Friday, March 30, 2012

People power the technology

Technology alone can't transform education.  That was a big message Charlotte's Bill Goodwyn,  CEO of Discovery Education, took away from this week's federal summit on the future of digital textbooks.

"If you can't improve the instruction,  it doesn't matter how many devices you have,"  said Goodwyn,  whose company provides digital texts and professional development for the educators who use them.

The conference was hosted by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski.  The FCC is involved because it's promoting broadband access and digital literacy.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  of course,  is in the thick of a transformation that includes wireless internet access and digital texts.  During this week's school board meeting,  teachers and technology facilitators swarmed the dais to give board members a one-on-one demonstration of a digital science text with video clips and  interactive graphics.  Along with their iPads,  each carried a traditional textbook for contrast.

Afterward,  Hopewell High technology facilitator David Casavecchia tweeted his reaction to the time he spent with Vice Chairman Mary McCray: "McCray was AWESOME! #BestBoardMember."

I got so tickled at that tweet that I called him to see what was behind it.  Was he being politic,  or was it really that much fun?

Casavecchia, who's 34, says he was a bit worried about doing the demonstration for McCray, a 59-year-old retired teacher.  He thought about his parents, who "aren't big on these tablets." But he showed her a 3D model of a nucleosome that rotated on the touch screen,  and she took over.  "Just the expression on her face, she got it!"  Casavecchia said.

It's something I've seen often as technology transforms classrooms and workplaces:  The young become leaders and teachers.  At worst,  that can be stressful and threatening to those of us who aren't so young.  At best, it's a joyful experience for all involved.

I asked Casavecchia if that's how digital learning works:  Will students become teachers as well as learners?  Yes, he said -- but he added a note of caution:  The teacher has to be comfortable with the technology to make it work.

Which brought us back to Goodwyn's point:  Tablets, wireless internet access and digital texts won't do much good unless adults learn new ways to teach.  Casavecchia notes that the CMS plan to get iPads into more classrooms includes intensive training when the "innovation kits" are awarded in May.  Teachers who get the devices will be expected to take online courses and attend a summer institute.

Come August, they'll start showing the rest of us what it's all about.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Now that's a secret search!

It's superintendent shuffle time across the country,  so reporters have been swapping stories.  Baltimore County, Md., takes the prize for stealth,  announcing a hire Tuesday morning with no public discussion or disclosure of finalists.

The Baltimore County board named Dallas Dance of the Houston Independent School District,  a 30-year-old with only two years' teaching experience and no history in Maryland.  Dance returned to Houston on a 6:30 a.m. flight, without meeting the public even after his hiring was announced.

As you might guess,  both the choice itself and the process are generating controversy.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board's airport interviews sparked a few  "you gotta be kidding!"  responses from fellow education reporters, but at least the CMS board has pledged to bring up to three finalists to meet the public in April.  The board gathered in closed session before and after Tuesday's regular meeting,  and again for two hours after Thursday's budget work session.  So far, they've announced nothing about the next steps.

There's been some buzz that  "up to three"  could mean one if there's strong agreement on a favorite  -- essentially picking a superintendent who does a public tour before the papers are signed.  It's been done by other districts, including Fulton County, Ga., which hired Robert Avossa from CMS a year ago.  Board Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart declined to comment on that possibility,  and other board members are referring all questions to her.

On the other hand,  too much openness has its drawbacks,  notes Emily Richmond, public editor of the Education Writers Association.  She recalls covering a search for state superintendent in Nevada where the board decided on an entirely open approach:

"The sealed envelopes containing the written applications were opened, and the board members took turns passing them around the room,"  Richmond wrote in an email. "Needless to say, the applicant pool was somewhat ... sparse.  One guy was a former supervisor in a Middle Eastern oil field who had never worked in a school.  Another was an elementary school teacher with limited experience. The board ended up picking the in-house candidate who was serving as interim superintendent."

And even then, the hasty choice from the six applications resulted in a split vote and controversy.

"Surely,"  writes Richmond,  "there has to be a healthy medium between that and staking out airport lounges?"

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

iPads or cash for teachers?

Instead of having a chance to compete for classroom iPads, would teachers rather divvy up the money for a one-time cash bonus?  Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member Rhonda Lennon juiced up an already lively discussion of the CMS technology plan by posing that question last night.

The district's move toward a "bring your own technology" digital-rich environment in August has turned technology into a topic everyone has opinions about.  CMS kicked off the push in February by giving school administrators iPads, software and training to use them on classroom walk-throughs.  Next step:  Using about $3.4 million in county money to buy "innovation kits" that provide iPads for the classroom teacher and 10 for the class.

