Thursday, June 30, 2011

Morgan announces bid for at-large seat

Tim Morgan, a district representative on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, announced today that he’s running for an at-large seat on the board. Veteran at-large board members Joe White and Trent Merchant have said they won’t run for re-election in this November’s contest. Kaye McGarry, holder of a third at-large seat with an expiring term, has said she’s considering running again.

“There is an opportunity to step up and fill that leadership void,” Morgan said of White and Merchant’s departure. Morgan, a 1986 graduate of Independence High, was elected in 2009 to represent District 6 in the southeast suburbs. He has worked as a lobbyist for the real estate and construction industry, and as head of the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce. His brother, Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan, attended his announcement ceremony, as did City Council members Warren Cooksey and Andy Dulin.

Morgan has often voted with a five-member majority that backed some of departing Superintendent Peter Gorman’s most important reforms, such as performance-pay for teachers and the “strategic staffing” program that placed high-quality staff in low-performing schools.
He said he has taken leadership roles in exploring privatization possibilities for the school system, and in crafting a pay-to-play program that has helped keep high school athletics running during budget cuts.

Morgan touted the school system’s improvement in the past five years, noting increasing test scores and a narrowing of the achievement gap. He said the selection of a new superintendent ranks among the most important things the new board will do, and added that he wants to find someone who will continue building on Gorman’s successes. He noted controversy over some of Gorman’s initiatives, such as performance pay, new tests, teacher layoffs and school closings. He said he hopes to improve communication between the system and its stakeholders.

He said many of the candidates filing to run for school board have been motivated by their opposition to such moves, and added that he looks forward to debating those issues with them.
“None of those decisions were popular, but they have been necessary,” he said. “I stand by those decisions.” Filing for the seats opens tomorrow, and runs through July 15. Other candidates who’ve declared so far include:

  • Larry Bumgarner, an internet activist who has also made two unsuccessful runs for school board.

  • Elyse Dashew, co-founder of the MeckFUTURE parents’ group that campaigned for additional money for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools this spring.

  • Keith Hurley, a local mortgage banker and dad who has chided local public officials for wasting money.

  • Mary McCray, who former president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators.

  • DeShauna McLamb, a parent who has expressed concern about the closings of schools on Charlotte’s west side.

  • Hans Plotseneder, a West Mecklenburg High teacher who has made two unsuccessful runs for school board previously.

Gorman to CMS staff: Thanks for everything

Superintendent Peter Gorman isn't making speeches or doing interviews, but he sent a farewell message to employees this afternoon, as he closes out his five years leading Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Here it is:

From: Peter C. Gorman

Sent: Thursday, June 30, 2011 1:20 PM

To: cmsmailall

Subject: Thank you and good-bye

Dear CMS employees,

Today is the last day I will lead CMS as superintendent. Hugh Hattabaugh begins as interim superintendent tomorrow and I will assist him in the transition and finish a few final projects between now and Aug. 1, when my employment with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officially ends.

Each and every one of you has been part of the successes we have achieved. Those successes have been substantial. We have narrowed the achievement gap. We have raised achievement levels. We have nearly doubled the number of high-achieving schools. We have built a robust accountability structure. We decentralized CMS to make it more accessible to the community. We have turned around some of our lowest-performing schools with Strategic Staffing. We have brought substantial private investment – in money and in time – to CMS that has allowed us to broaden and enrich our curriculum and our initiatives. We have weathered the worst economic climate since the Great Depression. We had a successful bond request that allowed us to build some much-needed new schools. We have also closed some schools.

This is a very special district. CMS is blessed with so many assets – great teachers, skilled staff, a broad range of expertise in every area and a community that cares very much about its schools. Most important, it has you, the employees who come to work every day prepared to help our students learn and grow and succeed.

All of this has strengthened CMS and helped our students. None of it would have been possible without you. Thank you for the hard work, the trust you put in me as your superintendent and your willingness to persevere in good times and in bad. We’ve certainly had both.

I wish you all the best as you continue to make CMS the most innovative, effective public school district in the country. Thank you for everything you do.


Peter C. Gorman
Government Center
600 East 4th Street
Charlotte, NC 28202

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tim Morgan planning to announce on Thursday

Tim Morgan, elected two years ago to serve the south suburbs from District 6 on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, sent out a press release this afternoon saying he's got "an announcement" to make on Thursday at 4 p.m. "concerning the upcoming school board race in November."

Morgan, who has been mulling a run for one of the three at-large seats on the school board, will surprise a lot of folks if that's not what he's announcing Thursday. The press release says the announcement will be made at the west end of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government center, on the steps facing the parking deck and the uptown basketball arena.
With the official filing window about to open on July 1, it'll be interesting to how many others jump into the race.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Keith Hurley is latest to join CMS board race

Keith Hurley, a mortgage lender and CMS dad who comes from a family of educators,  says he's joining the race for an at-large seat on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board.

