Tuesday, April 30, 2013

City, county have more high-paid staff than CMS

If you want to make a six-figure salary working for local government,  your odds are better with the city of Charlotte or Mecklenburg County than with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

According to the updated city payroll posted late last week,  Charlotte currently has 162 people earning $100,000 or more,  with six topping $200,000.  With a work force of 6,649,  that means 2.4 percent of employees have cracked the six-figure mark.

Mecklenburg County has 4,518 people on its current payroll,  with 93 hitting the $100,000 mark (three above $200,000).  That's about 2 percent at six figures.

The CMS payroll also shows 93 people making $100,000 or more in total compensation.  But since two principals hit that mark with bonuses,  the more accurate comparison might be 91 with six-figure salaries.  Either way,  it comes to about half a percent of the 18,665 employees.

I'm not trying to make a case that anyone deserves a raise or a cut.  I've just been looking at these numbers for several years,  driven partly by persistent questions about whether CMS spends too much on top administrators.  Sometimes those questions come from Mecklenburg County commissioners, who provide money for administrative salaries.

Superintendent Heath Morrison has the highest salary among the three local bodies, at $288,000 a year. But his inner circle quickly drops,  with Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark next at $190,000.

Jean Melvin,  medical director for MeckLINK,  is the highest-paid person in the county database at $260,000 a year,  followed by County Manager Harry Jones at just over $246,000.  Jones is supported by three general managers,  earning from $187,000 to $203,000.

Ron Carlee,  the new city manager,  is listed at $245,000,  with Deputy City Manager Ronald Kimble at $212,000.

On the opposite end of the pay scale,  it's also less lucrative to serve on the school board than the other governing bodies.  County commissioners' chair Pat Cotham is listed at $29,665 a year,  with other commissioners at $23,732.

The school board chair gets $16,386  (oddly,  it's Ericka Ellis-Stewart, the 2012 chair,  who's listed in that post now)  while other members get $12,605.

City council members aren't listed in the payroll,  but best I can tell from the city web site,  the mayor gets $22,000 with $14,800 in expense and auto allowances,  while council members get $17,000 in pay and $9,800 in allowances.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Providence teacher absent for 10 years

Update: This story provides answers to many of the questions raised here.
Why would someone who hasn't set foot in Providence High for a decade be listed as a teacher there, earning more than $69,000 a year?

The question struck me as one of those  "too strange to be true"  rumors.  But this is the reason I check them out:  In this case, CMS confirms that a math teacher who's still listed on the Providence High web site and the 2013 CMS payroll has been on worker's comp leave since an injury that happened in 2003.

This raises a host of follow-up questions:  Why isn't this teacher on long-term disability or,  given that he's 71 years old,  retired?  How common is it for schools to have teachers on leave for years?  How many inactive teachers held onto jobs during the years when CMS was laying off active teachers by the hundreds?

CMS isn't answering. Neither is the state Department of Public Instruction.

This whole thing began when reporter Elisabeth Arriero went to Providence for another story last fall.  Faculty members asked if she knew the story behind the missing teacher, and she relayed the question to me. (We obviously have his name,  but I'm not using it to protect his privacy.)

After finding the name she gave me on the Providence online faculty listing and the 2012 payroll,
 I called a source at the school,  who confirmed that he has been gone for years.  His continuing presence on the roster is apparently a puzzle to the rank-and-file faculty.

I asked LaTarzja Henry, who was then head of communications, to check on his status. She reported back on the worker's comp leave from 2003.

I've heard of schools having to fill a gap for weeks, even months, when a teacher is seriously ill,  injured,  recovering from surgery or on maternity leave.  But I was flabbergasted to realize someone could be on leave for a decade. I followed up with questions about the broader context, including whether there's any time limit and how such extended leaves affect hiring and layoffs. I also requested a list of employees who have been on leave for more than a year.

Henry told me she had erred in releasing any information about the teacher's status because such actions are confidential.  And she said it wouldn't be possible to tally people on extended leave without searching individual files.

I emailed DPI spokeswoman Vanessa Jeter,  asking her to steer me to someone in the state who could either shed light on this situation or explain the concept of extended leaves. She referred me to CMS attorney George Battle. "Our people did not feel comfortable commenting on this issue,"  she replied.  "Generally,  leave issues are local board/central office issues.  I am not sure we would have any trend information, etc., to share."