There's not enough money to buy them for everyone,  so CMS is seeking proposals for how teachers would use the devices to boost learning.  Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh said about 300 teams,  with a total of 3,000 teachers,  have applied.  Chief Information Officer Scott Muri said the "target" is to provide the kits for about 1,000 teachers,  but if there are more high-quality applications the district will try to find more money.

Lennon,  who's been skeptical of the iPad push,  asked if CMS could redo this year's budget to spend that money instead on a one-time bonus for teachers,  whose pay has been frozen since 2008.  She said her calculations show it would come to about one percent of a teacher's salary.  "If they want to buy themselves an iPad with it, then go for it," Lennon said.

Hattabaugh said it would be a  "betrayal"  of teachers who have already put work into their proposals.  Board member Joyce Waddell,  a retired teacher,   agreed:  "It would be wonderful if we could have $3 million for teachers, but we have a prior commitment.  We have to trust decisions that we have made."

Vice Chair Mary McCray,  also a retired teacher,  asked if it's possible to do an online poll of teachers to see which they'd prefer.

Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart asked how CMS is ensuring that all students get the full digital experience,  even if their teachers don't get iPad kits.

CMS just doesn't have the money to buy devices for each student, Muri said.  He said that would cost around $120 million.  But by combining district money with what donors, PTAs and families can contribute,  he said,  schools can move more quickly into an essential new style of learning

"BYOT is for all children,"  Muri said.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

CMS board yanks support of performance-pay bill

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board voted unanimously to withdraw its support from House Bill 546, a controversial performance-pay measure that came to symbolize many teachers' frustration with CMS and former Superintendent Peter Gorman.

Gorman and his staff crafted the bill,  which would grant CMS the right to revise the teacher pay scale without teacher approval. A prior bill had given CMS authority to pilot performance pay with approval by its teachers. The House approved 546,  but it was tabled by the Senate.

Last year the school board was narrowly divided on the bill,  with a slim majority supporting it. Mary McCray, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators at the time, was a vocal opponent. She retired from that post and is now among three new members. As vice chair of the school board, she made the motion to tell lawmakers that CMS no longer wants the bill pursued.

The board also voted 8-1 on a legislative agenda,  with Rhonda Lennon opposing because it includes taxing authority for CMS.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Who's on national cheater watch list?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, whose investigative reporters revealed a massive cheating scandal in their city schools, has just released an investigation into test-score patterns in 49 states that can indicate a high likelihood of manipulated scores.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools isn't on the list of districts flagged as questionable (see a map here,  or look up individual districts here),  based on "improbable clusters of unusual score changes." Several districts surrounding Charlotte,  including Gaston, Iredell-Statesville, Hickory and South Carolina's York 4, pop up on the map -- in each of those cases,  because one of the last four years showed test-score shifts "outside the norm," rather than a persistent pattern.

Cities that showed such extreme swings that they resemble the patterns that clued reporters in to the  cheating in Atlanta are Baltimore, Dallas, Detroit, East St. Louis, Gary, Houston, Los Angeles and Mobile County, Ala.

As the Journal-Constitution article notes,  the statistical analysis doesn't prove cheating.  And as local skeptics are likely to add,  a reasonable rating doesn't mean there's never been any monkey business,  either.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Oddly timed technology plan

Tuesday's agenda calls for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board to approve a technology plan for 2012-14.  I was perplexed by the timing: The board is about to hire a new superintendent.  The guy in charge of technology,  Chief Information Officer Scott Muri,  is about to leave for a new job in Fulton County, Ga.  Why lock into a two-year plan now?

The answer,  says Muri,  is a state deadine.  All districts are required to file such plans with the Department of Public Instruction in April,  so the board must vote now.

Updated: The 42-page plan is online now.  It doesn't lay out specific spending,  but gives an overview of the district's plans to create a  "bring your own technology"  environment,  shift from paper to digital texts and provide the training to help educators and students get comfortable in a world where learning is  customized and takes place around the clock.

"Access to personal teaching and learning devices will expand," the report says. "Personal learning devices will enhance student and staff access to digital resources. A comprehensive professional development plan will be enacted to support the infusion of technology within the learning environment.

"The 'classroom' will expand beyond bricks and mortar. Technology will link students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools with professors at universities and colleges from Chapel Hill to China. Online learning will enable students to study advanced Chinese or a second year of physics. Digital tools will link students with teachers who challenge them to soar and provide them with the differentiated support that they need."

Friday, March 23, 2012

No Mo for CMS

Maurice "Mo" Green, superintendent of Guilford County Schools, isn't in the running to succeed the Charlotte-Mecklenburg superintendent he helped hire.

