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A conversation with CMS’ Heath Morrison

Heath Morrison, the superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, met with the Observer editorial board on Thursday to talk about school security after Newtown, the next school bond, the achievement gap, testing, the state legislature and other issues.

Highlights: CMS is looking at bolstering security, while realizing there’s no way to guarantee students’ safety; a school bond vote is likely for November; we have to talk candidly about race; testing has gotten way out of hand; and some of the legislature’s reform efforts are misguided.

Here are excerpts from the conversation.

Q. Talk about what you’re doing after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. What specific new safety measures make sense?

I absolutely have no conception of thinking that arming teachers is a good idea. We’ve certainly been asked a lot of questions about would we consider armed security personnel at each school; we have to look at that. We’re looking at all of our security procedures right now. Is it possible to get more single points of entry, the buzz-in systems?

You take a school like a Myers Park or a South Meck. … It’s an open campus. How do you address those schools? How do you address the schools with a lot of mobile units?

Q. Do you feel a little bit powerless in the face of this?

If anybody stands in front of their school and says they guarantee that there are no drugs or weapons in the school, they’re not being honest. You can’t guarantee it. What you can guarantee is you do everything you can to keep them out and keep kids safe but you can’t guarantee with 100 percent certainty that you can absolutely keep a dangerous individual from getting into your school.

I absolutely understand why parents get as concerned as they do and as afraid as they do.

Q. CMS has reduced its number of security personnel; have you considered revisiting that?

Across CMS, everything has been reduced. (But) over the last 10 years, schools have never been safer than they are now. There’s been so much more training, cameras. We probably have the safest schools we’ve ever had.

The worry we have is, not only can we add additional security; we’re going to struggle to keep the security we have. The city is increasing the cost of (school resource officer) programs. It was an additional $2 million this year passed on to CMS plus another $700,000 next year just to keep what we have. Then we have to figure out how to increase that if we feel there’s a need to do it.

Q. Talk about your relationship with Mecklenburg County (which provides much of CMS’s funding):

I’m very encouraged about that. I made it a point to meet with every commissioner. I meet regularly with the county manager. We’ve talked about getting the two boards together several times before we start in the budget season.

Q. Where do things stand on budget talks with the county, and when will the next bond be for capital projects and how big might it be?

Next year if there is a will to do it, we would go out and get started on the next bond campaign. We’ve been looking at what are our needs, what do we need to build new, where do we need to renovate or replace schools. In January or February we’ll start having conversations about capital needs across the district and have a final decision around March.

Q. What’s your sense of the politics around a bond vote?

At Stone Cold Creamery, they have like it, love it and gotta have it sizes. The gotta have it size, you look at which one you really have to have and then make sure you’re going out making a case for it, so people don’t feel like you’re asking for the Rolls Royce. You go out there very transparently and say these are the needs and this is why we need to do it. If you go out there with an outrageous ask that people think is not legitimate then I think you will be disappointed. If people see we’re being very transparent and reflective of genuine needs, this community has shown they’ll support public education.

Q. Tell us about consultant Glenn Singleton, training around cultural diversity and closing the achievement gap.

We need to look at raising expectations. We have to make sure every classroom and every school is embracing the learning needs of every child. What’s difficult about this work is so many organizations take a pass on true, authentic conversations around race. We’ve all been trained to be color-blind. When you’re not seeing differences you’re not being respectful of what those differences yield in terms of need. We end up treating all children as if they all need the same things.

I want training that really gets at the heart of teaching and learning so we can close gaps and have better student results. We’ve looked at different individuals; I’ve worked with Glenn in the past. We haven’t made a final decision but I felt it was an important time to have Glenn get a better understanding of Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

Q. How do you deal with people in the community who are suspicious about the motives of this effort? Singleton comes with some controversy.

We’ll have to state the need to the community and then build the will to do it. I don’t know if I find Glenn to be controversial. (Morrison suggested most of that came from uninformed bloggers.) People say ‘this is what he does’ without ever knowing what he does.

Q. Given the tensions on issues of race in CMS, is this a perfect time or a risky time for this conversation?

Is there ever a good time? We got to change the approach so we meet the unique needs of children. You can’t wait til tomorrow. I think it’s really crucial that we start this. … It’s about getting people to recognize we’re doing things that are fundamentally getting in the way of students being successful.

Q. What are your thoughts about what’s happening in the legislature on education reform? Any specific things you’d like to see happen?

I am very troubled by the amount of testing we’re wanting to do. We’re giving tests now not to assess how well the child is learning but to assess the teacher or to evaluate the school or school district. We can teach our way to the top but we can’t test our way to the top. We’re about to put out 177 new exams on top of the exams we’re already doing. Why are we in a rush to do all of this testing? It’s fair for teachers to say, “When am I supposed to teach?” …

We need tests but they need to be good tests, they need to be valid tests. … We don’t prepare kids for the type of jobs they’re going to need to do, stressing innovation and entrepreneurship and creativity by giving them 177 more tests.

Q. What are your thoughts about how much autonomy a principal should have?

There’s this loose-tight concept. At what point are you loose and allow freedom and when do you need to be tight? Getting that right is really complex. It’s easy to be tight all the time and you can get things done but then there’s a cost. We’re looking at that very intensely.

Many school districts never define success. What we can do is say, what are the things that are fundamentally important to this community so parents feel good that my son or daughter is getting a good education. Then, when schools are hitting their accountability marks, be clear on what autonomy is.

Q. Are the task force meetings not open to the public?

The task force meetings will not be. There will be meetings we have … where task forces will be available to meet with the public. The (task force leaders) felt strongly about this, they want to be able to meet their task forces and really engage in conversation and they have a very narrow window to do it. They wanted plenty of opportunities for public engagement but also wanted to be able to meet and be able to do their work and feel like they could have some freedom to start to build a relationship as a task force that they felt would be interrupted by making all the meetings public meetings.

Q. Is that legal?

(Our lawyer) says yes so far. He says we can do it. Now if that gets challenged, we’ll have to figure it out.

Q. Is there any one big thing that stands out for how different CMS is from how Reno, Nev., (his previous district) was?

The fact so many people care about education and really want to help. In Reno, because the industries that drove Reno were gaming and construction, the truth was, you didn’t need to have a college-educated workforce. You didn’t even have to graduate from high school.

What I love about this community is the desires to help are very, very sincere. If we don’t take advantage of that we’re going to really miss the boat. At a time we’re not flush with resources, we have the resource of a community that really wants to help.

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