.

I can't know anyone else's motives,  but I can offer a couple of observations.  First, this is a tremendously awkward situation for CMS staff.  The nine-member elected board is the ultimate boss,  and it's clear that there were tensions among members about this trip and the way it was handled.  Employees who are probably already on edge with the pending arrival of a new superintendent couldn't have been eager to step into that fray.  But Hattabaugh,  who will leave CMS after handing off to Heath Morrison at the end of the month,  would have been in the best position to step up with a clear, factual account.

Second,  stalling is a tactic that sometimes pays off.  I hate to admit that,  but it's true.  We've all seen the local press corps shrink in recent years.  Those of us who remain are juggling a lot of stories and can be distracted by breaking news.  That's why citizen inquiries like Mast's can be so helpful.  They show the public is interested in  --  and has a right to  -- public information.  And they increase the odds that being stingy with that information will only prolong an uncomfortable story.

Some of you have asked who paid for Ellis-Stewart's plane ticket if CMS did not.  Like some of you who have posted comments,  I believe it was the chamber,  which collected $5,000 per participant  (public officials got a $200 discount)  to cover airfare,  hotels,  meals and other costs.  I also believe,  based on the repeated requests for payment,  that the chamber had no intention of covering Ellis-Stewart's tab.

Since getting the CMS emails,  I've twice asked Natalie English,  the chamber's senior vice president for public policy,  for more details about the CMS payment.  So far,  no response.

RSoead more here:

Monday, June 25, 2012

Calling Olympiad alums

Here's an intriguing idea for young people (and maybe not-so-young) who want to network in the science field:  Science Olympiad is creating an online alumni network.

The academic tournament has been around for 28 years,  and the Illinois-based organization says there are millions of former competitors, teachers and other supporters.  That includes many from the Charlotte region. Notable alumni cited in the news release include Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and storm chaser Reed Timmer.

The alumni group offers chances to share stories and encourages alums to volunteer for Olympiads in their area. The web page includes Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn connections.

"Now more than ever it's important to create a community that applauds those involved in STEM education," president Gerald Putz says in a news release (STEM is science, technology, engineering and math). "Science Olympiad alumni are shining examples of the type of thinkers and leaders that a STEM education produces, and will drive the future workforce."

Friday, June 22, 2012

New CMS policy on digital citizenship

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools moves closer to a wireless "bring your own technology" environment next week,  when the school board rolls out a revised internet policy that spells out conditions for students to bring their own laptops, tablets, smart phones and e-readers.

The basics: Students can use their devices to support "education, research and career development."  Parents are responsible for installing parental controls on internet access,  and CMS is not responsible for theft,  loss or damages to those devices.

"CMS will provide digital citizenship education to all students that addresses appropriate online behavior, including interactions with other individuals on social networking sites and in chat rooms, and cyberbullying  awareness and response," a new section says.

Because this is public education, we also get a new acronym: PTD, for Personal Technology Device, "a portable Internet accessing device designed to share information, record sounds, process words, and/or capture images, such as a laptop, tablet, smart phone, cell phone, PDA, or e-book reader."

The introduction of the policy at Tuesday's meeting is basically a formality.  There will be a public hearing at a later meeting.

I'm still waiting to hear which schools will pilot the BYOT approach in August. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

CMS: No trick to 3 percent raises

Rumors have been afloat for weeks that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders planned to shortchange teachers on their promise of a 3 percent raise. Instead of a true 3 percent raise, the skeptics say, CMS only plans to increase the local supplement by 3 percent.

Not so, interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh and Chief Financial Officer Sheila Shirley told me Wednesday. The 3 percent plan, which came a big step closer to reality with the state budget plan legislative leaders have agreed on, is to boost salaries by 3 percent, not a fraction of that, they said.

Consider a teacher with 10 years of experience and a bachelor's degree.  In CMS that teacher makes $42,612 for a 10-month work year -- a $37,710 state salary plus a $4,902 supplement paid with county money (check the CMS pay scale here). A 3 percent bump in the supplement would be only $147, bringing the total pay to $42,759. Shirley said CMS hopes to use county money to supplement the 1.2 percent raises provided in the state plan (which still has to be voted on by the full House and Senate and signed by the governor), so the teacher would make 3 percent more next year, which would be $43,890.

