Friday, May 30, 2014

Educator salaries: Charter schools and new CMS data

Salaries for Charlotte-area educators are finally ready.  It took a bit longer this year because we are publishing charter school salaries for the first time,  and got more extensive information from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

The charter list was challenging,  and not only because of the state's misfire in initially saying charter schools weren't required to provide the data.  Each charter school is essentially its own district,  which meant that even after that mistake was corrected and schools provided the data,  it came from different sources in different formats,  often with different job titles and abbreviations.  That can make it difficult to sort and compare,  but it's a good start toward giving the public a look at payrolls in a form of public education that has extra flexibility and plays a growing role in our region.

In past years,  I've requested salaries and bonuses from CMS.  This year,  after working on an article about pay at community colleges,  I realized there are additional sources of income,  including state longevity pay.  So I requested all of those sources.  The result:  The CMS information is more complete,  but it's not comparable to prior years.

CMS provided total compensation from salaries,  bonuses,  longevity pay,  overtime,  stipends for extra duties,  allowances and fringe benefits that are reported as income to the IRS.  That means some people's pay looks bigger,  even if they got no raise in salary.  Meanwhile,  some listings will look unusually low because the district provided actual earnings from April 1,  2013,  to March 31,  2014,  rather than listing an annual salary as they have in the past.  That means someone who started after April 1 won't have a full year's pay listed.

Even the total number of employees  --  18,515 this year,  compared with 18,665 in 2013  --  isn't comparable.  As you might recall,  CMS changed the way it accounts for people who are not actually being paid but have the option to return to district jobs.  That happened after people raised questions about a Providence High teacher who had been appearing on the salary listings and the school website year after year,  despite the fact that he hadn't set foot in school for a decade  (turned out he was getting worker's comp,  not a district paycheck).  After that flap,  about 200 people on leave or other inactive status were removed from the CMS roster.

Which brings us to the perennial question:  Why name names?

Most agree that salaries for the folks at the top should be public,  but over the years many have questioned why we would list individual information for teachers,  assistants,  bus drivers and others who are public employees but not public figures.

The answer:  It lets people see if something is amiss in public spending.

Are relatives of those who influence spending holding public jobs,  and if so,  are their salaries reasonable?  Remember First Lady Mary Easley and her lucrative job at N.C. State?  Or, conversely,  the false rumors that Superintendent Peter Gorman had his wife on the CMS payroll?  How about this year's revelation that an administrator at StudentFirst Academy,  a new charter school, had family members on the payroll,  with other staffers raising questions about whether they were qualified or showing up for work?

Lawyer Richard Vinroot,  who represented the StudentFirst board when that administrator contested her firing in court,  is now representing Sugar Creek and Lincoln charter schools in fighting the Observer's request to disclose salaries by name.  Lawyers, legislators and maybe judges will sort out the legality of that position.

The schools have provided names and salaries of a few top administrators,  and salaries with names redacted for the rest.  Vinroot says if there are specific questions about lower-paid staff  --  for instance,  are charter employees related to board members or administrators?  --  the schools can answer without having to reveal everyone's names.

But you don't know what you don't know.  It might be obvious  (at least in hindsight)  to check on the governor's wife.  But without seeing the individual teacher's name,  no one would have thought to ask if Providence High had a  "phantom teacher"  on the payroll.  It turned out that he wasn't being paid for work he wasn't doing,  but isn't that exactly the kind of thing the public ought to question?

And while schools that are trying to do the right thing might answer questions honestly and completely,  can we trust those who have something to hide to do the same?  Providing details on those paid with public money lets us all do our own checking,  without having to guess or trust.

Finally,  to answer the questions that are sure to follow release of these salaries:  We're working on 2014 updates for regional school districts,  the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.  Stay tuned.

Senate plan: Big raises, big questions

For Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the Senate's sweeping plan to raise and revamp teacher pay has officials scrambling to sort out its implications.

At a news conference less than 24 hours after seeing the plan, Superintendent Heath Morrison was quick to say he's  "very grateful"  that the Senate has proposed raises that would make a real difference in North Carolina's national standing and teachers' ability to earn a living wage.  "We certainly support that increase at the state level being as high as possible,"  he said.


But he noted that Gov. Pat McCrory's budget and the Senate's are substantially different,  with the House version yet to come.  Both plans revealed so far contain significant changes in pay and other conditions for teachers,  and Gov. Pat McCrory is already raising challenges about the Senate's plan for education.

That means huge unanswered questions as CMS and other districts prepare for a budget year that starts July 1 and a school year that starts Aug. 25.  Morrison said he worried about the tradeoffs in the Senate plan;  CMS stands to lose 900 teacher assistants,  77 teachers,  $3.8 million in transportation money and $200,000 for central offices,  he said.

Morrison,  an unaffiliated voter who tries to stay out of partisan crossfire,  said he's not opposed to rethinking tenure  (he prefers to call it due process),  but prefers that such a discussion would have happened more deliberately,  with educators involved.  The Senate plan came out late Wednesday and is expected to be approved by week's end.

