Monday, September 30, 2013

Suburban groups say no to CMS bonds

The $290 million bond package for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools got its first formal opposition today,  as Tom Davis from SPARK Educational Performances and Tim Timmerman from SMART issued a statement urging voters to say no (read their statement here).

SPARK,  or Strategic Partners for Accountability and Reform of Key Educational Performances,  is a north suburban group that has argued for splitting CMS into smaller districts.  SMART, or South Mecklenburg Alliance of Responsible Taxpayers, is based in the southern Ballantyne area and joined with SPARK to explore the notion of splitting the county into northern, southern and central school districts.

Timmerman at a SMART meeting

It's unclear how many people these two groups represent.  "We've got hundreds of people out there who support us,"  Davis,  an Air Force retiree and Republican political activist from Huntersville,  said today. (Update: Davis, who ran for N.C. House in the 2012 Republican primary, says he's now registered unaffiliated.)  He said he and Timmerman weren't the only people who crafted the position statement,  but he declined to give numbers or names,  saying many fear running afoul of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce,  a major backer of the "Vote Yes for Education Bonds" campaign.

The  "vote no"  position paper raises several issues,  including uncertainty over the role that charter schools and vouchers will play in CMS growth projections,  skepticism about the  "no tax increase"  claim and a call for Mecklenburg County to focus its energy on getting teachers a cost-of-living raise.  County officials say they can cover the cost of repaying the CMS bonds,  along with $210 million in bonds for Central Piedmont Community College on the Nov. 5 ballot,  without raising taxes.  But Davis argues that today's voters and officials can't  "tie the hands"  of future county officials.


"Current elected officials and special lobbying groups cannot bind the voting privilege of future elected officials. This breaches credibility and trust,"  the statement says. "No one can guarantee what will transpire with future tax rates."

The  "vote yes"  campaign hopes to raise $300,000 in donations and has hired a PR firm to help make the case.  Davis said the SPARK/SMART effort won't be anything like that.  "We're not going to get money into it,"  he said.  "We're going to get the information on the street and let people make decisions."

He said the groups don't plan to take a stand on the CPCC bonds.

Just last week,  Davis was just appointed to the Bond Oversight Committee,  a citizen panel that monitors how CMS spends its bond money,  by school board member Richard McElrath. Davis says he missed the Bond Oversight Committee's meeting last week because he didn't realize it was coming up just two days after his appointment.

McElrath opposed the last CMS bonds,  in 2007,  before being elected to the board in 2009.  He's running for reelection this year and said he doesn't expect to take a stand for or against this year's bonds.  

Sunday, September 29, 2013

N.C. school boards seek more clout in Raleigh

Tim Morgan, vice chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, is leading a new group that hopes to give school districts a stronger voice with state lawmakers.  Local boards and  "public education as we know it" face "a battle for survival,"  according to a memo sent to school boards in August.

This summer brought a burst of legislation focused on public education,  shaping everything from teacher pay to school ratings to vouchers.  "We ended up having to play a lot of defense this last legislative session,"  Morgan said.

The N.C. School Boards Association, a nonprofit with limited ability to spend money on lobbying,  created the N.C. School Boards Action Center to hire lobbyists and do public awareness campaigns to promote the association's legislative agenda.  Morgan, who serves on the association's board of directors,  was chosen as president of the new action center board.

"What we face today is a battle for survival, both of public education as we know it and of the model of locally elected board governance of public school system operations," says an August memo from Morgan and NCSBA President Evelyn Bulluck. "Our ability to endure in the face of these extraordinary challenges requires that we recognize and accept the changed environment in which we operate and embrace new ideas and concepts in thinking about how we advocate."

The plan calls for a $431,000 budget,  with districts making contributions ranging from $2,000 to $10,000, depending on size.  Morgan said CMS is paying its $10,000 share from the superintendent's budget for lobbying.

The group has already drawn criticism from the conservative John Locke Foundation.  Terry Stoops,  the foundation's education director,  said in a recent Carolina Journal article that local board should refuse to contribute.  "Tax dollars have no business being used to further the political agenda of any organization, let alone one that operates far from the mainstream," Stoops said in the journal, which is published by the Locke Foundation.

Stoops is quoted as saying the NCSBA is trying to replace current legislators:  "They decided to be bridge burners,  rather than bridge builders,  in their approach to the legislature."

Morgan  (a Republican,  like the majority in the House and Senate)  says the action center's bylaws prohibit the group from endorsing candidates.  "Our only function is to support and advocate for the NCSBA legislative agenda,"  he said.

Morgan said the action center will set up a web site soon.  Specific plans,  including how many lobbyists to hire and how heavily to mobilize for the limited 2014 short session,  remain to be drafted.  The nine-member action center board has met only once and will convene for a second time in November,  he said.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Score one for CMS on data accuracy

Last year's CMS seniors didn't log any math gains on the SAT, but the folks who run the district made a big step forward in demonstrating their own ability to report numbers.

When the College Board released its 2013 SAT report today,  I downloaded the school by school report from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and looked at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools news release.

The numbers for CMS didn't match.

That's not the surprise.  As many of you know,  there have been instances in years past when CMS numbers didn't add up.  And too often,  the people who released those numbers weren't prepared to explain.

Today, Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes was ready.  Before the scores went public his staff had checked the data they got from the College Board against the state report and caught a problem:  The state report didn't include Garinger High.

