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Commentary

Feb. 22, 2020

Our thanks to Ann Doss Helms at WFAE for laying out another CMS misstep for all to see. Her reporting is here.

The incident involves asking CMS students from 6th-12th grade about their sexual orientation and gender identity. The questions were inserted in a survey that children could take only after logging into a computer, which would allow CMS or hackers to link the responses back to individuals.

In explaining the survey procedure, CMS Chief Equity Officer Frank Barnes told Helms Friday that if students felt that it was mandatory that they answer the questions, then there was miscommunication between the creators of the survey and the school-based taking of the survey. Okay.

And it appears at first blush that neither parents nor teachers were advised in advance about the new questions inserted into a survey used for some years. By Saturday night, Supt. Earnest Winston had pulled the questions and promised on Facebook to erase the data.

I have deep concern for the individual students bullied or simply destabilized after the fact by this invasion of privacy. Those wounds will be short- or long-term, and most will remain private.

For the public, the issue is the health of the silo in which perfectly smart folk like Barnes pursue stupid things. Most of what I read about silos assumes that culture change begins at the top because, as in this incident, most folks at the bottom – and in this case that even includes school board members – don’t know what’s happening until the damage is under way. Stop it at the top, experts proclaim.

I’m not comfortable that that’s the right answer in this case, because Barnes is as close to the top of CMS as any of the details of such an action are liable to rise – except after the fact when damage has already been done and blame needs to be placed.

Perhaps the best preventive for such incidents is not a procedure or a process or chain of command or even a window through which the public can constantly monitor internal CMS decision-making.

What if the leadership spent less of their time in the silo and more of their time among real people, and talked more about what they were considering doing and more time listening to real people’s reactions?

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Commentary

Feb. 17, 2020

It’s Presidents’ Day. Odds are that none of the students in CMS schools today will ever serve as President.

But every one of our children should be ready to take their chosen place in adulthood.

How are we doing on that goal?

Setting aside all of the wrangling over tests and what is tested and how, the current batch of North Carolina tests have a standard of achievement for children who are “on track for career and college readiness.” Truth to tell, it’s not an exceptionally ambitious standard. But it is a standard.

In the state tests completed last spring, in half of the subjects and grades tested, fewer than half the children meet the standard. In the other half, barely more than half of the students meet the standard.

The Opportunity Task Force report from 2017 is still arguing for systemic changes that have no owner. The CMS “Breaking the Link” documents from 2017 and 2018 are still laying out just how urgent it is that the community ensure that every child achieve.

Is there a piece of this work that you could take ownership of?

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Commentary

Sept. 9, 2019

As a young man, I was asked to sign a letter against the Vietnam War. It did little good.

Now I am asked to sign a letter against racism. It too will do little good.

The only things in this old white man’s life that may have done any good were brewing the coffee for a black community group every week for the last 17 years, and becoming not a visitor but a member of an historically African American church.

That is, crossing the lines that divide us, and crossing them and crossing them and crossing them and crossing them until, one fine day, they fall away and we all live as one.

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Commentary
Marker at the 9th Street entrance to Pinewood Cemetery
Elmwood Cemetery’s curbed loop road, on left side of picture, came close to Pinewood Cemetery’s uncurbed loop road, on right. Between them was a fence until African Americans led by Fred Alexander agitated publicly to remove the fence.

March 18, 2013

This incident in Charlotte’s history has been chronicled elsewhere. But it may be a reminder that, in William Faulkner’s original words in “Requiem for a Nun”:

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Or in presidential candidate Barack Obama’s paraphrase in his 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.”

– From the Survey and Research Report on Elmwood/Pinewood Cemetery from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission; www.cmhpf.org/S&Rs%20Alphabetical%20Order/Surveys&relmwood.htm

Elsewhere on the Landmarks Commission site are these words.

The Fred Alexander papers are in the UNCC Library’s Special Collections. See particularly Box 14 Folder 29 on the Elmwood/Pinewood cemetery.

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Commentary

The door opened a bit more on public policy discussion in Charlotte-Mecklenburg today with Supt. Heath Morrison’s decision to order all of his 22 task forces to meet in public after the first organizational meeting.

Asked why the change, one task force co-chair said, “It was the right thing to do.”

A jaded public has reason to know that it being the right thing to do is rarely a sufficient reason. Perhaps Morrison will clarify.

The Observer’s Ann Doss Helms’ report on how longtime CMS critic Tom Davis valued the feedback from folks who were able to sit in the back of the room as an earlier citizen committee met and Davis was a member of the committee.

As I wrote last week, it is incumbent on the task forces to “find new ways to share your deliberations with the public. Be imaginative. Call on your friends to get the word out.”