But Senate leader Phil Berger told me Thursday afternoon that he and other GOP senators have been listening for three years,  since they took control of the General Assembly.  The biggest message from educators,  parents and policymakers,  he said,  is that teachers are the most important factor in children's education,  and North Carolina's low national ranking for teacher pay threatens public education.

"We've heard loud and clear the complaints that we're in the 40s,  and not even the high 40s,  on teacher pay,  and that has become an embarrassment for the state,"  he said.  He said the Senate plan would move North Carolina up to 27th  --  assuming every teacher chooses  to give up tenure and move onto the higher pay track with year-to-year contract.  "It is critical for North Carolina to move ahead and to do everything we can to improve outcomes in public education.  Teachers are at the center of that."

Berger said his party made tough choices to make a big raise possible,  including sacrificing teacher assistants.  But he said party leaders have also made concessions,  such as letting teachers keep tenure if that's what's most important to them.   (Not all teachers are grateful;  N.C. Association of Educators President Rodney Ellis said it amounted to treating teachers like  "political pawns in an election year,"  and suggested tenure provided the protection teachers needed to speak up about the problems with low pay.)

Berger said changes in the Read to Achieve Act also show that GOP leaders have been listening and learning.   He said the revisions approved Wednesday preserve the focus on getting third-graders up to grade level in reading while responding to legitimate concerns,  such as the previous lack of flexibility in setting up summer reading programs.  "We listened to those concerns,"  Berger said.

Grundy at General Assembly
It looks like a lively summer debate is just getting cranked up.  Pamela Grundy of Mecklenburg ACTS went to Raleigh to argue against the part of Read to Achieve that requires retention for struggling third-grade readers,  which she says does little to help them.  "Berger's response: not retaining students isn't working, so they have to try something else. The measure passed, but at least the truth made an appearance,"  Grundy posted on Facebook.

And state Superintendent June Atkinson,  a Democrat,  released a statement lauding a  "long overdue"  major raise for teachers,  but saying that the Senate's education budget  "continues to undercut support for teachers and for learning."

"The key to teacher recruitment and retention is pay plus working conditions,"  Atkinson said.  "Student success requires both."

Update:  A Winthrop professor just tweeted me a link to this blog post berating N.C. legislators for offering the "raises or tenure" tradeoff.  "Curmudgucation,"  by a self-described grumpy old teacher,  says the real message is that teachers can't make a career here and that North Carolina now has  "the worst legislature in all of America."

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Maybe there is a free lunch ...

Starting next school year, about 59,000 students at 72 high-poverty Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools will automatically get free lunch through a new community eligibility provision of the federal school nutrition program.

The provision covers schools across the country where at least 40 percent of students are on public assistance,  in foster care or fall into other categories that automatically qualify them for lunch subsidies,  according to a presentation to the CMS board.  The goal is to eliminate the need for high-need schools to collect applications and process payments  --  and to make sure students get the nutrition they need to be ready to learn.

Breakfast at Elizabeth Traditional Elementary
CMS already rolled out a universal free breakfast program this year,  though participation hasn't been what officials had hoped, child nutrition director Cindy Hobbs told the board.  The district aimed for a 50 percent increase in kids eating breakfast;  so far it has been about 20 percent.

The free lunch program should save some time and money for participating schools  --  including, Superintendent Heath Morrison said, write-offs for lunches that children eat and parents fail to pay for.  "The reality is many of these families simply can't afford to pay,"  he said,  even if they don't meet the income cutoffs for free meals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture,  which already supports CMS students to the tune of about $50 million a year,  will pick up the tab for all students at the designated schools.

Of course,  there are complications.  Eligibility for federal lunch aid is used to gauge school need and qualify students for a waiver of athletic and other fees.  Families will still have to fill out income paperwork for the fee waivers,  CMS officials said,  and the district will have to find another method of tallying the number of  "economically disadvantaged students."

Regular blog readers may be amused to hear that board member Rhonda Lennon noted the perennial comments from "Wiley Coyote"  raising questions about the free lunch program.  "Mr. Coyote will want to know:  What alternative methods for determining student eligibility were used?"  The answers were fairly complex;  those who are really into this can find the child nutrition discussion on video at this link,  starting at the 1:47 mark.  Lennon's questions about Wiley Coyote (and comments about the tastiness and fat content of Takis hot snacks) starts at 2:03.

Vice Chair Tim Morgan asked about the prospects for the federal government to just pay for lunch for all students.

Hobbs said it won't happen soon,  but it should:  "If you can give a child free transportation and you can give them free books,  why can't you give them free meals?"

