Mecklenburg County budget vote a chance for commissioners to demonstrate priorities

Note:  This article was first published in The Charlotte Observer

On May 16, more than 20,000 teachers filled the streets of Raleigh in an unprecedented mass demonstration of discontent, demanding state legislators increase support for public education in North Carolina.  Less than a week later, Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio unveiled a budget proposal that included a $24 million increase for CMS schools, far short of the $40 million the district had requested.

The county manager’s recommended budget declines to expand AVID, a program which increases college preparedness among traditionally underrepresented students.  It also rejects a proposal to add more teachers of English learners–a population whose enrollment is projected to increase next school year.

But the item that has gotten the most buzz is Diorio’s recommendation that local teachers not be given their first salary increase by the county since 2012.  The increase in local supplement proposed by CMS would only represent about a 1% increase to overall pay and would come after several years when state pay raises have struggled to keep pace with inflation. When presenting her budget to the county commission, Diorio said her goal was to “emphasize education funding as a priority, as its impact on economic opportunity is significant.”  What happens next will reveal what our county’s priorities actually are.  

Two years ago, Mecklenburg County commissioners raised their own salaries, including allowances, by 43%.  This year’s proposed budget calls for a merit increase for county employees which could add up to 4.5% to that salary. It’s interesting to note that county commissioners already earn more for their part-time work than CMS teachers do in each of their first three years of full time teaching.   These priorities are not a recipe for attracting and retaining the excellent teachers our children deserve.

Also worrisome for our local teacher pipeline is the fact that, from 2013-14 to the current school year, initial teacher licensure rates at UNCC’s College of Education declined 28%.  Our local high school graduates do not see a promising future in the classroom, and that should concern us all.

If county commissioners vote to approve the proposed budget, it will continue a long trend of elected officials disregarding CMS’s expertise and choosing to underfund public education.  In the last decade, county funding of our school district has reduced the CMS request by an average of 23 million per year.  Over the same period of time, the systematic underestimation of sales tax and property tax has led to a fund balance which now stands at over a half billion dollars.  It’s time for our county to either reduce taxes or increase services.  Public education is one of the areas where we are in desperate need of such increased services.

Residents of Mecklenburg County should expect our leaders to budget accurately, tax no more than they have to, and provide the best services possible with available funds.  We should hold them to their responsibility to emphasize education as a priority, by helping provide teachers where needed, expanding programs that increase opportunity for those who need it most, and making our county a more attractive place for teachers to live and work.

My favorite protest sign at the May 16 rally read simply ‘Your future is in our classrooms.’  The future of Mecklenburg County is being created in our classrooms and in our schools, and how our leaders prioritize funding for education will help determine what that future holds.  Our county commissioners must demonstrate their priorities are right by voting on June 19 to fully fund CMS’s budget.


Don’t say my student failed. That’s a stunningly inaccurate picture of what happened.

*note:  this article originally appeared in the Washington Post 

Since the 2013-14 school year, North Carolina schools have been assigned letter grades to indicate how well they meet their students’ needs.  Those grades are calculated using a formula of 80% proficiency and 20% growth.  Proponents of this formula say the ability to pass the test is what matters most, regardless of student background.  Critics say it unfairly stigmatizes children of poverty and that how much a student grows during a school year is a more accurate measure of school quality.  Indeed, the NC Department of Public Instruction’s most recent analysis of Performance and Growth of North Carolina Public Schools clearly shows that school report card grades and levels of poverty are inversely proportional to each other.  As poverty goes up, school grades go down:

Lost in the discussion is the fact that policies like this impact real people.

I have a student who immigrated to Charlotte last year. He spoke no English when he started sixth grade. Each day I saw him striding down the halls alone, head down, fists jammed in his pockets.

When this school year began, the boy, now in my seventh grade English language arts class, would not answer when I spoke to him. He avoided interaction with his peers, and his participation in schoolwork was limited. His first formative reading test result showed we had lots of work to do.

Even though he rarely responded in the beginning, I talked to him every chance I got. I greeted him first thing in the morning, inquired about his weekend, had mostly-one-sided conversations with him about soccer, asked his opinion about things in class. My 20+ years in the classroom have taught me that the amount of progress we made would depend on the quality of the relationship I built with him.