By the way, it looks like hiring season is in full force at CMS. The district has 324 instructional jobs posted (mostly teachers) and 101 non-educator jobs

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

London trip: Where's the check?

School board emails about Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart's London travel plans answer some questions and raise new ones.

They show Ellis-Stewart was initially concerned that the budget for Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board travel wouldn't cover the $4,800 bill, but signed up anyway. They show the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored the trip, spent weeks trying to get the money -- and that Ellis-Stewart told them a check was coming, even though CMS staff now say no check was sent.


The emails show chamber staff urging Ellis-Stewart to consult Eric Davis, her predecessor as chair, on ways to find the money. They show Davis urging newly-hired Superintendent Heath Morrison to attend, and they show Ellis-Stewart waiting for word on whether Davis would transfer his unspent money to her. At roughly the same time, they show Davis requesting a report on all members' travel spending and informing two colleagues that he denied Ellis-Stewart's request.

I requested the emails on May 21, two days after Ellis-Stewart and about 80 other community leaders boarded a plane that was delayed for hours by mechanical problems, leading the chamber to cancel the trip. CMS provided them Monday at no charge, after telling me originally it would cost $855 for retrieval.

You can read them here, but there's a lot of repetition and it can be hard to sort out the chronology. The request was only for emails sent and received in May, but they include replies to prior communications, giving a fuller picture of the discussion.

The emails start with a Feb. 29 reminder from the chamber that the trip is filling up fast, urging those who are interested to register by the March 5 deadline.

"I am not sure how this will fit into the district's budget," Ellis-Stewart emailed Natalie English, the chamber's vice president for public policy, that day.

"Have you thought about talking to Eric about it?"  English replied the next day. "He went last year and found it very valuable. He might have some thoughts about how you could make it work."

Marilyn Monson, the chamber staffer handling the trip's logistics, let Ellis-Stewart know the chamber offered a $200 discount on the $5,000 trip for public officials.

"I am interested,  but am not sure if the district's budget will support the expense,"  Ellis-Stewart replied on March 1.

Nothing in the emails provided shows how Ellis-Stewart resolved that question.  But a series of emails in March between Ellis-Stewart and Monson show Monson trying to get Ellis-Stewart's registration and check,  while Ellis-Stewart says she needs an invoice from the chamber to get payment.

On April 2,  Ellis-Stewart emailed that she had re-faxed her registration form,  which Monson confirmed.

On April 20, the day after the school board picked Heath Morrison as its next superintendent, Davis emailed English to ask for information on the London trip. He received an electronic brochure later that day and  forwarded it to Morrison.
"Heath, if possible this would be well worth your time to go on this trip, meet business and community leaders, etc. I believe that Ericka is going,"  Davis wrote.
The email does not discuss the cost of the trip or how it would be paid for.  Davis said in an interview he never heard back from Morrison about the trip. 

A series of emails sent the morning of May 15 chronicle an exchange between board clerk Judith Whittington and Ellis-Stewart about the travel budget.
"Transfers to your travel budget are: $1,000 from Richard (McElrath) and $800 from Amelia (Stinson-Wesley). Am I missing any?"  Whittington asked.
"Potentially, Eric Davis.  Waiting to hear back from him,"  Ellis-Stewart answers.
Whittington then informed Ellis-Stewart that a board member had requested "an updated travel report" and she wanted to make sure she had the latest information. "Report will be coming to you, as well as other board members, shortly," Whittington added.
"Who made the request?"  Ellis-Stewart asked.
"Eric asked for updated travel report,"  Whittington replied.

That afternoon, the chamber's Monson emailed Ellis-Stewart to ask about payment: "Hi Ericka, sorry to bother you, but we still have not received your check for the trip to London.  Would you please check into this for me?"
"The check has been cut and (CMS Chief Financial Officer) Sheila Shirley will be sending it over,"  Ellis-Stewart replied.
When the Observer asked for confirmation this week, CMS spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte replied: "Please contact Ericka about the email she sent to the Chamber. We can confirm that no check was sent to the Chamber from the district." Ellis-Stewart said Tuesday that it was her understanding that CMS had cut a check in late April or early May.