By then, I was busy with other stories,  and frustrated that I wasn't getting enough information to give this any context.  I let it slide  --  but got curious again when we posted the 2013 payroll.   There's the absent math teacher,  making $69,369 a year.

There's been a lot of turnover at the top in CMS over the last few months, so I tried again,  emailing Battle, new Communications Chief Kathryn Block, new HR Chief Kelly Gwaltney and Providence Principal Tracey Harrill,  asking if anyone would explain this teacher's situation and tell me whether there are other teachers on similar extended leaves.

"Any payments received by (the teacher) have been and are being made in accordance with North Carolina law,"  Block replied.  "CMS strictly follows all state laws concerning employee compensation, retirement benefits and confidentiality of personnel records.  We cannot legally disclose any additional information about (the teacher’s) compensation without his written permission.  Please understand our need to honor the confidentiality of this situation."

I called the teacher at home,  and he said someone from CMS had told him I might ask him about this.  "I'm not at liberty to talk,"  he said.  "The school called and said I shouldn't make any comments."

State Rep. Bill Brawley,  a Matthews Republican,  read this post and says he has a pretty good idea what's going on.  Temporary total disability,  a worker's comp category that indicates an employee is totally disabled but might be able to return to work in the future,  has created a number of situations like this,  he said.

"We had cases of prison guards who had been on total temporary disability for 17 years and the prisons had to pay overtime to cover for them,"  Brawley said.

In 2011,  the legislature capped the length of time that disabled workers could collect under this category.  But Brawley said the cap only applies to people disabled after the revision.

I won't be able to sort out all the questions related to this right away.  I've been looking up workers comp and finding contradictory information;  apparently there's a reason HR people and lawyers get paid to wade through these regulations.  But the case of the absent teacher raises a question for taxpayers and employees:  Is this system working the way it should for all involved?

Friday, April 26, 2013

PTA petition: Save our assistants

Jennifer Lancaster, president of the Providence Spring Elementary PTA,  asked me to pass along word that parents there are circulating a petition urging Gov. Pat McCrory and state legislators not to cut teacher assistants in the 2013-14 budget.

"As parents, we know the value of teaching assistants," the petition says. "Teacher assistants are NOT clerical positions.  Many of us volunteer in the classroom, and we know these men and women are on the front lines working side-by-side with our teachers to provide academic support."

"In addition, last year the legislature imposed a requirement that starting next year 3rd graders not be promoted unless they are reading at grade level and this session is proposing to lift restrictions on class size in K-3.  Without teaching assistants, this will create a disastrous learning environment."

"Last, and certainly not least, is safety. Recent events have shown that one of the best ways to protect our students is to have well-informed, vigilant adults on site. Reducing the number of teaching assistants reduces the number of people watching our children and is not consistent with a goal of keeping our schools safe."

McCrory's budget plan would cut about 3,000 second- and third-grade teacher assistants statewide  --  a move his staff says clears the way to add 1,800 teachers in a tight budget.  House and Senate leaders have not yet presented their proposals.

Superintendent Heath Morrison also sounded a  "save our assistants"  theme at a news conference at Dilworth Elementary this week.  After talking about efforts to make sure young students become  "high-quality vivacious readers,"  he introduced first-grade teacher Kerry Vreeland and assistant Nancy Christopher to talk about their teamwork.

"I work with small groups every day,"  helping students with vocabulary,  writing and reading,  Christopher said.

Starting in 2014,  third-graders who fail state reading exams can be held back until they demonstrate grade-level skills,  under an education bill passed last year.  Morrison and Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark say that makes the work of assistants more important than ever.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Mobile classrooms: Critical safety risk?

On Tuesday night,  Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member Rhonda Lennon publicly declared that mobile classrooms clustered outside crowded schools should be seen as a critical safety risk.

On Wednesday morning, Superintendent Heath Morrison said there's nothing unsafe about holding classes in mobiles.

Welcome to the wacky world of bond-project ranking.  For about an hour Tuesday,  the CMS board wrangled with Mecklenburg County Finance Director Dena Diorio,  trying to figure out how to work a ranking system that doesn't mesh with the CMS mission.