Democracy is messy, and building consensus in this community on anything schools-related is even messier.

But until that work is done, Morrison will be unable to act. These task forces, if they are to be useful, should be cauldrons of controversy out of which consensus can be formed. No, this is not work for the timid.

And it is not sufficient that task force members come to agreement amongst themselves. That is only the beginning of the task.

The goal, clearly, should be to nurture community consensus by taking the community along for the ride — giving the community a good, blow-by-blow, thorough airing of every side of every controversial possible solution to whatever issues a particular task force attempts to address.

There’s no better way to do that than to produce lots of information about the discussion.

I would hope that every visitor to a task force meeting would be encouraged by the task force co-chairs to write about what they heard while they were visiting. I would hope that every member of every task force would be writing or skyping or videotaping their reflections after every meeting and putting the material not in a binder or a shoebox but on a publicly accessible website.

And I hope that every task force avails itself of the Internet and social media tools to share its information directly with the public.

No CMS problem has ever been caused by an excess of accurate information.

– Steve Johnston

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Commentary

Jan. 10, 2013

At tonight’s school board meeting, Supt. Heath Morrison announced an online tool to allow parents and others to share ideas with the task forces named to help design the district’s strategic goals. There are 22 such task forces. I’ve sent every task force the following message:

At your first meeting, please establish that all future meetings of your task force will be open to the public and that the public will be notified of your meeting times and places in accordance with CMS policy.

To bring the disparate interests associated with CMS together, we as a community must air issues thoroughly, allow fact-finding and vigorous debate, and then build consensus around what may well be a compromise position that honors the complexity and diversity of this district and its people.

Your modeling of behaviors like transparency, candor and openness will help the community move away from its confrontationalism, and contribute to an environment in which the superintendent’s ultimate recommendations can gain a foothold.

Indeed, Heath Morrison probably doesn’t need your ideas; he already has lots of those. What he does need is a way to move community members away from apathy or obstructionism or me-first-ism. Your task force can contribute to that by carefully airing in public all sorts of proposals related to your topic and then gauging public response.

Most citizens with a vital interest in your discussion will never attend your meetings, of course. And neither CMS nor media has the resources to “cover” every task force. So it is imperative that you find new ways to share your deliberations with the public. Be imaginative. Call on your friends to get the word out.

This is just one of many websites that one or more task forces could use without cost to share information about its proceedings. And there are lots of offline methods of sharing information. I hope each task force will find a suitable tool.

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Commentary
Mayor Anthony Foxx at the Charlotte Museum of History Wednesday.

Dec. 2, 2010

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, above, casts a shadow in this community. People will listen to him.

He’s got a lot on his mind, so he doesn’t have to take on the task of rebuilding community accord to sustain public education. But it sure would be splendid if he gathered together all those who are respected by the people, and had them literally stand behind those who take on this centrally important task of rebuilding community accord to sustain public education.

Earlier this week the mayor hosted a screening of “Waiting For Superman,” a movie with lots of messages, among them that a community dare not wait for Superman to fix their children’s educations.

But this community is regularly driven to do extraordinary things when its leaders ask for sacrifice to achieve a goal that makes good sense. So, Mister Mayor, stand behind a Superwoman or whomever it takes to rebuild community accord to sustain public education.

Wednesday’s Town Hall, conducted by Mayor Foxx at the Charlotte Museum of History, was dominated by economic development topics of deep concern to those who live on the east side. The Observer’s Steve Harrison’s story on the event is here. A text cache is here.

But as Harrison noted, the mayor did address some education issues Wednesday. A number of questions from the floor led Foxx to talk about education.

He said, for example, that when parents fail to read to their infants, the public cost of teaching those children to read rises. Adults, he suggested, don’t want to pay more for education, which leaves their children at a disadvantage as students in other societies spend far more time in school and leave school better prepared.

Indeed, Foxx said, low U.S. rankings on quality of education compared to other developed nations “suggest that we’re going to have to rethink our whole approach to education…. Some of it is being relentless in expecting children, regardless of what they bring into the schoolhouse, that they be successful… and doing what it takes to get them there.”

Foxx said he had publicly and privately suggested that the school board delay decisions about school closings that they made amid deep controversy in November. But Foxx said he had not taken a position on the details because the rest of a very much larger revenue shortfall situation was not then known, and won’t be until May or June. But he added this:

“What I’m really concerned about is that, in an environment in which you are looking at the possibility of $100 million in cuts, the issue of facilities, even if you resolve that one, you’ve got a hundred million other issues to get resolved. It’s a really really broad set of issues, many of which we don’t even know about what they are.

