Charlotte Mecklenburg educators petition district leadership to address staffing crisis by increasing retention bonuses

Local education advocates are calling on Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools leadership to deepen their commitment to staff by increasing retention bonuses that were announced earlier this month. They’re asking for colleagues and allies to sign and share a petition asking for the bonuses to be doubled.

On December 8 the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education unanimously approved a district proposal to use federal ESSER funds to pay $2500 bonuses to all full-time staff and $1250 to part-time staff.

The move came as news broke that nearly 10% of CMS teachers have either resigned or retired since the beginning of the school year.

According to the district’s plan, half of the bonus will be paid this week and the other half next fall. After taxes that means full-time staff will receive approximately $800 in local bonus money for this entire school year.

Ink 4 Ed Equity, a group of advocates that raised thousands of dollars to provide internet connectivity to Charlotte Mecklenburg students in need last year, says that amount is unlikely to end the staffing crisis.

In a petition that was released today, the group notes the heavy toll the loss of so many educators is having on remaining staff and student outcomes and points out that Wake County Public Schools’ retention bonuses come to $5000–with three quarters being paid out before the end of the current school year.

The petition concludes by saying “Ink 4 Ed Equity and our allies call on CMS leadership to increase retention bonuses to $5000 for all full-time and $2500 for part-time staff to sustain our current workforce.”

You can read, sign and share the petition at the below link or sign the embedded version underneath it.

Proposed CMS bonus stands at half what Wake County Schools employees will receive

An emergency meeting of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education has been called for 6 pm this evening with just one action item on the agenda:  “Recommend Approval of Employee Retention Incentives.”

According to the Charlotte Observer, CMS officials will ask the board to approve bonuses of $2500 for full time employees and $1250 for part time employees.  Half would be paid this month and the other half in September 2022.

In October, CMS Chief Human Resources Officer Christine Pejot called the number of district teachers who had retired or resigned since the beginning of this school year “staggering.”  At the time the district had lost just over 500 educators.  

That number has since ballooned to nearly 900–roughly 10% of the district’s total teacher workforce.

It’s excellent news that CMS plans to use a portion of its federal Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to reward employees who have stuck with the district through extraordinarily difficult times.  Such a move could help to stem the exodus of teachers which is negatively impacting student learning and ratcheting up the workload on educators who have remained in the classroom.

However, it’s important to have some context for how CMS’s plan measures up against what other districts are doing.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools is most often compared with Wake County Public Schools.  Both districts are similar in size and face many of the same issues when it comes to staffing.

Wake County has chosen to give its employees $5000 in bonus money–exactly double what is being proposed by CMS.

Wake’s employees got $1250 in November 2021 and will see three more payments of $1250, in January, May and November of 2022.

Just a month after pitiful raises in the state budget left educators feeling undervalued and disrespected, CMS has the opportunity to use this federal money to make a move that would show employees how much it respects them and appreciates their continued commitment to our community. 

Lowballing educators by giving them half what their colleagues in Wake County are getting is not the way to accomplish that.

“I’m tired of having to write grants for basic supplies in my classroom”: New report illuminates constitutional crisis of North Carolina’s chronically underfunded schools

This week Progress NC published a comprehensive report about the state of North Carolina schools called True Reports of Underfunded Education (T.R.U.E.).

Coming on the heels of Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s comically inept indoctrination report and right in the middle of both state budget negotiations and important new developments in the Leandro case, the T.R.U.E. report details how North Carolina’s failure to adequately fund public schools is impacting the state’s students and public school staff in real terms.

The T.R.U.E. web portal fielded 592 submissions over the course of just one month, easily surpassing the number Robinson’s witch hunt collected in a much longer period of time. Submissions were evenly distributed throughout the state, representing snapshots of life in both rural and urban schools.

Participants in the T.R.U.E. project shined the spotlight on low wages, unreasonably high work loads, shortage of basic supplies, overcrowded classrooms, unsafe pandemic practices, and crumbling school buildings as the reality facing North Carolina’s students and school staff:

“Our school has vacancies that need to be filled, and NO subs, so support staff and classroom teachers alike are being pulled to provide coverage for teacherless classrooms. As the librarian, there are many days where I spend half my day providing this coverage, and the media center is closed”.

“Planning periods are routinely taken away, which leaves us with no time to do non-instructional things like planning and grading, yet we are expected to do them. We already exist with no lunch breaks, working 8-9 hour days with no breaks and then we have to stay after to do the other things which are required of us. It is just plain wrong”.

“We are still using PCs from the early 2000s. We have smartboards that are no longer interactive because the technology isn’t supported or is outdated. We have a shortage of paper towels and cleaning supplies in our district”. 

“There’s mold. There are windows that don’t work. There are rooms that don’t have working AC. We have places in our school where students walk over wooden pallets when it rains because of the water puddling on the floor”.