From the county's point of view it makes perfect sense.  County officials need a way to compare the need for schools, jails, parks and libraries without giving any category privileged status.

But as CMS and Central Piedmont Community College vie for the chance to put up to $300 million in projects on the November ballot, it's easy to see why educators feel hobbled by the process.

For instance:  County commissioners often say they want CMS to show how their investments boost student achievement. But when board member Tim Morgan asked whether CMS projects got any points for their intended effect on student performance,  the answer was simple:  No.

Enhancing economic development boosts a project's rating,  but the county uses a model that's geared toward traditional business recruitment.  Even though good schools increase property values and create a stronger work force,  those aren't the kind of things that show up.

The county ranking awards points based on the "extent to which population has increased in the area in which the project is located."  But as Lennon noted,  the need for schools is shaped by the number of school-age children,  which can be different from overall population trends.  "We prioritize based on the needs of children,  not adults,"  Lennon said.

Lennon suggested that declaring mobile classrooms a safety risk might gain some extra points in the building safety category.  "Parents perceive these mobiles to be a safety factor,"  she said.  Board member Richard McElrath hinted at a broader definition:  "I would put it as a high risk when a child walks out his front door and he's not going to work and he's not going to college."

Why all the confusion and consternation?  The county introduced this ranking system in 2011 and used it to set the schedule for finishing CMS projects approved in the 2007 referendum.  This is the first time it has been used to decide what goes on a bond ballot.

On Tuesday CMS approved a request for 18 projects totaling almost $294 million  (read the 10-year list it was pulled from here).  CPCC has made a pitch for $430 million.  The county is looking at a total of $300 million in bonds to last the next three years  --  or possibly $400 million for four years.  The ranking system will not only determine how big a slice of the bond pie each body gets,  but it could shake up the CMS priorities,  eliminating top-ranked projects from bond consideration while giving the green light to lower ones.

That created plenty of frustration.  But there were moments of harmony.  Board member Eric Davis said as a taxpayer he appreciates the county's push to rein in debt:  "I think any family can comprehend what happens when the credit card gets out of control."

Diorio said CMS isn't going to get the level of spending it wants until the economy rebounds.  "They say the recession is over,  but we're not seeing it in our revenue growth."  And while she didn't give the board the answers they wanted on the ranking system,  she urged them to keep working with county officials.  "No one has come forward to give me a better way,"  she said.  "I'm happy to entertain suggestions."

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Latest list says Butler's best in CMS

According to the new U.S. News & World Report ranking of best high schools,  Butler High is the best in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and third in North Carolina.

The online rankings look at whether schools performed better than average on state exams, for all students and for black, Hispanic and low-income students.  Schools that passed that cut were rated on a college readiness index,  based on participation and performance on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams. (Read details of the rating process here.)  The magazine writes that ratings are  "based on the key principles that a great high school must serve all of its students well,  not just those who are college-bound,  and that it must be able to produce measurable academic outcomes to show the school is successfully educating its student body across a range of performance indicators."

It's a more complex calculation than the recent list by Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews, which ranked Northwest School of the Arts as the CMS school with the highest participation in AP and IB classes.  Northwest didn't earn a ranking in the U.S. News list.  Butler was No. 1188 in the nation and sixth in CMS on Mathews'  list.

Number-crunching never tells all there is to know about a school, but lists are hard to resist.  U.S. News collected data on 21,000 public high schools,  including charters and magnets.  Forty-nine N.C. schools earned gold or silver medals,  with Durham School of the Arts topping the state's list.  Here are schools in the Charlotte area that garnered silver medals  (there were no golds), with their  ranking in North Carolina and nationally (check the list here).  Schools are in CMS unless otherwise noted:

Butler: 3 / 642.
North Meck: 8 / 1005.
Salisbury High (Rowan-Salisbury): 10 / 1097.
East Meck: 13 / 1259.
Newton-Conover High (Newton-Conover): 14 / 1282.
St. Stephens High (Catawba County):  25 / 1669.  
Olympic Biotech:  30 / 1841.
West Lincoln High  (Lincoln County):  34 / 1966.
Kings Mountain High  (Cleveland County):  37 / 2028.
Lincolnton High (Lincoln County):  39 / 2068.
East Rowan High (Rowan-Salisbury):  44 / 2178.
Foard High (Catawba County)47 / 2209. 