Green in 2008
Ever since Peter Gorman resigned last summer, there's been talk that Green might be the next leader of CMS.  Green was the CMS attorney when the board hired Gorman in 2006.  Gorman was so impressed with Green's work on the hiring negotiations that he soon named Green his deputy.  In 2008, the state's third-largest district lured Green away from the second-largest,  and Green used many of the same approaches to education that won national acclaim for Gorman and CMS.

Early on,  Green wouldn't return my calls asking whether he might apply.  But Guilford Chief of Staff Nora Carr,  another CMS alum, told me this week that he was approached about applying but declined.

"I think he's very happy here,  but he was flattered by the interest,"  she said.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Nine questions for would-be CMS leaders

If you could ask nine questions of the folks who want to lead Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, what would they be?  Here are the questions the school board posed to the people who came for interviews at the airport this week, along with what they were looking for in answers.

Most of the questions are fairly open-ended ones about leadership skills and approaches, though they did touch on some local specifics, such as experience in public-private partnerships such as Project LIFT and  opinions on CMS' strategic staffing plan.  According to the sheet they used,  the board is looking for someone with teaching experience, a collaborative leadership style and an ability to communicate with employees and the community.

Kudos to CMS and board Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart for a quick response on this  --  I asked Ellis-Stewart about getting the questions as the crew left the airport yesterday and had them less than 24 hours later.  Next up:  Members will start comparing their reactions to the candidates they interviewed to line up a short list who will meet the public in April.

R.I.P. FOCUS schools

A program that was once at the heart of this community's effort to cope with the consequences of high-poverty schools was quietly laid to rest at this week's Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools budget session.

The most noteworthy thing about interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh's acknowledgement that CMS no longer has FOCUS schools is that anyone raised the question.  Like so many efforts launched with great fanfare, it has been quietly nudged to the sidelines as leaders and strategies changed.

The program, originally knows as Equity and created under Superintendent Eric Smith, came out of the court battle over race-based assignment. When the old assignment plan was overturned and the school board hashed out a race-neutral "choice plan,"  the board and county commissioners agreed to provide extra aid to schools with the highest levels of students on lunch aid.  It was an acknowledgement that the new plan was likely to create more schools with higher levels of poverty (it did) and that those schools would need extra help for students to succeed.

The first few CMS budgets I covered,  starting in 2002,  brought heated debates over whether the county was paying the full cost that commissioners had agreed to.  The Equity schools were renamed,  bizarrely,  EquityPlusII schools.  Under Superintendent James Pughsley, they became FOCUS schools, for Finding Opportunities: Creating Unparalleled Success.  Those schools got about 30 percent more in their budgets for teachers and supplies,  and many argued that wasn't enough.

When Peter Gorman became superintendent in 2006,  he launched new strategies,  such as providing "weighted" faculty formulas that take into account poverty levels at all schools.  He argued that it didn't make sense to provide all-or-nothing aid based on whether a school fell just above or below an arbitrary percentage of students getting free or reduced lunches.  Whenever I and others asked about the FOCUS program,  Gorman said it existed in a more limited form.  But it stopped coming up during recession-driven budgets that focused on cuts and layoffs.

On Tuesday,  when the board reviewed Hattabaugh's plan for 2012-13,  Tom Tate, who has been on the board since 2005, asked about the FOCUS schools.  Hattabaugh said the FOCUS program is gone,  replaced by the weighted staffing formula and efforts to recruit strong educators to the most challenged schools.

The challenge of promoting success at schools where most students come from impoverished homes remains,  of course. In just a few weeks,  the board will choose someone to succeed Gorman,  and that person will no doubt bring a new set of tactics.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Billingsville tops Washam? Maps give new twist

MeckEd has updated its map of CMS schools to add data on the percentage of students who made at least a year's gains on state reading and math exams last year, and the results can be surprising. Some high-scoring schools, such as Washam Elementary in Cornelius, fared poorly on those measures, while the low-scoring Billingsville landed near the top on the growth list.

That's because a school like Washam starts the year with most students performing at or above grade level. Those students are likely to stay in the "passing" category,  leading to a high proficiency score (87 percent last year)  even if their scores don't advance as much as expected.  Billingsville, where most kids are poor and some are homeless or refugees,  has the opposite situation:  Even if teachers help them make a year's progress or more,  the students may still fall short of grade level at year's end (last year's pass rate was just under 50 percent).

Bill Anderson,  a former CMS principal who heads MeckEd,  calls the growth ratings one of the most important measures of school success.  The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute worked with MeckEd,  a nonprofit information and advocacy group,  to map the state growth data for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. They included the percent of all students who made a year's gains in reading and math,  and a separate breakout for the students at each school who were on grade level when they arrived.  Anderson said the second measure is designed to provide a look at how stronger students fare at each school.