That omission made CMS look better.  Without the 142 tests from Garinger,  the CMS average was 1480,  one point above the state average.  With them,  CMS fell to 1473  (still a 10-point gain over 2012).

The CMS news release used the lower and more accurate scores.  It discussed the possibility that lower participation might have contributed to gains.  It mentioned that a school was missing from the state report -- and when I asked Barnes what Garinger's score was he gave it to me, even though the score of 1218 out of a possible 2400 was second-lowest in CMS.  He said he's working with state officials to get the Garinger scores added to state calculations.

"We wanted to report what we knew to be true,  even if it was lower than the state report,"  Barnes said.

All of this adds up to a promising sign that Superintendent Heath Morrison is delivering on his promise to make sure numbers are correct before they're released and to be honest about strengths and shortcomings.

Morrison was hired in 2012, as CMS was grappling with the embarrassment of badly botched school progress reports.  The first time I talked to him,  he said he was going to create systems to avoid such errors and provide honest explanations if mistakes did happen.

The first few weeks brought stumbles.  When state exam results were released in August 2012,  CMS declined to release results for West Charlotte and Harding high schools,  which were not given a state rating because they didn't test enough students.  The result:  A front-page story when I got the numbers from the state and they turned out to be the two lowest-performing schools in the district.

Since then it's been hard to judge.  Changes in state testing have delayed the exam results that usually land in the summer.  CMS still hasn't launched its own school ratings,  trying to make sure they mesh with a state system that's in flux.

The big test will come in November,  when the state releases 2013 exam results. It looks like CMS may be ready.

Education bonds: Tax or no tax?

"No tax increase"  is one of the first things you'll hear from supporters of the bonds for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Central Piedmont Community College.

But when you see a ballot, you'll find this wording:

“SHALL the order authorizing $290,000,000 of bonds secured by a pledge of the faith and credit of the County of Mecklenburg to pay capital costs of providing school facilities, including the acquisition and construction of new school facilities, the improvement and expansion of existing school facilities and the acquisition and installation of furnishings and equipment and the acquisition of interests in real property required therefor, and a tax to be levied for the payment thereof, be approved?”

“SHALL the order authorizing $210,000,000 of bonds secured by a pledge of the faith and credit of the County of Mecklenburg to pay capital costs of providing community college facilities, including the acquisition and construction of new community college facilities, the improvement and expansion of existing community college facilities and the acquisition and installation of furnishings and equipment and the acquisition of interests in real property required therefor, and a tax to be levied for the payment thereof, be approved?”

If you plow through that dense prose  (the first item is CMS bonds, the second is for CPCC), the part about approving  "a tax to be levied for the payment thereof"  may sound like you're being asked to OK a tax hike.

That's not the case. Tax revenue will be used to repay the bonds, but that doesn't mean a tax increase.

Bonds are essentially a line of credit authorized by the voters.  As Mecklenburg County officials learned when the recession hit,  if you run up the tab on borrowing you face a painful choice:  Raise taxes and/or renege on promises made during bond campaigns.  The county slowed down on the CMS projects promised in 2007,  resulting in some that haven't been started as the 2013 campaign gears up.  They'll eventually get done  (read an update here),  but not as quickly as voters expected in 2007.

Grand Oak Elementary, a 2007 bond project, opened in August

County officials also rethought their borrowing strategy. They've calculated that they can pay back the $500 million in CMS and CPCC bonds with the revenue they've got, which means they won't have to raise property taxes to handle the debt.  The plan is to spread that borrowing over the next four years.

Here's how County Commissioner Bill James describes it:  "The question of whether a bond package causes a tax increase depends on whether the government issuing the bonds has an adequate bond fund. When I was first elected in 1996 the first item I pushed for was a bond fund. It took 15 years but we finally got one."

"The money to make the bond payments (on the bonds on the ballot) are included in the current tax rate. So, absent some sort of fiscal meltdown, these bonds should be able to be issued without any impact on existing taxes."

So, no tax hike.  The trade off is that the list of projects on the 2013 bonds for CMS is a lot shorter than district leaders would like.  Superintendent Heath Morrison, Associate Superintendent Guy Chamberlain and others are quick to note that $290 million for CMS is tiny compared with the $810 million that's on the ballot for Wake Public Schools in October or the $1.89 billion that Houston voters approved last fall.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Want to interview Heath Morrison?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is seeking questions for the superintendent via the district's Facebook page. Selected questions will be featured in this weekend's  "Facebook Edition"  of InSight, Superintendent Heath Morrison's monthly broadcast on CMS-TV.


Post your question by 5 p.m. Thursday and it might be selected for the show that airs at 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.  There's already a question about school security from Stephanie Moore-Rice:  "How easy is it for someone to just walk in a school during the day,  and how fast can someone stop an unrecognized guest?"

Coretta Wilson,  an Alexander Graham Middle School teacher who used to be a WCNC anchor,  interviews Morrison on InSight.  On the last Facebook episode,  he took a question from Kandace Mitchell,  a Chantilly Montessori parent,  about creating more year-round schools and one from Amy Rinehart Rosenhour about changing high school start times.  You can watch it here --  or if you want something shorter than the four-minute clip,  Morrison says he'd like to have more calendar flexibility but that's up to the state.  And he says the district will  "continue to look into" changing school hours,  but notes that there are a range of parent views and a  "delicate balance"  involved in making changes.