In South Carolina,  Fort Mill's Nation Ford High was 10th in the state and No. 1188 in the nation,  with Fort Mill High at 14 / 1623.  

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

CMS seeking boost from grants

As the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board prepares for a public hearing on the 2013-14 budget tonight, they'll also be signing off on grant requests that could bring in millions of extra dollars.

The big-ticket requests are for government money.  A School Improvement Grant request seeks up to $6 million a year for three years to improve academic performance at Byers and Druid Hills preK-8 schools and Hawthorne High.  According to the proposal,  all three are eligible for additional federal Title I money because they've been identified as persistently low performing.  Byers and Druid Hills have already been targeted for other CMS turnaround efforts,  including strategic staffing, conversion to K-8 schools and Project LIFTHawthorne is currently an alternative school serving pregnant teens and students who have fallen behind in high school.  Superintendent Heath Morrison's budget proposal calls for converting it to a health-sciences magnet school,  with the grant money used to design the new program.

Another request seeks $1.8 million from the U.S. Department of Education to improve physical education opportunities at 30 elementary schools.

Smaller grant requests would help CMS extend digital devices and science/tech programs in schools.  Six requests to the Jimmie Johnson Foundation totaling almost $411,000 would buy iPads and otherwise improve technology at Barringer, Cornelius, Long Creek and Nations Ford elementary schools, Metro School for disabled students and Cochrane Academy,  a 6-12 school with a math-science focus.  The budget calls for creating an iMeck Academy at Cochrane,  with high school grades converting from neighborhood to magnet seats.

CMS is also seeking about $74,000 from the American Honda Foundation to create a summer STEAM camp at Piedmont Middle.

Details on the grant proposals are listed on the board agenda. Click here for details about speaking at the budget hearing  (tonight's meeting does not include public comments on other topics).

Saturday, April 20, 2013

School salaries: Why name names?

The annual posting of public salaries has become almost routine after six years,  but every time there are questions about why the Observer does it.

Salaries paid with tax dollars are public record under North Carolina law.  The Observer started requesting and publishing salaries from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County to get a handle on how public money is spent.

If you follow the spring budget discussions,  you know numbers can be slippery.  Jobs cut from one category can quietly pop up somewhere else.  Leaders always talk about reducing bureaucracy and cutting costs,  but sometimes a look at who's making what and how it changes over the years tells a different story.

I've used payroll data to analyze staffing cuts and increases,  gauge principal and teacher turnover and look at how CMS compares with other government bodies on executive salaries. Few argue with that kind of reporting.  But some wonder why we make the salaries of rank-and-file government workers available to anyone with a computer and curiosity.

For one thing,  public scrutiny increases the chance that questionable hiring arrangements will be revealed  (think former First Lady Mary Easley's lucrative job at N.C. State University).  It also allows people to do a reality check when false rumors circulate  (for instance,  the persistent buzz that former Superintendent Peter Gorman was giving his wife a CMS paycheck,  when she held a high-profile volunteer post with the district's Parent University).

The Observer isn't out to embarrass anyone,  or to argue that any group of public employees deserves a raise or a cut.  We do want to help readers make informed decisions about how their money is spent.  Time after time,  I've seen people who yawn at an abstract discussion of educator pay get intensely engaged when they realize how it affects individuals they know.

A low salary in public education reflects a fiscal and policy decision,  not an individual shortcoming.  Pay scales are based on credentials and experience,  not performance ratings.  While a bonus represents a judgment  --  or hope  --  that the recipient has done valuable work,  the absence of a bonus means nothing.  Bonuses come from a hodgepodge of incentive programs,  most of them temporary and targeting a limited number of schools. Many excellent educators aren't eligible.

