Monday, July 9, 2012

An ombudsman for CMS?

With a new superintendent in town, everybody's tossing around ideas for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. So here's mine:  CMS could use an ombudsman's office, created with the district's blessing but run by an outside entity.

Heath Morrison will blanket Mecklenburg County, talking to people about strategic plans and new policies.  But the best big-picture work can be undone by the frustration people face when they feel like their children are lost in a bureaucracy.

An ombudsman's office could serve as a starting point for newcomers or parents flung into new situations. Staff could explain the quirks of student assignment here,  or help parents figure out that services for gifted kids are listed under T (for "talent development").  Peter Gorman had a similar idea when he tried to launch a customer service department six years ago.  But that project was one of the first to go when money got tight.

That's the first reason to go outside.  Charities,  foundations and corporations are lining up to support public education.  If private money paid for an office to support families, tax money could stay focused on classrooms.  Project LIFT is planning something along these lines, with the Knight Foundation pledging just over $1 million to create a community engagement office for nine westside schools. But there are 150 more schools beyond that zone.

The bigger reason is independence.  An ombudsman's office would go beyond basic information to help resolve disputes between CMS and people who feel like they've hit a brick wall.  It would push past employees who have given bad information or who aren't trying hard enough to find a solution. It would let Morrison and the board know if there's a dysfunctional process or a recalcitrant administrator creating  problems. That's a tough thing to do when the people in question are your colleagues  --  or superiors.

An ombudsman wouldn't make everyone happy.  I get calls about student discipline, personnel actions, bus routes, special education and school assignments.  Often I realize the caller wants something CMS simply can't give,  for legal, ethical or practical reasons.  But I also hear things like, "Thank you for just responding; you're the first person who's listened to me."  And I know how much it means when you can help someone navigate past a roadblock.

So that's my idea, worth what you paid for it.  What about the rest of you?  If CMS is making a fresh start, what should the leaders put on the list?


Anonymous said...

Interesting concept.

As a person who regularly deals with parents with these issues, etc. let me just say two things.
1) They truly don't listen and are upset when you tell them exactly the same thing as what they have heard or they haven't a clue what they want when you ask how they think it should be resolved.
2) The other group think that they are uberspecial (and I mean that in two ways- extra special and so special that the rules don't apply to them)and that what they want no matter how extensive or what have you should happen.

So I would be interested to see this fleshed out, but don't see it as a reality.

Anonymous said...

There needs to be two of these offices.

One for students/parents and one for employees to have things investigated by an outside party.

Anonymous said...

Talk about creating levels of administration. Who are you going to have giving this "organization" the right answers to give out?? Why not go right to the source within CMS?

Anonymous said...

Great concept Ann,
Unfortunately, since the system really does prop itself up as beyond reproach (uberspecial as the previous poster so aptly surmised) it would never accept outside mediation without legal action. Ask the teacher who won his case how much he's received? It's like OSHA. Try to crack that nut.

Wiley Coyote said...

..another layer of bureacracy we don't need.

Just suggesting it proves you feel CMS isn't doing their job for taxpayers/parents and won't even under Morrison.

If Morrison can't get CMS' you know what together and do the job they are supposed to do, let's get rid of him and put someone in place who can.

Anonymous said...

"Office and staff", even if run by an outside entity, does indeed sound like more bureaucracy. And how long would it take for the office to need a "media specialist", as I'm sure the press would be closely following this. Ann, if there were an independent ombudsman office would you leave them alone to sort out issues? Or would complaints be tempting sources of future "news" stories about CMS?

Christine Mast said...

Have to agree with WC on this one. Your suggestion is part of what I envision a PRODUCTIVE and HELPFUL Communications Dept. doing for the public.

When my family started in this behemoth of a system 2 years ago, I had absolutely NO idea where to start when I had questions. And I had a ton of them.

CMS does a TERRIBLE job of helping "new" families get started in K in CMS. No one knows how, when or where to register for school. No one can find anything on the CMS website, because it's such a hot-mess.

I, for one, would be happy to volunteer for a day (or several) to sit down with Staff to make a list of things they could explain and/or do "better."

Anonymous said...