Student's view: Don't grade me on teacher tests

Leave it to a teenager to put a fresh spin on a topic.  At a school board meeting earlier this month Celia Collias, a junior at Myers Park High,  joined a group urging Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to resist adding more state exams that are being created to rate teachers.

Her argument:  It's not fair to count those exams toward student grades.  After all,  if they really measure teacher effectiveness,  a low score just means we had a bad teacher,  right?

She's far from the first person to question the tests,  known as Measures of Student Learning. Local parents,  teachers and advocates have aired doubts about the value of the exams and the time they take away from other classroom work.  So have board members and Superintendent Heath Morrison.  State and federal education officials are still mulling whether to delay the plan to add more MSLs this year.

Still,  Celia's analysis made me smile.  She highlighted a kind of Catch 22:  The tests are supposed to measure teacher effectiveness.  But of course student effort  (not to mention intelligence,  preparation and mood that day)  shapes the scores.  Officials say the exams should count toward final grades to motivate students to give it their best shot.  So if students try hard and still get a lousy score their grade drops,  even if it's the teacher's fault.

The folks who support value-added ratings for teachers  --  and there are many who do, all across the country  --  would say that's oversimplified.  They say they can create formulas that tease out the teacher's contribution to student success or failure.  But it's not clear whether regular people  --  not to mention teachers whose careers are at stake  --  believe them.

Two years ago,  CMS officials made a valiant effort to create a value-added formula and explain it to employees and the public.  I think it's fair to say they failed.  Backlash was strong,  including parents threatening to keep their kids home on testing days.  Key players,  including Superintendent Peter Gorman and performance pay director Andy Baxter,  left CMS and the new crew quickly dropped the effort.

Dr. William Sanders and the Cary-based SAS Institute say they have a formula that works.  It's well regarded in national education circles,  and N.C. education officials have hired them to crunch state test scores for teacher evaluations.  But the rest of us can't examine that formula because it's how SAS earns its income.  Morrison has raised doubts about pinning his teachers'  evaluations to a formula that can't be fact-checked.

So stay tuned.  The quest to create better teacher evaluations is an important one.  We'll be hearing plenty more about this.  And Celia and her classmates will be waiting to learn whether new state exams will shape their grades this year.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What's the cost of new CPCC high schools?

Update: CMS has now posted applications that include budgets of $5.2 million for the first five years for each new school. That includes the value of tuition-free college courses the students are expected to take.  See the Harper proposal here and the Levine proposal here.

The school board is scheduled to vote tonight on creating two new "middle college" high schools on Central Piedmont Community College campuses.

But do members know how much money they're signing off to spend?  Under "fiscal implications,"  the agenda lists modular classrooms,  textbooks, principal and faculty.  But there are no dollar amounts.

Maybe I'm being picky here,  but I didn't think  "fiscal implications"  was supposed to be a yes-or-no question.  I thought the point was to disclose and discuss how much public money is at stake.

When Heath Morrison was hired to lead Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools last summer,  he promised transparency.  When the board held a retreat last September,  most members said they had done a poor job of examining all the implications of their decisions and vowed to do better.

So what's up with the new small schools on the Levine and Harper campuses?  Is the board going to approve applications for the state's cooperative innovative high school program without knowing how much it costs to launch these schools?  Or is CMS withholding the information from the public?

On Friday and again on Monday, I emailed Board Chair Mary McCray,  Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark and Communication Chief Kathryn Block to ask about the cost and why it's not on the agenda.  Monday evening I got this explanation from Clark, still without specifics:  "The costs  associated with this program are funded from the local career technical education budget to cover textbooks and bus passes. Staffing is assigned based on the number of students and the state pays for a principal as long as the student count exceeds 100 students."

Morrison has been talking about expanding the middle college model for some time.  There are good reasons for cloning the approach that debuted with Cato Middle College High in 2007. But I have yet to hear the board conduct an in-depth public discussion of the pros,  cons,  costs and benefits of creating two more school that will serve about 200 juniors and seniors each.  Maybe they've held those talks privately,  or maybe it happened in a public forum I missed.  It seems like the kind of thing taxpayers,  employees and families might want to hear.

Monday, September 23, 2013

CMS teachers get tablets and training

Some people have asked about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' plans to give teachers tablets and expand the district's  "bring your own technology"  program.  Here's the update Superintendent Heath Morrison sent the school board Friday:

"During the past year, Technology Services has completed upfitting CMS technology infrastructure, installing wireless connectivity in all CMS bricks-and-mortar classrooms, and increasing Internet bandwidth. We are now able to support Bring Your Own Technology in all schools."

"This year, the technology focus is on providing technology tools for teaching and improving classroom technology by increasing the number of mobile devices available for students and teachers. Additional classroom sets of iPads have been delivered to K-5 and K-8 schools. Mobile carts of Chromebooks have been delivered to middle schools. All K-5 classroom teachers have been assigned an iPad."  

HP Revolve tablet
"Beginning next week, we are giving an HP Revolve touch-screen Windows 8 tablet to each teacher in grades six through 12 to support technology integration. The teachers will also receive training and have individual questions answered to continue integrating technology into their teaching. School leaders may opt to give out the devices and train teachers at a regularly scheduled staff meeting or in small groups during planning periods." 

"This is the first time that CMS has provided such technology to every K-12 teacher. We will also provide professional development throughout the year to help teachers achieve the next level of technology integration -- and prepare our students for college, careers and life-long learning. This work is being coordinated and executed through the collaboration of instructional technology, professional development and learning and teaching services."