Hurley,  an unaffiliated voter,  has never run for office.  He got a taste of activism last summer,  when he noticed the grass growing out of control at Beverly Woods Elementary,  where his three kids go to school.  He called public officials and the media,  but also organized parents to help spruce up the grounds.

He writes frequent letters to the Observer forum,  most taking city and county officials to task for wasting money.  But when he talks about CMS, it's not budget-cutting but stability he focuses on.  Teachers,  parents and the rest of the community are weary of constant flux,  he says.  As the board begins a superintendent search,  he hopes members will "look internally,  hard,  for someone who's not going to run every four or five years."  He says departing Superintendent Peter Gorman did some things well,  but "I truly believe he checked out eight, 10, 12 months ago."

Hurley says he's "a firm believer in the neighborhood schools" with magnets as an alternative, thinks closing schools was a mistake and hasn't made his mind up about teacher performance pay. Although his background is in banking, his parents, brother and sister are teachers and he says he hopes to revive teacher morale.

Hurley,  45,  works for BB&T,  runs,  coaches youth sports and volunteers.  He jokes that a countywide campaign will be "the triathlon I've never done,"  but believes he can make it all work:  "I juggle things a lot." 

Filing starts Friday and runs through July 15. We're posting campaign web links in the rail to the right of this blog as we get them, and check blog archives for reports on other candidates who have announced so far.

For the next stretch of this summer, Eric Frazier will be taking over as your correspondent while I delve into some project reporting. I promise that's not a euphemism for "fired," "in rehab" or "Peter Gorman's taking me with him to News Corp." It's just a long-awaited chance to break off from the daily grind and go a little deeper. We'll see how long it takes me to start twitching when I don't have daily blogs or bylines.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Five more school days or waiver?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members say they're not ready to decide whether to add five student days to the 2011-12 calendar,  as required by the recently-passed state budget bill,  or seek a waiver.  But members reached this week say they're leaning toward the extra days.  Joe White,  Rhonda Lennon and Joyce Waddell all said they think students will benefit more from the extra class time than from the teacher work days that will be bumped.

"I'm just wondering how it's going to be paid for, but I think it's good. I think we need more time,"  Waddell said.

Some teachers say the last-minute calendar switch,  which provides no extra pay for the extra time with students,  feels like one more wallop in a bruising year.  CMS had already decided to add 45 minutes to elementary students' days, which is bound to squeeze teacher planning time.

The N.C. Board of Education met today to set a waiver process.  It's a pressing question in Wake County,  where year-round schools start their 2011-12 year July 11.  Wake's superintendent is seeking a waiver for the coming year.

CMS board Chair Eric Davis said Charlotte has more breathing room with the standard Aug. 25 opening day.  The calendar question won't be on Tuesday's agenda,  he said;  CMS staff is studying options.  Under the process approved today,  CMS has until July 28 to argue that some or all of the days would be better used for teachers' professional development.

Davis,  who's had a tough year himself and now faces a superintendent search,  sounded frustrated at fielding complaints about a change made in Raleigh.  The CMS board had asked state legislators to relax the school-calendar law that mandates when most schools open and dismiss for summer.  Instead of flexibility,  the district got a mandate that could force unpopular changes long after the 2011-12 calendar was approved.

"Late decisions being made,  decisions being made in a one-size-fits-all approach,  decisions being made far removed from the local schools,  that's the systemic issue," he said.

A community of watchdogs

Light a candle; June 25 marks the first birthday of the Your Schools blog.  The past year has blown away my expectations.

I thought a blog would be a chance to give the most education-oriented readers more information than we can squeeze into print, and it has done that.  We've topped 325,000 page views so far.

What I didn't anticipate was the community of readers that has developed.  Based on the flaming and ranting that takes place on stories,  I had a pretty bleak view of online comments, especially the anonymous kind.

Somehow, this forum turned out to be different.  CMS teachers and other employees who felt voiceless during one of the most harrowing years in memory offered tips,  views and insights.  Readers posted links and data to bolster their opinions. The decision-makers have been reading.

Our best-read post was on Jan. 11,  when Superintendent Peter Gorman rolled out a preview of the 2011-12 budget,  complete with plans for 1,500 job cuts.  The staff handed budget documents to reporters just before the gavel banged,  and I started posting live.

I quickly learned that CMS had emailed the same documents to all employees at about the same time -- and that employees had key information that had been omitted from press copies.  As I swapped questions and comments with readers,  the missing material landed in my inbox,  sent by teachers who were following the dialog.  Our online staff quickly got it posted for other readers -- all of this in the midst of a crucial school board meeting.