We don't need another bureaucratic layer. What we desperately need is a functioning CMS that is responsive to community needs. Dr. Morrison needs to get rid of Gorman's zones, cut the central staff by 10%, and demand accountability from school principals.

Anonymous said...

The role of ombudsman is one that MeckEd could and should play.

Anonymous said...

My favorite story about "helpful" CMS staff occurred about 10 years ago. With his high school's blessing my rising senior son was registering to take a math course at UNCC because he had completed all math courses available at his high school, including Calculus 3. His counselor directed me to call a specific person downtown to get permission to have the college course included on his transcript so that colleges would not think he was skipping math his senior year. When I explained what I wanted to the woman she said to me, "You people in south Charlotte think you are so special. You can't tell me that CMS doesn't have a math course somewhere he could take instead of going to UNCC." When I ask her what her position was with CMS she said, "Administrative Assistant" to blank. Needless to say I went to "blank" and got the matter straightened out very quickly. But it still boggles my mind that a central office employee would speak to a parent in such a manner.

Wiley Coyote said...


HEII no!

NO outside entity should have anything to do with it.

Bill said...

This sounds like all the more reason to dismantle CMS and create smaller districts more responsive to families' needs.

While the responsible thing to say here is when these instances as 8:32 has pointed out happen, heads roll. Public education has been one of the worse public institutions for weeding out incompetent performers. Whether we are talking about central office staff or schoolhouse personnel, performance appraisal and management is nearly unheard of.

Late in the 1990's, I was having to deal with central office staff. I quickly learned that most of them at that time, were there simply to get a government paycheck in order to stay off the welfare roles. Most jobs aparently were filled to get quotas much like how student assignment was done at that time. Needless to say, I figured out quickly which administrative assistants were useless. When confronted by an assistant superintendent about my unwillingness to deal with many of these after the first time, I simply gave him one of those looks and he quickly backed down.

Luckily, I developed the necessary relationships with effective teachers and principals and they were more than willing to help me out. I did not mind spending extra time at the schools helping to organize fundraisers, assisting teachers, tutoring students, running concession stands, etc. as my part in making public education worth it. The rude awakening of course for a public school parent is then seeing what a private school is like for their child and realizing a second job was far better for that experience than all those hours at a public school.

Anonymous said...

I am with WC on this one as I dont feel another layer would help. If Mr. Morrison cannot take CMS at least back to a respectable level then we will know in next 24 months. I am one for giving him the keys and letting him drive for a while. Today is a big step as he names 3-4 pretty meaningful positions to guide the schools. Does he promote from within or bring in new water? Either way he should be firm with good hires. I think he will be and am giving him confidence until he proves me wrong. I think sky is the limit since last week he met with the corporate and NAACP folks. It can only get better when he actually meet with teachers/staff to start the school year off in August. We will see if he hold people accountable and works the state level as others have not. Keith W. Hurley

Anonymous said...

Not sure I agree with your assessment about new families to CMS. I had absolutely no problem?

Garth Vader said...

All respectable newspapers have ombudsmen. The Observer does not.

ADH, why don't you petition Ann Caulkins to hire an ombudsman and THEN we can talk about CMS getting one?

Anonymous said...

Good point, Mr. Vader. And just try getting Fannie Flono or Taylor Batten to correct any misinformation presented as fact in an editorial!

Ann Doss Helms said...

GV, is that still true? A lot of newspapers created an ombudsman post in the 1990s, when times were flush. At the time, the Observer had a "community editor," which was sort of like an ombudsman but not exactly. We scrapped that position before we started layoffs, and I'd be surprised if many newspapers have the luxury of such a position these days. But I haven't researched that and could be wrong.

I don't have anything against the idea in general; I believe all powerful institutions, including the Observer, benefit from thoughtful scrutiny and questioning. But if they put me in charge of our budget (a scary thought), I'd restore a whole lot of news staff before I'd hire an ombudsman.

Ghoul said...

30 years ago, Independence PTO raised money and bought an activity bus. When CMS found out, they confiscated it because it was no fair to the less fortunate schools.