Friday, September 20, 2013

McElrath splits time between homes in two districts

District 2 school board member Richard McElrath said Thursday he moved out of his longtime home in that district during a period of family turmoil but has been spending nights there for the last couple of months,  since he decided to run for re-election.

In a phone interview from his home on Lake Norman outside Huntersville,  McElrath said he still likes to spend days at that house, which is in District 1.  He keeps his dogs there and enjoys the quiet,  he said:  "I work better here."

But McElrath said he and his wife are now living in the District 2 house off Beatties Ford Road,  where he's registered to vote.

That qualifies him to continue representing District 2,  which covers west and southwest Charlotte,  says Mecklenburg County elections director Michael Dickerson  (see a map of school district zones here).  "Residency is where they plan to return when they leave,"  Dickerson said.  McElrath's situation  "sounds fine to me,"  he said.

Don Wright, general counsel for the N.C. Board of Elections, agrees  (read a 12-page report on N.C. voter residency requirements here).

McElrath's District 1 house
McElrath said he and his wife were among the original residents of the Garden Park subdivision in west Charlotte.  Mecklenburg County property tax records show the couple own that house,  a four-bedroom home built in 1968,  and a two-bedroom home outside Huntersville,  purchased in 2007 for $430,000.

When McElrath ran for school board in 2009, there were rumblings about his having a house outside the district.  McElrath said at the time he was fixing up the lake house as a weekend place.  No one has ever filed a challenge to McElrath's District 2 residency,  Dickerson said.

I visited both homes this week and asked McElrath about his living arrangements as part of the backgrounding we do on candidates for public office.  I found no one home at either location,  but saw McElrath campaign signs stashed outside  and two dogs in a fenced enclosure at the District 1 house.

Campaign signs at lake house
McElrath, who filed for re-election on the last possible day, said he was wavering as he tried to resolve a difficult family situation.  He said his daughter and granddaughter moved in with him and his wife at the Garden Park home,  but conflict with his daughter led him and his wife to move into the lake house.  McElrath said they eventually asked their daughter to move out.  "Now we're back in it,"  he said of the District 2 home.  "We've been there every day for the last couple of months."

Residency questions aren't uncommon in local races.  Charlotte City Councilman James Mitchell,  who was defeated in the Sept. 11 Democratic mayoral primary,  told the Observer shortly before the primary that he had moved out of the home in District 2,  which he represents,  and into a new house in the city's District 4.  No one has formally challenged his eligibility to serve out his District 2 term.

In 2003,  Vilma Leake faced a challenge from County Commissioner Bill James and other residents about her eligibility to represent District 2 on the school board.  Leake,  who is now the county commissioner for District 2,  owned a home in District 6 and rented an apartment in District 2 at the time. The Mecklenburg Board of Elections held a hearing and ruled in Leake's favor.

Dickerson said McElrath's arrangements are unlikely to create problems:  "There are plenty of people I know who have a vacation home on Lake Norman and live here in Charlotte."

McElrath will face Thelma Byers-Bailey,  a first-time candidate and resident of Charlotte's Lincoln Heights neighborhood,  in the Nov. 5 election.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

South suburban officials line up for Bailey

Matthews Mayor Pro Tem Paul Bailey,  one of three candidates seeking the District 6 school board seat,  rolled out a roster of endorsements Tuesday from four state legislators and 15 local officials from the southern suburbs.

"Most of these people I have long-term relationships with and have worked with on Matthews town council,"  said Bailey,  who's serving his ninth term.  "I asked and everybody said yes.  It was a surprise to me,  but a pleasant surprise."

Bailey worked with political consultant Larry Shaheen to kick off his campaign with the lineup of support.  On his list:  State Sens. Jeff Tarte and Bob Rucho (both Republicans); N.C. Reps. Bill Brawley (R) and Tricia Cotham (D);  Bill James, a Republican serving his eighth term representing roughly the same district on the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners; Tim Morgan,  who was elected to the District 6 school board seat in 2009 and moved into an at-large seat in 2011; Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor and all five members of the Matthews town council; former Matthews Mayor Lee Myers; Mint Hill Mayor Ted Biggers and all four Mint Hill town commissioners.

The announcement jump-starts what has been a fairly low-key school board campaign so far.  I don't recall seeing a lineup like this in district school board races,  especially coming all at once in the early days of a campaign.

Bailey's two opponents,  first-time candidates Bolyn McClung and Doug Wrona,  are running very different types of campaigns.

Wrona, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher and tutor,  is a self-described progressive Democrat running in a heavily Republican district  (party affiliation isn't on the Nov. 5 ballot,  but we all know it  plays a role).  He couldn't be reached for comment on Bailey's endorsements,  but he has said he won't raise or spend more than $1,000 on his campaign.

Bolyn McClung,  a Pineville Republican,  said Monday he has decided not to seek donations or endorsements,  though he'll be doing  "heavy advertising"  with his own money.  He said he wants to run on his own record,  which includes co-chairing the successful 2007 bond campaign,  serving on CMS advisory boards and regularly attending school board and committee meetings.

When told about the names on Bailey's endorsement list,  McClung replied:  "There's some people on that list that are really great supporters of CMS."

But after pondering the legislators who are backing Bailey,  McClung emailed an additional response:  "In these hard economic times,  I have decided against actively seeking financial support or personal recommendations for my campaign.  My record for public education is long and strong.  However,  if I were to ask for support,  it would not be from those in Raleigh who are responsible for cutting public education."

