Friday, December 30, 2011

Six for District 6 ... so far

Half a dozen people have applied for the District 6 school board seat left vacant when Tim Morgan was elected to an at-large seat in November,  with the application deadline looming at 3 p.m. Monday.  The eight current members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board plan to hear applicants' pitches at 1 p.m. Tuesday; if time allows, they'll discuss and possibly select an appointee that afternoon. If not, they'll meet again at 4 p.m. Thursday . Both special meetings are open to the public.

Here are the names so far:

Scott Babbidge of Matthews,  a Republican who filed to run for the at-large seat but withdrew when there were four Republicans seeking the three seats.

E. Thomas Bowers of Charlotte,  a Democrat and progressive political activist.

Larry Bumgarner of Mint Hill,  an unaffiliated voter who has frequently run for school board,  including this year.  His comments will be familiar to readers of this blog.

Angelica P. Castaneda-Noorbakhsh of Charlotte,  whom I've been told is a leader in the Latino networking and advocacy group Enlace Charlotte.  I can't find her under any variation of that name in voter records.

Michael Orlando Jones of Matthews,  a name that's new to me.  Voter records show a Michael Orlando Jones who's a Republican living in District 1 and a Michael O. Jones who's a Democrat living in District 2.  To be considered for the District 6 appointment,  applicants must be registered to vote there.

Bolyn McClung of Pineville,  a Republican who's also familiar to readers of blog comments.  He served on the panel led by former Gov. James Martin that advised CMS on construction strategies after a failed 2005 bond vote and is a regular at school board meetings.

I'll get the applications next week and learn more about these folks.  It'll be interesting to see if there's a last-minute surge of filing;  in recent years,  open seats have drawn big crowds of applicants.  Rumors have been floating that this vacancy,  which has two years left to serve,  might entice former board Chair Wilhelmenia Rembert , who served five years in an at-large post and lives in District 6.  Morgan says he knows of two more people who definitely plan to apply Monday and one who's considering it.

There's also been speculation about how the board will make a choice.  Will they pick someone similar to Morgan, a moderate Republican?  Will the Democrats who hold a majority push someone from their party,  even though the south suburban district is heavily GOP?  A look at other appointments indicates anything could happen.

The two most recent vacancies occurred at the end of 2008,  when Vilma Leake and George Dunlap became county commissioners and left openings in Districts 2 and 3,  respectively.  Nineteen people applied for District 2 and 22 for District 3,  though only 17 ended up making speeches for each opening  (some withdrew,  were deemed ineligible or just didn't follow through).  Democrats and African Americans make up a majority of both districts.  The board chose Kimberly Mitchell-Walker, a black Democrat,  for District 2.  James Ross, a black Republican, got the District 3 seat,  ruffling some Democratic feathers.  Both ran for office the following year and lost.

In 2006, unaffiliated at-large member Kit Cramer resigned and 40 people signed up to take her place. The board chose Trent Merchant, also an unaffiliated voter. I still grin when remembering the article I wrote to introduce him: An Observer researcher found a 2002 article describing him as a young Atlanta actor who got frustrated with noisy audience members.

"Get the f--- out!" Merchant yelled,  according to that clip.  "Either shut up or leave!"

Although he did earn a reputation for colorful commentary,  Merchant never used those particular phrases with his colleagues.  He was elected to the at-large seat the following year.

Finally,  the last time the board appointed a District 6 representative was in August 2005,  during an election season.  Republican Lee Kindberg resigned with four months left on her term and endorsed Democrat Liz Downing,  who was running for the seat,  as her fill-in.  Some board members balked at appointing someone who was campaigning,  but Downing got the nod over eight other applicants.  (She was defeated by Republican Ken Gjertsen in November.)  In one of the odder twists, Republican County Commissioner Bill James had offered to represent the district on both bodies to fill the gap before the election.

Hmm ... no word from James about the school board this time around. Then again, some commenters have suggested he's got his eye on becoming Mayor of Ballantyne now.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Prepping for the Broad Prize

Guilford County Schools has paid a Denver consulting firm almost $40,000 to do a simulation of the Broad Prize for Urban Education judging,  according to a district news release.

The release says the researchers who did the Broad-based  "diagnostic report"  described Guilford as  "a rising district nationally,"  but noted that it  "still has more work to do before it can join the elite ranks of Broad Prize winners."

This year's winner is Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  where Guilford County Superintendent Maurice  "Mo"  Green got his start as an administrator.  He was Peter Gorman's second-in-command before taking the job in Greensboro in 2008.

Like real Broad Prize judges,  staff from RMC Research Corp.  analyzed data and did a three-day visit that included classroom visits and focus-group interviews.  The group rated Guilford on the Broad Prize Framework for School District Excellence and suggested improvements,  such as more rigorous curriculum and more support for teachers.

The $38,600 cost,  which includes follow-up services,  was split between a Broad Foundation grant and money raised by the local Businesses for Excellence in Education.

Guilford,  North Carolina's third-largest district after Wake and CMS,  was one of four in North Carolina that was eligible for this year's Broad Prize,  based on size and having at least 40 percent of students from minority groups and eligible for federal lunch aid to low-income families.  Wake,  with a 33 percent poverty level as measured by lunch subsidies,  was not eligible.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Gorman: Close schools, pack your bags

Former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Peter Gorman isn't talking to the Charlotte media anymore,  but he certainly has some interesting things to say as he makes the national rounds.

Lew Powell,  a former Observer colleague,  forwarded this recent item from City Beat,  a Memphis,  Tenn.,  blog.  It reports on a confab between Memphis officials and Gorman (who now works for the education division of News Corp.),  then-board Chair Eric Davis,  former board Chair Arthur Griffin and an unnamed former CMS principal.

"The system won a national award this year for excellence in urban education,  but this was not a butt-patting session,"  reports John Branston,  a senior editor for The Memphis Flyer.  Branston's report continues:

“Progress has been painfully slow,  and at the rate we are moving in Charlotte it will still be 15 years before the achievement gap is closed,”  said former superintendent Pete Gorman.

He urged the committee to  “build a bench”  of future principals and assistant principals from among promising young teachers;  move good principals and five teachers as a group to the toughest schools but not against their will;  give new leadership three years to turn around a school;  give good schools more autonomy;  measure improvement , not raw scores,  so that even college-prep schools must show improvement year over year;  pick a superintendent for the consolidated district sooner rather than later;  give the schools with the poorest students the most money,  and give the wealthiest schools the least money;  and expect to move on if you are the superintendent that has to close schools.

“You can’t close schools well,”  he said,  adding that "to do the job well,  I sometimes question if it's physically possible."

Gorman,  as most Charlotte readers know,  launched a push in fall 2010 to close about a dozen schools in 2011-12.  He announced his resignation in June,  just after the board approved a 2011-12 budget.  Many of the newly-merged schools are now dealing with discipline problems,  although the staff that remains to deal with aftermath still voices hope that there will be academic benefits.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Follow-up on Cochrane turnaround

I got an email today from David Markus,  the writer of the Edutopia package on Cochrane's "turnaround" that I wrote about yesterday.