On the Raleigh roundup,  I'm not finding any new education-related bills on the General Assembly listing for Wednesday.  But Pamela Grundy of MecklenburgACTS says the Senate education committee is taking up changes to the Read to Achieve act,  which mandates consequences for third-graders who fail to prove they can read on grade level.  Read her group's critique here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Internships can be great, but be careful

The letter that arrived at a Charlotte-Mecklenburg high school asking to recruit students for summer internships carried the Observer's logo and offered work in sales, customer service and business management.  But the counselor who got it couldn't find any information about the company claiming to be the Observer's partner,  so she asked me to check whether it was legit.

Nope.  The company was in talks with the Observer,  but nothing had been settled.  The folks in our business offices weren't amused,  and the counselor didn't let the company in to recruit.

"It is amazing how many people want to come in and recruit students for things that may not benefit them,"  said the counselor,  who asked that I not name her because she doesn't want to get caught in any controversy over what she jokingly dubs her work as the troll at the gate.

Good internships provide valuable education
It was a reminder that every good thing comes with a flip side.  Helping students get real-life work experience is a big trend in CMS and other public schools.  I'm all for that.  My parents sent me to a prestigious private journalism school,  and by far the best education I got was from a 10-week internship at the newspaper that eventually hired me. In the ensuing decades I've worked with lots of high school and college interns, and it's usually a great experience for them and the newsroom.

In the fast-changing tech world,  I suspect,  hands-on work can be even more valuable.

But it's good to know that counselors,  who already have their hands more than full,  are keeping an eye on the folks who want to pitch to teens.  The counselor in question said she runs a Better Business Bureau check on companies that want to enter her school;  she recently found 20 complaints about a would-be recruiter.

As they used to tell us in J-school back in the day:  If your mother says she loves you,  check it out.

And here's Tuesday's round-up of education legislation.  Things are about to get very interesting with the Senate budget looming.

Senate Bill 860,  introduced by Mecklenburg Republican Jeff Tarte,  would revise the formula for school letter grades to make growth a bigger factor.  It would also extend the testing window and revise some aspects of educator contracts.

SB 852 would extend eligibility for the National Board supplement to instructional coaches in Title I schools.

House Bill 1243 would set up a fund to provide college loans that could be repaid by teaching in the science,  technology, engineering and math fields in N.C. public schools.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

2014 charter schools: Ready or not?

About half the 27 N.C. charter schools that got approval to open in August already have plenty of students signed up,  but some of the rest are struggling,  according to a recent report to the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board.

All schools must file a "ready to open" report by the end of May; the goal is to ensure that all have enrollment, buildings and academic plans lined up to be ready for a solid August opening. But the April status report indicates some have a long way to go in the final stretch.  (Go here and click "Ready to Open Report" for details.)

Thirteen schools already had at least 90 percent of their projected enrollment by the end of April,  the report indicates.  Those include Bradford Preparatory School  (1,531 applications for 404 seats),  Pioneer Springs Community School  (323 applications for 176 seats),  Thunderbird Preparatory School  (798 applications for 488 seats)  and United Community School  (181 applications for 216 seats)  in the Charlotte area.  United, Bradford and Pioneer Springs also had leases signed as of the last report.

Charlotte-area schools in the yellow zone were Carolina STEM Academy  (76 percent full,  lease signed) and  Entrepreneur High (73 percent full,  no lease).

Those below 60 percent at the end of April were ACE Academy  (54 percent, lease signed), Charlotte Learning Academy (34 percent,  no lease),  Concrete Roses STEM Academy  (49 percent,  no lease) and Commonwealth High (no lease and only eight students signed up for 224 spots).  Stewart Creek High,  operated by the same management company as Commonwealth and catering to the same at-risk high school crowd,  is one of two schools statewide that has requested permission to delay a year.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Teacher pay, taxes and charters: What's on table

Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican,  wants to order counties to levy a 1-cent property tax hike for teacher raises.

Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a Concord Republican,  wants to let school districts get involved in authorizing charter schools.

And Reps. Becky Carney and Beverly Earle, Democrats from Charlotte, are among a group that wants to tighten state supervision of charter schools.

Welcome to the 2014 legislative session,  which is supposed to be relatively short and simple.


Last year's long session brought plenty of surprises in public education.  I'm beginning to see why so many of us got caught off guard.  I've trolled through the list of bills filed in the first two weeks and come up with this list.  I don't pretend to understand them all,  let alone feel confident about which stand a chance and which are DOA.

In the spirit of crowdsourcing,  I'm linking everyone up and eager to hear thoughts. (HB signifies a House bill, SB a Senate bill.)

Teacher pay: SB 833 and HB 1186 direct the state Board of Education to come up with a performance pay plan for educators to roll out in 2016-17. SB 787, which I reported on recently, requires that at least 51 percent of the state allocation for K-12 education go toward classroom teachers. HB 1174 extends the cutoff date to qualify for additional pay based on earning a master's degree. And Brawley's HB 1177 calls for the additional 1-cent property tax for teacher raises.

Tenure:  HB 1199 would restore career status, commonly known as tenure,  after last summer's decision to phase it out by 2018.  A Wake County judge recently ruled that decision unconstitutional.