Note:  Please be patient waiting for your comments to post.  I've set it for moderation because I'm off today and don't want to open it to political name-calling.  But I'll have my tablet and post comments as quickly as I can.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

If you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance ...

Most of us would like to find a tool to eliminate education jargon,  but if you feel a need to lay it on thick,  here's an amusing tool from to "amaze your colleagues with finely crafted phrases of educational nonsense."

USA Today's Greg Toppo passed this gem along to the Education Writers Association listserve,  where it's getting chuckles.  My randomly generated sentence:  "We will synergize mastery-focused paradigms with synergistic effects."

The jargon generator's unsigned introduction suggests the tool will be useful for writing grant applications,  reports and other documents related to public schools.  It says the author was inspired by this sentence from the College Board's AP chemistry framework:  "The student can connect phenomena and models across spatial and temporal scales."

I got a kick out of seeing  "21st century learners"  among the options.  Not long ago,  a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools educator told me how tired she was of hearing that label.  She's right:  In the 1990s it had a futuristic feel,  and even for the first year or two of the 21st century it had some edge.   But 13 years in?  Lame.  Kind of like  "thinking outside the box"  --  the irony of a cliche used to describe original thinking.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Let the school board race begin!

Now that primaries are over,  it's time to start thinking about the Nov. 5 school board race. We've got information on all 12 candidates posted on the Observer's voter site, and I'll be working to keep you up to date as the board race and the bond campaigns gear up.  (Yeah, I realize some folks are running for Charlotte mayor, too, but Jim Morrill has got that under control.)

Please let me know about opportunities to meet the candidates and/or learn more about the bonds for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Central Piedmont Community College.  And if your group posts candidate questionnaires,  send me a link.  I've got a list of resources at right,  under the photo,  and I'll keep adding to it  (including any more candidates who create web sites).

A quick recap,  for anyone who hasn't tuned in yet:  Mecklenburg voters will choose six district representatives Nov. 5,  with the three at-large candidates up for a vote in 2015.  You only vote for the seat in your own district  (here's the map and here's how to look up your district).  Party affiliation isn't listed on the ballot, but we've included that in our information in case you're interested.

Joyce Waddell,  the incumbent in District 3,  is guaranteed to return, as she drew no opposition.

And District 6 is guaranteed to get a new member.  Tim Morgan, who was elected to that seat in 2009,  moved to an at-large seat two years later.  Amelia Stinson-Wesley,  appointed to fill the district seat,  isn't running.  Three people  --  Paul Bailey,  Bolyn McClung and Doug Wrona  -- are seeking that post.

The other four races each have an incumbent facing one challenger.  In District 1, Christine Mast hopes to get Rhonda Lennon's seat.  In District 2,  Thelma Byers-Bailey is challenging incumbent Richard McElrath.  In District 4,  Queen Elizabeth Thompson hopes to oust Tom Tate, the board's senior member with eight years under his belt.  And in District 5,  Edward Donaldson is challenging Eric Davis.

Voters will also be asked to approve $290 million in bonds for CMS and $210 million for CPCC.  It's the first bond vote for either group since 2007.

Early voting starts Oct. 17.  And remember:  Your neighbors probably won't vote  (turnout is always low in off years),  so you carry extra clout if you do.  If you're not already registered,  do so by Oct. 11 to be eligible.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Meck-Wake charter gap: Smacking my head

A light bulb went on when I read the front page of this morning's Observer.

I've been puzzling over the large numbers of charter schools opening or planning to open in the Charlotte region, compared with much smaller numbers in Raleigh's Triangle area.

A number in the fact box with Mark Washburn's story on Mecklenburg County hitting the one million mark grabbed my attention:  Charlotte's metropolitan statistical area,  which includes surrounding counties,  has 2.3 million people.  Raleigh's has 1.2 million.

What?  Charlotte's metropolitan area is almost twice as large as Raleigh's?

That caught me by surprise,  probably because I've been so focused on the two school districts.  When I started the education beat in 2002,  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was the state's largest district,  with Wake second.  A few years later,  with CMS growing fast and Wake growing faster,  those positions switched.  I knew Charlotte was bigger than Raleigh,  but in my mind the two regions were comparable in size.

School districts,  of course,  are limited by county lines.  Charter schools are not.  Many of the large charters in our area are located near county borders and draw from two or more counties.  So the fact that we have so many more people in our greater suburban area probably signals a significantly larger market for charters,  whether they're located inside or just outside Mecklenburg.

Plenty of important questions remain about what the charter surge will mean for CMS, taxpayers, property values and,  above all,  for students.  But at least the raw numbers seem a bit less perplexing now.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

CMS wants Amay James back

The school board approved a plan Tuesday to end Brookstone School's lease on the old Amay James prekindergarten center in 2015 so Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools can use the space for nearby Reid Park Academy, a CMS preK-8 school.

It's just one of the ways that current officials are trying to cope with a 2010 decision to close about a dozen schools,  moves that previous leaders said were forced by looming budget cuts.  Among the most dramatic changes:  CMS closed three low-performing middle schools,  reassigning students to eight hastily-created preK-8 schools.  Other schools,  including all the free-standing prekindergarten centers, were closed because then-Superintendent Peter Gorman said they were not delivering academic benefits, not attracting students or not cost-effective.