I had re-messaged Markus,  the publication's editorial director,  to let him know former Cochrane Principal Terry Brown was challenging his account of then-Superintendent Peter Gorman visiting the east Charlotte middle school in 2006 and proclaiming,  "This may be the worst school I have ever seen."  Brown,  who ended a three-year stint as Cochrane's principal at the end of the 2006-07 school year,  says Gorman never visited the school while he was there.  Brown said he and Gorman had several conversations during the year that the two of them shared in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  and Gorman never gave him any indication that he held such dim views of Cochrane's academic performance.

Markus stands by his reporting: "In an email to me on November 2nd, Pete Gorman corroborated the 'worst' school quote and added that his visit to Cochrane was the most disheartening school visit of his career."  No word from Gorman;  I haven't been able to reach him since he announced his resignation in June.

I still don't know who pitched the Cochrane turnaround story,  which has gotten national and local attention,  or whether Markus realized that part of the proficiency gains he cited came from a change in N.C. testing rules that bumped up most low-scoring schools.  But on the general topic, Markus said:

"We believe it is a  'turnaround'  for the statistics we cite.  As a student of school turnarounds I am sure you know that when a school has fallen as low as Cochrane had,  it will take several years to dig out.  Cochrane is well on its way after only a few,  but as we make plain in our package,  their rise to excellence is not nearly complete.  Nor is it guaranteed.  That said I am very impressed with (Principal) Josh Bishop's team and the results they are achieving."

We're certainly in agreement that turnarounds are complex and slow.  This got me curious enough to do my own walk down memory lane ... actually, the N.C. school report cards. Here's what the numbers show, with some context.

At the end of 2006-07,  the year Gorman may or may not have proclaimed Cochrane the worst,  67 percent of its students passed the reading exam and 37 percent passed math.  The school fell short of the state target for growth,  generally described as an average of one year's academic gain per student.

In 2007-08,  after Brown's retirement,  Valarie Williams was hired to lead Cochrane.  State officials also introduced an eighth-grade science exam,  and bumped up the number of correct answers needed to pass the reading test.  Most educators agreed the old cut-off was too low,  but the change brought a plunge in pass rates across the state,  especially for minority and low-income students and the schools (such as  Cochrane) that served them.  In 2008, Cochrane's pass rates were 32 percent in reading, 34 percent in math and 14 percent in science.  Cochrane again failed to make the growth target.

In 2008-09,  North Carolina started requiring students who failed state exams to try again,  boosting pass rates across the state.  That year Cochrane hit 47 percent in reading,  54 percent in math and 35 percent in science,  and it met the "expected growth" target.

In February 2010,  Gorman reassigned Williams to Vance High School as part of his "strategic staffing" plan to improve that school.  Josh Bishop became interim principal (he got the permanent job at the start of 2010-11).  That year ended with Cochrane at 52 percent passing reading, 67 percent passing math and  61 percent passing science. The school made "high growth."

Last year Cochrane held steady at 52 percent passing reading, declined to 59 percent passing math and rose to 63 percent passing science,  with an "expected growth" rating.  It was a year when many CMS schools saw some slump in scores.

The gains in math and science are impressive, even with the retesting boost.  Still,  it's worth noting that Cochrane continues to hover around 50 percent proficiency on reading.  In 2011,  only 43 percent of students passed both reading and math exams,  a mark that signals readiness to move on to the tougher high school courses.  And the black,  Hispanic and low-income students who make up the majority of Cochrane's students had pass rates about 10 percentage points lower than the average for those same groups in CMS and statewide.

CMS is state's No. 8 employer

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is North Carolina's eighth-largest employer,  down from seventh in 2002,  the Triangle Business Journal reports.  The 2011 list puts CMS just ahead of Wake County Schools,  even though Wake has more students.

Spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte says CMS has 18,120 employees this school year, including 8,890 full-time teachers. (Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh and former school board Chair Eric Davis have both told public groups this month that CMS has 9,300 teachers; I couldn't get an immediate explanation for the 400-teacher gain.)

Public bodies hold four of the top nine spots on the N.C. employer list, with state and federal governments in the No. 1 and 2 spots, respectively.  Charlotte's Carolinas Medical Center is fifth -- up from No. 9 on the old list.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Cochrane turnaround tale ... really?

The contrast between Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools'  glowing national image and the controversy that surrounds it at home is a source of much discussion.

I suspect those of us in the thick of things do tend to fixate on problems.  Up close,  bumps in the road can look like mountains.

But if problems get exaggerated locally,  I've also seen success exaggerated nationally.  Most recent case in point:  The Edutopia package on Cochrane's  "turnaround"  that's been widely circulated.  I first saw it on the ASCD Smartbrief,  a national roundup of education reporting,  early this month.  CMS officials played the video portion at the conclusion of a Dec.  13 report on schools in transition.

My first reaction was confusion.  Cochrane,  an east Charlotte middle school that's starting to add high school grades this year,  hasn't been on my  "success story"  radar.  Had I missed something?

A look at my data sheets said no.  Cochrane ended 2011 with a composite pass rate of 58 percent on state exams.  Of 35 CMS middle schools,  only four scored lower  --  and two of those,  Spaugh and Williams, closed this year.  More telling,  only two middle schools earned a lower growth rating,  a measure designed to make sure schools are judged on how much their students gain,  not just how well prepared they are when they arrive.

So why is one of the district's weakest middle schools being highlighted as a school that  "beats the odds every day"?  David Markus,  Edutopia's editorial director and the writer of the main article,  hasn't responded to my message asking who suggested the story.  In another part of the package,  an endnote thanks The Broad Foundation for sharing research about top urban districts.

The package focuses mostly on Cochrane's significant gains in pass rates from 2008 to 2011.  What's not  mentioned is that the same can be said for most struggling schools in North Carolina,  thanks to a change in testing that took effect in 2009.  In 2008,  students took the test once.  Starting in 2009,  those who fell below the "passing" line were required to try again,  and be counted as passing if they met the mark on the second test.  Generally,  the more failing students a school had,  the bigger the  "retest"  bump it showed.  As CMS superintendent,  Peter Gorman frequently blasted the retesting system as giving schools an artificial inflation in pass rates.

Gorman, who left CMS in June to work with education technology for Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.,  is featured in a dramatic opening to Markus'  story.  It describes Gorman visiting Cochrane in 2006,  the year he started as superintendent: "Known for his no-nonsense determination to turn around the district's failing schools, Gorman minces no words in describing Cochrane: 'This may be the worst school I have ever seen.' "  Gorman is later quoted as saying, five years later, "There was no instructional focus. It was the most disheartening school visit of my career."

Terry Brown,  Cochrane's principal in 2006-07,  called me after reading the first version of this post.  While I had noted that Gorman certainly wasn't saying such things publicly at that time,  and that administrators tend to give their most vivid  "bad schools"  accounts in hindsight,  Brown, who retired in 2007, says this goes beyond dramatic reconstruction.

"Gorman never visited Cochrane the first year he was there.  Not one time,"  Brown said.  "He was scheduled and canceled.  I'm appalled.  None of this is true."