On May 16, there was a brief exchange of emails between Davis, Tim Morgan and Rhonda Lennon.
"I declined Ericka's request to transfer travel $s,"  Davis told the other two.
"I have not been asked,"  Morgan replied.
"nor have I," added Lennon.

On May 18,  the day before the London flight was supposed to depart, Davis emailed interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh with the subject line  "London."
"Any Board members going?"  Davis asked.
"Eric,  BOE chair is apparently leaving Saturday afternoon for London,"  Hattabaugh replied.

Ellis-Stewart boarded the plane,  along with dozens of other participants, that Saturday.  Lennon later said Ellis-Stewart called her that morning to ask about transferring travel money. That evening she emailed Hattabaugh and other CMS staff, seeking more information about the budget and saying she was considering “a small transfer” to Ellis-Stewart.
“I have received this type of request in the past, which I have always declined as I think each board member should be responsible for making good financial decisions regarding their travel and the use of taxpayer money,” Lennon wrote.

The flight was delayed for hours by mechanical problems,  and the chamber decided early Sunday morning to cancel the  trip.

While most board members' emails were limited to bare-bones information, Stinson-Wesley, the board's newest member, proved the exception. After the trip was cancelled and questions about travel spending were being aired, Stinson-Wesley sent her colleagues a 13-paragraph email May 25 sharing thoughts and questions about allotments of travel money and talking time at school board meetings. She asked what happened to unspent travel money and  how freely board members should share their individual allotments.
"Is it better stewardship to spend fully what we have been allowed, gaining the knowledge that the money is supposed to pay for and sharing that knowledge with one another, or is it better stewardship to save that money and not use it at all?"  she asked. 
Stinson-Wesley said she didn't mind sharing some of hers but would like to get travel reports in return. She even suggested using closed meetings to share reports -- something that would not pass muster with the N.C. open meetings law, which limits closed meetings to a few confidential purposes.

The only response to Stinson-Wesley included in the emails provided by CMS is one sentence from Vice Chairman Mary McCray: "Judy (Whittington, the board clerk) can address your concerns with the allotment of money, so speak with her."
Elllis-Stewart has said that board members will likely discuss travel budgets at a future retreat.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Morrison gets demo on teacher tactics

An awkward silence filled the Mallard Creek High auditorium this morning after incoming Superintendent Heath Morrison invited a room full of Charlotte-Mecklenburg teachers to ask him questions.

Hundreds of teachers gathered at the school today for "summer institute" classes.  Morrison,  in town from Reno to interview candidates for top administrative jobs,  told teachers he'd decided to stay in Charlotte an extra day to stop in and introduce himself.  He popped into several rooms and talked about the importance of teachers' work,  his determination to help them get raises this year and his desire to hear from teachers in more depth once he officially starts work in July.

But when told the large group in the auditorium it was their chance to  "grill the new guy,"  he got the same reticence he'd encountered in smaller classrooms.

Then Kathy Collins,  a consultant leading the session on reading,  offered him a tip.  When students are reluctant to ask questions,  she said,  she has them talk in groups about what other students might want to know.  That way, no one feels singled out by posing their own questions.

Morrison works the crowd at Mallard Creek High
Morrison jumped on the idea,  telling teachers to pair up and spend 30 seconds asking their partner what he or she would like to ask.  As the room began to buzz,  he circulated to make sure everyone was talking.  And this time,  when he asked for questions the hands shot up.

What will you do about bad morale, one teacher asked.  He talked about the rising demands and budget cuts that are straining teacher morale nationwide,  and about the gap between the praise CMS gets elsewhere and the criticism it faces at home.  But he acknowledged there are local issues he needs to learn more about. "I can't fix it myself,"  he said.  "What I can do is ask what's causing it and then be a part of the solution."