When I finally caught my breath it hit me:  This really is a new era of reporting.  Having so many new voices in the mix can be exhausting,  but it's exhilarating.   Sometimes it's like having a staff of research assistants -- among the great tips from blog readers was the heads-up that CMS was working on 52 new tests as part of performance pay.  Sometimes it's like having a panel of extra editors -- y'all do not hesitate to say what you think.  Most important:  There's a whole pack of watchdogs empowered to watch public leaders and reporters.  That's a good thing.

The milestone is particularly rich for me because this week also marks the 30th anniversary of the day I reported to work as a reporter for The Macon (Ga.) Telegraph.  No internet, no faxes, no cell phones -- we did have word-processing computers, but they were new and buggy enough that the older reporters viewed them with suspicion.  The ensuing decades have brought a lot of surprises, some of them unpleasant.  But I'm glad to be around for this.  Thanks to all of you for being part of it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Diane Ravitch: Bold crusader or self-promoter?

At meetings of parents and teachers opposed to CMS' testing and performance pay efforts this spring,  Diane Ravitch's name came up often.  The researcher,  writer and former U.S. assistant secretary of education has emerged as the country's most vocal opponent of the reform course being charted by the likes of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan,  former Washington, D.C.,  schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and philanthropists Bill Gates and Eli Broad.  She's viewed by many as the strongest voice standing up to an anti-teacher agenda.

Lots of local folks -- me included -- have been intrigued by her recent book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System."  For those who want to know more about the person, Washington City Paper has an in-depth profile looking at her rise to fame, her lifelong tension between conservatism and liberalism,  and the charges that she's pushing a "philosophy of resentment" that bolsters the status quo.

As reporter Dana Goldstein notes,  it's an interesting time when a 72-year-old education wonk not only appears on Jon Stewart's Daily Show but tweets so much she has inspired a parody Twitter feed.

Raleigh students put CMS history online

Two Raleigh home-schoolers won a national prize for their web site on the history of desegregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Molly Fox and Michaela Burns took a silver medal in the National History Day competition at the University of Maryland last week for their site, titled "But Mama, There's A School Next Door!" It's an interesting primer for those of us who weren't around for the Swann vs. CMS case (and since it was filed in 1965 and settled with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1971, that's most of us).

I saw some interesting charts, documents and interviews. But every time I clicked on "conclusion," I got a blank page with a series of dots that seem to signal "wait, it's coming." No doubt that's just a computer glitch. But with so much unresolved when it comes to race and public education, it looks like a stroke of symbolic genius.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

McCray jumps into CMS board race

For most of Superintendent Peter Gorman's tenure, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher Mary McCray has been a public voice for her colleagues.  Now she wants to be part of the board that hires his replacement.

In her five years as president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, McCray was sometimes supportive and sometimes critical of Gorman and the board.  Most recently, she raised questions about their performance-pay plan and opposed the CMS-backed legislation that would let the school board launch such a plan without teacher approval.

"I know we're going to have to have pay for performance,"  McCray said Wednesday, noting that it's part of North Carolina's Race to the Top plan for federal money.  But she said she wants CMS to slow down and get its approach in sync with what the rest of the state is doing, instead of rushing to launch new tests and push the plan when money is tight.  "If there is no money for it, I don't know how we're going to do it."

McCray said she has just stepped down from the CMAE post and retired as a teacher after 24 years with CMS and 10 with Union County.  (To address a question that pops up occasionally:  When McCray worked for CMAE full time, she remained on the CMS roster to allow her eventual return but the teachers group paid her salary.)

She says she wants to hire a superintendent with education experience, and wants to help the board do a better job of listening to the community and earning the trust of CMS' 18,000-plus employees.  "Trust and morale is at an all-time low,"  she said.

McCray, 58, is a registered Democrat making her first bid for public office.  Filing begins July 1 for the November election of three at-large board members.  For posts on the race so far, click here and here; also look for candidate web sites and other information in a rail at the right of this blog.

Charlotte's investment in Isaiah

Four years ago, I wrote about Isaiah Scott's quest to go to Morehouse College.  After piling up honors and accomplishments at West Charlotte High, he'd been accepted to the historically black, all-male private school in Atlanta.  But as one of seven children of a divorced dad, he needed money to close the gap between the scholarships he'd won and the $29,000-a-year cost.

Support poured in for the personable, hard-working teen.  Churches, businesses and individuals, including alums of West Charlotte and Morehouse, rallied with financial, personal and spiritual support.  They stuck with him through four years of college, where he continued his record of leadership and success.