Bottom line:  Edutopia, a publication of the George Lucas Educational Foundation,  is dedicated to highlighting academic solutions that include technology, teacher development and "comprehensive assessment."  CMS is well known for those approaches,  and Cochrane,  as noted prominently in the story,  is working with Texas Instruments to use technology in math instruction.  One sign that it's helping,  from my spreadsheets:  CMS reported that last year only 49 percent of Cochrane sixth-graders were proficient on math exams,  while 65 percent of eighth-graders were.  One troubling signal:  That's down from 75 percent of Cochrane eighth-graders proficient in math the previous year.

I don't want to detract from the hard work and high aspirations of the faculty and students at Cochrane.  I'd love to write their turnaround story sometime down the road,  when I see solid evidence that it's justified.  All this is just to say that improving education is complicated business,  and it's wise to scrutinize naysayers and cheerleaders alike.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Charter costs and West Meck suspensions

A caller raised a good question about this morning's story on per-pupil costs at charter schools serving Mecklenburg students.  He correctly noted that charters don't get public money for buildings,  while Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools gets construction and renovation money through county-issued bonds.  The caller suspected that would skew the per-pupil spending reported on the N.C. school report cards.

I'm not sure there's ever a perfect apples-to-apples comparison,  but the state does not include capital expenses   --  that is, building and renovation  --  in the per-pupil tally for charters or traditional public schools,  so it should be a reasonably close comparison of spending on education  (or at least school operating expenses).

While we're scrutinizing numbers,  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has issued a correction to some eye-popping suspension numbers from West Mecklenburg High that were reported at last week's school board meeting.

As part of a staff report on discipline and other issues at schools that saw major changes in enrollment,  CMS initially said West Meck had 2,452 suspensions during the first half of 2010-11  --  with an enrollment just under 2,200  --  and 1,482 with a slightly smaller student body this year.  A corrected report issued last week  (while I was taking a few days off, thus the delay in reporting)  amends that to 1,226 last year and 741 this year, exactly half of what was presented to the board.

The email from CMS Communications Director Tahira Stalberte noting the revisions does not address the source of the error.

Monday, December 12, 2011

CMS search: The novel

A full report on what the public said about the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent search is on the agenda for Tuesday's school board meeting.

The Cliff Notes version of the online survey report has been out for more than a week,  but the full version is posing a challenge,  according to the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute researchers who conducted the poll.  It seems the open-ended question at the end got a lot of responses.  Of the 9,300 who took the survey,  about 3,600 wrote more about what they wanted  --  and brevity was not the defining characteristic.

"The number of words in those responses rivaled full-length novels,"  a member of the research team said last week.  "For instance,  'The Grapes of Wrath.' "

As of last week's forums,  the researchers seemed unsure of how to proceed.  Clearly they realized people who took the time to write deserved more than the very brief synopses in the preliminary report,  such as "teacher needs,"  "communications"  and  "equity/diversity."  But it's also unlikely that board members want to read hundreds of pages of unedited comments.

I'll be among the group listening to how they handle it Tuesday  ...  and keeping my fingers crossed that the new board's first meeting doesn't turn into a deadline-buster.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Time for an insider?

One of the themes that bubbled up in this week's superintendent-search forums is a resistance to reform ideas handed down by philanthropists,  the federal government and national experts.

Over and over,  speakers said they want someone who understands and is committed to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  someone willing to work out local solutions before looking to the national grant-makers who can bestow millions to test their ideas in Charlotte.  Some explicitly urged the school board and search firm to look inside CMS for leadership.

It's an interesting dynamic.  When James Pughsley resigned in 2005,  disappointment with CMS leadership expressed itself in a push to hire from outside.  Some board members thought insider Frances Haithcock, the interim superintendent and one of three finalists for the permanent post,  would have been an excellent choice,  but they ended up agreeing that the public wanted fresh eyes on CMS' challenges.  The result,  as we all know,  was Peter Gorman,  who was leading the much smaller district in Tustin,  Calif.,  and made a strong impression as a finalist.

There's plenty of frustration in 2011,  despite the fact that CMS is basking in national acclaim and making gains on test scores.  But many seem to blame the worst of recent years  --  massive layoffs,  school closings,  an increase in testing and a heavy-handed rollout of teacher performance pay  --  on Gorman's connections with The Broad Foundation, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other national  agenda-setters.

The name that comes up most often as an internal successor to Gorman is Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark  (Hugh Hattabaugh agreed not to apply when he became interim superintendent).  She has a long history with CMS as a teacher, principal and central-office administrator.  She has also won national awards and graduated from the Broad Superintendents Academy. Some will see that as the best of all worlds  ...  and some may see it as the worst.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Eighth-graders: Phooey on reading!

I suppose it's no shock in this wired generation,  but fewer than one in five eighth-graders in Charlotte and nationwide say they read for fun almost every day.  And about one-third say they never read when they don't have to.

That's a tidbit from the latest "nation's report card" report on reading and math results for students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and 20 other large urban districts.  The sampling of students who took the 2011 eighth-grade reading test were asked some background questions , including how often they read for fun on their own time.  Eighteen percent of CMS students said  "almost every day,"  matching the national average.  Only Chicago;  Washington,  D.C.;  and Louisville,  Ky.,  were higher,  at 19 percent.  Dallas had the fewest daily readers at 9 percent.

Non-readers made up 33 percent of the national test-takers and 30 percent in CMS.  Other cities ranged from 40 percent choosing  "almost never"  in Fresno,  Calif.,  to 17 percent in Chicago.

Not surprisingly,  the report says students who read more frequently for pleasure scored higher on the reading tests.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Davis: Charlotte's hard on superintendents

At Tuesday night's superintendent search forum,  the talk was as much about keeping a superintendent as hiring one.

In one classroom at Myers Park High,  half a dozen people talked about what it would take to break the pattern of superintendents spending three to five years,  rolling out reforms and moving on.  One woman noted that when Gorman arrived in 2006,  he said he expected to be superintendent until his daughter graduated from high school  (somewhere around 2017).  She speculated that he meant it at the time,  but the job wore him down.

In the next room,  the group was larger and the comments edgier.  Several people asked board Chair Eric Davis about the search process.  He said he was just there to listen,  but eventually he joined in.

When Keith Hurley,  who ran for school board this year,  said the superintendent had been getting bonuses without accountability,  Davis told him he was just plain wrong.  Peter Gorman had specific performance goals,  Davis said,  and during the years of budget cuts Gorman declined a bonus even when he met them.

When retired counselor Dee Williams said the new superintendent needs to make eye contact when people address the school board,  Davis and board member Richard McElrath talked about looking at monitors to get a better view of speakers.

Near the end,  David Phillips talked about marketing Charlotte to superintendent candidates:  "They have to select us, too.  We have a house to sell.  We have to put our best foot forward."

That's when Davis really dived in.

"I don't think we have trouble winning someone,"  he said.  "We have trouble keeping them.  Pete came with all this energy and openness and eye contact.  Then he made some mistakes and we got mad."

Davis said CMS "made two terrible missteps last spring: That darn house bill and all the tests."