Another teacher asked how long Morrison spent in the classroom.  Five years,  he said.  He told about declining his first offer to go into administration,  only to be told it was a  "required opportunity."  He said teachers who want to move into administration to help students should talk to him.  "But if you start the conversation with, 'You know, Heath, I'm a little burned out with teaching,'  then that's not going to be a  long conversation."

"I want people that we've had to pull out of the classroom kicking and screaming,  because those are the people that when they get into administration never forget how hard your jobs are and how the job of a principal as well as the job of a superintendent is to support quality teaching and learning."

With his handlers signalling that he was late for his next appointment,  Morrison left,  tailed by TV cameras and reporters.

"I thought he handled those questions well,"  Collins told her group.  "So yay!"

East Meck's 'Star' still shines

Joan O'Brien was a bit taken aback when she read about last week's national business/education summit in Charlotte. No one had mentioned it to O'Brien, who's executive director of the East Mecklenburg High School Foundation.

America's Promise Alliance chose Charlotte for the first of four national summits because of the work being done by the public-private Project LIFT partnership, which this year launched a $55 million effort to transform nine west Charlotte schools.

O'Brien couldn't help but wonder:  Did anyone even remember the pioneering role East Meck played in using private money to boost public education?

Her call jogged my memory.  In 2006,  East Meck alumnus Bob Silver's $500,000 donation to his old school was front-page news.  Silver,  president of the Class of 1973, challenged the school to match his donation and create a $1 million, five-year fund to recruit and support great teachers.  The school did so,  and the All Star Teacher Initiative was born.

I had to admit:  My attention had wandered to the next shiny new project,  forgetting about the folks who were plugging along to keep a good thing going.  I was delighted when O'Brien told me the initiative is alive and thriving six years later.  The fund has sent teachers to out-of-town conferences, paid for staff retreats and  bought books, science equipment and play props.  Former Principal Mark Nixon tapped the fund to pay moving expenses for an out-of-state teacher he was eager to recruit.  All teachers get an allowance to cover classroom expenses that would otherwise come out of their pockets  (it was $200 this year).

The foundation,  a nonprofit created to handle the money for the All Star initiative,  hasn't sat around waiting for the money to run out.  Members have held fund-raising luncheons,  golf tournaments and theater events.

Nor has Silver moved on.  He lives in New Jersey,  and he's planning a party for East Meck alums from the Northeast to get them involved in supporting the school,  O'Brien says.

Of course,  there are always challenges to sustaining an effort.  Originally the group tallied success by trying to keep teacher turnover low.  But in 2009 Nixon was transferred to open the new Rocky River High.  Several East Meck teachers joined him there over the next couple of years,  something the All Star support couldn't head off,  O'Brien said.  Now, she said,  the goal is just seeing that teachers have what they need to do the best possible job with East's 1,700 students.

An aside: While scanning the East Meck web site for info about the initiative, I came across one sentence that made me do a double-take. "Since 1950, the school has had seven principals:  D.K. Pittman, Leroy "Pop" Miller, Frank Rozzelle, Gene Hawley, Ron Thompson, Mark Nixon and presently Rick Parker."

Seven principals in 62 years? Could that be true? Ron Thompson was one of the first principals I met when I started this beat in 2002,  so that means the last two have arrived in the past 10 years.  And that means the first five averaged a decade or so each. Wow. The times, they are a-changin'.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Latino voice speaking up in CMS

More bilingual staff, vigorous celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month and an end to practices that deter undocumented parents from volunteering in schools are among the suggestions a coalition of Latino groups has presented to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders.

The proposals came out of an April forum that brought together about 200 people to talk about the state of education for more than 20,000 Hispanic students in CMS.  Organizers presented the findings to school board Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart and members Tom Tate and Joyce Waddell this week,  said Rafael Prieto of Qué Pasa/Mi Gente newspapers.  They'll discuss the ideas with Superintendent Heath Morrison on July 5,  Prieto said.

For several years,  Hispanics have been the fastest-growing minority group in CMS.  They made up 17 percent of the student body in the school year that just ended, and at least half the students at five elementary schools.  But the Latino voice has been mostly silent in public discussion.  Community leaders have been working to change that, and the education forum took those efforts to a bigger audience.