Yesterday I visited the newly-minted Morehouse graduate and some of his family (more about that coming in print soon).  Scott couldn't say enough good things about the support he got from the West Charlotte faculty and the community members who helped him through college.

L-R: Esther, Isaiah, Leon (father) and John Scott.
 "It was an overwhelming downpour of support,"  he said.  "It's just a lot of love and a lot of prayer."

While he was at Morehouse, he helped recruit students for Teach For America, a program that sends young teachers into West Charlotte and other high-poverty CMS schools.  He'll soon report to work at American Express in New York City, but he had a few weeks between his May 15 graduation and his start date.

So he tapped his network of Charlotte contacts to help him get an internship with Mayor Anthony Foxx. "There's kind of a 'no sitting around the house' mentality here," he said of his high-achieving family.  Scott didn't get to join Foxx on his trip to the White House earlier this week, but he did help prepare Foxx's notes for his meeting with the president.

Seeing Scott at 22, sharp and confident in his business suit, I couldn't help thinking back to the last conversation we'd had, when he was an 18-year-old humbled by all the support.  "I don't want to come back to Charlotte and it's like, 'Aw, man, I invested in a knucklehead,' " he said then.

No danger of that.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Pete Gorman as CMS vendor?

Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which will be CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman's employer come mid-August, has a contract with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools via the recently-acquired Wireless Generation.

Gorman will join former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein in developing the corporation's new education division.  That division is charged with carrying out Murdoch's vision of creating digital learning products that customize education the way consumers now "customize their clothing, their cuisine, their news, and most anything else they want to buy."

Before Gorman signed on, News Corp. bought Wireless Generation, a Brooklyn-based company specializing in technology for testing, curriculum and educational data-gathering.  Since 2008, Wireless has had a contract with CMS to provide the software and platforms used to track pre-reading skills in all CMS elementary schools.  The most recent yearlong renewal, which runs through August, was for $568,173.

Testing and data-gathering became a touchy subject during Gorman's final weeks.  It could be interesting to watch how the digital learning opportunities he and Klein craft mesh with whatever direction the CMS board and new leadership chart. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

The business model of leadership

Reading Sunday's article on CEO pay among North Carolina's biggest companies, I couldn't help thinking about the search that's looming for a new leader of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Across the country, you hear a lot about the desirability of getting a superintendent with a background in private enterprise and/or a businesslike mindset. That's generally considered shorthand for a leader who's bold, responsible with money and not bogged down in bureaucracy and tradition.

But as the article reminded me, captains of industry expect to be well paid -- even when wages are stagnant and jobs are disappearing among the rank and file. My brain boggled looking at the list of seven- and eight-figure totals. The number that stuck with me: "Average total compensation for the CEOs was $93,992 a week."

Departing Superintendent Peter Gorman catches a lot of flak for his $267,000 salary, his $35,000 in extra retirement pay, his $250,000 "personal growth" grant from the Spangler Foundation and his potential 10 percent performance bonus. But next to this crew, Gorman looks like one of those guys holding a "Will Work For Food" sign.

CMS' $2 million time clocks

Back in early May, when the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board was pondering budget cuts and we were trying to answer reader questions, Jeff Costa, the testing coordinator at Hopewell High, asked about new fingerprint-scanning time clocks being installed in schools.

"Several of us at Hopewell are curious how much CMS spent on the new time clock system," he wrote. "It has to be an extraordinary amount of money, not to mention how it will slow down productivity."

I forwarded the question to the public information office, and they sent it to the finance department. After many follow-up prods, the answer landed in my inbox last week: The MyTime system, which will track hours and attendance for 6,500 of the district's 18,000-plus employees, cost $2,177,866. About $1.6 million came from county money and the rest from federal lunch subsidies and meal fees. Most of the expense -- about $1.7 million -- landed in the 2009-10 budget and the remaining half-million in the current year.

The CMS memo explains the benefits this way:

MyTime will allow CMS to:
• Control labor costs with a consistent application of work and pay rules

• Minimize compliance risks by enforcing and tracking complex compliance requirements, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
• Improve workforce productivity by reducing manual administrative tasks
• Eliminate the possibility of keying errors that cause mistakes in employee paychecks

 The system also uses Kronos software: In researching best business practices, CMS found the Kronos Workforce Timekeeper system to be in place by many organizations in the Charlotte area, including the City of Charlotte, Coca Cola Bottling, Family Dollar Stores, Carolinas Medical Center and Lance, Inc. Incorporating this best practice is one more step toward improving business operations and effectiveness.

Costa read the full memo but wasn't swayed.