At Billingsville,  for instance,  only 45 percent of all students made a year's gains in reading, but almost 82 percent of those who were reading on grade level made those gains.  In math,  86 percent of all students and 96 percent of those who started on grade level made a year's growth.

One thing that jumps out,  especially for middle schools,  is the profusion of red dots on the MeckEd maps. The group decided to use the red label for any school where fewer than 70 percent of students logged a year's growth,  with yellow and green for higher levels.  Anderson said that's not intended to pass any kind of judgment on schools, but to get discussion started:  "MeckEd's goal is to provide objective,  clear information."

Monday, March 19, 2012

CMS plan: 157 more jobs, 45 of them teachers

Keeping up with all the moving pieces in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools budget is always a challenge -- a cut here, an addition there, a line item moved from one department to the other. Here are some nuggets from the 290-page budget book handed out last week.

The $1.2 billion budget would be an all-time high, even with $30 million in temporary federal aid drying up.  If the county gives CMS $27.5 million more  --  and that's a big if  -- the projected total from federal, state, local and other sources would be $26.5 million over the current year.  However, because enrollment keeps growing,  the per-pupil total of $8,541 would still be below the pre-recession high of $8,912 in 2008-09.  Per-pupil county spending would be $2,542,  below the high of $2,621.

Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh's plan would increase employment by 157 jobs  --  but the listed total of 16,949 is a head-scratcher,  given that CMS has more than 18,000 now.  Chief Financial Officer Sheila Shirley says that's because the budget book doesn't tally cafeteria and after-school staff,  whose  pay comes from fees and the federal lunch-subsidy program.

The biggest net gains would be 45 more teachers,  42 more assistants and 30 more bus drivers.  A good bit of that comes from the state,  because of the additional 2,000 students expected next year.  However,  CMS is eliminating 140 jobs for teachers who were hired on one-year contracts,  so if the county money to add 62 high school teachers doesn't materialize there could be a net loss of classroom teachers.  Shirley says the plan is to have almost 7,500 classroom teachers next year.  If you're used to hearing a higher number,  there will be almost 9,650 people in "teacher-level positions,"  including facilitators,  counselors and librarians.

See what I mean about a lot of moving pieces?

Friday, March 16, 2012

CMS board in private conference on superintendent

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board has moved on to a private conference call with the consultants from PROACT Search,  who have 89 applicants for superintendent. After the closed session,  which is expected to take two or three hours, the board may release plans for upcoming interviews.

The five-hour public session ended without time for the board to talk about Project LIFT or the "theory of action."  Members spent the early afternoon jotting down ideas about what they mean by reform,  equity,  fairness, effective communictions and hiring a change agent.  Most of it was broad and hard to argue over -- things like wanting someone who is open to innovation but willing to keep what works.

"A change agent to me is,  'Do what we're doing and put a brick on the gas pedal,' " Tim Morgan said. "To someone else, it could be,  'We want a 180-degree reversal.' "

Eric Davis said he wants someone with the courage and vision to innovate. 

"Is the path that we're on the only path of courage,  or are there other courageous paths?"  Ericka Ellis-Stewart asked.

1 p.m. Some board members say interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh is the one who acted improperly when he emailed them to say two members had caused teachers to feel bullied and belittled during their school visits.

Vice Chairman Mary McCray, a former teacher and head of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, said if Hattabaugh had concerns about board members' behavior, he should have discussed it with the chair and the members in question, rather than emailing the entire board.  "I see it as staff (Hattabaugh) taking on the role to chastise governance," she said.

The rift stems from visits members Richard McElrath and Joyce Waddell made to Project LIFT schools about two weeks ago.  They raised questions about the philanthropic effort to improve nine westside schools,  about whether the project supports segregated schools and about a recent report from teachers on  "hard to staff schools."

Hattabaugh told the board today there's nothing wrong with board members visiting schools, but that faculty at Thomasboro, Allenbrook, Byers and Bruns complained to their supervisors about the way board members had spoken to them.  Hattabaugh said those complaints came to him, and he talked to the board members in question.  Hattabaugh said he also spoke with Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart about the incidents.  On March 1, he sent the memo to all board members saying "the behavior reported to me by the staff at Thomasboro was so egregiously unfair to our teachers and staff that I cannot remain silent."

Eric Davis and Tim Morgan defended Hattabaugh's action.  "I think what our superintendent did was he defended our staff in the face of his employers,"  Davis said.

Waddell asked Hattabaugh:  "Did you feel you had retaliated because of an earlier incident?"  She later referred to "the incident with the deceased principal,"  an apparent reference to the suicide of Northwest Principal Barry Bowe,  whose death came in the midst of a CMS investigation of a security lapse at a school dance.  Ellis-Stewart tried to get Waddell to clarify the connection, but she did not.