Among the ideas that emerged:

*Stop asking parents to provide a Social Security number for volunteer background checks.  That intimidates those without papers, and there are other ways to check criminal records, the report says.

*Actively recruit bilingual staff and pay a stipend to employees fluent in another language.

*Provide better information about college opportunities to all students, "regardless of immigration status."

*Find better ways to communicate with Spanish-speaking families and partner with community groups who can support them.

*Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month districtwide,  rather than leaving it to individual schools.

The ultimate goal:  Get more Hispanic students across the finish line and into college and careers.  Only 58 percent of Hispanic students in CMS graduated in four years, compared with 73.5 percent of all students.

"This is a crisis that CMS and the Latino community have to address together,"  the report says.

The coalition is likely to find a sympathetic ear in Morrison,  who is leaving a district in Reno, Nev., that is 37 percent Hispanic. Morrison is big on promoting "cultural competence" in education, and started learning Spanish so he could at least try to speak to Hispanic families in their own tongue.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Next for Morrison: Personnel talks, church visits

Heath Morrison will spend a good bit of his visit to Charlotte talking to top staff and doing personnel interview  --  no surprise, given a recent principal shuffle and some vacancies in top administrative posts.

Morrison, who is finishing his work in Reno, Nev., before taking the helm of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools July 1, is in town Friday through Monday. On Sunday,  he's slated to visit Christ Lutheran and Friendship Missionary Baptist churches. Both have strong partnerships with CMS schools. And on Monday he'll drop in at the summer teacher conference.

Here's his full schedule:

Ann Clark and Andy Baxter
Personnel interviews
Tour departments with Ann Clark and Strategic Staffing principals
Executive staff
Dorothy Waddy and group
Hugh Hattabaugh
Hugh Hattabaugh and Sheila Shirley
Zone superintendents


Personnel interviews


Christ Lutheran Church service
Friendship Missionary Baptist Church service
Reception for Finnish educator
Dinner with John and Claire Tate


Summer Teacher Conference
Howard Haworth
George Battle and Earnest Winston
Jane Rhyne
Sheila Shirley and the finance department
Denise Watts
Belk Foundation dinner

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Divided Vance shows Morrison's challenge

Incoming Superintendent Heath Morrison may be charismatic, energetic and eager to listen,  but the round of principal changes announced this week shows just how difficult his job will be.

Consider the transfer of Vance High principal Valarie Williams to Whitewater Middle School.  There were reports of Vance faculty cheering the announcement and sending celebratory tweets.  Those who don't like Williams will likely view the decision to move her and other principals as a sign that Morrison is bold and decisive  (interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh's name will be on all moves made before Morrison starts,  but as you'd expect,  CMS says Morrison is consulting on the changes and interviewing new principals).  By making the changes now,  rather than waiting until after he starts work July 1,  he allows more time for principals to settle into their new jobs before school starts Aug. 27.

But there are also Vance parents like Brian Broomfield,  who has worked with Williams to improve the school and views her transfer as "a slap in the face" to involved parents.  Who,  he wants to know,  was Morrison listening to when he signed off on such a move?

Former Superintendent Peter Gorman brought Williams, who was principal of Cochrane Middle School,  to Vance in February 2010 as a "strategic staffing" principal.  Her mission was to create a stronger faculty  --  that included the right to "displace" a handful of existing teachers and recruit new ones  --  and bump up academic results by the end of three years, which would have been 2013.

Broomfield says those changes predictably created some hard feelings on the faculty.  But he says Williams had Vance on the right track,  with everything from parent clean-up days to a mentoring program for fatherless young men to a football program that rallied community pride.  This year's test scores and graduation rates,  which haven't been released to the public,  will show gains,  he said.

"We have come so far along.  We have a partnership that's been established,"  Broomfield says.  "Now we're back to square one."

Morrison says improving staff morale and rebuilding public trust are his top priorities for his entry plan.  He's coming back to Charlotte for a few days starting Friday,  and he's bound to face tough questions from people like Broomfield.  Moving a principal without listening to the parents who worked with her is "a bad start for a trust factor,"  he says.