Common Core:  SB 812 and HB 1061 call for rejecting the Common Core standards and creating a new study commission to create standards specific to North Carolina.

Online classes:  SB 748 and HB 1039 provide a tuition waiver for private-school students to take N.C. Virtual Public School courses.

Charter schools:  SB 754 and HB 1041 would allow school districts and public universities to grant preliminary approval for charter schools, with the final decisions continuing to rest with the state Board of Education. HB 1085 strengthens supervision of charter schools. SB 752, HB 1042 and SB 793 set up an appeal process for charter applicants rejected by the state advisory board. SB 793 also raises the application fee to $1,000 and clarifies that charter schools are subject to the same public records law, including disclosure of salaries, as other public bodies. HB 1084 would establish an alternative accountability system for charter schools that serve large percentages of students with disabilities.

Vouchers:  HB 1075 would repeal the Opportunity Scholarship program and restore the $10 million set aside for it to public schools.

School calendar:  HB 1049 would give local districts more flexibility in deciding when to start and stop the school year.

Money:  HB 1107 would require the state to spend specific percentages of lottery money on school construction.  SB 789 would provide extra money for  "geographically sparse"  small school districts. (That wouldn't seem to affect the Charlotte area,  unless it reduced the money available for bigger districts.)  HB 1119 would provide a tax credit for teachers who spend their own money on classroom supplies.  HB 1063 would appropriate $340,000 to restore the teacher cadet program for high school students.

Safety: HB 1062 and SB 770 would require public schools to provide keys and schematic diagrams to law enforcement.

Education data:  SB 806 and HB 1150 deal with data for K-12 and higher education, but darned if I can figure out what these bills mean. SB815 deals with privacy of student records.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Kids can read during test time

There's a new N.C. twist to testing this year:  When students finish early, they can read books or magazines until the whole class is done.  State Superintendent June Atkinson sent a memo to superintendents this week reminding them of the change.

One might wonder why the state's top educator would bother calling attention to a relatively minor change buried deep in the state's 158-page testing manual.  The answer:  It's part of a complex negotiation between state officials and parents who plan to refuse to let their kids take exams.


As I reported earlier,  Deputy Superintendent Rebecca Garland wants to make it clear that North Carolina doesn't consider testing optional.  Parents may want to protest what they view as misuse of testing to rate teachers and schools,  but kids who refuse to answer questions will get a zero,  which could drop their class grade and bring other consequences.

After Garland's  "no opt-out"  memo went out,  parents with Mecklenburg ACTS met with Atkinson to argue that even if the kids get zeroes,  they shouldn't be forced to  "sit and stare"  if they're protesting.  The group suggested that Atkinson provide guidelines that note state disapproval of opting out but offer districts  "child-centered"  ways to handle refusals.

The message that went out doesn't specifically address test protesters,  but it's understood that some of the kids will be finishing very early.

"This is a good thing not just for students who are refusing the test,  but for those who finish the tests early.  Previously,  they had also been forced to sit and stare,  sometimes for a couple of hours,"  says Pamela Grundy,  one of the organizers of the opt-out push.

Duncan at EWA
North Carolina is part of a national testing resistance movement.  In New York City more than 30,000 students opted out this spring,  high school principal Carol Burris told education reporters at the Education Writers Association national seminar in Nashville earlier this week.

The uses and misuses of testing were a big topic there.  U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan emphasized the importance of setting high standards and using rigorous tests to measure student progress:  "We had so many states that dummied down standards to make politicians look good."  The Obama administration's  Race to the Top grants have pushed the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers,  but he acknowledged that some states have gone overboard on testing.

"Where there's too much,  we need to have the honest conversation and scale it back,"  Duncan said,  without citing which states he referred to.

Tennessee officials were quick to credit tougher tests with the state's significant math gains on recent  "nation's report card"  tests.  Several speakers,  including Gov. Bill Haslam,  noted that the state went from a state testing system that labeled 90 percent of eighth-graders proficient in math,  earning the state an F in truth in advertising from the national Chamber of Commerce,  to one that more accurately reflects a bleaker reality.

Dennis Van Roekel,  president of the National Education Association,  said misuse of student scores to create  "value-added"  ratings of teachers has created rebellion among teachers and families.  "Teachers are not opposed to tests,"  he said.  "We invented them."

Tommy Bice,  Alabama's state superintendent,  talked about his state's rollout of a testing system for grades 3-12 based on the ACT.  The series of exams measure everything from basic reading and math skills to college and work readiness.  But Bice said Alabama has made a decision that sets it apart from many states:  It uses the scores only to shape instruction,  not to rate schools,  teachers or even students.

"Once we begin to use this powerful assessment tool for something other than what it was designed for,"  he said,  "it becomes something else."

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Do charters play on a level field?

When I wrote about the latest round of charter school approvals,  reader Carrie Diane posted a series of questions about charter schools.   "Before I get anyone upset, I'm just asking questions here because I honestly do not know the answers,"  she began.