McElrath said there "may have been something done wrong,"  but urged the board to focus on training on the proper role for board and staff,  rather than rehashing visits most of them weren't part of.  "If it means apologizing for anything that may have been done that wasn't intentional,  that's fine.  Let's move forward,"  he said.

McCray questioned the notion that board members can be intimidating to faculty: "As a teacher,  I know the intimidation factor that's out there.  Teachers are not intimidated by board members.  We're more intimidated by our principals and the superintendent."

Tom Tate agreed he doesn't know what happened,  but said the strong complaints from faculty are cause for concern.  "If I had been in a school and that had been the response to my visit,  I would have thought that I had done something terribly wrong,"  Tate said. 

Ellis-Stewart said Hattabaugh did not show her the email before sending it to the entire board,  and said she might have been able to mitigate some of the problems if he had.  Tate said that might be the lesson going forward:  If there are concerns about board behavior with staff,  any response should be crafted by the superintendent and board chair together.

Mary Kendrick,  the facilitator,  urged the board to move forward in a way  "so that no one is villainized in the process."

Read more here:


10:20 a.m. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board is about to tackle some of the toughest issues on their plate and in the community: What do equity and fairness mean to each member?  Do they have the same ideas of educational reform and hiring a "change agent" as superintendent?  And how can they talk to each other when they disagree?

They're meeting today with Mary Kendrick, the facilitator who led the board's January retreat, to prepare for the superintendent search.  High on the agenda:  Looping back to some of the questions that brought tension to Tuesday's meeting.

Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart said she hopes today's session  "continues the business of coming together as a new team,"  which includes three members elected or appointed after the superintendent search began.  Kendrick suggested the board focus on dialogue to help them understand each other, rather than debate to prove their own points.

Tom Tate,  the only member with more than two years' experience,  said both are essential.  "We have to enter into debate at times.  ...  I think we ought to admit that there are simply times when we want to convince each other that our way,  my way,  is the way we ought to go."

Joyce Waddell countered that debate becomes "a negative tool when it becomes an argument,  rather than an exchange of ideas."

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Hattabaugh: Board members bullied teachers

A clash that started two weeks ago with a school board presentation on teacher effectiveness continues to roil Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leadership.  Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh, normally a mellow guy, sent a strongly worded memo to the board accusing two members of bullying faculty, "behavior so egregiously unfair that I cannot remain silent" (read it below).

During the Feb. 28 discussion of  "hard to staff schools," board member Richard McElrath peppered teachers with questions about that label.  Somali Davis-White, a teacher at Thomasboro Academy,  attended the meeting as part of a teacher study group that crafted the report.

Afterward,  McElrath and board member Joyce Waddell made unannounced visits to Thomasboro and other schools that are part of Project LIFT.  I talked to McElrath the afternoon of March 1 about some of his remarks at the meeting, and he told me he was visiting LIFT schools to ask principals and teachers about the philanthropic program and its support of segregated schools.  A few hours later,  Hattabaugh emailed board members about complaints he'd heard from the Thomasboro visit.

Hattabaugh's memo sparked a heated discussion of school board behavior last night,  one that's likely to continue at Friday's meeting on the superintendent search.  Today I got a copy of Hattabaugh's email to the board.

From: Hugh E. Hattabaugh
Sent: Thursday, March 01, 2012 6:08 PM
To: Ericka Ellis-Stewart; Mary T. McCray; Eric C. Davis; Tom Tate; Richard McElrath; Joyce Waddell; Amelia Stinson-Wesley; Tim Morgan; Rhonda Lennon
Cc: George E. Battle
Subject: Action Required: Review of Board Policy Constituent Services

Dear Board members,

On Wednesday, two Board members visited Thomasboro Elementary.  They spoke with several teachers,  challenging the assertion put forth at Tuesday’s Board meeting that Thomasboro is a  “hard to staff”  school.  One Board member suggested that racism was a factor in that description of Thomasboro.  Both members asked questions but did not allow teachers to answer them,  talking over teachers and the principal as they tried to answer the questions they’d been asked.  The Board members spoke in a denigrating way about one of the teachers on a work team to her Thomasboro colleagues as they gathered for a meeting.  The work team’s discussion of the challenges facing the school was characterized as  “dirty laundry”  that should not be aired in public.  The Board members suggested to several teachers that they had been tricked or treated unfairly in matters of salary.  They spoke in a critical way about Project L.I.F.T. to several teachers and the principal.