In every Charlotte appearance so far,  Morrison has talked about the importance of listening and clear communication.  But staff changes have always posed challenges when it comes to openness.  Can a superintendent let parents and teachers know when he's questioning whether a principal is right for the job?  Can he explain a decision that's of legitimate public interest without violating the rights and dignity of someone who has tackled a very difficult job?  Or will Morrison end up where so many superintendents before him have, with some variation of  "Can't talk; it's a personnel matter. Trust me and let's move on"?

We'll soon see.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

LIFT launch has been intense

The biggest surprise about the debut of Project LIFT has been the intensity of public reaction,  good and bad,   organizers said at a national forum in Charlotte Monday.

Representatives of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the donors who launched the quest to pump $55 million into nine west Charlotte schools spoke to about 100 people. Federal education officials and America's Promise Alliance,  which convened the business/education summit that continues today,  took note of Charlotte's public-private partnership as soon as it was announced.  The group highlighted it Monday for others seeking ways for businesses to improve schools.

Charles Bowman of Bank of America and Richard "Stick" Williams of the Duke Energy Foundation praised  CMS leaders' willingness to give donors a voice in decision-making and to promise hard data on results.  But all involved were quick to note that there are no "proof points" yet,  with the classroom work starting in 2012-13 at West Charlotte High and eight schools that feed into it. Project LIFT is "an energizing case study," rather than a proven success,  said Michael Marsicano of the Foundation for the Carolinas.

Bowman, whose bank's charitable foundation pledged $10 million over five years,  said public enthusiasm has been overwhelming since the group went public in January 2011 with $41 million in pledges.  "People are jumping all over themselves to get on board,"  Bowman told the group.  But he said he has also been disappointed that other big donors didn't respond as eagerly.   "The business community has not been as committed as a whole yet," he said.

Project LIFT extended its deadline for raising $55 million from July 1, 2011, to July 1 of this year.  Denise Watts,  the group's executive director and zone superintendent for the nine schools,  said recently she expects to hit the goal or get "darn close."  But if the crew has $55 million in hand,  with the target date less than three weeks off,  none of them mentioned it to the national audience.

Watts said she has been surprised by the  "negativity and doubt"  she has encountered from many who aren't involved.  But she says she uses those sentiments as a prod to action,  rather than a deterrent.  "We have children who didn't get to pick who they were born to,"  she said.  "We have children who didn't get to pick where they live."

One audience member asked how LIFT organizers assured  "true, authentic communication"  with the community, rather than doing the "goody-goody drive-bys"  that mark some school reform projects.  Everyone on the panel said discussions with parents, students and community leaders from the West Charlotte corridor was essential in crafting the plans and carrying them out.  Watts noted that she held weekly advisory board meetings at the LIFT schools,  and recently moved to an office just off Beatties Ford Road to be closer to the community.

Still, I noticed that the group at the Ritz-Carlton heard from donors and CMS administrators,  but no one from the West Charlotte neighborhoods.

Friday, June 8, 2012

CMS morale: Good and bad news

North Carolina has released preliminary results from its biennial Teacher Working Conditions Survey.

A quick scan indicates Charlotte-Mecklenburg educators are slightly less satisfied than state averages on most items,  but happier than they were two years ago (although it's called a teacher survey,  it's open to all licensed school-based educators, including administrators).  About 80 percent of CMS teachers said their school is a good place to work and learn,  compared with almost 85 percent statewide. That result was up about one percentage point in CMS and virtually unchanged statewide.

I actually expected to see more dramatic gaps or changes,  given all the talk about dismal morale in the last couple of years. Because this poll happens every two years,  we don't have data from spring of 2011,  when frustrations with layoffs,  pay freezes, school closings,  performance pay and excessive testing may have peaked.  Teachers took the 2012 survey in March and April.

The biggest thing that jumps out is that about 3,100 of the 9,795 eligible educators in CMS didn't do the online survey.  The state participation rate was 86 percent.  In CMS it was 68 percent,  down from 77 percent two years ago.

I don't have time to dive deep or compare individual schools today.  But I expect a lot of you are interested and will have good insights  --  as always, please share.