That's a challenge. Discussion of the pros and cons of charter schools has been going on for more than a decade in North Carolina.  Some people have strong views and come out sniping.  Meanwhile,  others are just entering the conversation and get frustrated when they read articles that don't include all the background.

This reader posed some good questions that require more than an online comment section to answer.  So here's my stab at them,  and I'm sure the rest of you will jump in.

First:  When I read that charter schools get on average $2,000 less than public schools my first thought was that isn't that supposed to be because they are marketed as being more effective and efficient than a public school? I realize it is less money, but I was truly thinking that wasn't that part of the allure of creating charter schools? 

I wasn't covering education when the state launched charters in the 1990s,  but my understanding is that rather than saying  "Let's see if we can do the same job with less money,"  the founders wanted to see if charter operators could do a better job with roughly the same money.  The most recent study I've seen pegs the gap at just over $1,700,  but most of that comes from the fact that counties don't have to provide money for facilities, as they do for district schools.  The system is set up to give charter schools the same per-pupil state allotment for operating costs that all other public schools get on average,  and requires counties to do the same.  Of course,  needs and spending vary dramatically from school to school,  whether they're charters or traditional.

Next: Are we comparing apples and oranges when it comes to testing and measuring success? My impression is that charter schools do not have to follow the same EOG testing measures and Read to Achieve that a public school does. 

Charter schools have to give the same state exams and report the same results.  Check state school report cards (where you can also find per-pupil spending reports) or click the School Data links at the right of this column to see mapped results for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Mecklenburg charter schools.  Charter schools get more flexibility under Read to Achieve to deal with third-graders who fall short on reading skills.  But unlike district schools,  charter schools face closure for repeated poor performance on state exams.

And this: Are charter schools and public schools working along the same guidelines when it comes to teacher qualifications? 

No.  All teachers in traditional public schools must be licensed,  but charters can fill up to 50 percent of their teaching spots with unlicensed teachers.

And finally,  Carrie Diane questioned why charter schools don't have to offer busing and free lunches and how that affects serving low-income students.

This one gets complicated.  Charter schools have to have plans to ensure that no student is denied admission because of transportation or meals.  But that doesn't have to mean busing and cafeterias.  Some charters cover transportation by helping families connect for car pools and expect families to send or buy lunches.  They say they'll provide individual meal assistance and do what it takes to ensure that students from low-income families can get to school.  But some say disadvantaged families don't apply to charter schools that make it difficult.

Advantage charters?  Well,  not so fast.  CMS has a large and expanding menu of magnets and other opt-in schools with limited transportation.  And those schools often set admission requirements,  which most charters can't do.  Finally,  the biggest factor in school demographics is location.  Schools in east and west Charlotte tend to have high poverty levels and low white enrollment,  whether they're charters or district schools.  Those in Mecklenburg's suburbs and surrounding counties generally have much lower poverty levels and more white students,  regardless of who's running them.

So no,  charters and districts aren't playing on a level field.  But it's not always clear who's got the edge.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Technology, playgrounds on CMS 'opportunity' list

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools budget plan that district leaders and county officials will review today includes a $46.2 million increase in county spending.  But there's also a page detailing almost $69 million in additional  "one-time funding opportunities"  should the county find itself with money left over.

Superintendent Heath Morrison says County Manager Dena Diorio asked the district to list such projects,  which wouldn't be an ongoing annual expense,  for consideration based on the county fund balance.  The list  (on p. 72 of the budget book) includes:

$1 million would get playground upgrades

*$28.9 million in environmental upgrades,  most of that to be spent improving indoor air quality at schools  --  work such as increasing fresh air flow or cleaning ducts.

*$22.8 million for technology,  most of it for  "devices/cases and charging trays"  for  middle school students.

*$9.8 million for  "general deferred maintenance."

*$3.5 million for bus video cameras and vehicle replacement.

*$2.6 million for roof replacements.

*$1 million for playground upgrades.

County commissioners will hear from CMS and CPCC officials at a special budget meeting at 3 p.m. Monday,  May 19.  It's in Room 267 of the Government Center and it's open to the public.  But Commissioner Bill James wants to discourage the massive turnout and testimonials that have marked meetings to discuss teacher raises --  and a recent commissioners' meeting that wasn't about the budget.

"Given the disturbance at the last County Commission meeting it might be a good idea to outline to the public and CMS that this is NOT a public hearing,"  James emailed Diorio and other county officials last week.  "The meeting is for the Boards to talk to each other, not listen to prepared speeches from students, presentations from MeckEd or other groups (PTA or teachers)."

I'm guessing the mid-afternoon timing will discourage a crowd.  But based on the email and social media traffic I've seen already,  we can count on another big mobilization for the county's June 11 public budget hearing.

Friday, May 16, 2014

CMS: Visa change isn't about money

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has stopped sponsoring visas for overseas teachers,  and that has some families at Waddell Language Academy worried.