A couple of years ago the Observer ran a story when a man wanted to donate a ballet bar to his child's school. He had to jump through hoops and had to provide one to another disadvantaged school, "to be fair".

So why id Project Lift allowed to donated to only certain schools? That money needs to be confiscated and given to all schools equally.

CMS is just wanting another lawsuit filed by another suburban family tired of overcrowded classrooms and the unequal spending plan CMS has.

Christine Mast said...

Anon @ 9:23am,

I'm truly glad you found what you needed on the CMS website.

What I relayed were my personal experiences, along with several others that I continue to counsel on a blog site. When these kinds of questions come up, I try to direct them to the right places.

But you've also kind of proven my point... who in the world (that is UNfamiliar with CMS) would think that the tab you're looking for is called "Student Placement"?

How about something called "New Student Registration" or something like that?

I really hope that one of Dr. Morrison's "to-do-items" is to get a group together to "fix" and "streamline" the CMS website. It's cumbersome, difficult to navigate, and an all-around pain in the backside.

Anonymous said...

I was kind of hoping the super would have some time to improve instruction.

Anonymous said...

I agree that overall the CMS site is poorly organized but if you want to register your student - they do have multiple ways to get to the right spot. Aside from going straight to the Student Placement page you can also go to the Parent Toolkit which will provide a wealth of information on CMS and how to register. Unfortunately, CMS does not do a good job letting parents know when to register their child. Honestly, it is sad to hear so many families who may have been interested in the magnet lottery but never knew you had to register your child by early December the year prior to have a chance at a magnet school.

Wiley Coyote said...

The CMS website is awful. It has been that way fo years..

Scattered historical data, if you can find it, a fair amount of data is not current and the search engine is useless..

Anonymous said...

Look I am not challenging you or even sticking up for CMS. I just think that your example or claim is in baseless. I went to the site, click caked Newcomers then clicked Enrollment. If one of your bloggers does not have the foresight or ability to navigate those two steps I think they will also be the parents that say ....."my son did not know the project was due today" or " I do not know how to check my sons grades online" is one thing to provide guidance when it is needed, it is another thing to enable someone who simply complains about everything but does nothing about it. I AGREE ABOUT THE FACT THAT THAT THE SITE IS DROWNING IN CONFUSSION BUT ENROLLMENT COULD NOT BE ANY MORE BASIC then 2 clicks.

Christine Mast said...

I'm not trying to be argumentative, but these are real-life examples of real parents with real questions. I'm kind of offended that you think these people have "baseless" questions.

I can also assure you that these are involved, caring and responsible parents who are simply "new" to the "system." And they may not even KNOW about the CMS website. Does that make them dumb? No, just uninformed. Could CMS do a better job of "advertising" for these new families? You betcha.

Christine Mast said...

Oh, and just to put this out there... as "involved" as I am in CMS, I was one of those parents who didn't realize I should have entered the lottery for an IB placement in my home school for my child. So I missed out on an entire year's lottery for my own kid. Why? Because the entire lottery program is confusing when you're new and don't realize how everything works.

Is this yet another "baseless" example? Before you answer that, how would I even have KNOWN to ask the question? My home school is ALL IB, and no one explained that it would be important to be "in thru the lottery," so when you move to the next school, you'd be "in" IB.

Anonymous said...

Ghoul--Late 90's my child's middle school was allowing him to take an on-line Algebra II class during his math period since middle school did not have Algebra II which he was ready for (we paid for the class). The principal's husband offered to loan the school a computer to dedicate for his use to take the class (not many computers in schools back then). CMS said no since the husband wasn't loaning a computer to every school. Son took the class at home after school.
Would an ombudsman have helped in this situation (bringing a little common sense into the system)? Would this have happened in a smaller school system?

Anonymous said...

Ann, I think you have a terrific idea. In the city I come from there are ombudsmen (and women). They work on behalf of the residents in nursing homes. Now there is a bag of snarling cats that can rival any school district. These people were all retired people who volunteered their time. They received a small stipend to offset the cost of using their personal vehicles. There were no offices because they didn't sit in an office. They went to the the nursing home or at the family home. There was a main phone number that was handled by a local charity that did it as as added service. They had a list of the volunteers and called the next one on the list and the volunteer would follow up. The only qualification was a concern for the elderly and a really kind heart.