All of these actions violate the Board’s own policy governing how Board members interact with staff and the public.  I have attached Policy BHE,  Constituent Services,  for your reference.  It states in part:  “Each Board member will avoid involvement in management activities or giving direction to staff  …  In making this commitment, Board members recognize that their involvement in management and administrative matters creates confusion among district employees,  leads to dysfunctional management systems,  undermines the authority of the Superintendent and the administration,  and weakens the Board…”

To this clear and unequivocal statement of why the two Board members’  actions on Wednesday were in violation of Board policy,  I would add the following:

What message has been sent to staff by these actions?  How can teachers avoid the conclusion that speaking up can lead to a visit from Board members who will bully and belittle them in front of their colleagues?  How will these actions affect teacher and staff morale?

What message does this send to the public about the Board’s role in governing CMS and its responsibility to work in the district’s best interests,  helping all students and schools?

What message does this send to potential superintendent candidates about Board governance and a clear division of duties between the superintendent and the Board?

What message does this send about transparency of district operations and equitable treatment of employees?

I recognize that my speaking out in this way puts me at some personal risk.  However,  the behavior reported to me by the staff at Thomasboro was so egregiously unfair to our teachers and staff that I cannot remain silent.  As the superintendent,  I ask that Board members please follow the policies that you have set.  We may disagree often about what the right choices are for CMS.  Such disagreement is expected and even healthy.  We are dealing with the future of children and all of us have great emotional investment in our work.  But we must remain civil and professional in our dealings with one another.  Open disrespect and abuse of the staff by Board members is wrong . It is damaging to CMS.  It can do very serious harm. Therefore I feel I would be remiss in my duty if I did not share with all of you my very serious concern about this matter.


Hugh E. Hattabaugh
Interim Superintendent
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Government Center
600 East 4th Street
Charlotte, NC 28202

The tech-money shuffle

How did Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools end up with $10 million in county money to spend on iPads and other technology improvements this year? The budget maneuver was so complex that even board members who voted for it in July were asking questions, and Chief Financial Officer Sheila Shirley created a flow chart to explain it (read it on page 5 of this budget presentation).

Here's how it worked:  Last spring,  as then-Superintendent Peter Gorman and the board were planning the 2011-12 budget,  CMS planned to pay for clerical and custodial jobs with a mix of county money and temporary federal aid.  But when the state budget approved in June was better than CMS had anticipated,  there was money to cover the county share and free up $28 million (commissioners had just granted CMS a $26 million bump).

CMS didn't use that money to hire more staff because officials realized the federal money that was paying for secretaries and custodians would disappear in 2012-13, Shirley said this week.  Instead,  CMS tapped that money for one-time projects in 2011-12, including technology, maintenance projects that had been put off and the cost of moving several administrative offices.  In 2012-13,  the county money will go back into the budget for clerical and custodial staff.

None of that got much attention at the time,  given the hullabaloo over averting teacher layoffs and saving prekindergarten classrooms.  Gorman and his staff had spent months talking about laying off hundreds of teachers and other employees to prepare for an anticipated $100 million in cuts.  When the board voted 8-1 for the final 2011-12 budget in July (only Kaye McGarry opposed it),  the minutes show their comments focused on their delight at being able to restore 1,665 jobs for teachers and other school staff.

The technology money got new attention last week,  when CMS invited teams of teachers to make proposals to get  "innovation kits"  that include one iPad per teacher and up to 10 per classroom.

CMS initially said there was about $10 million in county money for that project, including training and "infrastructure upgrades."  Tuesday night, Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh said the actual breakdown is $3.5 million for devices such as iPads,  $500,000 for training to help teachers use the new technology and $6.6 million to install wireless internet in all schools.

The $1.2 million CMS spent to give iPads and software to principals and other school administrators didn't come from that $10 million pot,  but from money carried over from the previous budget year,  Shirley said.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Were LIFT school visits out of line?

After two Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members made an unannounced tour of Project LIFT schools recently, colleague Rhonda Lennon says it's time for a public discussion of the proper way for board members to deal with CMS staff.

Lennon added the discussion to Tuesday night's agenda, with the support of members Eric Davis, Tim Morgan and Amelia Stinson-Wesley.  "We need to as a board address where the line is -- how do we behave in public, what we're supposed to be doing," Lennon said today.

On March 1,  board members Richard McElrath and Joyce Waddell visited schools in the new Project LIFT Zone, asking principals and teachers what they think of the effort to improve nine west Charlotte schools with private donations.  The board voted unanimously in January to approve a contract that gave the philanthropic board an unprecedented role in running those schools,  but McElrath said he still has questions and concerns.

“I’m just trying to get my head around the real focus of this program. I’m just confused about the long-term plan,”  McElrath said,  adding that he's especially concerned that it focuses on supporting  "segregated schools in segregated neighborhoods."