“I have witnessed classes that were designed to have a maximum of 25 students being crammed with 38 and 40 students”.

“The very least we should be able to expect is a physically safe learning environment where the air is safe to breathe, the plumbing and electricity works, and kids can travel the halls safely”.

These eyewitness accounts from inside North Carolina schools help explain the urgency behind Superior Court Judge David Lee’s ruling this week that the state must transfer $1.7 billion in reserve funds to cover the first two years of the Leandro Remedial Plan.

Lee’s decision comes 17 years after the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the state had failed in its constitutional obligations to provide a sound education, ordering the funding deficiencies to be corrected and assigning Superior Court to monitor the state’s compliance.

Far from embracing their constitutional duties, the leaders of both the North Carolina House and Senate have repeatedly thumbed their noses at the court’s attempts to carry out its mandate.

Senate Pro Tempore Phil Berger–who has repeatedly blocked school bonds from state ballots despite a staggering $13 billion in statewide facility needs–has mockingly suggested that “if judges want to get into the field of appropriating they need to run for the legislature.”

House Speaker Tim Moore this week went even further, branding Lee a “rogue judge” and threatening that any attempt to compel state legislators to fund the Leandro plan “would amount to judicial misconduct and will be met with the strongest possible response”–a likely reference to an attempt to remove Lee from office.

Think about that for a minute.

We have a Supreme Court which has ordered the state to adequately fund public schools and a Superior Court attempting to ensure compliance.

We have a comprehensive, research-based report detailing specific steps the state can take to comply.

We have classrooms jammed with upwards of 40 students in the middle of a pandemic, an unprecedented wave of teacher resignations, and children climbing over wooden pallets to stay out of flood water in their crumbling school buildings.

And the leaders of the legislature’s reaction? Let’s get rid of the judge.

Moore and Berger’s claim is that North Carolina’s Constitution does not allow the courts to make funding decisions and that crossing that line would amount to a constitutional crisis.

The T.R.U.E. constitutional crisis is their unwillingness to provide North Carolina’s children with a sound basic education, and this crisis has gone unaddressed for far too long.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools must allow investigation of cancer cases at its Smith facility

This evening I spoke at the CMS board meeting to urge district leaders to allow outside investigation of the unusual cancer cases among Smith staff in order to determine whether those illnesses were caused by the facility.  

Among those cases are retired CMS principal (and 2004 district principal of the year) Ynez Olshausen who is currently battling a rare form of cancer, a colleague of mine who had a basal cell carcinoma on her eyelid in her 30s that is far more typical of people over age 70, and multiple individuals who died of cancer at young ages.

CMS needs to get to the bottom of what happened to them.

Over the past few years there have been rumors about a troubling pattern of people who worked at CMS’s Smith facility getting sick. Earlier this year it was reported that the district was closing the building due to widespread health concerns.

What hadn’t been disclosed until recently were the identities of any of those affected. That has now changed since retired CMS Principal Ynez Olshausen revealed she is battling cancer.

I had the absolute privilege of working under Ynez Olshausen’s leadership for about a decade, first at Smith Academy of International Languages and then at Waddell until her retirement. Our library at Waddell and now at SAIL is named in her honor.

Ms. Olshausen built a magnet program that became a national model for language immersion and was named district-wide principal of the year in 2004. One of the things I appreciated about her leadership the most was that she saw each of her employees and students first as people who deserved to be valued for their gifts and supported when they needed it. Not as cogs in a machine but as humans.

CMS is a huge machine, and in large organizations like ours there’s a tendency for the focus to be on numbers in spreadsheets rather than on actual people.

It can be far too easy to forget that our district is made up of individuals who have stories and families and lives.

Ynez Olshausen and the other Smith staff who have been diagnosed with a variety of illnesses deserve a thorough and transparent investigation into any possible connection between the years they spent working in the Smith facility and their medical conditions.

Let’s accept the offer of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to investigate a potential link between cancer diagnoses and the Smith facility, an offer which CMS has reportedly declined.

We need to handle this situation not by sweeping the problem under the rug, but by seeing our current and former Smith employees as people who need our support and by working hard to get to the bottom of what happened to them.

NCDHHS Secretary says Union County Board of Education may face legal action if it doesn’t quarantine individuals exposed to COVID

North Carolina Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mandy Cohen has requested that the Union County Board of Education rescind its recent motion eliminating COVID quarantine measures for most students and staff, noting that if Union County doesn’t take the step by 5 pm on Friday, September 17, it may face legal action.

First reported by WSOC’s Genevieve Curtis, Dr. Cohen’s letter notes that Union County’s 7-day case average for COVID is “more then five times above the CDC’s threshold for high level of transmission” and cautions that the board’s failure to adhere to state quarantine guidelines “places students, teachers, and staff, as well as those living in their households and communities, at significant risk of being infected with COVID-19.”