That's an oversimplification, but it is what is needed here also. No big grant, no big office, no big nonprofit salary. Just people who have the time and desire to try to help.

Anonymous said...

I am at a loss.

Ann Doss Helms said...

My take on the need is based not on cynicism about CMS, its employees or Heath Morrison, but on the nature of large, complicated institutions. There are things that are tough to figure out, even for smart people. I have the advantage of being able to speed-dial the public information office and say "I'm stumped; how do I connect with ..." Not everyone can do that. And I suspect that a lot of times the rank-and-file employee on the other end of the line doesn't know all the ins and outs of a system with 18,000+ employees.

On the "you can't give anything to one school if you can't give it to all," I keep hearing that, but CMS says it's not true. And there are definitely PTAs, booster clubs and private donors who target individual schools.

Bill said...

Ann, CMS is not being straight with you on the subject of donations. Anyway, the door is now open for the non-urban schools to gear up their fundraising and get back to the floor of what the urban schools have been getting through Title 1, targeted NC lottery funding, etc.

If CMS tries to stop anyone, now they have a huge lawsuit on their hands.

Anonymous said...

Ann, CMS for years has not allowed private funds or donations to certain schools. This was deemed by the schools that could not raise those same donations as a "unfair playing field". Going forward this "excuse" cannot be used since LIFT opened the door. I personally will lobby Heath to get the lobbyist back so our schools can be funded as they are supposed to by a majority of funds at state level. We have NO voice at the state level , but guess who does ? Project LIFT and its keeping their agenda front/center. This was a HUGE error 3 years ago to let the lobbyist go. Keith W. Hurley

Anonymous said...

"New Student Registration"?

Try this:

Follow the link on the left hand side "Enroll Your Child"
or the link at the bottom

Then select any of the helpful links on the page that follows, such as "Student Enrollment Process" or "Key Dates" or "Locate Your School"...

Bill Stevens said...

To Mr. Hurley's point, CMS is getting shortchanged big time by the state. Here are CMS's numbers from school year 2010-11. There are 1515 LEA's in the state of NC. So it is not a requirement for a county to have only one. This was the result of a push back in the 19870's and 80's by the state legislature that thought reducing the overhead in a school system would mean more money would make it to the classroom and be easier for the state to oversee. Failed to follow trough I guess to see if that idea really worked.

Year 2011

Name Charlotte Mecklenburg
State PPE 4676.11
State Rank 114
Federal PPE 1269.92
Federal Rank 95
Local PPE 2048.00
Local Rank 28
Total PPE 7994.03
Total Rank 95

So you see CMS was next to last in funding per student from the state, 95th from the feds, and in the end, 95th ranked in the state.

Here is the web link.

Bill said...

Sorry I meant 115 LEA's.

BolynMcClung said...

NO, NO double NO!

I've made lots of inquiries of CMS. All that's needed is a good operator on the CMS switchboard.

Then, and this is really important, have a meaningful title for your request. Be able to tell that operator in ONE sentence what you need. It's worked since Alexander Bell first said, "Mr Watson—Come here—I want to see you."

Bolyn McClung

Anonymous said...

3 districts. Sooner the better.

Anonymous said...

Christine - your blog seems to be "empty", do you mean your Facebook page?
Also, CMS has improved to have an "enroll your child" direct link on the first page (left hand side).
And I'm sorry, parents can find your blog/facebook page but can't realize that or find that CMS has a website?

Jeff Wise said...

We're adopting a principle called 2 degrees of separation at our firm - anyone with a question ought to be able to find the right person to answer that question within 2 hops. Those hops could be phone calls, emails, texts, webpage clicks or any combination thereof.

Oftentimes however we don't encourage our employees to share their knowledge, or the culture is such that sharing information isn't stressed or there are inefficiencies within systems that create bottlenecks.

There's no need to create more layers of administration or have an ombudsman. There are plenty of knowledgeable personnel within CMS, the key is designing a more effective way for those people to communicate their knowledge.


Anonymous said...

