Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Colette Forrest’s political affiliation.
Five years ago, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was in the midst of studying student assignment and closing schools, most of them in predominantly black neighborhoods. Racial rifts opened wide, with chants disrupting school board meetings and protesters marching in the streets.
Today CMS is once again delving into student assignment. Once again, leaders are talking about the best ways to improve the prospects of students in high-poverty, low-performing schools.
And some are debating whether Superintendent Ann Clark, whose contract expires this summer, should be viewed as the district’s best hope for the future or a failure from its past.
Never miss a local story.
When Clark got an 18-month contract in January, after Heath Morrison resigned under pressure from the board, Clark said she wanted to retire in summer of 2016 after the board found a successor. Now some board members and community leaders say they’d like her to stay – and Clark isn’t closing that door. On Friday, she said questions about an extension of her contract would have to go to the school board.
For the time being, any questions about an extension of my contract as superintendent will need to be directed to members of the CMS Board of Education.
Parent activist Colette Forrest is trying to rally speakers to the Oct. 13 school board meeting to resist a “quiet push” to extend Clark’s contract, saying Clark broke trust with African-American families during the closings. Mecklenburg County Commissioner and former school board member Vilma Leake concurred, calling Clark a “mastermind” behind the process that left black families and neighborhoods feeling mistreated.
Yet on Oct. 10, the Charlotte Post Foundation, affiliated with a newspaper that describes itself as the voice of Charlotte’s black community, will honor Clark as its educator of the year.
Post Publisher Gerald Johnson says it’s a mistake to blame Clark for the turmoil five years ago, but not a mistake to examine what went wrong. As they approach another round of potentially divisive decisions, current leaders need to learn from mistakes made by then-Superintendent Peter Gorman and board members at the time, he and others say.
“I think we all need to go back and take a look at that time,” Johnson said this week. “We’re living in a very, very difficult arena now.”
(Clark) has always been an advocate for equity in education and wanting to make sure all kids get an equal education.
Charlotte Post Publisher Gerald Johnson
Gorman declined to discuss questions about Clark’s role. Several people who were in the thick of it say there’s no evidence that Clark, who was Gorman’s chief academic officer, played a significant role.
“Board members, including me, decided that a number of these schools were entrenched in failure so deeply that we felt that the best solution was to close them,” said former board member Joe White. “We all loved Ann, but Ann was not a driving force.”
Having covered most of those events, I have no memory – and can find no evidence in our archives – that Clark played a public role. But what you can’t know is what you can’t see. Because the superintendent’s talks with his top staff take place behind closed doors, there’s room for speculation.
State Sen. Joyce Waddell, who was a school board member at the time, said she can’t cite examples of Clark’s leadership in decisions that hurt the black community, but she believes Clark should be held accountable as part of the team.
“(Clark) didn’t play the final role, but she played a major role,” Waddell said.
“Certainly I was part of the leadership team,” Clark said Friday. She said she was focused on academic tasks, such as overseeing the transfer of prekindergarten classes from closed centers to elementary schools.
The ongoing academic challenges are one of the most troubling legacies of that time: Promises that the closings would move students out of failing schools and into better ones have largely failed to materialize. For instance, the preK-8 schools that were hastily created to replace closed middle schools now dominate the list of CMS schools that received F’s from the state.
As superintendent, Clark says, she’s working on improvement efforts tailored to each school’s needs, and preparing for an Oct. 13 report on expanding magnet programs. She says she’s also working to improve public engagement with this round of student assignment talks in the early stages, including posting video of committee meetings where most of the discussion is happening.
“Historically people become engaged when we start talking about boundaries,” Clark said. “Let’s shift that.”
Roots of the closing plan
Bill Anderson, a former CMS administrator who led the advocacy group MeckEd for years, said closing schools was “a Pete Gorman-led initiative” that should have come as no surprise to anyone who knew Gorman – or was familiar with his training at the Broad Center’s superintendents academy.
“One of the Broad beliefs was that schools that continued to be underperforming schools and that continued to be underutilized should be closed,” said Anderson, who now works for the UNC Charlotte College of Education. “Pete was a strong personality and Pete believed very strongly in those things.”
In February 2010, with the recession squeezing the CMS budget and massive teacher layoffs on the table, Gorman publicly broached the possibility of school closings. He charged a facility planner with creating a rating system to gauge academic performance, per-pupil costs and whether buildings were underfilled and/or in need of massive repair.
While the board was holding public meetings about student assignment and closings, Gorman said he, his staff and board members were talking behind closed doors about which schools might be targeted and why. But it wasn’t until a list of 32 schools was released, and then narrowed to 10 that would close, that the public erupted.
It’s like a volcano is erupting.
Tasha Houston, a parent protesting school closings in October 2010
More than 90 percent of the students attending the schools selected for closing were nonwhite and came from low-income homes. Meanwhile, the board had voted to protect a handful of magnet and suburban schools serving mostly white and more affluent students.