Our English as a second language teacher worked tirelessly to modify the content of the class so that it was accessible to him. Together we developed assignments that connected with his personal interests so that he was motivated to do them. He began to feel that school was about him and to experience some success.

In class, I intentionally surrounded him with kind and supportive peers. I gave him reading partners who were patient but also persistent, and I explained to them why they’d been selected for this important work. They read with him every single day in a small group setting (three students) and helped to develop his confidence. At first he read barely above a whisper. As time went on, I began to detect some incremental increases in volume.

We read novels aloud in class, and at first he only had to read a paragraph or two. I remember the first time he read a whole page by himself. When he got to the end, his classmates burst into applause, and the ghost of a smile crossed his lips.

This student began to greet me when he entered the classroom and occasionally raise his hand and ask questions during class. He wrote his third quarter short story project in his native language, then painstakingly translated it into English. His last formative reading test result was still rough, but it showed definite improvement.

Last week, he took his first reading end-of-grade test. (Regardless of how long a child has been in the United States or how much English they know, they take the same test as our native speakers.) The morning of the test, he was the first one in the classroom, so we had a little time to talk.

I told him I knew the test would be harder for him than for any of the other 25 students in the room. I asked him if he remembered how things were at the beginning of the year and how far he’d come since then. I explained that I didn’t expect him to be perfect, just wanted the result to reflect how hard he had worked and how much he had grown. He didn’t say much, just nodded his head.

This boy spent nearly three hours on his test. At one point, he raised his hand and asked me what a word meant (I didn’t tell him, but I did take it as evidence that he was working hard and reading carefully).

When the results came back they were what I expected: He showed substantial growth since that first formative reading test, but he was still far from being on grade level like his native English-speaking peers.

The fact that he is still reading below grade level carries far more weight than the tremendous progress he made this year when it comes to how the state reports the supposed effectiveness of our school. Viewed through this lens, his failing grade offers a stunningly inaccurate picture of what really happened.

Last spring, members of the North Carolina House of Representatives sponsored a bill that would adjust the School Performance Grade formula to 50/50, giving more weight to how much students grow throughout the course of a school year. The bill passed the House by a vote of 116-2. It has been languishing in the Senate Rules Committee (sometimes called “the place bills go to die”) ever since.

No single letter grade can accurately measure all the progress that takes place under a school’s roof. But if we insist on trying to simplify results in this manner, the least we can do is move the metric in the direction of greater accuracy by placing a higher premium on the growth each student shows. The current system does a huge disservice to this student, to me, and to the other teachers who worked hard to support him. It does precisely the same disservice to thousands of other students and teachers all over North Carolina every year. It’s time for our legislators to address it.

I talked with the student about his end-of-grade test score. I told him how proud I was of all the progress he made since August. I said if he continued to work hard and push himself outside his comfort zone the results would just keep getting better and better. He didn’t say a whole lot, just looked at me and smiled a little.

His test score, and North Carolina’s school performance grades, may say this year was a dismal failure for him and me, but we both know it was a resounding success.

Mecklenburg County must prioritize public education, fully fund CMS budget



*photo credit Autumn Alston

note:  Comments delivered at the June 4 Mecklenburg County Commissioners budget hearing.  Video is here.

On May 16, more than 20,000 teachers, including many of the people you see in this room, filled the streets of Raleigh to ask state legislators for two things: respect and support for public education.

The very next day, our county commission met with CMS’s board and administration to talk about CMS’s proposed budget, and both of those things appeared to be in short supply.  During that meeting I heard accusations of irresponsibility and excess leveled at our school district. So I wanted to come here tonight just to let you know that what we’re asking for are real, legitimate needs.

We need additional support services staff, and I appreciate the county manager’s recommendation that the positions we’ve asked for there be funded.  What we’ve requested still leaves us far short of recommended levels, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The other CMS needs I want to talk about are among those left out of the proposed 2019 county budget.

We need to add 20 teachers of English learners just to keep up with a projected increase in enrollment of students who are not fluent in English and give those students the best opportunity at success.

We need to expand AVID, a program which works to close the opportunity gap by preparing students from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in higher education for success in college and beyond.  