That's encouraged in some environments Jeff. Unfortunately in CMS if you know more, better, or quicker than a superior you stay an inferior. That's a culture that's here to stay with no path for advancement. Just look at the retention rate for this system.

Christine Mast said...


Since some seem to be hammering me on the "how do I sign up my kid in CMS" point (that was only ONE of my points, and no one has addressed my other question), let me say this... I KNOW HOW TO FIND HOW TO REGISTER MY KID. I KNOW HOW TO TELL OTHERS. Thanks!

Re: the "blog", it's a large support group/private site I was referring to (not MINE)... one that I don't need to publish here. Especially since there are so many of you that are ready to crucify Moms that have questions.

Back to Ann's original question in this blog... absolutely NOT. CMS needs to do a better job of actually DOING their job.

Bill Steevns said...

Christine and others, I think the bottom line is how will Dr. Morrison build some community trust in CMS. He has his hands full with the likes of NAACP and MeckACTS versus the taxpayers demanding improvements for all this money thrown at certain demographics and with not getting it, why can't that money go back to where the students will take advantage of it.

Secondly, many central office and school staff simply treat parents and the community with distain. Now some parents need to be treated with distain because they are illiterate and demanding and think best how to run a school. When in the end, all they want is the public school system to raise, feed, cloth, etc. their child so they do not have to sacrifice "their" government check.

Wiley Coyote said...


Your last sentence is part of a larger problem being accelerated by the current administration in Washington.

When you have more people in the last three years go on Social Security Disability than the number of jobs created, we have a problem.

When you have the USDA advertising for ANYONE to sign up for SNAP and NSLP, that means more and more feeding at the trough, thus becoming dependent on taxpayers.

It is not sustainable on a national level or in CMS.

Anonymous said...


Have you considered that, if you didn't know that the CMS website has a link on it's front page called "Enroll Your Child", maybe you are not the best person give advice to other parents on that 'large support group/private site'? Or that you are not qualified to make statements like "No one knows how, when or where to register for school. No one can find anything on the CMS website, because it's such a hot-mess."?

What was your other question?

Anonymous said...

10:47 anon- Dont give your "expert advice" to Christine and dog her unless your willing to use a name/tag. That way we can hold you to a higher standard. Its just a simple expectation on a site such as this. With the every 2-3 month changes in CMS zones half the teachers at CMS schools dont know were the students come from. The CMS site is very "substandard" that pretty much a concensus. I also cannot get my D-5 rep to respond via the site although thats a neglect not site issue.

Anonymous said...




Now, back to the ombudsman...I think this would be a very good thing for teachers not to have to go through HR/Employee Relations to get their grievances heard. Hard to get a fair shake when the ER is in cahoots with administrators.

Anonymous said...

2:09 posting anonymously I see...

pot..this is kettle...


Anonymous said...

Interesting idea.

An ombudsman (overwhelmed and mad parent, this buds for you?) office could solicit parent volunteers as well. It takes 13 years for a child to get through school. Over the course of this time period, most parents have developed some expertise dealing with a variety of educational matters.

Based on personal experience, the simplest and often easiest way to address an issue is directly with a teacher or principal providing you don't go in with guns-a-blazing and have a solution oriented goal in mind. Approaching things from a "I'm here as a concerned parent to PARTNER with you in an effort to meet my child's individual needs" goes a long way (memorize this). On the other hand, parents navigating a system as large as CMS need to learn how to advocate on behalf of their own child because no one else is going to do this for you. Sometimes this means taking things into your own hands and figuring out a way to broaden bureaucratic rules and regulations without actually breaking them. Persistence and a little creativity is sometimes all it takes to navigate what seems like an overwhelming "might as well hit my head against a brick wall" process.

A few areas my inner ombudswoman would cover:

1. Welcome to Charlotte and why CMS will never do things the way they do in Connecticut.

2. How to navigate down-right stupid bureaucracy and getting to know your district school board representative.

3. How to write a "Letter to the Editor".

4. How to advocate on behalf of your child after they've been diagnosed with a learning disability.

5. Beyond your neighborhood school: schools and programs that offer unique educational opportunities for your gifted and talented child you might not know about or haven't considered.