"You should talk to some people who actually use it. There is no way this improves productivity," he replied. "$2.1 Million when you are laying off hundreds of teachers.. are you kidding me?"

Thursday, June 16, 2011

CMS-TV airs open-mike moment

A bizarre open-mike moment at the school board dais led late-night cable viewers to believe they'd gotten the scoop on the board's choice for interim superintendent.

Not quite. CMS-TV aired Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Police Chief Bud Cesena sitting in a school board seat speculating that the board would tap Chief Operating Officer Hugh Hattabaugh. Cesena, who didn't know the mikes were on and ceiling cameras were running, says the conversation with two other staffers took place half an hour before the 6 p.m. meeting. But it aired after the board spent almost three hours in closed session talking about hiring an interim.

To make the whole thing odder: CMS got rid of CMS-TV this year to save money, leaving only enough in the budget for freelance broadcasting of board meetings. Special meetings like Wednesday's generally aren't broadcast. And this meeting was conducted almost entirely behind closed doors, out of reach of the cameras and mikes. So most of what aired was footage of the meeting chamber with a handful of staff, reporters and visitors milling around.

"For some reason they turned the thing on, and for some reason they ran the loop," Cesena said today.

I haven't been able to get an explanation yet. Cesena says he's "pretty embarrassed" that a candid conversation ended up on TV. "It's a lesson for all of us," he said.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Dr. Plots and Bumgarner join CMS race

Hans Plotseneder and Larry Bumgarner announced today they'll continue their quests for a seat on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board.

Neither has had much luck so far. Plotseneder, a West Mecklenburg High School teacher, came in seventh of seven candidates in the 2007 at-large race and seventh of nine in the 2009 District 3 contest. Bumgarner, an internet activist, finished seventh of 11 in the 2003 at-large contest and third of three in the 2005 District 6 race.

But both promise to prompt some lively discussion of issues -- and Plotseneder insists he expects to muster the money and organization to be a serious contender. He posted his intent to run on his web site in January.

"This time is the real thing. Last time I was naive," said Plotseneder, who says he raised less than $1,000 for his last countywide race. The buzz is that it could take at least $50,000 to claim one of the three seats in November's election. In 2009, he says he knew he was a long shot as a white guy running in a majority-black district, but the run was "for practice and to keep my name out there."

Plotseneder, who campaigns under the nickname Dr. Plots, didn't shy from issues during his announcement today. He said he opposes the 52 year-end exams CMS officials launched this spring for rating teachers, as well as the CMS-backed House bill that would allow the district to launch performance pay without teacher approval. "Teachers are not against being paid for extra performance," he said, but the complex test-based formula known as "value added" is the wrong approach.

A registered Democrat, Plotseneder said he's most in line with current members Joyce Waddell, Richard McElrath, Tom Tate -- and Kaye McGarry, a Republican who's often at ideological odds with the three Democrats but ends up voting with them on some issues. That coalition generally falls one or two votes short of success.

Plotseneder, 67, will have to resign his teaching job if elected. He airs his views during the public comment period of most school board meetings, and was charged with trespassing when he refused to leave a contentious school-closing meeting last fall. Those charges were later dropped.

Bumgarner, who lives in the south suburbs, generally registers his views online, via sites he creates or comments on the Observer's site. He announced his candidacy on one of his sites -- in typically quirky style, illustrating it with a 1970s high school photo of himself.

He acknowledges three failed attempts at public office -- he also entered the 2004 Republican primary for a county commission seat -- and says this time will be different: "This time seeing how all those running are focused on limited agendas and special interest groups he will be doing it that way as it seems that is the way people are elected in Charlotte Mecklenburg." His planks: Breaking up CMS, providing vouchers that can be used for private schools and eliminating salaries for school board members.

Filing for the nonpartisan race is July 1-15. Two of the three incumbents, Trent Merchant and Joe White, say they won't run, and Kaye McGarry hasn't announced her intentions. Elyse Dashew and De Shauna McLamb are the other announced candidates; read the last roundup here.

So far, no one has rolled out the kind of powerhouse campaign that carried board Chair Eric Davis to victory in District 5 two years ago. The coming months will test who can grab the attention of voters across a sprawling county, in an off-year election that traditionally leaves four of five registered voters sitting at home.

Bumgarner and Plotseneder may not take the lead on campaign force, but they do bring a sense of humor along with their strong views. Plotseneder, a native of Austria, knows his accent is reminiscent of a certain scandal-ridden actor/governor; he once dubbed himself "The Gap Terminator" in reference to his plans to eliminate race-based achievement gaps. And in 2008 comments the board about bullying of homosexual students, he proclaimed: "Who knows? Maybe I'm gay myself. I haven't tried it."