You can read Cohen’s letter in its entirety below:

Lincoln County school board prevents doctors from speaking at meeting, ends quarantines for COVID-exposed students and staff

One day after Union County’s Board of Education voted to stop quarantining students and staff who have been exposed to COVID unless they test positive or exhibit symptoms, Lincoln County has followed suit.

At its Tuesday night meeting, the Lincoln County Board of Education denied two Atrium Health doctors the opportunity to address the board, then voted to rescind the school district mask mandate and stop following COVID quarantine protocols outlined in the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Strong Schools Toolkit.

The meeting began with Chair Mark Mullen striking two speakers from the agenda: Dr. Inga Kish, a Shelby physician who specializes in Emergency Medicine, and Dr Elisabeth Stoffel who practices Family Medicine in Denver, NC.

The two physicians had presumably attended in order to offer insight on COVID safety but were prevented from doing so because of board policy requiring speakers to sign up several days before the meeting. Board discussion later in the meeting indicated the policy allowed for exceptions, but a motion to allow the physicians to speak had been voted down.

In addition to making masks optional in schools, a motion introduced by Vice Chair Heather Rhyne said the following:

“In regards specifically to COVID-19, effective immediately, unless a student or staff member is positive for COVID-19 and is in isolation, is symptomatic, or has been given a written quarantine order from the local health department, they should be on school campus.”

The motion passed 4-2.

Lincoln County’s move to make masks optional and end quarantines for most students and staff comes one day after the school district confirmed the death of 44 year-old Lincoln County Schools teacher and pastor Cruceta Jeffeirs.

Jeffeirs taught third grade at Battleground Elementary, and family members said her death was the result of complications from COVID-19.

According to the most recent CDC data, Lincoln County is currently experiencing high community COVID transmission with a positivity rate above 15%. Only 45.3% of eligible Lincoln County residents are fully vaccinated against the virus.

Update: Please note the following correction which was submitted by a reader and Lincoln County resident:

As COVID infections and quarantines soar among its students and staff, Union County clings stubbornly to optional masks

Positive cases of COVID and quarantines among students and staff are skyrocketing in Union County, where the board of education is growing increasingly isolated in its stubborn insistence that masks in school buildings remain a matter of personal choice.

Friday marked the end of the second week of school in Union County. When compared with the reported numbers from a week ago (1873 quarantined/176 positive), the number of students and staff confirmed as infected with the virus has more than doubled, and quarantines have nearly tripled.

In one week.

With 41,500 students enrolled, these new numbers mean a whopping 13% of Union County’s public school children are stuck at home, unable to attend in-person classes.

The reality may be even worse.

One Union County high school teacher told me that significant numbers of students in her classes were absent this entire week but not reported as positive or quarantined. Other educators from the county have indicated that the individual breakdowns for positive cases and quarantines for their schools being reported on the UCPS COVID dashboard are well below what they know them to be–in some cases because COVID-related staffing shortages are leading to lags in data collection.

Despite these alarming trends, Union County’s Board of Education continues to allow students and staff to go to school unmasked. It’s one of the very few North Carolina public school districts to do so, and it’s by far the largest.

As of today, 110 of 115 districts are requiring students and staff to wear masks when inside school buildings. The five where masks are optional are Avery, Onslow, Polk, Union and Yancey. According to the Raleigh News and Observer, vaccination rates in those six counties average a full ten points below the state average (48% vs. 58%).

The Union County board hasn’t officially discussed mask policy since August 18, when it ignored pleas by the county’s Public Health Director and Assistant Superintendent for a mask mandate and voted 7-2 to keep masks optional.

At that meeting, Board Chair Melissa Merrell characterized a presentation of spiking COVID metrics as inaccurate, claiming without any evidence that numbers were actually trending downward.

Merrell’s delusional approach to pandemic school policy does not inspire confidence in the many Union County parents that just want their children to be safe and healthy while attending school in person.

Strong leadership in this moment would look like setting personal politics aside, mustering up a little humility, listening to state and local health experts and taking their advice on masks.

Instead, it’s worth monitoring whether the Union County Board of Education’s next move is in exactly the opposite direction.

The Union County chapter of the astroturf group Moms For Liberty is chaired by Britney Bouldin, and it’s a group in which Melissa Merrell is an active participant.

Rather than calling for measures which would slow the spread of the virus, Bouldin and others in her group are beginning to push for quarantine guidelines to be relaxed.

Because everyone knows that the best way to put out a fire is by pouring gasoline on it…

Union County’s Board of Education next meets Tuesday, September 7. The board’s agenda for that meeting indicates that discussions of both quarantines and face coverings are planned.