He was referring to dozens of new CMS tests created as part of performance pay,  and to House Bill 546, drafted by CMS staff and introduced in the state legislature to let CMS launch performance pay without teacher approval.  Both created backlash from teachers and parents, who complained that Gorman was overtesting students and eroding teachers' trust.

The CMS errors were compounded by negative public reaction,  Davis said:  "If we want someone who's going to stay with us, we have to support them when they screw up.  ...  We don't gain anything when we tear down our school system and when we bludgeon our superintendent at the public comment period."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


As Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools gears up its search for a new leader,  the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority is hiring its new chief this week.

Tom Murray, whose hiring will be voted on Wednesday,  has been offered a $275,000 salary,  an $8,000 car allowance and a yet-unspecified bonus opportunity starting in 2013.

The CMS board will negotiate a compensation package when it hires a superintendent this spring.  Expect it to be in the $300,000 range,  around what Peter Gorman was making when he left.  And expect howls from struggling taxpayers,  along with educators who make a fraction of that and have been without raises and bonuses for three years.

I'm not going to argue that the head educator should make more.  But I was struck by the contrast in responsibility between the two similarly-paid public jobs.

"The CRVA,  with a budget of $50 million and 200 employees,  manages the NASCAR Hall of Fame,   Bojangles' Coliseum,  Ovens Auditorium and the Charlotte Convention Center,"  April Bethea and Steve Harrison report.  "The authority also works on marketing and new business development programs."

CMS has a budget of over $1 billion and almost 18,000 employees.  It oversees about 170 schools educating more than 140,000 kids,  along with numerous other office and support buildings.

The school district's budget comes primarily from state,  county and federal money.  The CRVA's comes from taxes on hotel and motel rooms and a 1 percent tax on prepared food and drinks.

It takes a crisis

Consider the throngs that met repeatedly in Mint Hill a couple of years ago to counter proposed Rocky River High boundaries.  Or the folks who packed school board meetings and marched in the street last year when the board was preparing to close and merge westside schools.

Then consider last night's ho-hum turnout for the first two forums on hiring a new superintendent:  about 20 at Butler High in Matthews,  40 at Johnson C. Smith University in west Charlotte. Weed out the school board members, moderators and presenters and you've got well under 50 combined.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that it takes a crisis to mobilize people around public education  --  or at least it takes a specific change that affects them personally.

That's an ongoing challenge for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders,  who are inevitably accused of failing to communicate once an issue explodes into public consciousness. (One odd omission: There were no signs directing people to the discussion sites last night -- people were on their own to navigate a college campus and a large high school.)

There are four more forums this week. It will be interesting to see who shows up. Will the people trying to create a stronger voice for Spanish-speaking families turn out for tonight's east Charlotte session?  Will the Huntersville folks who got blindsided by Hough High boundary decisions be at North Meck on Thursday?

Whether or not you agree with their philosophy and style,  you've got to respect the dedication of the "regulars" who turn out for all these evening sessions.  At JSCU I saw Kojo Nantambu of the local NAACP;  Elyse Dashew,  a magnet parent who just ran for school board;  and Blanche Penn,  who's a speaker at most school board meetings.  At Butler,  my colleague Elisabeth Arriero spoke with Aidan McConnell, a Providence High senior whose work with Mecklenburg Youth Voice is immersing him in CMS politics and policy.

Board member Richard McElrath has his own idea about who needs to get motivated: Men.

The online survey about the superintendent search drew four female responses to every one from a male.  The turnout at JCSU was even more skewed than that.  When the gathering split into two discussion groups,   McElrath found himself the only guy at the table.

"We need some men,"  he said.  "The community needs to see males out there working hard."

Sunday, December 4, 2011

What do people want for CMS?

Trustworthy,  reliable,  intelligent and fair.  Those are top characteristics Mecklenburg residents are seeking in the next superintendent,  according to a preliminary report on what students, teachers and other adults said in an online survey.

This week the search for a new leader of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools moves into the face-to-face phase of engaging the public in a decision that will shape the region for years to come.  Read the plan here  --  and if you want to speak up,  attend one of the six forums taking place Monday,  Tuesday and Thursday.

The school board and its search firm plan to use the input to craft a profile that will help the board choose the right person for the job  --  and help candidates figure out what kind of community they're looking at.  The goal is to hire a superintendent in the spring,  with two or three finalists meeting the public before the board picks one.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Civil rights groups laud diversity plan

Friday afternoon the federal Justice and Education departments issued a joint advisory on how "educational institutions can lawfully pursue voluntary policies to achieve diversity or avoid racial isolation," overturning a 2008 directive issued under the Bush administration. Read it here.

"The elementary and secondary guidance discusses school districts’ options in areas such as student assignment, student transfers, school siting, feeder patterns, and school zoning. Similarly, the postsecondary guidance provides examples of how colleges and universities can further diversity in contexts including admissions, pipeline programs, recruitment and outreach, and mentoring, tutoring, retention, and support programs," the letter says.

The news landed too late for official Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools reaction, but national civil rights groups were quick to applaud the statement.

“This thoughtfully crafted guidance affirms, as a majority of Supreme Court justices have recognized, that K-12 schools, colleges, and universities have compelling interests in ensuring integration and alleviating racial and economic isolation in our schools," says a statement sent Friday evening by the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Coalition on School Diversity, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other groups. "Racial segregation and concentrated poverty are increasing in our nation’s schools, suggesting that we are backtracking on the successes of the civil rights movement. Many schools are more racially isolated today than they were in the 1970s. Today’s guidance recognizes the harms of resegregation and the benefits of diversity."

Charlotte-Mecklenburg's race-based assignment plan, which included drawing boundaries to increase diversity and offering magnet seats based partly on race, was overturned after a long legal battle. Since then, some have lamented the increasing isolation of African American, Hispanic and low-income students in CMS schools.

"Racial isolation remains far too common in America's classrooms today and it is increasing," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says in a press release. "This denies our children the experiences they need to succeed in a global economy, where employers, coworkers and customers will be increasingly diverse. It also breeds educational inequity, which is inconsistent with America's core values."

Face time on CMS search

After an online survey that drew more than 9,300 responses,  the folks helping Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools find a new superintendent are ready to spend some face time with local residents.

Next week local moderators and professionals from PROACT Search will hold a series of open discussion forums around Mecklenburg County,  as well as invitation-only small-group discussions with ministers,  business leaders,  teachers,  principals,  neighborhood groups,  representatives of African American and Latino groups and others.  There will also be one-on-one interviews with elected officials,  senior CMS staff and other selected leaders.  In all sessions,  participants will be asked to talk about CMS' strengths and challenges , what they'd like to see in a superintendent and how they can support the search.

Read details of the community engagement plan here  (I'm also keeping a list of links related to the search in the right rail of this blog).

Thursday, December 1, 2011

High-poverty schools shortchanged?

The U.S. Department of Education announced Wednesday that more than 40 percent of the nation's high-poverty schools are getting short shrift on local and state education money.

As many blog readers know,  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools spends significantly more per student at schools with the highest levels of student poverty,  in part because the federal Title I program pumps in millions of dollars in aid.  The Ed Department set out to see whether school districts are using that money to supplant state and local spending,  shifting money to wealthier schools.  They pulled federal money out of the equation and recalculated 2008-09 per-pupil spending for schools in more than 13,000 districts.

