Thursday, January 19, 2012

CMS mulls "marriage" to philanthropists

In the final hour of today's retreat,  the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board prepared for Saturday's talks on a groundbreaking partnership with Project LIFT to run eight westside schools  (read the draft contract here; the last page is the most interesting).

Members' reactions ranged from wildly enthusiastic to skeptical.  Project LIFT is the year-old quest by Charlotte-area philanthropists to raise $55 million to improve West Charlotte High and the seven schools that feed into it.

The nature of the partnership is complex.  CMS would create a new independent administrative zone made up of the eight LIFT schools,  and the philanthropists would pay the salaries of three administrators,  including Denise Watts,  a former CMS administrator who became LIFT's executive director this summer.  Watts would have authority to craft turnaround strategies,  recruit and approve staff and "request immediate reassignment" of staff who don't mesh with the plan.

A full story will be posted soon,  and I'll be filing again from tomorrow's follow-up talks. The board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the contract.


Jim Huge, the PROACT Search executive leading the hunt for a superintendent, asked the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board to rate their ideal candidate on a one-to-five scale. One is a leader focused on "managing what we've got;" five is a "change agent."

All nine members said they want a five.

That's the kind of thing that's going to help distinguish the CMS search, Huge said. Most search criteria are similar from one district to the next. For CMS,  which has a strong staff and an outstanding reputation,  one key question is whether the board wants to hold steady or keep shaking things up to create bigger gains for kids.

The board and Huge are working through a draft profile to use once CMS formally posts the job. Huge one thing he repeatedly heard during the public engagement process is that CMS already has a cadre of strong leaders in schools and central offices.  He said it's going to take an unusually strong superintendent to inspire and lead that crew.

After hearing members agonize over their differences and their fears that superintendent candidates could be deterred by public debate, Huge said that's not going to be a problem.  The way they worked out issues is a plus, he said.

Now they're talking about educators vs. nontraditional candidates. So far the trend is members prefer an educator but wouldn't exclude someone from a different background.


The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board agreed unanimously that they support the theory of action, though they want to rename it the "theory of action for change." As Chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart noted, though, the challenge will come as they try to put it into practice.

Now they're starting to talk with their search firm. Here's how the big-picture talks played out:

After the  "how to work together"  sessions, members broke into small groups, designed to mix new and old members, to talk about the board's mission, vision and core beliefs.

Tim Morgan, speaking for the first group (him, Ellis-Stewart and Tom Tate), says they're "all on board" with the mission and vision, and understand that "maximizing student achievement does not mean that every child is the same."

There's a question of what it means to say the educational culture is based on merit and individual achievement, Morgan says. He says it applies to everyone -- students, employees, etc.  "It's at all levels of the organization" and emphasizes personal responsibility, he says.

Ellis-Stewart says she supports the broad goals but thinks the challenge comes with execution:  "I think on paper they sound like great things I can easily support."

Eric Davis, speaking for himself, Richard McElrath and Mary McCray, says there's big-picture agreement, but his group wants more emphasis on the role and responsibility of parents, along with the challenges posed by poverty and the city/county role in dealing with that (McElrath is a big advocate of using zoning and housing policy to avoid concentrating poverty in urban neighborhoods).

Facilitator Mary Kendrick says white poverty is often masked or ignored because it's located in the suburbs, and asks for the board's reaction. She says she doesn't have Mecklenburg stats but this is a general trend.

Tate says the board's concern is high concentrations of poverty,  regardless of race,  and that tends to be in Charlotte.

Kendrick, who seems to be stepping outside the usual role of a facilitator,  presses the issue: "Oftentimes the child in the suburbs does not get the attention. ...  I don't want to get too deep into that issue but I do want to lift it up."

McCray, Rhonda Lennon and Amelia Stinson-Wesley, the new District 6 representative, agree there's poverty in the suburbs.

Davis's group says CMS needs a better method of reporting on how the district is acting on its theories.

The final group -- Lennon, Stinson-Wesley and Joyce Waddell -- seems focused more on wordsmithing. They wonder about the phrase "unleash innovation"  --  it just seems odd, Lennon says. They wonder if emphasizing "performance culture" has overemphasized measurable results over creativity.

Lennon suggested the board should restructure its meetings; with public comment at the start, she says, news media focus on "parents ranting and raving" rather than CMS reports such as a recent one on Reid Park initiatives. She said it's a mistake to leave such important reports until hours into meetings, when "there's not a single media and we're all looking for coffee."

Kendrick cautioned against putting public comment late, lest it discourage participation.

Davis suggested the board revamp its public comment structure. The current format  --  three-minute speeches with no reactions or comments from the board  --  is frustrating for the public and the board, he says.

McCray praised the board and interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh for making eye contact with speakers at the most recent meeting.


 "Singing Kumbayah" is a cliche among people who are skeptical about the team-building exercises that take place at retreats,  but now I've heard it actually happen.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board was mired in discussion of the rift between the new Democratic majority and the three others. Former Chair Eric Davis, an unaffiliated voter, and Republicans Tim Morgan and Rhonda Lennon says they've felt shut out of decision-making since the November election.