Finally, let’s talk about why increasing the local supplement is a need.  The local supplement for teachers hasn’t been increased in 6 years. Over that same period, state pay raises have struggled to keep up with inflation and health insurance costs have steadily risen.

Last week I spoke with a third year teacher at McClintock Middle.  In addition to his full time teaching job, he works at Panthers and Hornets games, delivers groceries, grades tests for Pearson, and manages a trampoline park.  He works 65 hours a week to make ends meet and be able to continue teaching and serving the children of Mecklenburg County. And his case is not that unusual.

As a 3rd year teacher, his full time teaching salary is less than that of a county commissioner.

The increase in local supplement proposed by CMS would represent about a 1% increase to overall pay.  I’d argue that’s not excessive, it’s a need.

Two years ago, the county commissioner salary including allowances went up 43%.  This year’s proposed budget calls for a merit increase which would add up to 4.5% more to that salary.  Let me reiterate, CMS is asking for 1% for teachers.

I understand the state bears a lot of responsibility in North Carolina for funding public education, and they’re not doing a great job.  We’re working on that, and we’ll continue working on that between now and November. And we will show up in November.  

But here in Mecklenburg County we also need to feel the respect and support of a county commission that is fully behind our school system.  I urge you to show that respect and support on June 19 by voting to fully fund the needs that CMS has laid out in its proposed budget.

Thank you


Donors Choose pork in NC budget bill flops

When this year’s NC budget bill was posted on Monday night, public education advocates immediately noticed some outrageous educational pork.  The budget included $200,000 in taxpayer money for classroom supplies.  The catch was the funds would only be available to teachers at schools in Senator Jeff Tarte’s District 41, one of the wealthier districts in Mecklenburg County:

The supplies were to be distributed through Donors Choose, a nonprofit organization that “connects teachers in high-need communities with donors who want to help.”  North Carolina teachers know this organization quite well, as General Assembly budget cuts (including -55% to classroom supplies and materials since 2009-10) have forced many of them to rely on public donations to provide for classroom needs.

The budget move galled teachers because it unfairly prioritized schools based on geographic location rather than need.  It also ruffled feathers because it was such an obvious attempt to gain votes in Tarte’s bid to win reelection in one of the most competitive Senate districts in the state.

On Tuesday, teachers took to social media to let Donors Choose know they were not happy:

On Wednesday, Donors Choose informed the public via Twitter that the organization had decided the budget provision was not consistent with its philosophy and that it would not participate in Senator Tarte’s pork barrel spending:

Unfortunately for Senator Tarte, this year’s budget bill was fast tracked by House and Senate GOP leaders in such a way as to avoid debate.  That means the Donors Choose budget provision most likely cannot be amended.

Kudos to the teachers who reached out to Donors Choose to let them know about the shenanigans in North Carolina.  Thanks due as well to Donors Choose for recognizing the inequity in distributing classroom supplies in this politically underhanded manner.  

Budget provides $200k for Charlotte Mecklenburg school supplies, but only in Senator Jeff Tarte’s district

Earlier this month, more than 20,000 North Carolina teachers marched through the streets of Raleigh, demanding state legislators increase support for public education.  One of the things those teachers were asking for was more funding for classroom supplies. After all, budget cuts by the General Assembly have reduced allocations for supplies and materials 55% since peak levels in 2009-10.  Many teachers work part time jobs to be able to purchase items needed to provide their students with a top notch educational experience, often spending thousands of dollars of their personal funds each school year.

At least one state senator appears to have been listening.  Sort of.

When this year’s budget bill went online last night, it included $200,000 for classroom supplies as a grant-in-aid to Donors Choose, an organization that teachers routinely use to solicit public donations to purchase needed classroom materials.  But, interestingly enough, this money will only be available to educators who work at schools located in Senate District 41.  

As it turns out, Senator Jeff Tarte, currently in a very competitive race for reelection against Democratic challenger Natasha Marcus, recently asked CMS Government Relations Coordinator Charles Jeter for a list of schools in his newly drawn district.

While there are some high poverty schools in Tarte’s district, many of the 35 schools that will share this $200,000 lie in some of the wealthiest areas of Mecklenburg County, including Ballantyne and Davidson.  Those schools in many cases have high-powered PTSAs with well-oiled annual fund-raising operations that budget specifically for teacher supply needs. They are able to make up the shortfall for what the state fails to provide.  