At a recent budget forum,  a parent accused Superintendent Heath Morrison of undermining a standout magnet program to save money.  Waddell,  a K-8 school formerly known as Smith Language Academy,  provides instruction in Chinese,  Japanese,  German and French.  The school has relied on foreign teachers who are fluent in those languages.

Waddell students sing for German dignitaries
Morrison said the change isn't about money,  though he acknowledged work visas are expensive at about $15,000 per teacher.  Instead,  he said,  the district has decided to seek teachers who can be expected to stay longer.

"What we end up with is a lot of instability,"  he said.  "It's about trying to find long-term stability."

CMS put out the word to principals last spring that the district wouldn't sponsor new visas.  As the issue rippled out to parents,  there have been enough concerns that CMS recently held a community meeting and put out a Q&A; read it here.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Poverty, language and disability: Trends in CMS

While no one would say CMS educators have it easy,  some of the most challenging student populations have leveled off or dwindled in recent years,  according to data in the 2014-15 budget plan.

The number of students with disabilities or limited English proficiency has dropped since 2008,  even as overall enrollment has risen  (see charts on pages 88-91 of the 310-page budget book).

In 2008-09,  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had 14,743 students classified as  "special needs,"  or 11 percent of enrollment.  This year there are 13,532 special needs students,  or 9.5 percent.  The Exceptional Children Services budget, however, seems to be growing,  from about $105 million in 2008-09 to more than $122 million this year,  with another increase proposed for 2014-15.

I'm not sure what that means;  I've asked CMS officials but haven't yet gotten a reply.  The district's budget books used to include descriptions of significant changes with every departmental budget.  The last couple of years,  those numbers have come with no written explanation.

Students classified as having limited English proficiency have gone from 18,407 in 2008-09  (13.7 percent)  to 15,176  (10.6 percent).  The budget for that department appears to be holding fairly steady.

Poverty,  as measured by students who qualify for federal lunch subsidies, has held level at just over 54 percent for the last three years,  after four years of steady increases before that.

My quest to get racial demographics has almost become a standing joke;  we're heading into end-of-year exam time and CMS has yet to provide those numbers.  The budget book may or may not provide a clue,  on a confusing p. 90.  Parts of it appear to have been cut and pasted from last year's book,  with racial breakdowns from 2012-13.  But the bar chart includes 13-14,  and if you look at the color key you'll find percentages that don't exactly match the previous year:  41.1 percent African American,  30.8 percent white,  19.5 percent Latino and 5.5 percent Asian.  Are those the elusive current-year numbers,  long delayed by PowerSchool problems?  We'll see.  I've got that question in, too.

Update: Student placement director Scott McCully confirms that those are the current districtwide demographics.  The school-by-school numbers can be found here,  but they're just that:  Raw numbers.  He's going to get me a spreadsheet and I'll try to generate some percentages soon.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Exams and Shavuot: Let the confusion begin

If it's May it must be testing time,  and in North Carolina that has become a time of confusion and stress.  The tests,  the grading and the way the results are used seem to change like the weather.

Parent Amy Wlodyka sent me the testing schedule she got from Providence High,  accompanied by a note from the principal:   "It is different than in previous years due to NC testing requirements and how much time has to be given for each individual exam.  You will notice that A/B day exams are being given the week of Memorial Day.  You will also notice there are 2 days in the middle of exam week which are regular school days.  June 4 and 5 are Religious Holidays recognized by CMS and exams are not permitted to be given.  Since those are regular school days, all classes will meet and attendance will be taken in each class."

She and I had the same reaction:  What religious holiday?  Thank goodness for the internet:  It's apparently the Jewish celebration of Shavuot,  which marks the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai and is also linked to harvest season.

The real question,  of course,  is how teachers and students are going to handle an exam schedule broken up by two days of regular classes.

"Teachers will NOT be allowed to review since testing has begun,"  emailed recently retired teacher George Walker.  "What will teachers do for two days? What impact will it have on scores since two extra days have passed since review?  To teachers this is two days wasted at a time of the year where a lot is at stake.  ...  It seems silly and hypocritical to have class during a supposed religious observation but not allow the schools to operate once the kids arrive."

What else are you hearing about this year's exams?

We know,  of course,  that this is the year North Carolina plans to break with its longstanding four-point scale for state exams,  with Levels 1 and 2 failing and Levels 3 and 4 passing.  On the new five-point scale,  a Level 3  (passing)  covers what used to be a high level 2,  increasing the number who will be labeled on grade level and reducing the number of  third-graders will be forced to take summer school or face retention under the Read to Achieve act.

