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Charlotte Exclusives

Bad News is No News

Judge's critical view of schools buried for weeks by CMS

Dec. 1st, 2004
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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have been on a public relations blitz of late. Funny, how an honest appraisal of CMS from an impartial judge - no, a judge, really - could fail to see the light of day. Could it be because Wake County Judge Howard Manning, Jr. questioned the effectiveness of CMS leaders?

To backtrack, Judge Manning is the trial-court judge who heard complaints from Hoke County parents that North Carolina's public school funding mechanism discriminated against some districts. The case grew into the decade-long Leandro case which delved into exactly what level of public spending is sufficient to meet the state constitution's call for a basic education for all state residents, urban and rural alike.

Manning clearly is familiar with issues of public school funding in North Carolina and aware of the differences between school system student populations. Moreover, Manning is not reflexively hostile, it would seem, to the constant CMS refrain that more money is needed to make the schools better. After all, in July, Manning endorsed the idea of sending $22 million in state money to 16 rural districts as a way addressing funding imbalances. And again in October Manning applauded legislators' intention to route $10 million to underfunded districts toward that goal.

In fact, Manning's findings and the Leandro case have been cited over and over by proponents of greater public school funding. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that, in recent years, every week some public school administrator, newspaper editorialist, or columnist somewhere in North Carolina has used Judge Manning's views on school funding to buttress their arguments for more public dollars for education.

But lack of funding is not what the judge's November 10 memo stressed. Instead, Manning noted that CMS spends quite a bit more per pupil than Wake County and gets poorer results. At about $500 more per student, CMS spends about $12,000 more per classroom than Wake does, Manning calculated. Yet more money bought less performance, at least as judged by test scores for the schools in each system.

Manning postulated this was an indication of management problems at CMS and a misallocation of resources, particularly staff, meaning principals and teachers. This is evidently not what folks at the CMS Ed Center wanted to hear, as a telling side-show to the main issue indicates.

The always interesting alt-paper The Rhino Times scooped The Charlotte Observer by a week in alerting the public to Judge Manning's memo. In fact, it is not at all clear that the Observer would have ever known about the Manning memo absent the Times reporting. This speaks to the need for as many sources of information as possible in a diverse community and calls into question CMS' commitment to a full and open airing of all relevant issues.

The Times detailed Manning's comments, as well as Mecklenburg County commissioners' reactions to them, in its November 25 issue. The Observer did not get around to reporting on the memo until a lengthy December 1 story. The Observer dispatch disclosed that CMS Superintendent James Pughsley wrote a November 19 memo in response to the Manning memo.

The Pughsley memo was distributed to school board members in a weekly "document drop." But the package of documents provided to the Observer lacked both the Pughsley memo and the Manning memo. This is a prima facie violation of the state's open records law. A CMS spokesman chalked this up to a mere oversight and timing issue, asserting that the memos would've been included in the following week's document drop, and that no attempt to keep the memo from the Observer was made.

So to recap, CMS intended to distribute Manning's Nov. 10 memo sometime in early December, accompanied by Pughsley's three-week-old response. One must wonder if CMS would be so slow to act if Manning had praised the system or clearly called for yet more money.

In fact, the available evidence suggests that CMS would like nothing more than to deep-six serious questions about how the system spends its money until Mecklenburg's new Democratic majority of county commissioners can take office and vote for more spending for CMS. However, there is simply no hiding the fact that money alone cannot fix CMS' performance problems.

A culture of buck-passing, obfuscation, and denial is ensconced in some parts of the system, with a bloated, top-heavy, and fantastically compensated Ed Center staff adding little of value to the day-to-day education of children. At least that is what stressed out CMS teachers think, in between waiting for security guards to escort kids to washrooms without paper towels.

A confident, open, and truly forward-looking CMS would have greeted Judge Manning's November 10 memo with a November 11 phone call to Raleigh to try to find out how their Wake County counterparts might do things better. That is not an issue of money; it is an issue of will, competence, and integrity.