It’s also worth noting that Donors Choose charges fairly hefty overhead fees.  I recently got a set of 80 novels funded on Donors Choose.  As you can see, nearly 20% of the project cost went to processing fees, mysterious ‘materials,’ and a large ‘suggested donation’ (It is possible for donors to opt out of the suggested donation but the process is somewhat counter intuitive).  It’s fair to ask whether this is a responsible use of taxpayer dollars.

Apart from handwringing, there doesn’t seem to be much that can be done about this inequitable distribution of resources.  This year’s budget adjustments were fast-tracked in such a manner as to deliberately avoid debate and amendments, so it appears Tarte’s egregious pork barrel spending is a done deal.

Make no mistake, schools need more supplies.  But our legislators need to provide those resources starting where they are needed most, not just dole them out in their own districts in return for votes.  They need to support public education simply because it’s the right thing to do. 


Proposed Mecklenburg County budget falls short on public education

On May 16, thousands of North Carolina teachers–including more than 2000 from Mecklenburg County alone–marched through the streets of Raleigh, calling on state legislators to increase funding for public education.  Less than a week later, Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio unveiled her proposed budget for FY 2019.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools had requested an increase in funding of just under $40 million for school year 2018-19.  The County Manager recommended the county commission cut that number to $24 million.

There are some positives in the proposed county budget.  For example, it increases funding for support services personnel, adding 33 school counselors, 10 psychologists, and 17 social workers.  These new hires will help improve local staffing ratios that lag far behind recommended levels and provide better support for CMS students’ social and emotional health.

Unfortunately, as it stands, the FY 2019 budget declines to fund important CMS program expansion efforts.  The county will not fund expansion of AVID, a program which works to close the opportunity gap by preparing students from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in higher education for success in college and beyond.  

The budget also does not fund 20 additional teachers of English language learners (students who are unable to speak or read fluently in English and whose primary home language is something other than English) despite the fact that their enrollment is projected to increase next year.  The lack of funding means that class sizes will grow for our students who need language development the most.

When presenting the budget to the Board of County Commissioners, County Manager Diorio commented that her goal was to create economic opportunity.  Expanding AVID and providing a better level of service to English language learners would help make that economic opportunity available to a broader cross section of our community.

Another shortcoming of the budget is that it continues the freeze on the local salary supplement that began in 2012 rather than honoring CMS’s request to increase it by 7%.  The cost of living is higher in Mecklenburg County than it is in Wake County, but Wake’s supplement averages $1500 more.  More teachers leave Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools than leave Wake County Public Schools.  Unless our county is willing to make fair compensation a higher priority, that trend is likely to continue.  

One of my favorite signs from the May 16 rally in Raleigh said simply “Your future is in our classrooms.”  The future of Mecklenburg County is being created in our classrooms and in our schools. How our leaders prioritize funding for education will help determine what that future holds.  

There is a public hearing on the proposed budget on Monday, June 4 at 6 PM in the Government Center.  (600 E. 4th St, free parking available in the garage across the street) Teachers and friends of public education, if you believe our county commission needs to fully fund CMS’s budget request, please RSVP here and be prepared to show up at 5 pm in your Red4Ed.  If you’re interested in speaking, you can sign up here.

CMS schools desperately need more support staff

Picture a young lady named Ava in one of our local high schools. She is overwhelmed by her parents’ separation and difficulty at school.  Ava begins to experience suicidal thoughts, then to inflict harm on herself. Her mother notices her wounds and takes her to the hospital.  She learns that her daughter has never talked to school support personnel because she found it too difficult to get an appointment. How have we gotten to this point?

Recently I was fortunate enough to talk with a group of school counselors, psychologists, and social workers about their work serving the children of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools.  These folks are true heroes in our community, working long, difficult hours to ensure that our students’ social and emotional health is supported so they can be successful in school.

I was impressed by their passion and dedication but also troubled by what I heard.  Most said they spent all day putting out fires, unable to see children unless there was a crisis.  They spoke of training they’d had in preventative strategies which was being wasted as they found themselves constantly in reactive mode.  They explained how lack of funding for support services resulted in enormous caseloads, decreasing the quality of their work.