The Observer's data center now includes salaries not only from CMS,  Charlotte and Mecklenburg,  but for state government,  the university system and counties surrounding Charlotte. Those lists get tens of thousands of views.  There's no way of knowing who's doing research and who's just being nosy,  but that's the nature of public information. And it's the nature of journalists to trust that shining a light on public business is ultimately a good thing.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Salaries available for eight more school districts

For the last six years,   the posting of salaries from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has been accompanied by reader queries about a similar database for nearby districts.  Now we've got the 2013 payroll data for Cabarrus, Catawba, Gaston, Hickory, Iredell-Statesville, Lincoln, Mooresville City and Union schools.

Thanks to database reporter Gavin Off for collecting this information.  We tried it last year but ran into accuracy problems when one district calculated 10-month salaries as 12 months,  inflating the annual pay for many employees.  That's ironed out now,  but if you see any new issues,  contact Gavin at goff@charlotteobserver.com.

Because this database includes several districts,  there's not a drop-down menu of schools and departments.  If you're having trouble finding a listing you're looking for,  I'd suggest searching the district first and scanning to see how things are labeled.

Read more here: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2013/04/17/3987741.html#storylink=cpy

Check out new N.C. exams

The Department of Public Instruction has posted samples of the reading, math, science, algebra, biology and English II exams that students will take this spring.  The  "released forms"  --  presumably not the same questions students will see in May  --  are designed to help teachers prepare their students for the tests.

These are not the final step in the new testing that will be linked to new national Common Core standards;  the tests will continue to evolve in the coming year.  In my limited amount of scanning,  they didn't seem as different from the old End of Grade exams as I'd expected them to be.  Nor do I see any tests in new grade levels or subjects that are supposed to land this year.  But there has been so much talk and concern about the new tests that I'm eager to hear what the rest of you think.  (Acronym alert:  ELA is English/Language Arts.)

You can try the new online testing for the high school exams.  It took me quite a bit of clicking to get it to work  (you have to make sure pop-ups aren't blocked),  and when it did, the computer  had the nerve to tell me I'd gotten the first English question wrong.  Hmph!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

CMS teachers being polled -- again

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is polling teachers on school climate in hopes that the data will help principals create a better workplace.

The survey was created by TNTP (The New Teacher Project),  a nonprofit that focuses on training and supporting excellent teachers.  Earlier this school year,  Superintendent Heath Morrison brought TNTP's president in to talk to principals about the group's report on "The Irreplaceables,"  which highlighted how districts fail to do enough to reward great teachers while making it too easy for bad ones to stay.

CMS Accountability Chief Frank Barnes says the TNTP survey will be given this spring,  next fall and in spring of 2014. "Its focus is the instructional culture of a school, which can impact student performance and teacher retention,"  he writes.  "Our intent is to use this survey ... as a tool for continuous improvement.  The results of this survey will be shared with each school principal this spring in a formal,  yet readable,  report.  The reports are structured to give school leaders actionable feedback that can be tracked over time."

At the start of the school year,  CMS polled all employees on morale,  as part of a yearlong,  $140,250 polling and communication contract with K12 Insight.  Although the new survey is titled Insight,  it's not part of that contract  (I've asked about the cost, but haven't gotten an answer yet).

Teachers are also taking the annual CMS survey,  which is used in principal evaluations  (the TNTP survey will not be).  They also take the state Teacher Working Conditions Survey every two years,  but this is an off year.
Barnes acknowledges that the level of surveying is  "more than normal and more than there will be next school year."  The big question is whether it will make life better for teachers. Reaction I've heard has been mixed,  with some teachers skeptical and others thrilled that the new leadership team is listening.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Latest CMS payroll is posted

The 2013 payroll database for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools lists 18,665 employees,  including 8,938 teachers.  That's an increase of 314 people  --  154 of them teachers  --  over last spring's payroll.  Total salaries are up by $26.1 million,  but the total of almost $706 million remains below the pre-recession peak of $745 million.

This is the sixth year the Observer has posted salaries of public employees,  including CMS,  the largest government employer in this area.  The information is public by law,  and it provides a  snapshot of employment and pay as officials plan the coming year's budget.  I'll be delving deeper for a story in the next few days.

In an organization as big and ever-changing as CMS,  even the basic numbers can be tough to pin down.  The latest budget book says there are 17,032 total personnel this year,  with 10,611  "teachers and support staff."  That teacher tally generally includes counselors,  facilitators,  librarians and other licensed folks.  (It's on page 85,  if you're checking.)  The 2013-14 plan calls for a decrease of 73 total personnel,  apparently driven largely by the governor's proposed cut in teacher assistants,  and an increase of 197 teachers and support staff.