Lennon said board members have to realize that even if they're voicing personal concerns,  employees see them as the voice of authority.  She said the board needs to talk about a perennial question:  How to voice dissent without undermining board decisions.  "If we have a 9-0 vote, should someone be out in the community saying they don't support it?"

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Wake schools seek $8.8 million bump

Wake County Superintendent Tony Tata pitched a budget seeking an $8.8 million increase in county spending for 2012-13, a much smaller hike than CMS'  Hugh Hattabaugh is expected to present next week.

The plan presented to the Wake school board Tuesday calls for $323.2 million from the county (read the full Wake budget proposal here).  Hattabaugh's preliminary plan,  presented Feb. 28,  would ask Mecklenburg commissioners for $355.8 million, $27.5 million more than CMS got this year.  Hattabaugh will make his formal recommendation next Tuesday.

Tata is seeking a 1 percent raise for teachers and a $500 bonus for other staff,  while Hattabaugh is talking about 3 percent across-the-board raises.

Wake is the state's largest district, with more than 146,000 K-12 students this year.  It expects to top 150,000 next year.  CMS  has about 138,000 K-12 students,  plus about 3,000 prekindergarteners, and expects to add about 2,000 in 2012-13.

According to the CMS presentation, it would have taken even more to cover rising costs, enrollment growth and some new spending,  but the district found just over $16 million in "reductions and redirections" that freed up county money.   The largest chunk of that,  $3.9 million,  came from adjusting the average salaries used for the 2012-13 budget to match current reality.

That item raised some questions,  especially given the buzz that CMS has been trying to replace expensive veteran educators with younger,  cheaper ones.  Hattabaugh, the interim superintendent, and Chief Financial Officer Sheila Shirley said the downward trend does indicate lower-paid faculty are replacing some higher-paid ones (though it doesn't prove that's being done intentionally).  Shirley notes that the reduction comes to less than half a percent of the CMS payroll,  and that she's heard the state averages are trending down as well.

The most controversial salaries,  those for top administrators,  will likely take shape after the board approves a budget plan in April.  Six years ago,  Peter Gorman inherited a 2006-07 budget done by an interim leader. During that year he added several highly-paid administrative posts.  The current board plans to pick a new superintendent in May;  we'll see what happens when the newcomer takes office.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Ellis-Stewart taking part in Obama visit

Ericka Ellis-Stewart, recently elected to chair the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, will get a chance to meet President Obama when he visits Charlotte tomorrow.

Details weren't immediately available;  Ellis-Stewart is in Raleigh this afternoon meeting with a legislative education committee.  But the district confirmed that the reason a special meeting on the superintendent search was announced for Wednesday morning,  then postponed,  was that the chair was invited to be part of the visit.

The president is scheduled to fly into the Charlotte airport and make a quick visit to the Freightliner truck plant in nearby Mount Holly.

CMS teachers can seek iPad grants

Teachers who want help moving into next year's wireless learning environment can apply for grants to get an  "innovation kit"  that includes an iPad for the teacher,  up to 10 for students and various accessories,  including  "an iTunes app voucher,"   according to a memo Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools sent to employees today.

The  "Innovation for Transformation"  grants are part of the push to get all schools using wireless devices for learning in 2012-13.  School administrators have already gotten iPads,  and many teachers have been asking whether they'll get devices supplied by CMS.  I'm trying to track down how much money CMS plans to spend on the classroom grants and where it's coming from.

"In order for the learning environments of today to effectively meet the needs of the 21st century digital learner, a transformation must occur,"  the CMS memo states, promising "a transformational journey filled with innovative professional development, digital resources, and effective student engagement."

I got a glimpse of what CMS'  "bring your own technology" environment might look like when I visited the private Providence Day School for an upcoming story.  Josh Cannon, a 26-year-old chemistry teacher,  welcomes smart phones and other devices in his class.  When he did a demonstration that sent flames shooting out of a five-gallon water keg,  one student shot photos on his iPhone.  When Cannon talked about needing a dry day to do some outdoor explosions, half a dozen students whipped out their phones to check the forecast.  When students broke up to do individual work,  one used his phone as a calculator while working on a laptop.  Several popped in ear buds so they could listen to music while reading.  Students say they use their phones to keep up with when assignments are due,  which they track on Google calendars.

Also on the tech front,  Saturday's National College Fair will use bar codes to save students and families some paperwork.  CMS reports that students can fill in their information once,  then get a code that each college booth can scan,  saving the time of repeatedly writing down personal information. Read more about the fair here.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Latest twists in teacher ratings

Teacher effectiveness ratings seem to be slow-tracked in Charlotte,  but Nashville is about to become the third large district to release ratings for individual teachers.  The Tennessean reports that each teacher's evaluation on a five-point scale will be made public this summer,  following the lead of media-initiated releases in Los Angeles and New York City (read one New Yorker's account of being labeled a bad teacher here.)