Bumgarner gave me a full-out belly laugh when I googled myself and landed on this creatively illustrated post on one of his blogs.

Two Atlanta superintendent finalists have CMS history

The troubled Atlanta school system last night named three finalists for the superintendent's job, and two have a history with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Cheryl Atkinson, who's currently leading the city school system in Lorain, Ohio, graduated from Garinger High and did a stint in the upper levels of CMS administration from 2003 to 2006. She was recently a finalist for the CEO's job in Cleveland.

Barbara Jenkins, deputy superintendent in Orange County, Fla., spent some time leading human resources for CMS. She's a graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy, which trains and places leaders in urban districts.

Atlanta is just one of several urban districts seeking a new leader -- a pack CMS officially joins tonight, when the school board meets to start planning to replace Peter Gorman. Anyone can come (6 p.m. at the Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.), but you'll probably just end up hanging out with reporters while the board discusses an interim in closed session.

And CMS alumni are making their presence known in the big leadership shuffle. The last three years have seen former Deputy Superintendent Maurice "Mo" Green go to Guilford County; former Chief Academic Officer Ruth Perez take over a suburban Los Angeles district; and Chief Accountability Officer Jonathan Raymond named superintendent in Sacramento, Calif.. Most recently, Raymond's successor, Robert Avossa, was hired to lead Fulton County Schools just outside Atlanta.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Gorman looking forward to anonymity

When he announced his resignation from the head of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Peter Gorman's staff said he would have nothing else to say to the press. Which left us with questions, frankly, since he's still on the public payroll as superintendent till Aug. 15. (OK, we always have questions). He might not be talking to us anymore, but he did answer questions this morning at a meeting of the Small Business Professionals of Charlotte.

According to tweets from people at the meeting, Gorman had plenty to say about his five-year tenure with CMS, and also answered questions. Joseph Margolis, a freelance copywriter, said he was among about 25-30 people present. He sent out a tweet quoting Gorman as telling the crowd: "I'm at a unique phase in my career. Ask me anything!"

According to the folks tweeting, these were some of the highlights of Gorman's talk:

  • He is "looking forward to anonymity."
  • He will not be involved in finding his replacement.
  • There have been 200 principal changes in five years.
  • Thomasboro Elementary is the most expensive school to educate kids; Ballantyne elementary is the least expensive.
  • Our great teachers don't like poor teachers, want room to do their job well and get good compensation.
  • CMS will pay the price for the severe cuts we've had to do, especially in high schools.
  • As long as we cluster poverty in particular schools, we're going to have challenges.
Since he hasn't made himself available to the press, I tweeted some of the attendees and asked them to ask him what his role will be. Since he's in office two more months, it doesn't seem unreasonable to wonder what he'll be doing until he leaves for his new job with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Is he superintendent in name only for the next two months? Do all these reforms he's been pushing come to a screeching halt? It all might become clearer tomorrow, when the school board meets at 6 p.m. to begin mapping out the search for his replacement.

Margolis says attendees did ask him my question about his role for the next two months. Gorman's answer: he's going to be the superintendent as long as the board has him, and until the day he leaves. Which doesn't exactly clarify my question. But apparently Gorman isn't planning to clear it up -- at least not to the press, anyway. Margolis tells me the superintendent reiterated at the meeting that he isn't making any further comments to the media.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Summer reading assignments: Boon or burden?

Jeri Ramsey, a parent at Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Sharon Elementary, poses an interesting question:  Do schools have a right to make assignments over the summer?

Ramsey says no.  What set her off was a PTA notice saying next year's fifth-graders should read two novels related to the social studies curriculum, "A Long Way from Chicago" and "George Washington's Socks," and have two-paragraph summaries ready to hand in when school starts Aug. 25.  Students will take part in class discussion and be given a comprehension test the first week of school, the notice says.

In an email to Principal Cathy Phelan and copied to the Observer, Ramsey says she certainly doesn't object to kids reading, or even to schools recommending books.  But this crosses a line, she wrote.

"Summer is a time for the families.  It is not a time for schools to force specific assignments on children," Ramsey wrote.  "Feel free to give a reading list of suggested reading materials, feel free to give a list of writing activities, feel free to give a list of math activities.  Let families choose what they do or don't do.  You are over stepping your bounds when you start telling parents what students must do on their free time.  Do you want children to hate learning?  That is what you are instilling."

Phelan backed her teachers' assignment:  "I can assure you that the fifth grade team of highly qualified educators have stayed abreast of current professional development.  Therefore, they do not arbitrarily assign work to the students that will not enrich or improve their skills,"  she replied.  "They greatly care for the academic and social growth of all of the children.  They would not develop a summer assignment that would hurt the students.  Students that truly enjoy reading will continue to find the value in all of the novels that they read.  Students that normally are not interested in reading will acquire content from the book that will be useful to them during the school year.  This is the second year that the 5th grade team has implemented the summer assignment.  The assignment proved to be very beneficial this school year to all of the children."

