Thursday, August 28, 2014

CMS buses weren't smooth sailing for all on first day

Superintendent Heath Morrison and other CMS leaders proudly reported that there were no issues with transportation on the first day of classes this week, on what was a pretty smooth day overall.

But it seems like the "no issues" designation might depend on who you talk to. Parents reported a range of problems on the district's Facebook page earlier this week, and the last child wasn't delivered off the school bus until after 7:30 p.m. Yes, that's 20 minutes earlier than last year, but it's still pretty late.

The CMS Facebook page became a forum for complaints from parents whose kids were picked up or dropped off late Monday morning. To be sure, a few dozen or so complaints doesn't represent massive problems in a district of 140,000-plus, but it gives a flavor of some issues that arose.

One parent said her child waited on a broken down bus for an hour before she picked him up from school. Others reported delays from a half hour to more than an hour and a half.

The district's social media team advised the parents to give the transportation line a call.

I asked Carol Stamper, CMS director of transportation, about what "no issues" means in the context of the first day of school.

Here's what she said, via email: "It is unrealistic to think we would have no issues on the first day!  However, we do consider a successful first day in transportation being one that every student was delivered home safely….and that is what we accomplished!"

She said a number of things could result in a late bus, ranging from longer load times to make sure kids were on the right buses, to new students who weren't on the bus roster, to traffic congestion, to drivers getting used to their routes.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Beacon school turnaround initiative faces early test

There's a reason Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has been careful to call the University of Virginia its intended partner for the initiative it unveiled earlier this month to turn around 14 struggling schools: The university still might decide it doesn't think the project is worthwhile.

Superintendent Heath Morrison laid out the concept for the Beacon initiative at a school board meeting two weeks ago. It calls on a partner to work with CMS to do a deep analysis of the needs of the 14 underperforming schools, and then lay the groundwork for a lasting recovery. The district said they planned to work with UVa., but said the contract was not finalized. The next day, CMS said it will cost $600,000 a year over three years.

It didn't quite add up for me until I talked about it with Denise Watts, the zone superintendent for Project LIFT. In that role, she has some experience with UVa. Principals at Project LIFT schools get leadership training through the university, and were up there just a few weeks ago. Their school turnaround program is a combination of resources from the business school and college of education, and has worked with districts in 16 states since 2003.

But Watts said that the university won't commit to helping a school district until it's convinced that doing so would be worth their while.

"They want to see some willingness to change," Watts said.

Leaders of the UVa. program are expected to be in Charlotte in early September to interview CMS administrators to make sure they'll be a good fit. They'll quickly make their decision, and then set to work.

It's unclear what the fall-back plan is should the UVa. partnership not go through, which is probably unlikely. Beacon is dependent on having an outside partner, but CMS did cast a pretty wide net when it started looking for one earlier this year.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Where are all the English teachers?

CMS says it's making progress in filling teacher positions before the start of the school year Monday, but the district's head of human resources says she's been surprised by one area they've been struggling to fill.

Chief Human Resources Officer Terri Cockerham said Tuesday that they're still looking for teachers for 74.5 positions. I'm guessing by the number that at least one of them is a part-time position.

Thirty-two of the vacancies are in elementary schools, 14 in middle schools and 28.5 in high schools. Last week, CMS reported having 155 openings without candidates.

Cockerham said the district is particularly looking for teachers in math, science, and career and technical education. "And this year, amazingly, English has been one we've been searching for," she said.

She said the district has fewer vacancies without a recommendation than last year.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

N.C. schools now required to have EpiPens

There've been plenty of stories about pieces of the state budget that educators and the public aren't thrilled with. Here's one that seems to make people happier.

The legislation requires all North Carolina schools to keep a supply of emergency epinephrine auto-injectors on hand at all times. You probably know these better as EpiPens, used when a severe allergy causes anaphylactic shock. Students at risk for this have already been able to keep an EpiPen at school with a doctor's permission.

The budget (page 38, if you're interested) also requires schools to have a staff member trained in how to administer the shot.

The North Carolina Pediatric Society came out strongly in favor of the new requirement. "Children spend half their day in school, where they can encounter life-threatening allergens, such as bee stings, for the first time," said Dr. John Rusher, president of the society, in a statement. "All students need access to epinephrine, which slows the effects of an allergic reaction in the critical minutes following exposure."