According to the news release,  more than 40 percent of Title I schools spent less state and local money on teachers and other personnel than more affluent schools in the same district.

“Educators across the country understand that low-income students need extra support and resources to succeed,  but in far too many places policies for assigning teachers and allocating resources are perpetuating the problem rather than solving it,”  U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says in the release.  “The good news in this report is that it is feasible for districts to address this problem and it will have a significant impact on educational opportunities for our nation’s poorest children.”

I downloaded their data from CMS (go here for the raw data),  and it doesn't look like high-poverty schools are coming up short,  even without the federal aid factored in.  Not surprisingly,  size and need seem to be the biggest factors in high per-pupil spending;  at very small schools,  administrative,  support and building costs are divided among fewer students.  Small alternative schools had the highest state and local totals,  led by $15,545 at Derita,  which served students with severe behavioral problems.

Garinger High was the highest regular school at $7,462.   At that time,  no CMS high schools had hit the 75 percent poverty mark that CMS uses to distribute Title I aid,  but it's a high-poverty neighborhood school getting lots of extra support from CMS.  In general,  the high-spending list was dominated by small high-poverty elementary schools,  such as Shamrock Gardens and Thomasboro,  and small magnets such as the Montessori schools,  Davis Military/Leadership and Davidson IB.

The lowest per-pupil state and local spending was at large suburban schools with low poverty levels,  according to the federal tally.  Alexander Graham Middle was lowest at $2,907,  followed by Community House Middle at $3,039.  Wilson Middle,  which closed this year,  was the Title I school that landed lowest on the spending list,  95th of 167 schools.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Meck, Wake on new school choice index

When it comes to educational choice and competition,  Mecklenburg County ranks about in the middle of the pack,  while Wake County is among the leaders.  That's the conclusion of The Brookings Institution, which today released ratings of the nation's 25 largest school districts,  along with the charter and private schools that offer alternatives in those counties.

Brookings worked from the premise that students benefit when their families have alternatives to their assigned neighborhood schools,  whether in the form of magnets,  charters,  affordable private schools or online learning.  Too often , study author Grover "Russ" Whitehurst writes,  real choice is available only to families who earn enough to move to neighborhoods with the best schools or pay private-school tuition.

Whitehurst created a 13-item choice and competition index that includes such things as the number of alternatives available in each area,  the quality and clarity of data available to help families make choices and the willingness of school districts to let family choice influence decisions about school budgets and even closings.   New York City took the top spot with a B grade.  Wake was No. 4 with a B-,  and CMS was 11th with a C+ . Orange County,  Fla. , was last with a D.  (Read the list here.)

Both Mecklenburg and Wake rated high on options available and accessible online information about school quality . In both N.C. counties,  roughly 80 percent of school-age children attend regular public schools,  with the rest divided among charters,  private schools and home-schooling.  Both districts offer an array of magnets.

Wake County Public Schools rated high on closing schools that aren't popular with parents,  while Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools landed at the bottom of that list.  Mecklenburg got a low rating on providing transportation as part of school choice.  CMS recently cut back on busing to magnets,  and N.C. charter schools are not required to offer transportation.

In an interview Tuesday,  Whitehurst said he was impressed with the data CMS offers families to help them compare and choose schools.  But he said he's disappointed that the district backed away from the "choice plan" that rolled out in 2002,  offering families options to switch their kids to other nonmagnet schools.  That plan created crowding at some schools and underenrollment at others,  which led CMS leaders to limit choices.  Whitehurst, who directs Brookings' Brown Center on Education Policy,  said CMS would have served students better by closing the schools that families fled and expanding those that attracted students.

"It was disappointing to see a good choice system in place  ...  kind of collapsing because of the difficulty of dealing with the demand,"  he said.

Brookings, a nonpartisan research and policy group based in Washington, D.C., hopes the index sparks discussion of ways to increase choice.  Whitehurst said he plans to update the index to include the 100 largest districts and their environs by this time next year.

Choice is a front-burner issue in North Carolina, with the legislature's recent decision to lift the 100-school cap on charters. Earlier this fall, Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina held meetings around the state to encourage people of color to launch charters; the Charlotte session drew more than 350 people.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What's Finland doing right?

Imagine a place where teachers are so highly paid and respected that top students must compete for spots in schools of education,  where an  "accountability movement"  would seem laughable because everyone expects teachers to be doing good things for their students.

That's what N.C. education,  business and political leaders saw when they visited Finland this fall.  It's no secret that Finland is widely viewed as one of the best countries for public education;  that's why the 31-person delegation made the trip in September.  I'm just getting caught up on some of their reports,  and it's worth reading the blogs filed by Tony Habit of the N.C. New Schools Project in Raleigh and this report from N.C. Board of Education member John Tate of Charlotte.

Both men note the long-term dedication the people of Finland have shown to improving education,  as a matter of economic survival and commitment to equal opportunity.

"Finland’s consensus model stands in stark contrast to the United States,"  Habit wrote . "If policies for education that are central to the future of the nation change with each election cycle,  as they seem to do in North Carolina and the United States,  what chance do we have to achieve and sustain a world-class educational system?"

Tate sounds a similar theme:  "This culture of learning,  this willingness to invest,  this pride & trust didn’t just happen overnight,  but rather as a result of a sustained stay-the-course mentality that survived both political & economic change  —  in this case over 40 years.  How do we effect such stick-to-it-iveness?  Where is the common vision to which we as a state bind together through time for the benefit of future generations?"

In case you're wondering whether the taxpayers of North Carolina sent this crew overseas,  the answer is no.  The Public School Forum of NC organized the trip,  along with the UNC Center for International Understanding.   Forum President Jo Ann Norris says the Burroughs Wellcome Fund paid for the official delegates,  while various other privately-funded groups and businesses picked up the tab for their own travelers.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Needed: Help for education advocates?

Newly-elected school board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart has been tweeting links to school advocacy guides she's coming across as she prepares for her new job.


Ellis-Stewart,  who has spent a good bit of time on the other side of the dais trying to sway board members' views , suggests it could be helpful for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to produce something similar to this  "Parents' Guide to School Board Advocacy"  created by the ACLU in Washington state.  She also tweeted this  "Education Advocacy Toolkit"  done by the League of United Latin American Citizens.

I forwarded the ACLU guide to Bill Anderson of MeckEd,  asking if he's seen anything like this geared toward North Carolina or Charlotte . "This is actually a very good idea and something we will certainly consider,"  said Anderson,  whose group is doing a presentation on advocacy for the Mecklenburg PTA Council tonight.

Meanwhile,  people who want a voice in the direction of CMS will have an opportunity at a series of public meetings next week to discuss the superintendent search.