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has set aside the new tests and value-added ratings that created so much controversy last spring.  Local teachers continue to study the best ways to gauge effectiveness,  but the state's Race to the Top program is now taking the lead on evaluations based on student data. Students around the state will pilot a new survey this spring that could eventually be part of that standard, along with test-score gains.

In January, North Carolina released aggregate job-evaluation results for principals in each district and teachers at each school.  Chief Academic Officer Rebecca Garland said last week there are no plans to post evaluation results for individuals.  When and how the new evaluations might be linked to pay remains unclear.

Meanwhile,  CMS interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh and school board Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart are scheduled to update the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee about local performance-pay and teacher evaluation efforts on Tuesday.

Officials from Project LIFT, the philanthropic school-reform group working with CMS, are also on the agenda.  LIFT is looking at some kind of performance pay or bonuses in its nine schools for 2013-14. For the coming year,  top teachers in those schools are being offered retention bonuses based on job evaluations and test-score gains if they'll commit to staying through 2012-13.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Buying into Montessori

The latest magnet lottery results have revived perennial questions about the popular Montessori schools, which work differently from most elementary magnets in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

If parents wait until their children are approaching kindergarten to apply for Park Road, Chantilly or Highland Mill Montessori schools, they're probably too late.  Students admitted as prekindergarteners have guaranteed kindergarten spots, which means there aren't many seats left for newcomers.

The Montessori schools are the only magnets that accept 4-year-olds, and their pre-K classrooms are the only place in CMS where Mecklenburg students pay tuition.  Diane McClure emailed to ask whether that effectively bars low-income families from those schools:  "It also has the appearance of paying to get into the magnet school."

Magnet director Jeff Linker says pre-K students are chosen by random lottery.  If they're selected, he said, income-based scholarships are available.  He also noted that the tuition of $3,000 a year for 10 months of full-day prekindergarten is well below the market rate.

Poverty levels are relatively low at the Montessori schools, from 12 percent at Park Road to 35 percent at Highland Mill.  If nothing else, pre-K admissions favor families who know the system and are prepared to seize the opportunity.

Continuing the Montessori theme,  the 2012-13 results show that CMS' recently-launched middle school Montessori magnet at Sedgefield is growing,  from 57 students placed in the 2011 lottery to 82 students this time around.  CMS created the magnet based on parent requests,  but there were concerns about whether families would actually pursue the option.  The goal is 100 to 120 students, Linker said.

Friday, March 2, 2012

McElrath: Teachers should speak Spanish

Schools that serve large numbers of Spanish-speaking students should have Spanish-speaking teachers,   Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member Richard McElrath said this week.

His comments came Tuesday night, after teachers talked about their efforts to craft ways to evaluate and encourage better work.  One group studied "hard to staff" schools, and Sue Varga, a Quail Hollow Middle School teacher on temporary assignment with the CMS talent effectiveness project,  said one thing that can make a school challenging is when many students haven't mastered English.

"We shouldn't have schools where most teachers don't speak the language of many of the students,"  said McElrath,  a former teacher.  He insisted that teachers are not effective if they can't speak their students' language.

Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh said CMS students come from homes where many languages are spoken, not just Spanish. He said teachers use a technique designed to communicate with all of them without having to speak their languages:  "The concept here is we're teaching children English."

McElrath said Thursday that he still believes students deserve to be taught by a teacher who speaks their language,  but he has not made a proposal for CMS to require or recruit such teachers.

View the discussion here, in the Feb. 28 video.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

CMS pondering $1 million teacher verdict

How will Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools respond to last week's jury award of $1.1 million to a former teacher?  Don't expect immediate answers, CMS general counsel George Battle III said Wednesday.

In a closed meeting late Tuesday night,  Battle briefed the school board on the Jeffrey Leardini case.  In a federal civil suit,  Leardini testified he was coerced to resign immediately after students at Community House Middle accused him of improperly touching them.  Had he not been misled by a CMS employee relations specialist,  he and his lawyers argued, he'd have had a chance to preserve a successful teaching career.  The jury agreed, siding with Leardini on all counts.

Options could include seeking a new trial or appealing to the Fourth Circuit Court, Battle said.  The district has 28 days to file post-trial motions,  he said,  and a decision about appeals would come after the judge rules on motions.

Whatever CMS ends up paying won't come out of money for classrooms,  Battle and interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh said.  The district has insurance to cover some awards, and also keeps an emergency reserve fund.