At CMS, it's unclear whether these new EpiPens are going to be ready to go for the start of school. A spokeswoman said the district is waiting for more information from the state Department of Public Instruction and health officials to figure out how this was going to be implemented. The spokeswoman also referenced a free distribution program, so there may be no impact to the CMS budget.

Virginia passed a similar law two years ago. South Carolina passed one in 2013. The N.C. Pediatric Society says 45 states now allow or require emergency epinephrine on campuses.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

CMS projecting to have about 750 more students

It's T-minus 12 days until the start of school, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders proclaimed at the school board meeting last night that they are ready.

They also presented a grab-bag of numbers and statistics regarding what they're expecting for the first day, and I thought I'd share them here.

More students coming. CMS is expecting to have 754 more students this year than it had at the 20th day of school last year. The vast majority is coming from high school students, which Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark attributed to keeping more students from dropping out and promoting more from 9th to 10th grade. Interestingly, they're projecting a decrease in enrollment in elementary school (albeit only by one student). They didn't address why this is, but my guess is it's because most charter schools target early grades.

More buses, too. CMS is projecting to add 27 buses to its fleet this year, bringing the total 1,020, even as the number of students they expect to ride them will fall a bit. The district says this is because of new academic programs at schools around the county.

Less out-of-school suspension. The district has made changes to the code of student conduct, and one emphasis is on keeping students in the school even when they're being disciplined.

Still looking for teachers. CMS has 421 teacher vacancies, though 266 of those already have a recommendation. Superintendent Heath Morrison said that having 155 teacher openings without recommendations is ahead of where the district was at this point last year. The largest number of vacancies, 59, are in elementary school.

PowerSchool should be ready. The portal parents use for updates should be functional this year after many malfunctions last year as CMS shifted to a new system.

Monday, August 11, 2014

MeckEd comes out in support of sales tax referendum

The proposal to boost the Mecklenburg County sales tax to fund teacher pay raises and a lot of other projects has been controversial since county commissioners put it on November's ballot. But it now finds itself with one influential supporter.

MeckEd, a nonprofit advocacy group, put out a formal statement this morning backing the measure. It would boost the sales tax by a quarter cent, with 80 percent of the money going toward raises for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees, 7.5 percent for raises at Central Piedmont Community College, 7.5 percent for the Arts & Science Council, and the balance for libraries.

Here's the full statement from MeckEd:

MeckEd is committed to fair and competitive compensation for teachers across North Carolina and in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. While we applaud this year’s statewide teacher salary increase, there is more work to do. Given the increase in teacher turnover rates and the drop in North Carolina students entering colleges of education, it is imperative to invest in teacher salaries in every way possible.
As a community, we must help CMS attract and retain the best educators to our classrooms. MeckEd’s 2014 Public Policy Agenda calls for raising the state’s average teacher salary to the national average, in order to better compete for top teaching talent.
MeckEd endorses the referendum to raise teacher salaries, and we encourage all Mecklenburg County residents to support this important investment in our educators on November 4th.

The Charlotte Chamber may be deciding today whether to support the referendum. The organization has already said it won't be mounting a campaign to push it ahead of the election. Charlotte City Council members have been a little hesitant about it, too.

And of course, there was a little battle in Raleigh over whether to let Mecklenburg vote on it in the first place.

What will it take to give raises to county-funded teachers?

The state legislature gave teachers a raise this year worth roughly about 5 percent in total pay. If you're well-versed in how school districts get their money, you'll know that it doesn't apply to all of them.

Mecklenburg County pays the salaries of about 2,800 employee positions in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, with about 1,000 being teachers. They don't automatically get those raises that state-funded teachers get.

County commissioners set aside a little more than $7 million earlier this year to give their teachers raises without knowing what the legislature was going to do. That would be enough for about a 3 percent raise. Obviously, that wouldn't be enough to match what the state is doing.

County Manager Dena Diorio says they're still trying to piece together a final figure on how much it will cost. Back when the budget was passed, board members said they were committed to paying for the pay raises. Chairman Trevor Fuller said he believes the board will still do so.

"We don't want the county funded teachers to suffer," he said. "We did anticipate that it would take a little more than we set aside, we just didn't know what that number was."