Spin or service?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools needs a bigger communications department to keep up with the times, Executive Director LaTarzja Henry told the school board during an update Wednesday.

I almost feel bad about raising the topic in this forum,  which tends to be heavy on taxpayer watchdogs who consider her department a $2 million-a-year spin factory (read about the costs and results here).  I'm not trying to hang Henry up as a virtual piñata.  In fact,  I thought the presentation gave an interesting overview of all the balls her crew is keeping in the air,  from delving into social media to handling "reputational crises" (think performance pay and bad data) to helping school staff cope with tragedy.

This has been an especially tough school year on that last front,  Henry said,  with 30 student deaths and 17 "staff tragedies."  Many of those didn't make headlines,  but still had to be dealt with among the school communities.

While working with the media is the most visible task,  the department reported on some items that played out below the public radar.  CMS increased its volunteers from 45,700 last year to 67,233 this year.  And the communication folks helped get Ident-A-Kid sign-in systems into 81 schools. That means visitors and volunteers are matched against the sex offender registry and other databases;  people who might pose problems are flagged before they enter.

Of course,  there was a bit of spin on display,  too.  I had to grin when Henry described February news about a driver who got her kids off a smoldering school bus as "exactly the kind of story we love to do."  Personally,  I'm not sure school buses bursting into flames qualify as good news, even when kids escape unharmed.

I don't know if incoming Superintendent Heath Morrison will agree that the communication staff needs more people to handle multimedia and revive CMS-TV.  I do know that communication staff can play a vital role in getting information to the public,  whether it's through reporters, CMS outlets or direct citizen requests.  And ultimately,  it's the person at the top who determines how well that system works.  A bad PR staff might discourage the release of clear,  accurate information,  but I think it's more common for a good one to be forced to run interference for recalcitrant officials.

Balancing communication needs with the push to channel money into classrooms is just one of the tough decisions waiting for Morrison. And it's just one more thing for the rest of us to keep an eye on in the coming months.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Sexy emails abort Omaha superintendency

Explicit emails between newly hired Omaha Superintendent Nancy Sebring and a man she was having an affair with have led her to resign before she started work, the Omaha World-Herald reported this weekend.

The emails became public after requests by that newspaper and the Des Moines Register, which covers the job she was leaving. The Register reports that Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, the search firm that handled Sebring's hiring in Des Moines and Omaha, does not request candidates' work emails but may do so in the future.

The public records request turned up 40 emails between Sebring and her lover (both married), discussing their sexual relationship and referring to photos of the man's penis (read an edited and photo-free version here). They were sent to and from her district email account, some on a laptop and iPad belonging to the district, the Des Moines paper reports.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I linked to an Omaha World-Herald series that looked at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools as a reform model that Sebring might learn from. Now it appears that Omaha is offering an unsettling example of how difficult it can be to vet a new leader.

According to published accounts,  Des Moines school district staff who were filling the newspapers' public records requests came across the explicit emails. They notified the Des Moines board, which confronted Sebring.  In a closed meeting with the board,  Sebring abruptly changed her resignation date from June 30 to May 10.  Both Sebring and the board president cited the demands of getting ready for her new job,  and apparently did not disclose the revelations to the Omaha board.

Meanwhile, the Des Moines paper reports that Sebring tried to get rid of the emails, while staff  talked the Omaha reporters into modifying their records request so the personal emails wouldn't turn up. When the emails went public Friday,  Sebring tendered her resignation to the Omaha board at a hastily-called Saturday meeting.

I have no reason to think Heath Morrison,  who starts as CMS superintendent on July 1,  has been engaged in anything like this.  But it does provide a great illustration of why reporters and the public should be wary when public bodies try to block access to officials' correspondence.

Here in Charlotte, I filed a request on May 21 for school board emails related to travel spending and the Chamber of Commerce's trip to London. I modified the time frame of the request when I was told emails more than a month old would require time and expense,  only to be told eight days later that it would cost $855 to get the recent emails. CMS appeared to back away from that pricing, but more than two weeks after the initial request,  I have yet to hear a timetable for when those emails might be provided.