The budget book counts authorized positions;  two half-time employees would show up as one full-time job.  The payroll lists everyone who's working at the time it's provided, including part-time and temporary staff.  The breakdown this year is  16,228 full-time employees,  1,140 part-timers and 1,297 temporary staff.  People who are listed as teachers in the database make up about 48 percent of all employees and 49 percent of full-time employees.

Full-time teacher pay ranges from $35,418 to $93,396 a year.  The CMS teacher pay scale tops out at just under $79,000,  but ROTC teachers get a federal supplement as active members of the military.  As usual,  the highest-paid teachers are either ROTC or teachers assigned to central offices,  presumably on a 12-month basis rather than the 10-month academic year.

Stay tuned for more,  and let me know your questions. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Most challenging school in CMS? Think artistic ...

Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews has posted his 2013 rankings of the nation's most challenging high schools, and you might be surprised at the highest-ranking school in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

High-performing neighborhood schools like Myers Park and Ardrey Kell made the list,  as did Harding, Cato and Berry,  schools with academic admission requirements. But topping them all was Northwest School of the Arts,  a magnet in West Charlotte that auditions students for their passion for music, theater, dance or visual art.

For 15 years, Mathews has been ranking schools based on participation in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams.  He creates a ratio by dividing the number of exams given that year by the number of seniors who graduated.  About 1,900 schools with a ratio of at least 1.0  --  that is, as many exams as graduates  --  made the list.  He explains that he doesn't take scores on those exams into account because he found that schools were inflating performance by limiting participation to top students. "The Challenge Index is designed to identify schools that have done the best job in persuading average students to take college-level courses and tests," he writes.

Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy, a Cleveland County charter school,  got the best ranking in the Charlotte region,  landing  at No. 125 with 4.8 exams per graduate.  Northwest was at No. 593 with a 2.6 ratio,  immediately followed by Gray Stone Day School, a Stanly County charter.  Myers Park High was the next CMS school on the list, at 739.

The ratings aren't all that impressive for a district that used to routinely land a handful in Mathews'  Top 100.  That was when the district paid fees for all students to take the AP and IB exams.  That subsidy was scaled back during the recession;  Superintendent Heath Morrison is seeking $1.2 million from Mecklenburg County to revive that payment  and start paying for career-tech exams.

Here are the other Charlotte-area high schools that made the list.  They're in CMS unless otherwise noted:
809. Ardrey Kell.
956. South Meck.
1035. Providence.
1188. Butler.
1211. East Meck.
1287. North Meck.
1295. Lake Norman (Iredell-Statesville Schools).
1299. Harding.
1455. Cato Middle College.
1600. Hough.
1615. Berry.
1865. Mallard Creek.
1881. Olympic Biotech.  

Monday, April 15, 2013

Linking arts and education

The Arts and Science Council has launched an Education Network web site to connect teachers, parents and artists throughout Mecklenburg County with opportunities for kids and teens to learn through art.

Students at ASC-sponsored "Endless Possibilities" field trip
The site is an outgrowth of the council's partnership with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.  As the recession whittled away at field trips and other arts, history and science opportunities,  the council committed more than $1.5 million a year through 2016 to fight back.

The site offers success stories,  cultural lesson plans,  grant opportunities, a directory of teaching artists and a calendar of arts opportunities suitable for youth and families.

“We look forward in the coming weeks and months to the collaboration and idea generation we expect from the network,"  said Barbara Ann Temple, a former CMS teacher who's now the ASC vice president of education.

I thought this item would make a nice break from the CMS budget.  But if you're into that,  this is a good week to get involved.  See a list of events here and read the budget here.

Friday, April 12, 2013

CMS performance pay: No money in sight

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has been talking about teacher performance pay for three years and counting,  but the 2013-14 budget plan doesn't include any money for making it happen  (the 299-page budget book is online now,  for anyone who wants to dive in).