At the moment,  there don't seem to be the kind of controversies that bring large crowds out to lobby the board on specific issues.  But a trio of community groups recently met to try to boost the voice of minority and low-income families in CMS decision-making.  And a coalition of families from various elementary and middle schools have been pushing the board to rethink the longer elementary school hours and later starting times rolled out this year.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

NC pay freeze hits outside hires, too

Reader Maggie Dunne has been urging me to look into a question that's likely on the mind of many teachers and people who care about them.  She wonders if the state's pay freeze puts N.C. teachers at a disadvantage compared with people hired from outside the state:  "I have been told by friends who are teachers that if someone with 4 years’ experience is a new hire from out of state this year, they are being paid for their experience.  So then you have 2 teachers with the same training and the same experience and in the same field getting entirely different pay."

Not true,  says the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools human resources staff.

The state pay scale is based on experience and credentials.  During good times,  teachers generally get a raise for adding a year of experience.  But starting in 2009-10,  legislators said there wasn't enough money for those raises.

The concern Dunne raises assumes that a N.C. teacher who had five years of experience in 2008-09 remains classified as a five-year teacher,  even though he or she now has eight years' experience,  while an outsider with the same experience hired this year would be classified as an eight-year teacher.  But CMS says both would be classified as eight-year teachers  --  at a scale that has been adjusted downward so that pay level now matches what five-year teachers were making before the freeze.

"The state legislature votes on the teacher tables every year as part of the NC budget.  Since they have voted to give a year’s experience but have frozen salaries they have in effect adjusted down the pay scales,"  wrote Pat Rocca,  a CMS compensation specialist.

The good news for teachers,  then,  is that those who stay put aren't being paid less than new arrivals.  The bad news is that their pay is unlikely to jump dramatically when the economy recovers.  Instead,  it's a good  bet that lawmakers will start nudging the current scale up in small increments when money is available.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Klein: Philanthropy drives innovation

Money from philanthropic foundations such as GatesBroad and Dell may be a small part of school district budgets,  but it's essential to innovation,  Joel Klein says in this SmartBlog on Leadership video.

Klein is the former chancellor of New York City schools.  In Charlotte he's also known  as Peter Gorman's new boss;  Gorman left Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools this summer to join Klein in working for the Education Division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

Klein says private grants let public school districts try new approaches, while public money covers the cost of running schools.  "Our basic R&D venture money has come from private philanthropy,"  he says in the three-minute video.

Gates and Broad money has helped CMS explore new ways to evaluate, pay and develop the skills of teachers.  As the school board seeks a successor to Gorman,  the role of philanthropic "venture money" is likely to be a point of public discussion.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

CMS slipping on per-pupil money

North Carolina's 2011 school report cards show Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has been losing ground on per-pupil spending compared with other N.C. districts , including its largest ones.

In 2006-07,  with the economy thriving,  CMS spent $8,118 per pupil,  $95 above the state average.  Last year it spent $7,994,  about $400 below the state average.  The state tally includes local,  state and federal money to operate schools;  it doesn't count construction and other capital costs  (read details here).

CMS relies heavily on county taxpayers.  In 2006-07,  CMS'  local money came to $2,517 per pupil,  $568 above the state average.  That put CMS ahead of Wake,  Cumberland and Forsyth  (Guilford County,  the state's third-largest district after Wake and CMS,  has consistently had higher per-pupil budgets than any of the five biggest districts.)

Last year CMS was down to $2,048 per student in local money  --  $146 over the state average,  but less than Guilford, Wake and Forsyth got.  As anyone who has followed budget news knows,  CMS took a big hit in county spending when the recession took hold.  This year  (which is not reflected in state report cards)  Mecklenburg County commissioners approved a $26 million increase.

The link between spending and student achievement remains murky.  Guilford,  despite its consistently large budget  ($8,820 in federal, state and local money last year)  trailed CMS,  Wake and state averages on high school test scores.

CMS saw its pass rates slip in 2011,  but the report cards show it held onto a respectable position compared to other districts,  especially at the high school level.  For instance,  the pass rate for CMS black and low-income high school students slipped from 77 percent in 2010 to 73 percent in 2011,  but that compares with a 68 percent pass rate for the same groups in Wake and 63 percent in Guilford.  Well over 90 percent of white and non-poor students in CMS and Wake passed the high school tests.

But one big conundrum remains.  While CMS has made big strides in helping teens pass their state exams,  it continues to trail most districts on getting them to graduate.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Broad didn't seek CMS "naming rights"

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees and parents who are wary of the influence of The Broad Foundation have been grumbling about the district's decision to display a  "Broad Prize for Urban Education"  logo on electronic communications,  and to ask employees to attach the logo to their CMS emails.

Those concerns ratcheted up this month,  when the CMS communications office sent this follow-up:

"Thank you for spreading the good news about CMS winning the Broad Prize by changing your email signature.  In order to be in compliance with Broad guidelines,  we are asking all employees to use the revised  CMS/Broad logo in their signature.  We appreciate your cooperation."

Some people read that as a mandate from the Broad Foundation, which in September dubbed CMS the nation's top urban district and will hand out $550,000 in scholarships to the Class of 2012.  "I don't work for the Broad Foundation!  I work for the State of North Carolina and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools!"   wrote a teacher who forwarded the CMS directive.

Departing board member Kaye McGarry said people are asking,  "Since when did the Broad Foundation purchase naming rights to CMS?"   Keith Hurley,  a CMS parent who sought an at-large seat,  has also objected:  "Please, no more propaganda sent to my home for Eli Broad!"

LaTarzja Henry,  head of CMS communications,  said the decision to display the logo came from her,  not the Broad Foundation.   CMS could choose not to use it at all,  but if the district does display the Broad logo,  the foundation wants to make sure it's the official one.  The November mandate was just an effort to make sure employees had the updated attachment,  Henry said.

Henry said CMS has spent no money displaying the logo;  it has only been added to electronic material.  And the district must not be strictly enforcing its request for employees to use it.  I scanned my inbox and found emails from half a dozen teachers sent from their CMS accounts this month.  None included the Broad logo.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cheaters, bathroom news and a dead skunk

Delving into online high school newspapers has proven fascinating.  As links have come in  (see rail at right)  I've read about dress codes,  wrecks outside schools and students taking part in Occupy Charlotte.

In the Providence Prowl,  Arjun Gupta produced a sophisticated report on cheating on senior exit projects.  It's fine traditional journalism -- but the most intriguing online reporting I saw is this snippet posted Oct. 27 by Norah Richmond of the Hopewell Siren:

This morning Hopewell Titans were welcomed by a perplexing prank. The entire 500 hall smelled of an angry skunk smell. When trying to find the source teachers were told by students that there was a dead skunk and banner hanging from the wall outside of room 506. Hough High was responsible for the prank, obviously noted by their banner.

No, it's not meaty investigation or deathless prose. But it gets to what online news does best: It's an immediate report on the thing everyone was talking about that day.

Meanwhile, I got a chuckle hearing from Jeff Joyce,  whom I met a few years ago while covering his elaborate role-playing Civil War trivia contest at Northwest School of the Arts.  Now he chairs the social studies department at Hough,  and he emailed to let me know the school doesn't have a full-fledged newspaper yet,  but he has started a "bathroom press."

Um ... what?

