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State politics + school turnaround = political mess for CMS

A bill before the state Senate would give CMS more flexibility in hiring, firing and paying teachers at Project LIFT schools.
A bill before the state Senate would give CMS more flexibility in hiring, firing and paying teachers at Project LIFT schools. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

As a 33-year veteran of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Superintendent Ann Clark knows the district’s twists and turns better than most.

But her most recent foray into state politics surprised and alarmed both the teachers who work for her and members of the school board that employs her.

The political storm arose from an April meeting among Clark, two representatives of the public-private Project LIFT and two state legislators. They talked about state Rep. Rob Bryan’s controversial Achievement School District bill, which would let charter operators take over five of North Carolina’s lowest-performing elementary schools, and how it might be expanded to give CMS more flexibility to improve some of its own struggling schools.

Clark says she has never supported the charter takeover plan, and adds that her proposals for CMS flexibility only reflect what the school board has endorsed in recent years.

But after an Observer editorial linked Clark to Bryan’s bill, CMS Board Chair Mary McCray held a press conference to emphasize the board’s opposition to the bill. Erlene Lyde, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, told the school board Clark’s apparent support of the bill left her feeling “blindsided, stabbed in the back and made to look like a trusting fool.”

We adamantly and unequivocally did not support House Bill 1080.

CMS board Chair Mary McCray at last week’s school board meeting

Beyond the political crossfire lies an essential question: What can be done when most students keep failing at certain schools?

Breaking the mold

Those schools are easy enough to identify. They show up at the bottom of state test results year after year. Almost always they serve the most disadvantaged kids.

And it’s simple enough to conclude that those schools need something different from the educational formula that hasn’t worked for them.

The charter school movement is one response: Let independent boards create schools that can step outside the district model. With more freedom to hire and fire teachers, set longer school days or year-round calendars and experiment with educational techniques, the thinking goes, those schools can succeed with students who fail in traditional schools.

Bryan, a Mecklenburg Republican, proposed last year that the state try an Achievement School District that would let charters take over some of the state’s most persistently troubled district schools. It drew flak from people who said similar efforts in Tennessee and New Orleans had produced little benefit, and Bryan decided to wait until this year to push for a vote.

CMS consistently has schools ranked as low-performing, though its unclear whether one would be selected for the first five Achievement District schools.

Meanwhile, CMS has also launched its own efforts to do more for students in low-scoring schools. One of the most prominent is Project LIFT (for Leadership and Investment For Transformation), a public-private partnership that raised $50 million in donations for West Charlotte High and its feeder schools. “Charter-like flexibility” has always been part of the Project LIFT vision. For instance, CMS got state permission to extend the school year in some LIFT schools and offered performance and recruitment bonuses for teachers.

Let’s talk

State Sen. Joel Ford, a Mecklenburg Democrat, says he contacted Clark to suggest the April meeting that would prove so controversial. His district includes the Project LIFT schools, and he suggested working with Bryan to get CMS more freedom to improve those schools.

Ford, Bryan, Clark, Project LIFT Zone Superintendent Denise Watts and Anna Spangler Nelson, a philanthropist who is co-chair of the Project LIFT board, met in Nelson’s office on April 22.

“I wanted this to happen with CMS, not to CMS,” Ford said this week. “I was extremely excited about it.”

Clark and Nelson say they never saw the meeting as a show of support for the Achievement School District bill, though Nelson says in hindsight she can see how it would look that way.

“There was no discussion of support and no request for support of the Achievement School District,” Nelson said Wednesday.

Here I am thinking that we’re making progress and establishing a relationship, and come to find out it’s the exact opposite.

State Sen. Joel Ford

Bryan did not return my calls for comment, but emails requested by WBTV and the Observer show the next steps.

On April 26, Clark emailed Ford and Bryan to thank them for “an incredibly promising conversation about our low performing schools.” She attached a list of flexibilities she’d like to get for Project LIFT and some other struggling schools. Among them: Granting CMS the ability to hire and fire teachers at will, offering flexible salary schedules with merit pay, making participation in the state retirement and health systems optional,relaxing licensure requirements for teachers and setting its own school calendar.

On May 2, Bryan emailed Clark: “Thank you for working with Sen. Ford and me on the proposed Achievement Zone School District bill.” He attached the latest version of his bill, with a possible section creating a separate innovation zone for CMS. “Please let me know if you can both support this new draft of the legislation or if you have any additional question(s),” he concluded.

Clark replied on May 11, apologizing for the delay. She said she’d like to see the innovation zone extended to include Beacon schools, another group CMS has targeted for improvement. “I certainly support the pilot notion,” she wrote.

Bryan introduced House Bill 1080 on May 10, without the innovation zone for CMS but with that option for any district that had a school selected for the Achievement District. A couple of weeks later, he talked to the Observer’s editorial board about the bill and mentioned that Clark and Watts had helped shape plans for innovation zones.

Editorial writer Peter St. Onge called CMS to confirm their involvement and wrote an editorial praising the latest plan, highlighting the suggestions from Clark and Watts.

That’s when the political storm broke.

‘An unlikely assist’

“Achievement District bill gets an unlikely assist,” said the headline on the May 28 editorial.

Lyde, the teachers’ group president, said she started reading with curiosity. She had no idea that assist came from CMS, she said, having been assured the district opposed Bryan’s bill.

At last week’s school board meeting she described her reaction as she read on: “First came the shock, then a few expletives, and finally disappointment and hurt.”

McCray says she was out of town that weekend when she got a call asking if she had seen the editorial and knew that CMS leaders had worked on the bill. She says she had no idea what was going on.

Nelson, the LIFT board co-chair, said she read the editorial and thought, “This is good. This is correct.”

“Then it turned into something different,” she said.

On June 7, school board leaders had a letter hand-delivered to the Mecklenburg legislative delegation saying that the board “unequivocally opposes” the bill.

“You may have heard that CMS supports HB 1080 or that CMS is working with the bill’s legislative sponsors in an attempt to make the bill more palatable to CMS – both of these statements are false,” the letter reads . “The Board neither requested nor authorized any CMS employee ... to take action in furtherance of HB 1080.”

What’s next?

On June 1, Bryan’s bill was revised to authorize a CMS Innovation Zone covering up to five LIFT and Beacon schools, regardless of whether any CMS schools are taken over by the Achievement District. The House approved it 60-49 the next day; it is now before the Senate.

McCray and Rhonda Lennon, who chairs the school board’s committee that handles relations with the state legislature, both say Clark made a mistake in failing to inform the board about her meetings with Bryan and Ford. She has apologized, they said .

“It was a learning curve for Ann, at least I hope it was,” McCray said.

Clark, who responded by email, said that she never represented her feedback as representing the school board. After Bryan introduced the bill, Clark said, she let Lennon know about “my concerns with the bill and the feedback on the charter-like flexibilities I had provided.”

“My only intent was to move (the Achievement District) in a different direction that allowed districts to maintain full governance of all schools,” she said.

Whatever the outcome for Bryan’s bill, the underlying question is sure to linger: What does it take to create schools where students who traditionally fail can flourish?

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