“I personally don’t feel I have the luxury to just focus on one aspect of this. It’s the whole thing. And at the end of the day, I do believe that our school board, our superintendent, I do believe that what they’re trying to do, trying to do, is get to a place where we can preserve academic gains. But it’s just a brutal situation with respect to resources.

“And if the resources ultimately end up being different, [and it is] between a kid having a chance to go to college, and to have a life dependent on society, then this community really needs to spend some time wrestling with whether $100 million in cuts is palatable.

“I really think that is a question we may end up having to ask: Can you accomplish what we want to accomplish in that kind of environment?”

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Commentary

Nov. 28, 2010

This day ended, as above – spectacularly.

It began in an equally spectacular way.

John Cleghorn casts a shadow in Charlotte. Will people listen? Will they follow?

Some know the Rev. Cleghorn because he once wrote speeches for banker Hugh McColl. Today, more know him as the pastor, in a town with hundreds of vacant buildings, who made something happen to allow his flock to host a shelter for homeless women.

Caldwell Memorial Presbyterian stepped up this fall to answer a community problem. With volunteers from across the city, they spruced up an unused part of the church campus and are now hosting an overflow shelter for homeless women served by the Salvation Army’s Center of Hope.

This morning, the Observer Viewpoint page carried an edited version of his Nov. 14 sermon in which he addressed another community problem: the “scab” pulled off by the recession that has been covering up race and class divisions over public schools, and how budgets should be balanced during this recession.

Rather than replace the scab, Cleghorn seems to be leading in another direction.

He writes that “we have only just begun a very difficult process,” that “a full and frank dialogue” is needed, that “we should not pretend there is not anger and frustration,” that the “anger is justified,” that we “must ask whether we have really made the kind of commitment to all of our children to provide an education that prepares them for the world they will inherit, much less, more fundamentally, to earn a decent living or get a job at all.”

From the pulpit, the pastor’s message was one of hope, built on the foundation of Isaiah. Perhaps that hope got muted by the editing necessary to fit the piece into the the Viewpoint space. The Observer column was perhaps more didactic:

“We must reach even deeper inside ourselves and our community to do the hard work that gets past emotions and delivers us all to a place of reconciliation across race and class and neighborhood, where we can stop shouting and start working together.”

John Cleghorn casts a shadow in Charlotte. Will people listen? Will they follow?

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Commentary

Nov. 2, 2010

It’s always hard to get everyone to the table. CMS needs to do a better job than it did during the “comprehensive review” to make a place at the table for everyone who eventually wants to come.

“Eventually” — because people will come at different times and on their own schedule. Organizations that achieve success in this area plan around that fundamental human behavior.

I won’t rehash the failures of the last months. I’d rather encourage people to look forward to the next time that we as a community need to thoroughly discuss something. The lessons learned from your comments might help community discussion happen. They might even be used quickly if CMS scratches the school-closings still on the “comprehensive review” table.

Thorough discussion may not, of course, lead to consensus. But consensus is a strong basis for action, and it rarely forms in the absence of discussion. In a democracy, anyway.

This community has tools at its disposal to have a far broader discussion about CMS’s future than those used in the last months.

Perhaps my favorite is a series of video booths scattered throughout the city, open during business hours of the locations that shelter them. The booths would allow people on their own time and with their own friends to enter the discussion. A monitored time-delay loop onto the mothballed CMS TV cable channel would allow civic discussion with immediacy.

There’s a casserole dish in the Levine Museum’s collection to remind us that pot-luck dinners were a key listening tool used when a citizens committee was helping the U.S. District Court find desegregation solutions. A similar committee should be in place quickly today to do a similar kind of work on a different issue.

We don’t have a District Court today, actively watching over the rights of groups without power, that could create the committee. But we do have a mayor, a county commissioners chair and a Chamber of Commerce leader who know that this kind of work needs to be done.

Now.

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Commentary
Judge Howard Manning (News & Observer)

Oct. 29, 2010

What if a lawyer went to court – N.C. Superior Court Howard Manning’s court, say – and said:

Your Honor:

CMS is under court order not to use race in assignment of children.

In most of its school assignment decisions, CMS uses commonly acknowledged boundaries like major streets, highways, creeks and such that define its neighborhoods.

The vast majority of the neighborhoods defined by this method are racially identifiable.

When CMS creates neighborhood assignments, it has used neighborhoods as a proxy for race and ends up using state power to revive Jim Crow.

Citizens need immediate relief from this violation of the court order.

Please issue an order barring further assignment of children based on neighborhood boundaries, and order CMS to file with the court within 90 days for court approval a new method of assignment of children to its schools that will ensure that no child’s assignment is determined solely by her or his place of residence.