When a caller asked if I knew the superintendent finalists' stands on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bell schedules, I politely dismissed the question, figuring they had bigger issues to grapple with.
Now that I'm in Reno, I'm thinking that caller was wiser than I was. Turns out Heath Morrison, superintendent of the Washoe County School District, has been dealing with some of the same issues his new district has: Changing the times schools start and dismiss, and adding more class time for elementary students. The difference in his approach may say something about his ability to sort out hard feelings in CMS.
The short version: CMS leaders simply announced changes in school hours and added 45 minutes to the elementary day. Morrison, who is widely described as a guy who likes to move fast, decided he needed more time to talk through these issues with faculty and parents.
The situations are not identical. Former Superintendent Peter Gorman pushed back the hours of some elementary and middle schools to save money on busing and extended the elementary day by 45 minutes, effective this school year. At the time, CMS was in turmoil over school closings and possible layoffs, so those changes got little public discussion. Now some parents and teachers are saying they were blindsided by changes they should have been asked to help shape.
Washoe has also faced severe budget cuts, but Morrison says that's not what's driving the possible scheduling changes. He wanted to revise his district's complex school calendar and add 30 minutes to the time elementary students spend in class. Like Gorman, he figured he could keep the kids in class longer without extending the paid day for teachers. And he was hearing from middle school parents who wanted their schools to start later.
Morrison's team launched an extensive public discussion of the calendar changes, including more than 40 community meetings. He says he heard from teachers that squeezing out planning time wouldn't be good for them or for students. The result: Washoe slowed down on the changes, with the calendar shift slated for 2013-14 and the others farther in the future.
Morrison says many of the things people are upset about in CMS -- whether it's bell schedules or testing and teacher evaluations -- are not bad ideas, but ideas that were rushed through without listening to people who could have refined them.
It's worth noting that Washoe's unionized employees have more power to push back, and that it remains to be seen whether Morrison's current district can craft more popular solutions than CMS has. CMS leaders have also made extensive efforts to engage the public on tough decisions, though many have complained that those efforts fell short.
During the last two days, I've repeatedly heard that Morrison is good at listening and rethinking his plans when he hears a better idea. His notion of public engagement seems to go deeper than what CMS is used to doing.
Pretty soon we'll start to see whether that's enough to win hearts and minds in Mecklenburg County.