Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sausage-making and CMS

In one sense, this is exactly how government is supposed to work. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system put forth plans, citizens spoke out, the plans changed, people reacted to the changes. Yes, protesters disrupted the school board meeting Tuesday night. But they left quietly, and then they were let back in, and the meeting finished up.

CMS could have handled this better. They could have given the public more time to digest the ideas. But the problem is not the process. The problem is the product. There are no good solutions that come out of closing schools and moving kids around. There are just various versions of awful.

Everything has collided. Charlotte's growth has slowed, so some schools haven't filled up as expected. The economy is still limping, so government has to cut. All that is overlaid on the long-term problem of underachieving schools. And all THAT is overlaid on race, class, the role of parents, the role of government, merit, fairness, justice: basically, the history of America.

The old line says you don't want to see the making of laws or sausages. But this is more like scrapple. We're watching lips and snouts and hooves fly into the grinder, and nobody wants to taste what comes out the other side.

Few people grasp the big picture, or want to. Parents, naturally, fight for their kids' schools -- even if those schools are failing. You always think that with a few more good teachers, a little extra attention, a school can turn around. Some charter schools (but not all) have shown that poor and minority kids can do just as well as other kids in the right environment. CMS has even had some success at places such as Harding University High.

But Harding is now scheduled to close because of the brutal math that faces CMS: Every open school must be filled to the brim to make sure the money's not wasted. Harding is only about half full. So other students have to come fill it up, or Harding's kids have to go somewhere else.

This is the bill the poorest kids in our schools have always paid. They've always had the longest bus rides, the fewest good teachers, the least support from their parents. (As many have pointed out, those crowds at the CMS meetings would be something nice to see at PTA meetings.)

But the moves also affect middle-class families who can't afford private schools, and magnet-school kids who might show some special talent, and gifted kids in International Baccalaureate programs.

Why not spread the pain into all public schools? Two reasons, one academic and one political. Most of the schools in Charlotte's wealthiest neighborhoods are doing fine. And if they take any major cuts, parents have the means to pull their kids out and put them in private schools. They're a mousetrap CMS can't touch.

So here's the bottom line: Too much space, not enough money, lots of parents motivated by change, not enough parents motivated before the change was necessary, the kids who need stability most will get the least.

Put yourself in the chair of a school board member. Try to make that work. See how long before your head explodes.

Blanche Penn, one of the protesters Tuesday night, said this afterward: "It's like they're playing some kind of game with us, like we're all just pieces of a puzzle."

She was half right. It's a puzzle. But it's no game.


Anonymous said...

Indeed, the school system is in quite a predicament. Thankfully, my kids are no longer in CMS schools.

I agree that kids who need the stability most often have the least. But ALL kids need stability. Our children have been raised by college-educated parents in what would probably be considered an upper middle class family. One might assume our children would "need the stability the least" based upon those two factors. With no thanks to CMS, our son attended 5 schools in 5 years ... grades 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. He experienced MANY difficulties during those years and beyond. I often wonder how different those important, formative years might have been had he not been moved from school to school like a pawn in a chess game.

Anonymous said...


Your article is timely and on many points you are right on. This is a difficult time and very difficult decisions need to be made. But I strongly disagree with you when you say the problem is not the process. If watching the school board make decisions over the last 12 months has taught us anything it is that the process is terribly flawed.

The Smith/Waddell/Harding issue is a classic case. Everyone thinks and proceeds with the assumption that Waddell will close and Smith will get that facility. Then at the last minute, due to un-explained reasons, the proposal is made to close high performing Harding and move half of its program to Waddell and the other half to Berry and then give the Harding campus to Smith. What was previously the best solution from the Staff is now tabled - purportedly due to community input. But the decision was made prior to getting input from Harding or Smith or even waiting for that forum.

Both Harding and Smith are strongly opposed to this new proposal. Harding is a great school and is getting great results for its students. The fact that it may be undercapacity is no reason to close it. It graduated 89% of its students last year, 5th highest in the County. Waddell? It graduated 52%.

Does this sound like we are reaching a good result? No. And a lot of the problem is the process. And that problem has been pretty consistent. We consistently see the Board puts up a proposal, the one it thinks is best and then it gets shot down for 3 weeks and the Staff puts up a different proposal, one that there is no time for people to consider or oppose. The Eastover/Dilworth move from last spring is a classic example. Numerous parents were affected by that change and it was announced the day it was adopted! That is crazy.