Now the district is launching a campaign for approval of $290 million in school bonds in November.  The No. 1 project is reopening two of the closed schools  Oakhurst Elementary will become a math/science/arts magnet and the former Starmount prekindergarten center will be a neighborhood elementary school.  (Click here for the new CMS bond page launched this week,  which includes detailed descriptions of proposed projects).  The cost for converting both buildings,  which are currently used for staff offices,  is $5.94 million.

Also on the list is $30.4 million to build a new preK-8 school in west Charlotte to relieve the overcrowded Reid Park and nearby Berryhill School,  another of the preK-8 schools that was created as part of the closing plan.  The new school would open in 2017.  Amay James,  which is now being leased to the private Christian elementary school,  would serve as a stopgap.

Crowding isn't the only issue sparking follow-up expenses.  CMS hurried to turn elementary schools into buildings that could serve middle-schoolers and 4-year-olds in time for the opening of school in 2011.  The 2013 bond includes $24.7 million to finish the job at six of the schools,  including the addition of gyms and special classrooms.  That work will be done in August 2019,  eight years after the schools converted.

As Superintendent Heath Morrison,  who started in 2012,  doesn't argue for the wisdom of the closings.  He notes that he reversed the one closing decision that overlapped into his time,  a vote to close University Park creative arts magnet and merge it with First Ward in a complicated year-round schedule.

Instead,  Morrison hopes to convince voters that CMS is making wise financial decisions moving ahead.  For instance:  Reopening Oakhurst and Starmount will cost about $30 million less than building two new elementary schools would have.  Building new combined elementary/middle schools for about $30 million costs about $18 million less than building an elementary and a middle school.  And leasing the closed schools or using them for CMS offices gives the district flexibility it wouldn't have had it it sold the property.  Before asking for new buildings,  Morrison said,  CMS first asks,  "What do we have in our inventory?"

Update:  Thanks to an anonymous commenter who's better than me at web site sleuthing,  here's the link to a report on past bond projects that's fresher than the March version posted on the CMS bond site. Some people have complained about CMS lists that omit cancelled or delayed projects. This one seems to include everything (see, for instance, cancelled renovations for Amay James and Davidson IB Middle School, both closed in 2011).

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Project LIFT teachers: Absent more than students

Teachers in Project LIFT schools averaged 9.9 absences last year  --  a higher rate than the student average of 9.1 absences.

That was one of the most shocking bits of data in the first-year report on the $55 million five-year project  presented at Tuesday's board meeting.  But you won't find it in the presentation posted online,  and you didn't hear it discussed if you watched the meeting.  Instead,  you might have caught a quick reference to a paper handout distributed to board members.

I got a copy from Denise Watts, the Project LIFT Zone superintendent, after the meeting. It contains the actual data that's available so far to measure the results of the first year.  Many of the items are blank,  to be completed when 2013 test results are released or new parent surveys are completed.

The 71 percent graduation rate at West Charlotte High exceeded the 2013 goal of 66 percent.  This year's target is 78 percent.  And last year's students overwhelmingly topped the goal to earn a total of 100 recovered credits  (essentially makeup courses, often taken online).  They earned 301.

But teacher absences at the nine LIFT schools came in well above the 2012-13 target, which was to average six missed days per teacher.  Apparently based on last year's reality,  the 2013-14 goal has been bumped up to 7.9.  For students,  the goal is to bring the average down to 8.1 days this year.

Another bleak spot:  Students in the nine schools, which include the elementary and middle schools that feed into West Charlotte,  averaged 1.7 out-of-school suspension days per student.  That would equate to 170 per 100 students, using the calculation for  N.C. school report cards. That's similar to the rate reported for West Charlotte High in 2011-12  (176 per 100) and well above the rates reported that year for the  schools with younger students.  This year's goal is to bring the zone average down to one suspension per student.  (That doesn't mean each student gets suspended;  some students earn multiple suspensions and run up the total.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Who controls cell towers at schools?

As parents at Elizabeth Lane Elementary learned that plans were afoot to put a cell tower at their school,  they heard that Matthews town officials feared a vote against the tower would just bring an override from Raleigh.

Officials from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the Berkley Group,  who are working together on the cell-tower plan,  insist they've never talked about taking their case to state lawmakers.

Both groups are telling the truth,  according to Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor.  He says town officials do worry that legislators will take away local control,  but not because CMS or Berkley threatened to go over their heads.  Instead,  he says,  town leaders saw how the legislature voted this summer to restrict municipalities' ability to regulate billboards and speculated that the cell-tower industry could get similar action.

Thus,  he says,  town commissioners are trying to craft a strategy  "to be in control of our own destiny,"  including decisions about whether a 120-foot tower should go at the edge of the Elizabeth Lane property.

The process has turned into a juggling act for all involved.  Assistant Superintendent Guy Chamberlain says CMS has always been committed to bring cell-tower proposals to school families and neighbors before signing a lease.  The district's goal,  he says,  is to get some extra revenue from land that's not being used for classrooms,  playgrounds or parking lots.

The plans haven't gone to Elizabeth Lane families yet because it isn't even on CMS' list of identified sites, Chamberlain said. The Berkley group was interested in the site,but until Monday,  Matthews didn't allow towers over 80 feet tall in residential/institutional districts,  which include Elizabeth Lane and four other CMS schools. Berkley wants 120-foot towers.  If town commissioners had said no to the change,  the Elizabeth Lane plan would have been off the table.
Robinson's cell-phone "tree"

But when families heard that a proposed zoning change and a petition for the Elizabeth Lane tower were on Monday's agenda, they started looking at the documents.  They saw detailed plans,  including a "fall zone"  that indicated the tower could land on the school track and play area if it toppled.  They realized real trees and shrubs that shelter their school from a busy road could be torn down for a phony cell-phone  "tree"  like the one Berkley built on the grounds of nearby J.M. Robinson Middle School. They believed approval was imminent and thought they'd been sandbagged by CMS.