Davis broke some ground when he acknowledged that this might not be a new issue. He said he's heard that some board members felt like he failed to include them during his two years as chair.

Chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart, noting that  "I am new to my role as a board member and I am new to my role as chair,"  acknowledged that her early actions left some feeling excluded.  "I apologize for that. I am ready to move forward. I will do what I can do to become a better communicator, but I think communication is a two-way street," she said.

Lennon, who has been Ellis-Stewart's most vocal critic, responded:  "I'm sorry for whatever I've done that offended you.  Either we agree to move on or not."

"Do you agree?"  Ellis-Stewart asked.

"I'm here,"  Lennon said.

"But do you agree?" Ellis-Stewart pressed.

At that point, Vice Chair Mary McCray broke into the opening bars of the campfire song. "I can get my guitar back here in 30 minutes," added Tom Tate.


A little over an hour into the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board retreat, partisan clashes have come into the open.  The board is working with facilitator Mary Kendrick on laying the groundwork for healthy communication.

Everyone agrees the board should work for the good of all children,  but board member Rhonda Lennon,  who represents the north suburbs (and a Republican who has gone from being part of a majority coalition to being in a political minority) says district representatives need to speak for their constituents:  "No matter how much I like you,  I'm still going to represent my peeps,"  she told her colleagues.  "I have to work for the good of all children from the perspective of those who elected me."

Chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart,  elected by the new Democratic majority,  objected to the notion that the board has to be  "partisan and political. To the extent that we put labels on ourselves,  it stymies our ability to be different."

Lennon shot back that there have been partisan decisions made behind closed doors,  an apparent reference to the 5-3 vote to appoint a Democrat to the vacant seat representing the Republican-leaning District 6.  She said the board can't move forward until  "we have been honest about what's been going on."

Eric Davis,  an unaffiliated voter and the former chair,  cautioned the board about airing too many clashes in public, knowing that prospective superintendents are monitoring the news about CMS.  But he said the issues Lennon raised are crucial to moving forward.  "Ericka, this is your role,"  he said,  urging her to figure out how to deal with the rift.

Ellis-Stewart asked if there were concerns beyond the selection of the District 6 member. Lennon, with Davis nodding vigorously,  said virtually every decision made since the November election has left the non-Democrats out of the loop.  "Communication or lack thereof,"  added Tim Morgan, a Republican.

Vice Chair Mary McCray,  a recently retired teacher,  said she always tried to start her school year fresh,  and hopes the board will do the same.  "This is a fresh start for us, because it's a new day."

They're now talking about whether they can legally go into closed session to talk about board relationships.  "Call it personnel issues, because we're all on the payroll," Davis said.  Attorney George Battle cautions them that's complex terrain.


New board Chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart opened the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board retreat by acknowledging that "our first 30 days together as a group have been somewhat rocky,"    but told her colleagues she hopes the next day and a half will help them come together as a group that can focus on the achievement of students.

Ellis-Stewart told the facilitator she thinks one of the big questions in front of the board is "where we plan to go relative to reform and how we define it as a group," and added that assessment (or testing) is a big issue in the community.

Facilitator Mary Kendrick, a West Charlotte High alum  (see more about her background below)  is reviewing the basics with the board.  One of the subtexts of the new board is "who has the influence now?", and one exchange provided a glimpse of that tension. Kendrick told the board about the prep work she's been doing,  including meeting with  "some folks who are meeting to talk about the education of their children  ...  I don't know how visible they are."

"Do they have a name?"  asked board member Tim Morgan.

"I don't know their name," said Kendrick,  who said her brother invited her to the gathering.


I'll be posting periodically from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board retreat Friday and Saturday.  It's at the CMS Leadership Academy, 7920 Neal Road (governors village campus in the University City area), and it's open to the public.  For anyone who's interested, here's the agenda.

The main business items are the superintendent search and the district's agreement with the philanthropists trying to raise $55 million for Project LIFT,  a private effort to boost performance at westside schools. Approval of a Project LIFT contract is on the agenda for Tuesday's meeting,  though that agenda offers no details.

At least as interesting as the specifics will be the talk about how board members plan to relate to each other and what they think about the district's vision, mission and core beliefs.  As most readers know, the board has a new majority and new leadership,  and the first couple of meetings have sparked heated talk of changing values and urban/suburban rifts.

The facilitator will be Mary Kendrick of Greensboro.  The bio sent by CMS describes her as a  "motivational speaker;  facilitator;  executive coach;  anti-racism trainer;  and an Inclusion and Respect- Organizational and Leadership Coach, Strategist and Consultant."

"Mary’s Focus and Purpose is to serve as an advocate for human dignity and social justice.   She partners with and coaches leaders to achieve greater organizational effectiveness in support of progressive social change," it says.

She's being paid $1,500 for the retreat.  CMS didn't have other costs yet,  but meetings at the CMS facility have never been posh, in my experience.  Long gone are the days when I would chase the board to the Grandover Resort in Greensboro or the Hidden Crystal Inn in Hiddenite (a location I always believed then-Superintendent James Pughsley selected because it didn't have enough rooms for reporters to stay overnight).

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