The Staff needs to identify the problem and offer alternative solutions and let the Board pick out which is best, or come up with its own solutions. Let the public and the Board debate those options. In this case, if the problem is too many high school seats what should happen is that they say that is the problem and we need to eliminate a high school, and we can give that to Smith. Then the Staff should provide the Board the possible alternatives and let them debate those or come up with their own. But at least make it an open and public process. Instead what happens is the Board is put up next to a deadline and usually chooses the last one it is presented with because nobody has a chance to react to it.

This is a terrible process and I think it reaches terrible results.

Anonymous said...

I still don't understand how parents who drive a BMW and make over $100k a year can get free lunches for their kids. CMS does nothing when they are reported. Millions are wasted in programs like this. Lazy parents say just let CMS pay for my child's lunch. But taxpayers really pay.

Anonymous said...

You are using bandaids when you need to amputate. I understand tough choices, and many more people than Harding, EE Waddell and Smith have been impacted, yet since the media is focued on that. If you say E.E Waddell is a neighborhood school, a "Partial" one now, after the new Harding plan, will they still be eligible for that funding, if they are not a "full" neighborhood school? Will they only get half? Don't you still have to weigh all the options before yanking the original proposal? You also have
increased actual finacial cost involved in now moving 2 Harding magnets, and Smith, it now will require 3 new recertifaction fees rather than just one, I think? The
most heart breaking part of the meeting Monday was to hear a student say she was moved from Myers to Harding and now would be to sent to EEWaddell or Berry? Leaving Harding open would prevent her from moving 3 times in 3 years. Harding's progress forward may be brought down by teaching to the middle student at EE Waddell. EE Waddell was failing students , especially Africian American students who were scoring even lower than their English Second Language students, Latin and Asian minorities. Waddell met 4 of their 19 goals. If they are doing so poorly with low student teacher ratios ,in a great facility what will it be like when you bring more students there? Only 35.2% even take the SAT.The true teacher:student ratio is even lower because attendance is not factored in. The 967 kids were out 11,9777 days, of that 885 unexcused or 91.5%. What has EE Waddell's scarafice been in all this?

Anonymous said...

Harding is under capacity because of the shuttle buses and the fact that there are no seats allocated to the nearby neighborhoods. Those kids are bused to the edge of the county to West Meck.
The BOE caused Harding's attendance to decline and now they are punishing it due to their lack of strategic forethought and planning. Typical around here, isn't it?

tommy tomlinson said...

Anon 3:30, if you honestly know parents who drive a BMW, make over $100K and get free lunches for their kids, email me at We'll write about it.

Katie said...

When you spoke at school that were failing, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to bring up Waddell. Yet from there you went on to talk about Harding, a school that is succeeding. Yes, it is not full. Neither is Waddell. Wouldn't it make more sense to shut down a school that is not full and has such an ATROCIOUS graduation rate?

I would think the school district would be trying to keep their successful schools open and asking all other school to emulate them. Instead it seems like they are throwing more obstacles in the way of the students who are exceeding, knowing that they will find a way to jump over them.

Katie said...

excuse, me, I meant *about school* in the first line.

Anonymous said...


I have a thought about how to fix our school system - and it won't cost a penny to implement. I think it should be a requirement for all administrative/operational CMS staff, regardless of position or rank, to spend a weeks' time in our schools - working (whether it's pushing a broom, serving lunch in the cafeteria, shelving books in the library, front office, working in a classroom, etc) right alongside the staff, interacting with them, talking to the students/parents - and getting a birds' eye view of what really goes on in our schools, and how things really impact our schools and community.

To me, at least, it makes perfect sense. To really SEE what is going on - you gotta be there. No matter which way I look at it, I can't see a downside. I've sent letters to CMS in the past with my brilliant idea, but hmm, for some strange reason, I've never gotten a response. Doesn't really surprise me, though.

Really enjoy your stories, Tommy.

Anonymous said...

I have a better idea Tommy. Go to any school in the district and spend the day with an administrator that deals with discipline. You would be shocked at what you hear and see. It would curl your toes what some of these children get away with and what teachers have to tolerate. I do see FRL kids with cell phones nicer than mine everyday in CMS.

Larry said...

I will make you a bet Tommy I will take a random 100 of those getting free and reduced lunches and if fifty percent of them truly qualify for them I will give you 100 dollars.

