Mark Johnson-NC school board rift directly affects students, chair says

Former CMS board chair Eric Davis is the new chairman of the state Board of Education. He faces an array of challenges.
Former CMS board chair Eric Davis is the new chairman of the state Board of Education. He faces an array of challenges. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

As the new chairman of the state school board, Charlotte’s Eric Davis has his hands full. Not only does he face large and persistent student achievement gaps between the haves and have-nots, but he will lead a board mired in a power struggle with state schools superintendent Mark Johnson. Editorial Page Editor Taylor Batten on Monday talked with Davis, a former chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, about his vision for the job. Here’s an edited version of that conversation.

Q. What are your top priorities as chairman?

A. Four things. These most recent performance results (released last week) highlight how much work we have to do around equity and creating equal opportunity, equal access, and closing the gap on the results. It highlights for me that our students’ needs are continuing to grow at an exponential rate. And that over the last few years, the continued decrease in support for our public school system in the state has finally caught up with us.

Second is the ongoing challenges we have in recruiting and retaining and preparing teachers in a way that gets an effective teacher in every classroom. We used to have a competitive advantage over other states in attracting talent. We’ve lost that advantage to a great degree.

Q. Why have we lost that competitive advantage?

A. Compensation; although I’m grateful for what the General Assembly has done in recent years, we’ve dug ourselves a pretty deep hole. Plus just the overall climate; for years we had a reputation as a place that teachers wanted to come, and we’ve lost a bit of that reputation.

The third thing is principled leadership. One of the things I most admire about local school systems is for years we had a concerted effort to identify talented leadership and train it and nurture it. We need something like that on a larger scale across our state.

The last thing is how important it is for our students to come to us prepared. We need much greater capacity in pre-K education. With the passing of C.D. Spangler, it called to memory the things he did with W.T. Harris and Gov. Hunt to get universal kindergarten in our schools. We have some good things going on in Mecklenburg and scattered across the state with pre-K, but it’s a need that really needs to be addressed at the state level.

Q. Talk to me about this tension between the board and Superintendent Mark Johnson. What’s going on there?

A. In the past we didn’t have to have detailed policies and rules to govern the relationship between the board and the superintendent because there was a pattern of cooperation and partnerships. Today that situation has changed. We have to recognize we don’t have that same relationship we’ve had in the past. So the board is thoughtfully considering how to establish rules governing the relationship between the board and the superintendent. We’d like to have more dialogue with the superintendent.

Q. Do you worry Johnson is beholden to the legislature?

A. I had hoped the superintendent’s relationship with the legislature would have convinced the legislature not to cut the Department of Public Instruction staff another $5.1 million in this year’s budget on top of a series of cuts that have been enacted year over year. Especially at a time we clearly have a budget surplus, and at a time when more and more of our districts are dependent on DPI. So I was disappointed the superintendent was not more influential in preventing that further damage to the very staff the superintendent leads and that so many districts are dependent on.

Q. Is this just a bureaucratic turf battle? How does this affect the bottom line, which is the quality of education for millions of public school kids in North Carolina?

A. It directly relates to the quality of school systems for students in North Carolina. It deals with how decisions are made that impact our students and teachers. We will do everything we can to minimize the effects of a difference of opinion on our students. Some recent decisions around how we spend money are examples of how it directly affects our students.

Q. You’re talking about Johnson’s $6 million iPad purchase?

A. Given the limited funds that we have, it’s really important we spend every dollar as wisely and impactfully as we can for our students. That’s an example where the board’s contribution to our students’ education is to ensure there is a clear strategy around what we are doing and how we’re spending money and what kind of policy we’re enacting. Then it’s up to the superintendent to implement policies we enact. The big question was why weren’t we involved in that decision, particularly from a strategy standpoint.

Q. Going back to your top priorities, what are the biggest obstacles to accomplishing those things?

A. The biggest obstacle around academic achievement are the challenges students face before they get to school. That’s part of a socioeconomic divide our state experiences, and Charlotte is a microcosm of that. In large measure, those are economic and societal forces that are at work in creating this divide. The board has to advocate for things that can impact our students’ level of preparedness before they get to our schools. Part of that is health care. It doesn’t matter how good a teacher you have, if a student is facing trauma, social or physical, you can’t reach them consistently and effectively.

But within the school system, we need to have some of our best principals and teachers in schools that are most challenged. It takes intentional effort to move principals and teachers in that direction because market forces move the other way.

Q. But that leads parents in stronger schools to worry you’re going to take their best teachers and leave them with less than the best.

A. That’s an understandable concern. The way you address that is do a better job of recruiting and retaining and rewarding teachers and principals and then you have enough to cover those needs.

Q. It seems like we’ve been talking about these same intractable problems for decades.

A. If we are not going to be optimistic, if we’re not going to be committed and determined, then we are sealing our students’ fate. We need to learn from what we have done in the past. Don’t let problems, no matter how stubborn they are, overcome us. We have to be forward-thinking and optimistic and positive to create a better environment for our students. That’s the least we can do for them.