The primary reason our support staff are stuck in reactive mode is that insufficient funding has left them woefully understaffed.  Industry standards recommend ratios of 1:250 for school counselors and social workers. This year CMS students are supported by counselors at a ratio of 1:381 and by social workers at just 1:2957. The suggested ratio of psychologists per student is 1:500-700. Our current ratio is 1:2112.  

Our student support services play an essential role in ensuring that our schools are safe, orderly, and focused on learning.   When they are able to deliver the range of services they are trained to deliver, all of our students benefit.

Research says:

  • Interventions that improve students’ social, emotional, and decision-making skills also lead to stronger academic outcomes.
  • Interventions that nurture engagement in school reduce dropout rates.
  • Prevention and early intervention programs that serve at-risk students result in reduced special education referrals, suspensions, and grade retentions.
  • Effective early childhood interventions decrease public expenditures for welfare assistance and criminal justice.
  • Suicide rates have risen steadily for the last twenty years.  Preventative models can provide students with coping skills to deal with pressure in a healthy way.

Whether or not we’re able to meet our students’ needs hinges on the willingness of our elected officials to prioritize the  funding of education. After the Parkland, FL massacre, NC legislators convened a select committee on school safety. Unsurprisingly, they found that their own deep budget cuts had resulted in staffing ratios that did not adequately provide for students’ social and emotional needs.  When the short session begins in May we’ll see whether legislators are willing to act on the committee’s recommendation to increase the number of support services personnel.

While we wait for progress at the state level, there’s also work to be done in Mecklenburg County.  In this year’s budget, CMS Superintendent Wilcox is asking county commissioners for $4.4 million to hire 33 school counselors, 17 social workers, and 10 psychologists.  The new hires would leave our schools well short of the recommended ratios but would represent a step in the right direction.  The BOCC has to make tough decisions about how to allocate resources, but nothing is more important than making sure our county’s future taxpayers, workers, and citizens are socially and emotionally healthy.

Students today endure more pressure than ever, and their futures depend on our support.  We need to enable our support services to use their training in preventative strategies. We need to put them in a position to build trusting relationships with children and nurture the coping skills our students so desperately need.  Prioritizing the social and emotional well-being of our students will help us transform our schools into the safe and supportive learning environments that benefit us all.


CMS budget now in hands of a skeptical county commission

On Thursday, May 17th, there was a meeting of the Mecklenburg County Board of County Commissioners at which Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools formally presented its proposed 2018-19 budget.  The budget asks for a $40 million increase in county money for next year.  

If you’re interested in watching the meeting, you can find video of it here.  It’s not for the faint of heart.  

One of the requests in the CMS budget is for $6.9 million to increase the local supplement for the first time since 2012 and enable Mecklenburg County to do a better job of hiring and retaining teachers.  

Comparisons are often made between Wake County and Mecklenburg County as the two largest school districts in the state.  Wake County’s local salary supplement is roughly $1500 higher than what teachers in Mecklenburg County earn. According to the Department of Public Instruction’s 2016-2017 State of the Teaching Profession in North Carolina report, last year Charlotte Mecklenburg saw an attrition percentage of 10% while only 8.6% of teachers in Wake County chose to leave.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools is proposing an increase of 7% to the local supplement.  For a teacher with 10 years of experience, that comes out to less than $2 a day. It’s not too much to ask.

Another proposal in this year’s budget is for increasing the number of student support services personnel.  Our school counselors, psychologists, and social workers play a vital role in ensuring that our students are socially and emotionally healthy.  Unfortunately, they are so understaffed that they are constantly stuck in reactive mode, unable to utilize their training in the preventative services that our students need.  Take a look at our current staffing ratios compared with what is recommended:

The 2018-19 CMS budget calls for $4.4 million to hire 33 elementary school counselors, 17 school social workers, and 10 school psychologists.  It’s not nearly enough, but it’s a step in the right direction.

When pressed by Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour to offer his top priorities for the entire budget, Superintendent Wilcox named our students’ social and emotional health and fair compensation for employees.  Commissioner Jim Puckett scoffed at prioritizing social and emotional health, asking “How does that relate to education?”