I volunteer and know that this is one of the most abused give a way programs ever seen except for the recent stimulus.

Yet we base the poverty at these schools on these FRL as if it were gospel. When are we going to stop this mess and realize that we don't have a handle on just what we have until we do?

Anonymous said... heads MIGHT explode is what you are saying? We are soooooo not that lucky, but I will definitely tune in to CMS TV (that station that was supposed to be cut) just in case!

Anonymous said...

I find it intriguing how all of the sudden Harding is going to be cut when they just moved some of the Myers Park IB students to that school... a SCHOOL is IB certified... even if the Harding kids move... they NO LONGER have the IB CMS just said (though they probably don't realize this) that thye are CLOSING AN IB are those kids going to be allowed to go back to Myers Park to finish IB???

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Interesting that the comments are for the most part, mine included, anonymous. You get punished if you challenge the great CMS. Even worse, your child does.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the poster who argues that the problem IS the process. This is a perfect example of how a flawed, poorly planned process creates a flawed, poorly executed plan. Dr. Gorman and the BOE have created a nightmare.
Yes, there are legitimate budget problems. However, you can hardly blame the public for their distrust. This year's budget - which was supposed to need 60-90 million dollars in cuts, is actually 10 million more than last year - this is reported in the CO with no real analysis as to what happened. Yet, school-level support staff is at bare-bones levels, teachers (particularly in high schools) have ridiculously large classes and magnet transportation is cut. Still, more and more positions continue to be added to the central office and "new initiatives" are pursued despite budget woes and lack of research supporting their validity.
Dr. Gorman is becoming like "the boy who cried wolf" and his natural arrogance and patronizing responses do not help garner support.

wiley said...

tommy tomlinson said...
Anon 3:30, if you honestly know parents who drive a BMW, make over $100K and get free lunches for their kids, email me at We'll write about it.


The issues here are several.

First, the USDA threatened to yank approximately $30 million dollars from CMS if they continued to conduct FRL audits.

Secondly, since they can no longer do the audits, everything CMS does related to the FRL number is bogus and based on fraud.

We now have a pay to play sports scheme, yet 40% or less of the students are the ones paying to play. Since CMS is using FRL to say who gets to play for free, many get to play for free who don't qualify. Same for FREE AP/IB tests.

Making sausage?

At least the pig knew it was a pig before being ground up.

The Board and Gorman keep trying to sell us that their slop doesn't stink.

OINK! said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator. said...

Part I:

The irony is there isn’t too much space in CMS schools – if there were, we wouldn’t have schools surrounded by mobile classrooms. We have space in schools that are located in neighborhoods with large numbers of economically disadvantaged, African Americans. Why? Many of these schools are under filled because they have been neglected by CMS – they have suffered from poor leadership and administrative revolving doors, and parents have voted with their feet and moved to magnet schools (Spaugh, Williams, and Wilson, have opt out rates of 42%, 42% and 39% respectively.) Some families choose magnets knowing that there will be greater parent involvement, more extra-curricular activities, and fewer children living with the challenges of poverty and homelessness.

Magnets have major advantages over home schools. Since parents who opt out are often those most concerned and involved, the challenged non-magnet schools are left parent-poor. Some magnet schools skim the most able students because, like Harding, they have academic entry requirements (students must be on grade level) that students must meet to apply. Magnet schools lack the profound problem of student mobility that home schools face -- students moving in and out of the schools throughout the year. Thus, the comparisons about successful magnets and failing home schools are hardly fair.

The “solutions” proposed by CMS disproportionately impact low-income families and neighborhoods. Boundary proposals initially drawn up by staff were quickly taken off the table by Board members. A traditional magnet school has once again been spared despite staff recommendations. The schools that have the most white and/or middle class students seem sacrosanct, while schools with the most black and/or poor students seem to become easy targets for sacrifice.

cont. said...

Part 2 of 2:

I am most distressed by the move to k-8 schools – the dollars saved are small, the evidence for academic improvement is weak, and the disruption to children’s lives massive. CMS is not proposing to “grow” the elementary schools into middle schools, they are going to take classes current 6th and 7th graders and send them back to several different elementary schools. The friends these children have made will not necessarily be sent to the same school. Consider a current 7th grader, after adjusting to middle school, she will move to a k-8 for one year, then on to high school. She will have to have transportation to athletics since the new k-8 schools don’t have the proper facilities. Will she have access to a full range of middle school classes and extra curriculars? We don’t know but with very small numbers of students it is hard to offer the variety of opportunities available at a full-size middle school. Note that these elementary schools were not built for middle school sized students—they lack full size gyms, fields, etc. CMS has presented no plan for what to do with the three vacant middle schools. Will they just become eyesores in already distressed neighborhoods?