6. CMS, Charter, Parochial and Private Schools.

7. What to die and not die on a hill for: picking and choosing your battles.

8. Today's educational lingo.

9. Who do I call?


Anonymous said...

#6. Diversity in Education: CMS, Charter, Parochial Home Schooling, Private Schools.

That's better.


Anonymous said...

Great idea, but will never happen, IMHO. Let's just split into 3districts where the parents in each have common goals, and be done with it. As long as we have a Kojo, we can not have an effective educational system ih Meck County. The whites want their kids educated to their potential, the upper middle class blacks have pulled their kids out of the system, and the rest of the blacks just agree with Kojo because they don't know whaat else to do, it seems.

Wiley Coyote said...

Anon 5:48

So where would you draw the boundaries?

What happens to us White folks who fall into one of your Black zones?

You know, us White folks just want our kids educated so how do we survive in your plan living in one of your Black zones?

CMS will never be split unless the NAACP sanctions it.

Bill said...

Let me follow-up on Wiley's comment. He is right that it is about the NAACP but that is because the city fathers here are so scared to have this city look bad and not "progressive" if this demographic is unhappy with anything going against. They learned their lesson with the school closings last year. Even though they were completely justified though not well verbalized and as I suspected would happen, no one cared that the top middle school in the state was destroyed because it was in north Mecklenburg.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad that Christine Mast has finally stop commenting, she continues to be a force of bad information. She has not once supplies us with information that we can go to CMS and verify.

Anonymous said...

You can tell there is a new boss in town. HR actually answers the phone now. In the past, HR rarely returned phone calls. They are actually pleasant now and trying to be helpful rather than the incompetent jerks they were before (actually are). What a drastic change from just a month ago. I wonder how long this will last.

Anonymous said...

I'm the person who donated the ballet barres. CMS sent numerous people over to the school to determine if was "equitable" to bolt them onto a wall. I had to call around and find other schools in CMS that had ballet barres before filling out a equity form that had to be submitted and approved. This is why I was thrilled when CMS's Equity Commitee was disbanded. Talk about bureaucratic nonsense? CMS eventually agreed to install the barres I paid for allowing me to VOLUNTARILY run a dance club and a drama club which was invited to perform for the school board and the Superitendent (Dr. Pughsley) during an awards essembly. My group was also featured on CMS' website under "Arts in Education". I was able to donate a second portable ballet barre to Northwest School of the Arts years later without all the "Equity Committe" drama.

I can't make this stuff up.

Anonymous said...


The CMS Equity Committee. Just say NO.


Anonymous said...

@9:47pm: Just wanted to comment that Christine Mast usually has a well researched position on these boards. She is spot on that getting started in CMS is difficult for new families, especially if you have more questions than when/where. I welcome her insights.

Navigating CMS takes a lot of work and effort. As a parent of two CMS graduates I can attest that my experience with CMS would have been a lot more difficult without the advice and experience of those who came before me. My best advice to parents is to get active with your children's schools so that you know what is going on. Chair a PTSO committee, volunteer with a Booster Club, be around so that the administration recognizes you. Also, there is an amazing amount of mis-information dished out by CMS. If you are in the school you see what is really going down.

Anonymous said...

My kid's high school had several large donations turned down due to "equity" issues in the past. Other donations came with strings attached, such as a cut going to another school. Anne, CMS isn't going to tell you about this. It is handled very discreetly.

Anonymous said...

I donated ballet barres to an elementary school in South Charlotte and a middle/high school on Beatties Ford Rd. Neither of my children participated in the dance club I voluntarily ran at the elementary school and neither of my children attend the school on Beatties Ford Rd. I would like to thank the CMS Equity Committee for making my voluntary contributions and monetary donations to both schools as difficult as possible.

I'm kinda' liking the ombudsman idea more and more.

Anonymous said...

No Data
No Peace

Anonymous said...

#10. Doctors Notes and APSD (Algebraic Psychological Stress Disorder).

How to move your 7th grade "gifted" child into an "average" Algebra 1 class after the 20th day of school.

I can't make this stuff up.

- Alicia Durand