But Ramsey suspects the assignments are a thinly-veiled form of mandatory test prep, tied to the new social studies exams CMS rolled out this spring in an effort to create data that will help kids and rate teachers.  She notes that CMS will add 45 minutes to the elementary school day in 2011-12 and suggests schools use that time for additional reading.

"So now it is the parents job to teach to the test?"  Ramsey wrote.  "Last year you started using Value Added measures with the established EOGs and you knew the Social Studies Summative would be this year.  That is when it was decided to begin this new summer assignment.  It is all a way to teach to the test, improve Social Studies vocabulary and knowledge.  It is not bad to strengthen Social Studies vocabulary and knowledge, just do it in the time designated by the state as instructional days."

Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark, who hadn't seen the exchange, said last week that summer reading assignments are common, and parent complaints rare.  "A lot of parents ask for it,"  she said. "We get requests for summer reading lists."

Friday, June 10, 2011

On Coach, Trent, Eric, Pete and Rupert

It's a wrap-up at the end of a crazy week. Just think -- at noon Wednesday, it looked like the announcement that Trent Merchant wouldn't seek re-election was going to be the week's big talker.

Politics and personalities aside, the departure of Merchant and Coach Joe White from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board will be a tragedy of epic proportions for local reporters. Let's face it, the former actor and the retired coach are quote factories. Both have strong views and delight in using plain, vigorous language. Sometimes they come up with the perfect metaphor to capture the essence of complex issues (if it's from Coach, you know that metaphor will involve sports). Sometimes they leave listeners with jaws dropped and heads shaking. Either way, they make covering education more fun.

Board Chair Eric Davis is a good bit more buttoned down. So I was delighted to hear him pull off a good one-liner when several of us talked about Superintendent Peter Gorman's departure on Charlotte Talks on Thursday:  "We burn out good superintendents faster than we can burn a song on a CD."

And speaking of burnout, the superintendent who launched weekly media briefings and was widely lauded for his skill with the media left a lot of questions hanging with his abrupt resignation Wednesday, followed by departure for a pre-scheduled vacation. But spokeswoman LaTarzja Henry said today he left one very clear instruction: He will do no more interviews before his mid-August departure.

Finally, when it comes to lively speech, it's hard to beat Gorman's new boss, Rupert Murdoch. If you've got a little weekend time to kill, it's worth reading Murdoch's recent speech to G-8 leaders explaining his vision for the new education division that Gorman will help him launch. It's long but fascinating, and gives the clearest idea I've gotten yet of what enticed Gorman to make the leap (besides money, which I assume is pretty darn good).

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Two of three CMS board seats will change hands

Updated 6:15 Wednesday to correct some garbled paragraphs: So this is a strange twist. When De Shauna McLamb announced her candidacy in March, I checked in with the three incumbents about their plans. Kaye McGarry said she hadn't decided. Joe White had been very clear about not running again. And Trent Merchant said he probably should play coy, but yes, he planned to run again.

I was vague about that in yesterday's post because I'd been hearing folks say Trent was not running. I couldn't reach him before posting, but in an email sent last night, he says he basically blurted out a lie when I asked:

"I am not running for re-election this fall," Merchant wrote.

"I made my decision in November 2009. I informed Dr. Gorman in August 2010, Eric Davis in November 2010 - and have been telling others in recent weeks."

"In the early Spring of this year, at the end of a lengthy conversation on another topic, you asked me in passing if I was running and I blurted out a quick 'yes.' I wish that I had said something more cagey and politician-sounding, but that has never been my strong suit - and I was not ready to make my decision public until I had the chance to inform certain people privately."

"I will have served on the Board of Education for over 5 years at the end of my term, and it has been an honor to serve the people of Mecklenburg County. I thank them for the opportunity, and will be eternally grateful. My family, friends, and work colleagues have been incredibly supportive during the past 5 years; now it is time for me to devote more attention to them."

So now it's at least two of the three at-large members who will be new. McGarry sends this: "At this moment, I have not made a final decision. I am still reflecting on the accomplishments during my 2 terms (2003-present) serving all the children and families in Mecklenburg County, and am considering the upcoming challenges and how my experience and dedication might continue to serve public education should I decide to run for a third term."

With all the furor over school closings, teacher layoffs and a barrage of new testing, the prospect of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board election this fall has almost gotten lost.