Tahira Stalberte in the public information office says she's just starting to review them: "There are nearly 900 emails in Ericka's inbox,  so it will take time.  After Ericka's,  I will need to review the inboxes for the other board members as well."

Chances are,  those emails will only provide a few more details on the story I've already reported about Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart's attempt to pay for the London trip.  But if I needed a nudge not to let the request slide, the Sebring episode surely provides it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Charlotte hosting business/education summit

Next week Charlotte will host the first of four national summits on how businesses can partner with public schools,  with the public-private Project LIFT partnership showcased.

The main sponsor is America's Promise Alliance, a coalition focused on improving graduation rates,  youth engagement,  early childhood programs and data analysis.  The Alliance has more than 400 partners,  including children's advocacy groups,  major foundations and a long list of professional, educational, business and governmental associations.

The agenda for the June 11-12 event includes speakers from around the country, as well as those from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and its business partners.  Business people and educators are invited to register for the free event.

The Charlotte event is co-hosted by the Foundation for the Carolinas,  a key player in the philanthropic coalition that's trying to raise $55 million to improve the nine Project LIFT schools.  Later sessions are planned for Boston, Denver and Los Angeles.

Monday, June 4, 2012

New blogger: Rhonda Lennon

Welcome to a new member of the blogosphere:  Rhonda Lennon, the District 1 representative to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, has launched her own site.  To my knowledge, she's the first board member blogging.

I suspect she'll make a good blogger.  She voices strong opinions and inspires strong feelings,  pro and con.  One of the best-read posts I've ever done on this blog was about her heated exchange of words with a parent over middle school sports.  With more than 11,000 page views and 143 comments,  it's been topped only by a live blog about the superintendent announcing layoffs.

Lennon has already been posting her views on Facebook,  and she says she created a blog because it gives her more space to elaborate.  Her first post is on a dinner she hosted with incoming Superintendent Heath Morrison,  and she says she's working on items on per-pupil spending and the board's travel budget.  She says she plans to post twice a week.

I hope it goes without saying,  but I'll say it anyway:  I'm simply pointing readers to another avenue for information and discussion,  not allying myself with Lennon or endorsing anything she posts.  If other board members dive in,  I'll be sure to let you all know.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Weigh in on fast-track N.C. ed reform

N.C. Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg Republican, has sent out an electronic newsletter urging constituents to read up and weigh in on the Excellent Public Schools Act that's moving through the legislature this summer.

This bill's a bit of a puzzler.  I understand frustration with snail-paced change.  But I'm also skeptical of the notion that a bunch of lawmakers can whip out the answers during a "short session" that's generally designed for minor touch-ups to the budget,  rather than deliberation on changes that will reshape education in North Carolina.

For instance,  Rucho offers this explanation for the benefit of grading schools A to F:  "To ensure improvement in schools that receive failing grades, we're creating a new North Carolina Teacher Corps program  --  modeled on Teach for America  --  that will give the best and brightest recent college graduates and mid-career professionals training and a direct path to teach in low-performing schools where students need the most help."

Even the folks who love Teach For America don't claim it's the solution for failing schools,  and those who don't like it are going to be doubly wary of a reform plan that relies on pumping in a new flow of inexperienced teachers.

There's also a performance-pay mandate with no money attached.  Ask Peter Gorman how that worked out for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools last year.  The idea of intensive reading instruction before children reach third grade is also straight from Gorman's playbook.  It makes so much sense,  but for CMS,  it fell into the "easier said than done" category  (read this study on the results, which found little benefit).

All of those questions and quibbles make Rucho's basic message well worth sharing:  "Our children deserve better than the status quo. They deserve bold solutions, outside-the-box thinking and robust public debate about which policies will make a better North Carolina for our students. Our plan is not partisan, and we welcome suggestions on ways to improve it. We may need to scale back some aspects, or press harder on others. Regardless, creating better classrooms requires constructive cooperation from both sides of the aisle, not inflammatory rhetoric and wild accusations about who really cares for our children. I hope you'll read our bill, SB 795, at and weigh in with letters and calls."

The link in the first paragraph will take you directly to the bill, and the link gives you easy access to your representatives. Have at it!