Bill James
It's still unclear where the money would come from in the county budget. And it looks like getting that money sent over to CMS won't be smooth sailing. Commissioner Bill James said by email that he wouldn't vote for it.

"I don’t intend on providing them any additional money," he said. "It would set a very bad precedent to do so, since if we did (after setting the tax rate) everyone that wanted county dollars would be back around asking for a do-over."

In an email to county government leaders, he said he'd want to see that CMS was making cuts to lower-priority areas to make raises work.

"Just because the number isn't ‘enough’ doesn't make it the county’s responsibility to fix," he said.

The county will likely talk about what to do at its next regular meeting, Sept. 2.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Gov. McCrory pushes back on reported teacher assistant cuts

CMS held a news conference the other day, and Superintendent Heath Morrison announced that the district would face the loss of 90 teacher assistant positions as part of the state budget. I didn't realize that it was going to be such a big point of contention.

The office of Gov. Pat McCrory is pushing back hard on assertions by CMS and some other districts that they'll lose TA positions. They're adamant that there will be no TAs lost at all.

Why do districts think they'll lose these positions? It's super complicated but it kind of boils down to this: Before, districts got an allotment of money to pay teacher assistants. Some districts used part of that money to hire more teachers. The new budget recognizes this, and moves about $85 million from the teacher assistant pool to the teacher pool. Districts, however, have the ability to use the new teacher money to hire teacher assistants. Because the salaries of teachers and teacher assistants don't convert perfectly, a funding gap can present itself.

After my story ran, state budget director Art Pope called to walk through the numbers at a state level and say that because CMS was already using some teacher assistant money to hire teachers, they shouldn't have lose anything.

"I can't say why they're coming up with any losses," he said.

Then later, my colleague Ely Portillo spoke with McCrory, who offered up this:

"We are not reducing the number of teacher's assistants," he said. "Any teacher assistant who was working in a classroom last year will be working again this year if the local superintendents and principals set it up that way based on money that we gave them."

That second part actually gives them a bit of wiggle room. CMS has about 150 vacant teacher assistant positions, so losing 90 wouldn't force them to lay off anybody.

I've been in touch with CMS to try to find a definitive answer but don't have one yet.

UPDATE: Morrison put out a statement at 5 p.m. Friday discussing this disconnect. Here's the key part of it:
Gov. McCrory and his budget director Art Pope made themselves available to a group of district superintendents last week to answer our questions. That constant communication has continued. As recently as this morning, we sought clarification from the governor’s office about teacher-assistant funding and how the state will pay for enrollment growth in the future. Through our conversations, we feel we’re making progress in regards to funding for teacher assistants.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

School letter grades will have to wait

Apparently this new state budget does a lot more to North Carolina education than anybody thought.

This year was supposed to be the first time the state Department of Public Instruction issued letter grades, A-F, for each school in North Carolina. The grades would be determined by how well students did on standardized tests for math, reading and science.

The system was created in 2012 by the state legislature, and it's been somewhat controversial. Organizations like the North Carolina School Boards Association have said they're worried because the grades don't take into account student improvement.

The first grades were due out in October, along with the rest of the state's school report cards, with information like average class size and test score data.

But page 41 of the budget pushes that back. Now, they can come out no earlier than Jan. 15, 2015.

This appears to be news to DPI. Spokeswoman Vanessa Jeter said they're now trying to figure out if they should hold off on just the letter grades or on this year's school report card in general.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Bus drivers, teacher assistants getting $500 raise

Most of the talk regarding the education budget has been about teacher pay (and from my story today, veteran teachers aren't too happy about the plan).

But the state's proposal also lays out pay raises for all the other public school workers. They aren't going to fare as well as most of their colleagues.

"Noncertified personnel," as they're called – and this includes everyone from maintenance workers to bus drivers to teacher assistants (here's a list) – are set to receive a $500 raise in their annual pay this year. You can read it for yourself on pages 54 and 55 of the proposed budget.

Sure, it's a change from the half-decade wage freeze. But it's not sitting well with some people falling in this category.

For comparison, most state employees are getting $1,000 raises. Speaking to N.C. Policy Watch, some of these workers are calling it a "slap in the face."

In other education pay news, I've gotten a few requests from people curious about the proposed salary schedules for teachers getting extra pay for master's degrees. I'm trying to track one down, and I'll share when I get it.