I've heard some questions about whether the state will bring back mandatory retesting.  As you may recall,  for a couple of years the state required that students who earned Level 2s on their first try take a new version of the exam a few days later.  That ended last year because scoring was delayed on new exams.  This year,  I'm told that there will be no retesting except for third-graders who fail reading.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Teacher to NC: It's breakup time

The best-read item I've ever posted on this blog wasn't written by me but by Justin Ashley, a dynamo of a fourth-grade teacher at McAlpine Elementary.  His letter to House Speaker Thom Tillis captured the passion, hope and frustration of so many teachers across North Carolina that it lit up social media.

I've enjoyed getting to know Ashley during the past school year.  So it's sad to report that he's planning to leave Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for a better-paying job in South Carolina.


And since I've learned he can speak for himself quite well, I'll simply share the letter he posted on Facebook Friday, telling this state he's calling it quits.  As of Sunday evening, it had been shared more than 300 times.

Dear North Carolina,

I'm leaving you.

To be honest, it isn't me; it's you. 

I've given you all I have to give: my days, nights, and weekends. I've sacrificed my money and hobbies for you.

I've done my best to please you over the years, but no matter how much I gave you, you always asked for more. In return, you gave me less and less.

Even worse, you refused to truly listen to me. I've tried, time after time, to explain my frustrations, but you always tuned me out.

And you frequently questioned me as if I'm unfaithful. With all that I do for you and the kids, how in the world would I have time for anyone else?

You've taken me for granted.

I deserve to be regarded as a partner in this relationship; Instead, you've treated me like a servant.

If you ever want us to be together again, you are going to have to make some serious life changes:

Treat me as an individual with my own perspective (no more top-down approaches to decision-making).

Respect my voice (don't remove my rights in this union between us).

Continually appreciate and repay me for all that I do for you (don't spend the money you owe me on someone else).

Trust me (don't measure me with unfair and inaccurate comparisons to others).

Call me crazy, but I believed I'd one day become a priority to you. And if not me, at least our kids! How were they never at the top of your priority list?

I used to love you, but I really can't do this anymore. I deserve better.

It's over.

I'm leaving you for your sister state, South Carolina.

If you ever decide to change your ways, call me.

You know the number.

Sincerely and No Longer Yours,
Justin Ashley
2013 North Carolina History Teacher of the Year
2013 North Carolina Social Studies Teacher of the Year

2011 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools East Zone Teacher of the Year

Friday, May 9, 2014

Tweet wars and teacher pay

Meghan Brinkley,  a fifth-grade teacher,  wants everyone to know how it felt to be part of the group that showed up at Wednesday's Mecklenburg County commission meeting to speak for higher teacher pay.

"Teachers in the district often feel as though they don't matter,"  she wrote shortly after the meeting ended.  "Tonight, that was evident.  While concerns were expressed,  Commissioners were on iPads,  phones,  and even falling asleep.  Listening to concerns was not part of tonight's agenda.  Commissioner Bill James,  district 6,  took to Twitter throughout the meeting.  He even tweeted on his Twitter handle @meckcommish that teachers 'Attempt to hijack #meckbocc #meckcounty meeting. It makes me want to give them LESS Money.'  He continued with these sort of tweets that made it feel as though teachers, and those who care about education, had no reason attending these meetings."

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison has proposed seeking almost $27 million from the county for 3 percent raises,  part of a budget plan that's almost certain to win the school board's approval next week and be passed along to commissioners.  But aDavid Perlmutt reported,   the budget wasn't on Wednesday's agenda.  

Commissioners' Chairman Trevor Fuller insisted that no one speak about the budget until June 11,  when there's a public hearing scheduled.  So instead,  the people who had turned out for teachers talked about the importance of teachers without specifically addressing the budget.  According to Brinkley,  the speakers were respectful of commissioners' time limits and procedures,  but that respect was not reciprocated.

She wasn't exaggerating the nature of James' tweets.  Here's a sampling of more than a dozen comments he sent out during the meeting (#meckbocc is the board of county commissioners,  #cmsbd is the school board or CMS in general,  and #ncga is the General Assembly):

CMS teachers who are supposed to know the rules and follow the rules aren't really doing either.

Is the teacher that dragged down students at the wrong time at fault for not knowing the rules or for flaunting them?

Too bad didn't spend that time to address the since it is the legislature that has to provide raises not

Do it for 'the children' - that phrase has covered a lot of public school sins.

I can see why has such a bully problem. Mob rule. Gang of teachers attack over budget. Should be at

And yes, James made the comment Brinkley quoted,  apparently in response to a tweet from fellow commissioner Karen Bentley,  whose Twitter account is  "protected"  so only followers can see her comments.  Bentley's attitude toward speakers also came under fire in tweets chiding James (identified as @meckcommish)  and others.

Utter contempt - distain shown by towards the group of teachers in attendance last night was epic

This rhetoric reflects poorly on all .

Perhaps the should adopt 's policy of not tweeting while the public is speaking to you at meetings

As a reporter who covers public meetings on deadline,  I understand commissioners'  frustration with a long parade of speakers who aren't focused on the task at hand.  For those of us who are  "regulars,"  the public comment period can become just another time-eating item in an already long night.