Superintendent Heath Morrison told the school board that rewards for top performance won't be an effective recruiting tool until the state increases base pay.  For now,  the CMS crew is concentrating on lobbying legislators to go beyond the 1 percent raises proposed in Gov. Pat McCrory's budget. Morrison told me later that the worst-case scenario would be a state mandate to launch performance pay without any money to do it.

The studies of how to reward teachers  --  and eventually other CMS employees  --  will continue. The educators who have been studying the issue since last fall weren't able to make the March 1 deadline for submitting a plan to the state,  in part because the consultant they're working with hadn't returned a draft in time.  Morrison said this week that Battelle for Kids has since provided that draft, and the educators are using it to shape a plan that will eventually be shared with teachers,  the school board and the public.  "It is really important to me that they say, 'This plan reflects exactly what we were thinking,' "  Morrison said.

The next step is convening yet another compensation task force,  this one including a broader group of employees  (the current group of teachers will be invited to participate).  This one was one of 22 study groups Morrison announced last fall,  but he said it will run on a later timetable because of the overlap with the existing teacher panel.

Meanwhile,  the school board is grappling with merit pay for Morrison.  His contract calls for a performance bonus of up to 10 percent of his $288,000 base salary.  It says two-thirds of his  performance evaluation will be based on goals for CMS and one-third on individual goals set by the board,  with a decision made by Oct. 31.  Board Chair Mary McCray says the board has been discussing Morrison's goals in closed session  (they should eventually be approved in an open meeting).  I haven't been privy to those talks,  but I'm pretty sure they're facing at least one big challenge:  The test scores traditionally used to measure academic progress are in flux as new exams roll out this spring.  Results won't be released until October,  and even then it's going to be hard to compare them with previous years to determine whether Morrison's first-year efforts have helped students make academic gains.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Teacher assistants at risk -- again

One of the biggest bombshells in Superintendent Heath Morrison's 2013-14 budget was an item beyond his control:  Gov. Pat McCrory's proposed budget would eliminate about 400 teacher assistant jobs in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Morrison and CMS board members say they're working to convince state legislators that cutting second- and third-grade classroom assistants would be a bad idea,  one that could undermine the state's push to make sure students are reading on grade level by third grade.

Pope and McCrory
As Morrison told the board,  normally the governor's budget plan gets a big yawn.  But this year,  with Republicans in control across the board and conservative powerhouse Art Pope serving as McCrory's budget writer,  Morrison and others see the governor's plan as a possible blueprint for legislators.

Assistants have repeatedly been the target of recession-driven budget cuts  --  something of an irony,  given how little they make. CMS leaders say they need to help lawmakers understand how much professional power they're getting for those salaries.  "They bring great value,"  Morrison said at a news conference Wednesday.

But McCrory's press secretary, Crystal Feldman, said the cut is part of a tradeoff that will benefit students:  "The governor’s proposed budget hires 1,800 more full-time teachers. The McCrory administration prioritizes resources on hiring more full-time certified teachers throughout North Carolina over the next two years rather than classroom assistants to help our students succeed in the classroom."
Wake County Schools would lose about the same number of assistants,  and leaders there are also mounting a campaign to fight the cut, the News & Observer reports.

Like CMS,  Wake is also exploring a 2013 bond campaign,  but they're talking much bigger numbers.  On Wednesday,  administrators presented five scenarios ranging from $609 million to $2.3 billion, according to the N&O.  They acknowledged the top number isn't realistic,  but even their lowest package is well above what CMS can hope to get.  Morrison has talked about a package that would cover 21 projects at about $386 million,  but some Mecklenburg commissioners say that's more than the county can afford.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Raises, race and other budget answers

Yesterday I noted some questions I'd be asking going into the budget.  As anticipated,  technology and choice were so central to Superintendent Heath Morrison's plan that there's not a lot to add  (read the CMS presentation here and my budget story here).  Here's more on the other themes:

Raises:  Morrison's plan reflects the 1 percent hike in Gov. Pat McCrory's plan.  That would require coming up with $2.2 million in county money to ensure that 1 percent extends to county-paid staff.  If CMS can persuade legislators to go higher,  Morrison assured the public and the board he'll find money to increase the county match.  For instance,  if the state approves a 3 percent raise,  CMS will need a total of $6.6 million in county money.