Meanwhile,  Taylor says,  he and commissioners were hearing from concerned families and planning their strategy. They could say no to 120-foot towers,  he said,  but feared that might lead the state to step in.  Approval,  on the other hand,  would force tower plans to get town approval.  So the board approved the change on a split vote.

Next up was a vote to accept Berkley's petition for approval of the Elizabeth Lane tower.  The town attorney said there's no choice:  A petition has to be accepted,  launching a process that includes a public hearing on the proposal.  Even so,  Taylor said,  Commissioner Kress Query insisted on pulling it off the consent agenda,  and Query and Suzanne Gulley voted against the petition as a symbolic act.

So far,  Chamberlain says,  turnout for tower meetings has been light.  That seems likely to change as the Elizabeth Lane plan moves ahead.  Parent Kelly Stienecker says families will keep emailing CMS officials and speak to the school board about their concerns.

"Our school is very organized,"  she said,  "and we're a tight-knit group of parents."

Update: Expect a long wait for resolution on the Elizabeth Lane question. Paul Bailey, a school board candidate who's also Matthews mayor pro tem, told the school board Tuesday that if there are any objections to the tower at the November hearing, the town will schedule a second hearing to take place after new board members are sworn in, probably in January. And Chamberlain said CMS will launch its review and discussion process only if Matthews officials give their approval.

No slowdown in Charlotte-area charter interest

I'm starting to sound like a broken record:  Mecklenburg County again dominates the state in charter-school interest,  based on letters of intent to seek charters for 2015-16.  The N.C. Office of Charter Schools got 170 letters by Friday's deadline,  and 43 were for Mecklenburg. Another 20 were for surrounding counties; charters can take students across county lines.

Next highest was Wake with 20,  then Durham and Guilford with 12 each.

That doesn't mean that many new schools will open,  of course.  This is just the first step in a long process.  Full applications are due Dec. 6.  They'll be reviewed by a charter school advisory board,  with the state Board of Education making the final decision about which will be approved for state,  local and federal money.  The state got 156 letters of intent for 2014 charters,  with 70 full applications that were eventually whittled to the 26 that just won approval. Eleven of those are in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.

Students at Invest Collegiate, a charter that opened in uptown Charlotte in August
The big question is why the Charlotte region is spawning so much interest in charters,  which are alternative public schools run by independent boards.  Critics of CMS say it's dissatisfaction with district schools,  which still serve about 80 percent of the county's school-age children.  School board Chairman Mary McCray disagrees.  She noted that CMS already offers many of the themes that charter schools are touting,  from math-science magnets to credit-recovery programs for at-risk teens.

"They are basing their themes on us,"  McCray said.  "It's not like we're copying them."

Eddie Goodall of Union County,  a former state senator who now heads the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association,  theorizes that it boils down to risk and reward.  There are plenty of potential students in Charlotte and its suburbs,  while less densely populated areas pose a bigger risk of failing to draw enough students to survive.  Meanwhile,  counties that provide more for their local school district also channel a per-pupil share when students go to charters,  making the potential reward richer in Mecklenburg than in poorer rural counties.

Probably true  --  but it still doesn't explain why the densely populated Triangle area,  with all its higher education, high-tech and government resources,  isn't spawning a similar level of would-be school entrepreneurs.

Monday, September 9, 2013

West Charlotte's segregation history makes Retro Report

A 10-minute documentary about the history of court-ordered desegregation and its reversal in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools -- specifically at West Charlotte High  --  went online today as part of the Retro Report, a new documentary news group created to give historic context to issues in the news.

"The Battle for Busing"  uses archival news clips and interviews with participants,  especially former school board Chairman Arthur Griffin,  who experienced segregation and desegregation as a student.  As board chair,  Griffin led the court battle to keep race-based student assignment for diversity in place.  After losing that fight,  Griffin says in the documentary,  he decided not to seek election because "I was out of step."

"I said,  'I'll just step aside and I won't try to stop you and we'll see what happens,' "  says Griffin,  who is now an executive with McGraw-Hill Education.

What happened,  in terms of racial composition,  was that West Charlotte went from being viewed as a national model for desegregation  --  "a darling of the national media,"  as the report puts it  --  to reverting to its origins as a black high school. Although no one is assigned by race now,  last year 87 percent of West Charlotte students were black and 2 percent were white  (2013-14 numbers aren't in yet).

Retro Report was created with a grant from former television editor Christopher Buck;  read more about the nonprofit group that emerged here.  "Retro Report is there to pick up the story after everyone has moved on, connecting the dots from yesterday to today, correcting the record and providing a permanent living library where viewers can gain new insight into the events that shaped their lives,"  the introduction says.

The New York Times features Retro Report on its online  "Booming"  section,  designed to appeal to those of us born between 1946 and 1964.  
Couple featured in Booming (remember this look?)