In the meantime, we pay a premium for utilities and maintenance on hundreds mobile classrooms-- money that could be spent on staff. Yes, we must look at ways to save money across the district. But when we do that, we must include changing boundaries to fill under filled schools. We must eliminate magnets whose ‘success’ is based upon the socio-economic status of the families they attract rather than academic distinction. And we must adopt year-round multi-track calendars to eliminate the need for mobiles.

Carol Sawyer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
tommy tomlinson said...

Just FYI, nothing wrong with Carol's posts, the same thing just posted multiple times. That's the reason for the deleted posts.

Apparently the system will tell you you're over the character limit, but then it posts the comment anyway. Check before you re-comment.

Thanks, all, for the good conversation.


Anonymous said...

I understand the article is about the uproar with school closings, but the root issue can be connected with waste and abuse within the system. Money gets thrown at problems as opposed to looking at good, research based strategies and solutions. CMS runs on panic and fear. The community is frustrated because so many people will not accept responsibility or refuse to be held accountable. There are many good, dedicated teachers, parents, and administrators in this system. There are exceptional students in this system. I am sick of reading posts that do nothing but sling blame. Yes, CMS is a mess- what do we do as a COMMUNITY to fix it? The kids at Waddell must love hearing about what huge losers and thugs many people in this county think they are. We are doing a disservice to those kids by labeling ALL of them that way.

The fact is that nobody wants to take responsibility and there is such an amazing sense of entitlement from the youngest to the oldest. Everybody needs to suck it up, set some goals, and work toward them. We will always have struggling students, there will always be sucky teachers, there will always be parents who do not participate in their child's education. That's life-it happens in every field. What do we do with what we have? Nobody seems to be able to answer that question!

Anonymous said...

One of the root causes of CMS' situation is society's attitude that every problem must be addressed in our public school system, and not just academic ones. During the good times, there was ample money to throw around, with limited results to warrant any of the expenditures. But since the politicians were giving CMS the money, CMS did their very best to spend it.

Now the gravy train is over, and cuts must be made, and every affected group is fighting tooth and nail to keep their "programs" intact.

Anonymous said...

Uh oh. I am about to say something sacreligious so get ready. There is an elephant in the room that no one is talking here goes...

One of the reasons there aren't a lot of students at Harding is because the principal has run off many of the great teachers who worked there. As a result, fewer parents allowed their kids to attend the school.

Instead of Gorman addressing the poor leadership at HUHS, he allowed the enrollment to decline by keeping her there. I believe this closure was in the works for a while. It was a part of his master plan.

I don't know what you call that, but it's not good. The man is disgusting!

Keep the school open, bring in great leadership and enrollment will increase.

Anonymous said...

Why not spread the pain into all public schools? Two reasons, one academic and one political. Most of the schools in Charlotte's wealthiest neighborhoods are doing fine. And if they take any major cuts, parents have the means to pull their kids out and put them in private schools. They're a mousetrap CMS can't touch.

Spread the pain! You would be surprised how many of the wealthiest neighborhoods would be cooperative and compassionate towards all students. You would be surprised how many of the wealthiest neighborhoods would not take their children out of public school and put in private school because that may mean working more or spending less of their money for luxuries(No more BMW or European family trips). You would be suprised how many of the wealthiest neighborhoods schools empty seats can be filled with the middle class students who are high achievers. CMS get a backbone be true leaders of the whole community and share the pain!

Anonymous said...

I agree with the last poster. If this is do to a so call budget crisis, why place the burden on just certain schools? CMS was a system with great teachers, students, and supportive families from all walks of life. This superintendent is purposely creating hostility within our communities. No matter how much we give him, it is never enough. Now after he gets the go ahead from his board to destroy schools, he threatens the community by announcing he will get rid of more star teachers. In other words, teachers with more that 5 years of experience, master degrees, National Boards, and the ability to move some of our most challenged students.

Anonymous said...

Sorry "If due to the Budget"