Several board meetings drew hundreds of angry parents and community leaders who accused the district of racism. They disrupted meetings with chants and singing. At one meeting two people were arrested, including the local NAACP president.
By the end of the year, seven civil rights complaints against CMS were filed with the U.S. Department of Education, based on the closings and related issues. Five years later those complaints remain open and unresolved, said CMS attorney George Battle.
What was the goal?
Gorman and then-board Chairman Eric Davis faced the public with the case for closings. Sometimes they emphasized money and saving teacher jobs, though Gorman had acknowledged the closings couldn’t avert layoffs.
Sometimes they emphasized academic improvement.
The biggest controversy surrounded plans to close three middle schools and a high school, all with low academic performance, high poverty levels and mostly black and Hispanic students.
The board flipped between closing Waddell High, a low-performing neighborhood school in southwest Charlotte, and Harding High, a mostly black magnet school in west Charlotte that logged some of the district’s highest scores. By the time they settled on Waddell, families from both schools were upset with the board, and often with each other.
Early in the process, Gorman had said he wouldn’t take “the easy way” of merging underperforming schools into bigger schools packed with struggling students. But his plan for moving students out of three high-poverty, low-scoring middle schools did exactly that. Eight high-poverty, low-scoring elementary schools were tapped to add middle school grades, along with prekindergarten classrooms.
Parents worried about the safety of younger children and the opportunities for older ones who wouldn’t attend traditional middle schools. Research indicated that elementary-middle school mergers had no track record as a turnaround strategy for high-poverty schools. Gorman pressed on, and the board approved the plan.
If Clark weighed in, it wasn’t in public. White, the former board member, recalls that everyone bought into the notion that the smaller setting and the continuity would be good for adolescents who traditionally struggled in middle school.
“K-8 was another one of those popular solutions, a panacea that was talked about at every conference we went to,” he said.
Where was Clark?
Clark wasn’t visible in the public wrangling.
“All my interaction was with Peter Gorman,” said John Maye, who helped create a group called Save Our Schools in 2010. “With all the meetings we attended, I never saw Ann. I never talked to Ann.”
But she was the point person for another project taking shape behind the scenes. Some of the area’s biggest philanthropists, working through Foundation for the Carolinas, wanted to get involved with CMS on an unprecedented level. Clark worked with them to design Project LIFT, a $55 million partnership that was announced in early 2011.
The effort, now entering the fourth year of its five-year term, focuses on West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools, all of them with high poverty levels and few white students.
Richard “Stick” Williams, co-chair of Project LIFT, emerged as a fan of Clark’s who supports keeping her longer.
“Rather than just talking about what you can do for people in low-income schools, she’s actively designing programs to have a positive impact,” said Williams, a Duke Energy vice president who oversees the company’s philanthropic foundation.
Living with decisions
During a news conference at the height of the controversy, Gorman warned that “this is going to be a tough time for our community for the next several years.”
Time has proven him right, though it didn’t turn out to be his burden.
In June 2011, Gorman resigned abruptly to take a job with an education technology company. An interim superintendent was in charge when the restructured schools opened that August.
Soon after CMS hired Morrison in 2012, his staff brought the board a report on the aftermath of the closings.
Neither financial nor academic benefits were clear.
Discipline problems soared and academic performance sagged during the first year at Harding and many of the preK-8 schools. CMS, which had underestimated the surge of students coming into the new preK-8 schools, spent almost $7 million moving mobile classrooms and renovating buildings to deal with the changes.
And the challenges continue.
When 2015 results landed this fall, Harding had the lowest test scores and graduation rate of any CMS high school. Six of the eight preK-8 schools – four of them part of Project LIFT – earned an F from the state, one a D and one a C.
Who should lead
Now Morrison is gone too, having resigned in November after Battle brought the board a report alleging that he had bullied staff and misled the board about school construction costs. Clark, his deputy, stepped in. In January the board gave her an 18-month contract, with the understanding that the board would conduct a search for a long-term replacement.
That search has not begun, and the board has been mum on the matter since a July committee meeting.
Forrest, a CMS parent and political consultant, has sent several mass emails urging people to speak against extending Clark’s tenure. One of the most recent ones call Clark “the architect in closing 10 African-American schools.”
“A campaign has been led by White Male Republicans to keep the current interim fellow Republican Superintendent,” she added. Clark is registered as a Republican.
Forrest said in a recent interview that Clark should also be held responsible for the fact that neither Project LIFT nor the more recent Beacon Initiative, launched by Morrison and Clark, has succeeded in creating successful schools in low-income African-American neighborhoods.
Clark’s supporters counter that no one has figured out a reliable, large-scale fix for the challenges of urban education.
“We’ve tried people with new visions,” said Johnson, the Post publisher. “We’ve seen what’s happened with all of that.”