PowerSchool causing transcript woes

Students who are applying to college are facing problems with PowerSchool, the new data system for all public schools in North Carolina.  Here's how Superintendent Heath Morrison described it in a report to the school board:

"We are continuing to experience challenges with the conversion to PowerSchool.  One challenge affects student transcripts, and particularly impacts high school students applying to colleges. The transcript module for PowerSchool is still being designed by the state. It has not been released to districts. As a result, no district in the state can run current class ranks or current transcripts for students. We are only able to produce transcripts that end with the 2012 2013 school year, which do not reflect grades in summer school courses, grade corrections or updates since June 10. We anticipate that the transcript module will be ready in a few weeks; the target date is Oct. 1.   Schools will be notified as soon as we are able to run class ranks and produce current transcripts.  

CMS Regulation IKC-R requires that class ranks be run on the 15th school day.  Given the circumstances this year that make meeting that deadline impossible, we have approved an amendment to this regulation. In addition, our school counseling department is providing letters explaining the situation to accompany 2012-2013 transcripts for current seniors.  We have also put processes in place to enable school counselors to advise students on progress toward graduation."

I admit to being a bit puzzled.  A parent had emailed me about this issue this summer,  when I was writing about the PowerSchool debut.  I asked CMS officials about potential problems with transcripts and they said that shouldn't be an issue this early in the year. Now they're saying it is.  It's been a long time since I was dealing with college applications personally,  and I'm not clear on the nuances of this.  Readers,  you seem to have been out front on this -- keep us all posted on how this affects families and students.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Governor finds $10 million for teachers

Just when you thought changes to teacher pay couldn't get any more confusing,  Gov. Pat McCrory announced Wednesday that he had  "found"  money "to ensure that over 3,000 teachers currently pursuing their master's degrees will receive a salary increase when they graduate,  an investment of over $10 million."

McCrory: Found $10 million

That's probably good news for teachers who felt like this year's budget bill cheated them out of the chance to get a raise they'd been promised when they enrolled,  or who thought they'd have to work at breakneck pace to squeak in past an uncertain deadline. The clamor to revise that plan has been growing,  with some Mecklenburg legislators saying the vote was a mistake and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison urging them to grandfather all teachers who had begun work on advanced degrees.

But exactly how will McCrory's $10 million plan play out?  Will it put him at odds with legislators who voted to cut off anyone who hadn't earned the 10 percent raise by this school year?  Is this a one-time infusion,  or an assurance that they'll keep the raise throughout their careers?  I don't know,  and journalists who were at Wednesday's school board meeting in Raleigh seem confused, too.  WRAL reported that McCrory didn't take questions from reporters and his advisers couldn't explain details.  A statement posted by McCrory's office doesn't shed much light.

Lynn Bonner,  an education reporter with the News & Observer,  says it was a confusing situation.  She's planning to file on the issue,  and I'll keep you posted as I learn anything more. Update: Here's her detailed report, and it's more confusing than ever.  Apparently the governor's office and the state Board of Education disagree on who has authority to extend this,  and the governor's office later clarified that he just plans to propose adding the $10 million to the 2014-15 budget.

Meanwhile,  I can't help wondering how much money is lying around the governor's office.  It wasn't long ago that McCrory proposed creating an innovation fund to offer $10,000 stipends to 1,000 top teachers,  another $10 million plan.

Pushback on NC exams

State education officials and superintendents,  including Heath Morrison in CMS,  have asked U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan for a reprieve on using state exams to rate teachers.  The N.C. Board of Education is slated to take the matter up this week.

Now local teachers,  parents and advocates want to take things a step further.  The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators and Mecklenburg ACTS will ask the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board to boycott new state exams known as  "measures of student learning"  even if Duncan doesn't grant permission. The two groups are preparing a petition to present to the CMS board at its Sept. 10 meeting.


"At a time of shrinking school budgets,  rising class sizes and plummeting teacher morale,  more tests are the last thing our schools need,"  says a news release sent out this week.

MSLs are exams given in addition to the end-of-year math,  English and science exams that are used to gauge student proficiency and rate schools.  They were created to measure teacher effectiveness in additional subjects.  Duncan has the final word because the state pinned its Race to the Top grant application and request for a waiver from No Child Left Behind to use of those tests in teacher evaluations.  Now the state wants more time to work out valid tests and make sure they're used properly to rate teachers.

According to the CMAE/MeckACTS resolution,  the MSLs given last spring were  "deeply flawed,"  "poorly designed"  and a waste of time and money.  "As a community,  now is the time to stand up for public schools and stand against statewide mandates for new,  excessive and unneeded standardized tests,"  it concludes.

In his weekly report to the school board,  Morrison said he and other superintendents want a chance to develop their own methods of estimating student growth and teacher effectiveness,  rather than being forced to administer more state exams this year.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Urban Institute maps grad-rate trends

UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute recently posted an interactive map that helps people look at graduation-rate trends for N.C. school districts over the last eight years,  since the state started using a four-year tracking method.

Graphic from Urban Institute report
The overall statewide trend has been upward,  though as the report notes,  there have been variations by district.  Wake,  the state's largest district,  has been fairly flat,  while Charlotte-Mecklenburg has caught up.

When it comes to education data,  it seems like there's always a footnote.  CMS changed the number of credits required for graduation,  starting with the class of 2013.  As I reported Monday, it's hard to gauge how much that influenced this year's gain,  which continued an upward trend that preceded the change. About 1,475 seniors availed themselves of the new option to graduate with fewer than 28 credits, but CMS officials note that an unknown number of those likely would have met the higher credit requirement had it been in place.