Elyse Dashew, a parent leader at Smith Language Academy and a founder of MeckFUTURE, kicks off her campaign this week, and filing takes place the first two weeks of July. That means we should start getting a glimpse of what the race for three at-large seats will look like (the six district posts aren't up until 2013).

Elyse Dashew
During the last three years of budget cuts, Dashew has spent a lot of time trying to figure out what all the change will mean for her kids' school. From there she started looking at the bigger picture and getting to know families from various schools. MeckFUTURE, launched in March, mobilized folks from about 40 of CMS' 178 schools to lobby county officials for money to avert the massive layoffs projected for 2011-12.

Amidst all the turmoil, she says, there's a common thread: People really care about CMS. "There's so much energy around education," she said Tuesday. "A lot of times its expressed as frustration or anger or anxiety."

So far, Dashew's themes are pretty broad: She wants to get people constructively engaged and help the board work together. She's a first-time candidate and an unaffiliated voter, something she thinks would be a plus on a board that's ostensibly nonpartisan (the current makeup is four Democrats, three Republicans and two unaffiliated).

Dashew joins De Shauna McLamb, a CMS parent and NAACP member who announced her candidacy in March, and Hans Plotseneder, a West Meck teacher who has run twice before and plans to make a formal announcement of this year's candidacy soon. Tim Morgan, elected to represent south suburban District 6 two years ago, is mulling a bid for a countywide seat. At least one newcomer will take a seat, with Joe White stepping down at the end of this term.

It's a sign of the times that Dashew scheduled her formal announcement for Thursday but "soft-launched" via Facebook and Twitter last week. I returned from vacation and saw that a fan had tweeted her campaign web site.

Another sign of the times: We'll be relying more than ever on the web to get details of the school board campaign to the folks who care while making the best use of limited print space. During the 2009 campaign, I was frustrated at how little space we were able to dedicate to each of the 19 candidates. Since then we've launched this blog, which has opened faster and better ways to connect with the readers who care most about education. Keep me and Eric posted on what you're hearing and what you'd like to see to make informed choices.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Seeking CMS savings

In its 15-minute meeting Monday night, the school board announced the members of a new advisory committee to explore whether taxpayers can save money by letting private companies take over some of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' business.

If you've been around awhile, you've seen similar studies done by consultants or volunteer panels. The perennial hope is that outsourcing non-educational work such as running buses, feeding kids or maintaining buildings will free tax dollars for schools (or perhaps grant property owners some relief). So far those studies have found no big savings waiting to be plucked, in part because all school business comes with a tangle of government rules and requirements.

Back when new schools were sprouting like dandelions, "lend-lease" public-private partnerships promised big savings on construction. The idea was that a private contractor could build schools cheaper and lease them back to CMS. The district spent about $2 million researching and negotiating such a contract with an Atlanta developer to build one school and renovate three others. CMS pulled the plug in 2008 after concluding it would actually cost more. The challenge: When they're doing public work, private builders are bound by the same bidding requirements and other regs that push up costs for government construction. Plus, of course, they still need to turn a profit.

This time last year, there was a lot of talk about saving money by merging CMS, county and/or city functions such as building maintenance, human resources and communications. Staffers were charged with researching those options, and little has been heard since.

On Monday, CMS Chief Operating Officer Hugh Hattabaugh said visions of merging big CMS and Mecklenburg County functions, such as HR, ran aground because they have different "platforms" for computerized record-keeping. Neither body wanted the expense and upheaval of converting (and from what I can tell, much of CMS' system is driven by state requirements, in an effort to have consistent student records and academic data).

Hattabaugh said there's still some talk of the city of Charlotte and CMS merging vehicle maintenance -- not the bus fleet, but about 300 other cars and trucks used by CMS staff. And he said CMS is working on a contract to hand over maintenance of four administrative buildings to a private service at a savings of more than $100,000 a year -- not big bucks in a $1 billion budget, but a couple of teachers salaries.

So, will the new volunteer crew map a path to significant cost-cutting? One can always hope. Savings large or small will surely be as welcome in 2012-13 as they would have been this year.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Charges dismissed against school board protester

Dr. Hans Plotseneder, a CMS teacher who joined other residents in protesting the school board's decision last year to close about a dozen schools, says the trespassing charge police filed against him have been dismissed.

Plotseneder, a frequent speaker at school board meetings, said in a press release that the dismissal of the charges were important beyond just re-establishing his reputation. "This dismissal will contribute to reducing the fear of CMS teachers to exercise their Free-Speech rights."

He feels he was wrongly arrested. CMS police felt they were justified in arresting him and NAACP President Kojo Nantambu. (His charges were also dismissed). The Observer reported on the arrests. Plotseneder wants the dismissal reported as well in the interests of protecting his good name.

Consider it done.