It’s actually a really important question.  Research says:

  • Interventions that improve students’ social, emotional, and decision-making skills also lead to stronger academic outcomes.
  • Interventions that nurture engagement in school reduce dropout rates.
  • Prevention and early intervention programs that serve at-risk students result in fewer special education referrals, suspensions, and grade retentions.

Of course the ability to implement those interventions effectively depends in large part on having a reasonable caseload.  Our Charlotte Meck support services caseloads are certainly not reasonable.

On Monday, June 4 there will be a public hearing on the budget, 6 pm at the Government Center building in Charlotte.  If you are a supporter of public education, please consider coming out and asking our county commissioners to fully fund Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools’ budget request.

If you don’t want to wait that long to let our commissioners know what your priorities are as a Mecklenburg County resident, you can find contact information here.


May 16 was unprecedented. Now what?

The May 16 Day of Advocacy in Raleigh was an amazing, historic event–the largest coordinated teacher action in state history.  The sea of red that turned out despite sometimes pouring rain showed North Carolina how many of its teachers are passionate about their work and deeply committed to improving education in our state.  



Senator Jeff Jackson endorsed my sign


Gallery in the House of Representatives chamber was packed with teachers

Teachers who were present among the more than 20,000 in Raleigh and those who supported us from home probably have the same question:  What’s next? Will it be back to business as usual, with our public education system continuing to suffer from the same neglect that has plagued it for the past several years?  Or will we find a way to harness the teacher power we saw in Raleigh and use it to bring about substantial change in North Carolina?

There is good news.  What happened May 16 in Raleigh was a movement, not a moment.

Under the umbrella of Red4EdNC, we will capitalize on the unprecedented momentum we’ve created together over the last few weeks.  We will build a stronger, statewide coalition of teacher advocates that has the power to secure real legislative gains for public education in North Carolina.  This coalition will be represented by a Teacher Congress composed of teacher leaders from both urban and rural districts across the state who will determine, collectively, a clear and specific policy agenda.

To help us take the next step, teachers and education allies should check in with Red4EdNC using this form, then share this information with others in your school and in your network.

NC has incredible teachers who have stuck it out, despite increasingly difficult conditions, over the past few years.  We’ve done that because we care about our students and we believe in what we do. On May 16 we caught a glimpse of how powerful those teachers can be when we speak with one voice.  Now it’s time to translate that collective power into action that will lead to substantive changes that public education in North Carolina desperately needs.

Together we are strong.

An amazing show of teacher resolve in Raleigh today

My favorite sign from today.  Simple, funny, profound, and so accurate.

I have never seen anything that comes close to the awesome display of teacher power that happened in Raleigh today.  Thousands upon thousands of teachers from every corner of our state converged on the state capital to send a clear message to our legislators that we’re putting our foot down and demanding that they give public education the funding it deserves.

I stood in line outside the legislative building with a bunch of new friends for more than two hours.  We finally got in and up to the chambers at about 12:30.  Outside the chambers, teachers were pressed up against the glass with their signs, giving lawmakers on the floor their best “you’ve been naughty” teacher looks.  The galleries were completely packed with teachers, so full that nobody was allowed to enter until someone else came out.

I was fortunate enough to get inside and spend about 15 minutes watching the House of Representatives in action.  Outside the teachers got louder and louder, clapping and chanting, “Remember!  Remember!  We vote in November!!” over and over.  At times the Speaker of the House had to stop talking because he could not be heard.  Absurdly, the House carried on inane business as usual, with members giving shoutouts to their fraternities and one taking the time to remind her colleagues how important it was to regularly check their blood pressure (actually pretty good advice for today).

While I was watching all this unfold, I got a message from someone at WBT Radio in Charlotte, asking if I’d be willing to speak by phone on a radio program.  WBT is a conservative talk radio show which airs the Pat McCrory Show, Rush Limbaugh, etc.  I wondered at first if it might be some sort of ambush, but I agreed to do it.

You can listen to the segment below if you’re interested–it was not an ambush and actually turned out to be a good platform to air some of the concerns we all brought to Raleigh today.  But I was struck by the question that I heard from the host and also heard from so many other members of the media today:  What now?

I think they’re asking the wrong people.  I think that North Carolina’s teachers delivered a very clear message to state lawmakers today.  Now it’s time for them to decide whether they want to do their jobs.