"We write one-page articles on things we think are relevant to students and post them in the bathroom stalls ... kind of fun and funny at the same time. My kids are doing some really cool articles," he explained.
No word on whether the skunk prank made bathroom headlines.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Year-round school: It's complicated

In theory,  it seems obvious that the summer-off school calendar is ripe for change.  But listening to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials talk about converting one elementary school to a year-round schedule shows how complicated the change can be.

Last year the board voted to turn First Ward Elementary into a year-round school starting in August 2012,  with University Park Elementary,  another arts magnet,  closing and becoming part of First Ward.  After a presentation on what that's going to take,  the board agreed to wait another year.

First Ward is slated to become a four-track year-round school.  That means students and their teachers will have 45 days of class followed by 15 days off  --  and at any given time,  three-quarters of the students and teachers will be in class and one-quarter will be on  "intersession,"  as the breaks have been dubbed.

There will still be schoolwide breaks in the winter and spring,  but no long summer break.  Part of the goal is to avoid the learning loss that often happens over the summer.  Officials said they're looking at options for the kids who are on break to keep learning.  They're hoping uptown arts groups might help.  Still unclear is whether CMS or families would pay for those opportunities.

The staggered  "tracks"  mean a building can hold more students.  But it also means teachers may be living out of boxes;  instead of having one classroom for a full school year,  they'll have it for one quarter,  then move out to let another teacher step in.

Choosing tracks will be part of the 2013 magnet lottery.  There will be measures to keep siblings on the same schedule,  but any year-round schedule will put students out of sync with siblings at other schools and/or parents who work for any other school  (of course, most working parents are used to school calendars that are out of step with their jobs).

The big round of changes that included the University Park/First Ward merger was driven partly by the prospect of a shrinking CMS budget.  But Tyler Ream,  the area superintendent in charge of First Ward,  told the school board that providing year-round busing to a school that takes students from across Mecklenburg County will add an estimated $400,000 to transportation costs.

Ream said so far reaction from First Ward and University Park families has been mixed.  One reason he and other leaders want another year is to hire a principal to lead the transition and try to get families on board with the new venture.

Monday, November 14, 2011

School newspapers: Got links?

Recent discussions about the need for high schools to teach online journalism inspired me to add a feature to this blog:  Links to student newspapers.

I've only got two so far,  the online versions of the Providence Prowl and the East Meck Eagle.  I'm sure there are more,  and I think it's a boost for student journalists and a service to adult readers to share them.  So if you are involved with an online student publication  --  public,  private or charter,  Mecklenburg or surrounding counties  --  shoot me the link and I'll add it to the rail at the right of this blog.

Update: Got the Charlotte Country Day School link from alum Paul Kardous, who worked for his high school paper in the 1990s, went on to become online editor of his college paper, The Auburn Plainsman -- and is now an architect. "You can learn great skills from operating as a journalist no matter what your chosen profession!" he says.

Friday, November 11, 2011

CMS precinct map: Who won where?

Our new database reporter Gavin Off has created a map showing which school board candidates took first place in each precinct.  Click on any precinct to see how all 14 candidates fared there.

Gavin and I are working on a story for Sunday looking at what it all means;  I just figured I'd give the election junkies who read this blog a sneak preview.  Not surprisingly,  the four top finishers  --  Ericka Ellis-Stewart,  Mary McCray and Tim Morgan,  who won the three at-large seats,  and Elyse Dashew,  who ran a close fourth  --  claimed the top spot in most precincts.  Aaron Pomis,  who placed fifth,  took one precinct,  and Larry Bumgarner,  who placed sixth,  took three.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

High school journalism stuck in print age

The news world may be going electronic,  but high school journalism programs still rely more on yearbooks and print papers than online reporting,  the Kent State University Center for Scholastic Journalism reports.

The 2011 Scholastic Journalism Census of more than 4,000 high schools found that 96 percent offer some kind of student journalism program, with yearbooks in 94 percent of schools and student newspapers in 64 percent.  Only one in three reported any kind of online student media.  "These data suggest many scholastic media programs are neither exposing students to the media landscape they will confront once they graduate from high school nor teaching students the skills they need to succeed in a multimedia world,"  the report says.

That's unfortunate.  Producing a student paper was painfully slow back in the 1970s; now it's even  more out of sync with the real world.  Online reporting would seem to offer cost savings, though I suspect it also requires significant staff training.

My sense is that opportunities vary widely within CMS, often based on the initiative of faculty advisers.  I recall how impressed we were in 2009,  when Alan Vitale, a teacher at the small Olympic Renaissance High,  launched a student newspaper and brought his print and web editors to visit the Observer.  On the other hand, I've heard a young friend who attends South Meck talk about her frustration that the school has no student newspaper.

Meanwhile, a high school newspaper adviser in Iowa won a free-press victory on Wednesday, when a court ruled that his principal couldn't punish him for letting students publish "offensive" items, including an April Fool spoof issue .

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

CMS board: Big change, little participation

The totals are in, and the overwhelming winner in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board election was "let someone else decide."

About 86 percent of Mecklenburg's registered voters opted out of a race that had 14 people vying for three board seats. To break that down: 609,941 people are registered, and 98,338, or 16.1 percent, voted Tuesday. It's likely that a significant number cast municipal ballots but skipped the school board race (230,451 board votes were tallied, but each voter could choose up to three candidates).

Ericka Ellis-Stewart, who won a decisive first place, got 35,000 votes -- less than 6 percent of all registered voters. Tim Morgan advanced from a district seat to a countywide one, allowing the board to choose his replacement for District 6, with just under 25,000 votes, representing the support of 4 percent of possible voters.

To make the will of the voters even more baffling, 10,400 voted for DeShauna McLamb, who said nothing and made no appearances after filing for office. More than 11,300 chose Lisa Hundley, a newcomer who announced in early October that she would be too ill with cancer to serve.

What all this means for students, parents and taxpayers remains to be seen, but it's bound to be significant. The current nine-person board has been led by a moderate tri-partisan coalition  (Democrats Joe White and Tom Tate, Republicans Rhonda Lennon and Tim Morgan, and unaffiliated Eric Davis and Trent Merchant). The new board will have five Democrats, as newcomers Ellis-Stewart and Mary McCray join district representatives Tom Tate, Richard McElrath and Joyce Waddell. If they vote as a block, they could push the board significantly to the left.

It's the nature of school board work and a divided community that decisions spark complaints. There are plenty of tough issues ahead. It'll be interesting to see how quickly people start to howl about the choices they let their neighbors make.

Next CMS leader: Lots of public opinion

Cleaning out paper files for a recent desk shuffle,  I came across reports from the 2005-06 superintendent search that led to Peter Gorman's hiring.  At that time,  Ray and Associates search firm posted an online survey asking people to rate the most important superintendent qualities,  choosing from a list of 32.  They got 2,210 responses,  plus those from  "more than 120 people"  who attended various public meetings in December 2005.

This time around,  the school board and its new firm,  PROACT Search,  will have far more public opinion to work with.  The online survey created by the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute got responses from just over 8,800 adults before it closed at midnight Monday,  and more than 500 high school students completed a slightly shorter version.  It's a far more extensive questionnaire,  asking people to rank the most important issues facing CMS and several aspects of what they'd like to see in the leader who succeeds Gorman in 2012.