But here's what I try to remember:  Coming to speak to elected representatives is a big deal.  Most people hate public speaking;  they're standing before the mikes only because they care so much.

And without people who care about the business our government does,  none of us  --  officials or the journalists who cover those bodies  --  would have a job.

So I'll give the last word to this tweet from another Charlotte teacher:

A friendly reminder to our : we are a big voting base. If you don't value us, we'll elect people who do.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

McCrory pay plan: What do you think?

Gov. Pat McCrory unveiled a plan to revamp North Carolina's teacher pay scale to predictably mixed reviews Wednesday.  Click here to see the material that was handed out at the announcement at N.C. A&T and here for McCrory's press release.

McCrory with budget director Art Pope (left) and education adviser Eric Guckian

I'm eager to hear what you all think of it.  Here's a sampling of early reactions from around the state.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison,  the first speaker after McCrory to tout the plan,  emailed CMS employees Wednesday afternoon voicing support: "I am encouraged about many components of this framework. It allows for more local control in the development of a teacher compensation model and seeks to restore salary supplements for teachers who earn advanced degrees in the subjects they teach.  It also builds on the work we have started at CMS to create a comprehensive teacher compensation model and provide additional professional growth and pay opportunities for our valued teachers. ... It is clear that there are a lot of details about the governor’s proposal that need to be developed.  This proposal is a solid step toward our goal of compensating teachers better but more work will be required."

The N.C. Association of Educators offered mixed reviews in a statement from VP Mark Jewell:  "NCAE is glad the Governor has come to share our view that all teachers, not just the newest ones, deserve a pay raise.  But a raise in the range of 2-3 percent as proposed is inadequate, given that teachers’ pay has been frozen for five of the last six years. ... Rather than pit state agencies against each other over an already-reduced budget, NCAE suggests that a better approach would be to delay this year's scheduled $300 million tax cut for the very wealthy and profitable corporations. This would provide at least a 5% raise for teachers. ... With respect to the longer-term plan to revise the teacher salary schedule, for years the NCAE has put forward proposals for pay schedule reform, and the governor’s plan reflects several ideas our staff shared with his staff several months ago.  We look forward to working in support of a fair and workable salary schedule for the future."

BEST NC, the coalition of business leaders recently created to advocate for public education,  offered support while acknowledging that important cost questions remain to be answered.  We finally have a professional compensation plan that allows our most effective teachers to take on leadership roles in their schools and impact more students, without leaving the classroom,”  said Venessa Harrison, president of AT&T North Carolina and BEST NC Board member,  who spoke at the announcement.  Read the full statement here.

State Superintendent June Atkinson,  a Democrat,  voiced support at the announcement.  But the state Democratic party sent out critical statements from the House and Senate Democratic caucuses.

From Sen. Dan Blue,  D-Wake:  "The Governor clearly recognizes the need to undo some of the damage that his administration did to education last year. Unfortunately, Governor McCrory and Thom Tillis put teachers in tough spot by cutting an additional half billion dollars from education last year in order to give massive handouts to the wealthy and special interests. It’s time to see action – and not just to relieve some of the hardships teachers have borne thanks to the governor – but a real plan to raise teacher pay to the national average and ensure our students have the best schools in the country.”

And from Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham:  "Governor McCrory's plan may make for good political talking points, but it simply does not do enough to begin addressing the teacher pay crisis in North Carolina. ... (The plan) does not provide a dedicated plan to raise teacher pay to the national average.  All Governor McCrory provided today is an unfunded plan that continues to sell North Carolina educators and students short. ... Our students and teachers deserve more than election year rhetoric and short-term band-aids."

CarolinaCAN,  which had worked with the McCrory team and posted a plan that included many of the same elements as his proposal,  offered support:  "This is the first time we've seen a comprehensive proposal that addresses both low base salaries and the state's outdated salary schedule,"  said Executive Director Julie Kowal.  Read the statement and get a link to the group's proposal here.

N.C. Chamber President Lew Ebert called McCrory's plan a step in the right direction:  "For many years, the NC Chamber has worked to advance education priorities to position North Carolina as the leading state in talent development. As such, we have previously supported Governor McCrory’s push to raise teacher pay to the national average. ... Legislative leaders have also developed innovative ways to compensate our best teachers and we support this approach to make teaching an attractive career path for young people in North Carolina. We commend them for their efforts and hope this sort of innovative education reform will continue."

And Progress NC's Gerrick Brenner panned the plan as an election-year gimmick lacking details on how to pay for raises:  "Because of radical tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, the state already faces a $445M shortfall.  McCrory's new teacher pay plan could add another $100M in expenses, on top of his $200M plan for better pay for new teachers, and $45M for better pay for state employees.  McCrory's shortfall could add up to an eye-popping $790M. In his short tenure as Governor, McCrory already has a track record of offering up promises which don't pan out.
Governor McCrory's 2013 budget proposal included a 1% raise for teachers, but that never happened."