On the other hand, Morrison warned that it's possible the General Assembly could end up granting state employees no raise.  He said if that happens,  he's committed to ensuring all CMS employees get at least 1 percent -- which would require $7.9 million from the county.

Many school board members were still underwhelmed by 1 percent --  as I'm guessing a lot of CMS employees are.  Morrison told them it wouldn't have been realistic to ask county commissioners to commit to covering a 3 percent raise,  even if that meant assuming the state's responsibility.  "If we proposed to do a full 3 percent (with county money),  then basically that becomes our only ask,"  he told the board.

Cultural competence:  There's nothing in the budget about cultural competence or racial equity,  but Morrison said he plans to unveil a plan in the coming year. The cost won't be high enough to merit a budget breakout,  he said.  He said his effort will involve "a number of individuals and partners,"  with the possibility of outside money to cover some of the cost.  He says he wants to hear from task forces studying cultural competence and African American males before making a decision:  "The worst thing you can do is convene a task force and say,  'Here's the plan.' "

Bell schedules:  Morrison insists that months of talks with parents and teachers who want bell schedules and bus routes changes haven't been wasted,  even though none of the options they pondered made it into the 2013-14 budget.  He lauded those people for working on solutions,  but said all alternatives were too expensive and/or affected too many people to tackle this year.  He noted that previous CMS leaders caught flak for making the original changes without consulting the people affected;  "I don't want to do that again."  In short, the answer is "not this year," but not necessarily "never."

Safety:   There's no money in the 2013-14 budget for additional security staff or school resource officers.  Morrison said that's because the city of Charlotte has shifted $2.7 million in costs for the existing police corps to CMS over the last two years.  Council members are looking for ways to give CMS a break,  and if that happens it might free up money to expand staffing.

Cuts:  The plan includes $9 million in  "reductions and redirections,"  including $1.6 million from eliminating 14 vacant central office jobs,  $2.5 million from adjusting budgeted salaries and benefits to reflect the reality of what the current workforce is earning and $1 million to eliminate the contract for Thinkgate tests.  Morrison said more savings may show up in his second year,  as he continues working through CMS'  processes and systems.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Seven big CMS budget questions

Superintendent Heath Morrison rolls out his first budget today,  a little less than a year after he was hired to lead Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.  Here are the big things I'm wondering:

Large raises?  Morrison knows morale has been bad and employees are frustrated by stagnant wages.  Will he ask county commissioners for another big chunk of money to bump up what the state approves,  like interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh did last spring,  or take the more traditional path of following the state's lead?  And will some form of performance pay be incorporated?

How much for technology?  We don't have to wonder if the budget will include a big request for money to provide internet access in schools.  Morrison has said online testing requirements make that a mandate, not an option.  The question is how much -- and how much that leaves for other projects in a tight budget year.

What kind of choice?  Again, we know Morrison is big on increasing options within CMS.  The question is how far he'll go with that in 2013-14 and where he'll find money.

Changes in busing or bells?  Some parents and teachers have been pushing hard for Morrison to find money to change school hours and/or restore busing options that were cut during the recession.  They'll find out this evening whether that made the cut.

More school guards?  The board has already approved spending capital money to beef up school security.  Now we'll see whether Morrison plans to add police officers, security guards or both,  and what it will cost.

Cultural competency?  A cultural competency program won't be a big-ticket item, but it'll be a talker.  Morrison drew equally fervent praise and criticism earlier this year when he talked about hiring racial equity consultant Glenn Singleton. Morrison has gone silent on that subject for the last couple of months. But it's hard to imagine he'll wait another full year before tackling something he has repeatedly described as one of his top priorities.

Real cuts?  CMS always touts millions of dollars in  "reductions and redirections,"  but those tend to be expenses that went away on their own or shifted from one funding source to another.  Big, real cuts are tough.  But Morrison came in with fresh eyes and a surge of popularity.  He's got to find money for his own vision,  and county commissioners don't exactly have their checkbook out. We'll soon see whether Morrison is going to make big sacrifices to free up money.

The meeting starts at 6 p.m. at the Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.  You can show up to comment on the capital plan,  make remarks on any topic or dress like a zombie to protest testing. Or you can watch from the comfort of your own computer.