There's still room to debate the questions,  though.  Gary Pender,  who describes himself as a parent who pulled his kids out because of  "the ridiculous standardized testing CMS instituted last year,"  wonders why neither performance pay nor testing was among the 19 options for top issues  (for those who remain concerned about those issues,  which sparked so much controversy,  "teacher evaluations"  is the closest choice).

"Either the survey is just poorly put together or CMS (or its vendor) has rigged it because this is a phony effort to make it seem like the board wants feedback or suggestions from the community,"  Pender wrote.  "Either way, it makes CMS look bad."

The survey was compiled by the Urban Institute,  with consultation from representatives of other local universities.  Results will be presented at a series of public forums on the superintendent search, slated for the first week of December (no details are set).   "Once the results are made public,  we’ll be making ourselves available as the researchers to answer any questions that anyone has about the data," said Jeff Michael, director of the Urban Institute.  

Monday, November 7, 2011

CMS poverty up again

The districtwide poverty level for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has nudged up one percentage point,  to 54.4 percent this year,  according to a new report on students eligible for lunch subsidies.

The numbers show poverty increasing at all grade levels.  The new preK-8 schools,  created when CMS closed three high-poverty middle schools,  range from 87 percent poverty at Ashley Park to 95 percent at Reid Park.

Harding High, which used to be a full magnet and picked up neighborhood students when Waddell High closed, rose almost 16 percentage points, to 79 percent poverty.  South Meck,  which also added former Waddell students,  rose 8 percentage points,  to 43 percent.  North Meck,  which is seeing its demographics shift because of the opening of nearby Hough High,  rose 11 points to 54.5 percent poverty.

The use of lunch-subsidy numbers to gauge school poverty remains controversial.  The guidelines, set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,  allow a family of four with an income up to $29,055 a year to get free lunches;  up to $41,348 a year,  children from that family would get lunch for 40 cents instead of the full $2.05.  Students who get either free or reduced-price meals are counted as economically disadvantaged.  The USDA sets strict guidelines for how districts can monitor and verify eligibility;  some say those numbers should not be used for other purposes,  such as allocating extra teachers and academic aid,  because they are not more rigorously checked.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Tossed fliers, online comments and other campaign tidbits

Are Tim Morgan and his campaign manager subverting the voting system?  Do Ken Nelson's online comments support white supremacy and violence?  Is Elyse Dashew aligned with outside groups?  And where in the world is DeShauna McLamb?

 Now that the issue pieces and profiles are out of the way,  it's time to delve into some of the other questions floating around the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board race.

As commenters have noted and TV stations reported,  Morgan's campaign manager,  Larry Shaheen,  got caught tossing out campaign literature for Keith Hurley and Ken Nelson at an early voting station in mid-October.  Shaheen says he believed fellow Republicans Nelson and Hurley had put their material on Morgan's table,  which in his view made it fair game for the trash can.  In fact,  it was a Republican Party table,  which the others had a right to share.  Vice Chair Pat Murray saw the incident,  salvaged the material and took Shaheen to task.

Shaheen says he goofed and has apologized to the party and the candidates.  Morgan says he talked to Shaheen about the incident and has elected to keep him on board as manager.  I finally caught up to Mecklenburg Party GOP Chair Gideon Moore today to get his take. He says Shaheen was banned from staffing the GOP tables but is free to continue campaigning for the two candidates he represents (Morgan and Charlotte City Council candidate Curtis Watkins).

Shaheen "made a poor choice in the heat of the campaign. It happens,"  Moore said.  "I really don't consider it a big deal."  Moore added that he was a bit disappointed that Hurley,  who became a Republican too late to be in the running for an endorsement,  opted to go public with the conflict after Moore thought it had been resolved.
Some have also chided Morgan for seeking an at-large seat when he already holds a district seat.  There's nothing illegal or unusual about that;  George Dunlap tried it in 2003.  If he's elected,  the board will launch the application process after Morgan is sworn in for the at-large seat Dec. 13.  The eight members of the new board would vote on a new District 6 representative to serve until the 2013 election.


Commenters have also raised questions about the things Nelson posts in online forums as knelsud92.

I read through quite a few, and if you don't like Nelson's style and views, you won't like them much.

On illegal immigrants, one of his favorite topics:

No mas illegales, por favor 
Get out the country, bar the door! 
Start 'em marching to the border 
Then we can restore order.

On academic achievement gaps:

It's the school's fault that "fathers" abandon their children before birth and end up in prison or dead.  It's the school's fault that a culture values violence over peace.  No amount of money can fix a culture. Hence, we do not have an achievement gap, we have a culture gap.
On the departure of conservative blogger Jeff Taylor: "You've always been a voice of reason in this city full of moochers and looters."

And on a story about 11 Garinger students, including the valedictorian, getting diplomas, only to learn belatedly they hadn't met the graduation requirements:  "He thought he passed English, but when it was realized that Ebonics doesn't qualify as a substitute, he lost the credits."

Nelson says he's a guy who sees many issues in black-and-white terms, and who sometimes aims his online comments to get a laugh from supporters and a rise from opponents.  He notes that he grew up outside New York City,  which makes him  "by nature sarcastic and bombastic  --  that's just the way we are."

But Nelson vehemently denies that his comments show him to be racist or violent.  He argued for the right of a white supremacy group to rent a room and meet in Charlotte, he said, but he does not support white supremacy.  He said he would support  "a second American Revolution"  if the country "becomes like the Soviet Union,"  but says other commenters are wrong in saying he has urged shooting people over election results.  And he says that if his comments have appeared on the White Nationalist web site Stormfront,  it's because someone cut and pasted them from his comments on a Ron Paul site.

"I am certainly not a racist,"  Nelson says.

Some have also asked about links between Dashew's MeckFUTURE and philanthropies and advocacy groups.  Dashew and fellow CMS parent Doug Swaim formed the alliance of families from about 40 schools in January to lobby for money to avert drastic budget cuts.  The group,  which is currently inactive,  has no national alliances and no funding other than a collection members took up to pay for fliers, she says.

Dashew says she believes people are confusing MeckFUTURE with Mecklenburg ACTS, which is affiliated with Parents Across America, and/or MeckEd, which conducted a CMS budget information campaign using money that then-Superintendent Peter Gorman provided from a Spangler Foundation grant.  All three "Mecks" were part of a "55 for 5" coalition that lobbied county commissioners and state legislators to provide about $55 million to avoid cutting five high-priority items from this year's budget.


Finally, the case of the missing candidate remains a mystery.  Last winter and spring,  when the debate over school closings and fairness to minority neighborhoods was raging,  I got several emails from Prophetess DeShauna McLamb of Beyond Ministries promoting efforts to get people engaged with public education.  She announced her board candidacy in March,  filed in July  ...  and disappeared from the campaign.

Having failed to reach her by phone,  email and a visit to the address she listed when she filed,  I tried another address we found on a public-records search.  A man who answered the door this morning said McLamb lives there but wasn't in.  He gave me a new phone number that gets a voice mail for McLamb.  I've left a couple of messages, but so far, no response.

McLamb has never withdrawn from the race, so she'll be on Tuesday's ballot.