Union County Board of Education rejects pleas of Public Health Director, keeps masks optional

At last night’s virtual emergency meeting, the Union County Board of Education received an update from staff which included alarming spikes in local COVID rates and pleas from the Public Health Director that the district require students and staff to wear masks in schools.

The board still voted 7-2 to keep masks optional.

Assistant Superintendent Jarrod McCraw presented the COVID update and informed the board about the following trends in Union County’s health:

Percent positivity rate:

June 18: 2.5%
August 18: 13.9%

New daily cases (7 day average):

June 18: 6.7/day
August 18: 125/day

5-18 year old age group:

July 18: 48 positive cases
July 25: 104 positive cases
August 1: 169 positive cases

McCraw also related his conversations with Union County Public Health Director Dennis Joyner, including Joyner’s strong recommendation that the district follow the face covering guidance in the NCDHHS Strong Schools toolkit, which he paraphrased as saying “All schools should require children and staff in schools K-12 to wear face coverings consistently when indoors. Schools should make masks universally required regardless of vaccination status.”

The assistant superintendent offered three reasons for asking the board to require masks. First, he cited public health concern over the increase in COVID numbers. Secondly, he mentioned that it would reduce the number of students having to miss school because of quarantine. Finally, he said masking would reduce the amount of time school nurses had to devote to contact tracing and allow them to focus on general health and wellness.

Board chair Melissa Merrell said it was her understanding that COVID numbers were actually trending downward. She expressed confusion over McCraw’s request that masks be required, saying that the number of children who were infected with the virus didn’t represent a significant number of overall cases:

“We’re in the business of educating students. And those students, we’ve been looking at ages 5-18, and that’s only 14% of this, you know, in your words not mine, trending upward.”

The board then entered closed session. Upon returning, a motion was made by board member John Kirkpatrick to heed district and health department recommendations and begin the year with students masked. The motion failed 7-2 with only Joe Morreale and Kirkpatrick supporting it.

In addition to rejecting the advice of its county health director, the board’s decision ignores the cautionary tale offered by Union Academy, a 2000-student charter school in Union County which began the school year July 26 with a mask policy that essentially made them optional.

The school was immediately hit with a COVID outbreak which forced hundreds of students to miss classes due to quarantine. Masks are now required at Union Academy.

Union County’s choice also bucks a recent local trend, with Gaston County and Cabarrus County–both similarly conservative boards–reversing decisions this week and electing to require masks.

When schools open on Monday, August 23, Union County Public Schools 41,500 students and 5,000 staff members will make it the largest district in the state to allow individuals to go unmasked in buildings.

NC Superintendent opposes Duke scientists’ recommendations on masks in schools

Just weeks after touting the group’s report on 2020-21 COVID spread in NC schools, North Carolina Superintendent of Public Schools Catherine Truitt has come out in stark opposition to the ABC Collaborative’s recommendations on masking for the upcoming school year, saying, “I want students in school this fall, unmasked.”

The ABC Collaborative is a group of National Institutes of Health-funded North Carolina scientists and physicians, primarily from Duke University, who are working to advise school leaders on COVID-safe practices.

At the end of June the group released a report on COVID mitigation measures in NC schools during the 2020-21 school year, finding the schools “did an outstanding job preventing within-school transmission of COVID‐19.”

Superintendent Truitt released a statement citing the group’s report as evidence that schools could successfully operate during the pandemic and advocating for local control over operational decisions such as masking.

But Truitt abandoned her call for local decision making on masks in a recent conversation with NC GOP Chairman Michael Watley, calling on all North Carolina school districts to take the masks off:

Today the co-chairs of the ABC Collaborative, Dr. Kanecia Zimmerman and Dr. Danny Benjamin, published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “We studied one million students. This is what we learned about masking.”

In the piece, Zimmerman and Benjamin cite universal masking as a “close second” behind vaccination as the best way to prevent COVID-19, warning “If we send students to school without masks, we increase their risk of acquiring COVID-19. Some could suffer illness or die.”

After pointing to recent outbreaks of the virus among unmasked, unvaccinated youth, the scientists asked:

“With the evidence now clear that universal masking is linked to lower spread, why not require universal masking? Why seek to gather hundreds of unvaccinated, unmasked individuals in an enclosed space for several hours a day, five days a week?”

It’s a question North Carolina Superintendent of Schools Catherine Truitt needs to answer.

Antimaskers “overthrow” Buncombe County Board of Education over K-12 mask mandate

You might think you know just how far off the rails the science-denying antimask crowd has gone in its efforts to ensure that students in North Carolina’s schools do not have to take common sense safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID.

You’d be wrong.

At an August 5 meeting where the Buncombe County Board of Education had just voted 4-2 to require masks in schools, audience members launched their own mini-January 6 insurrection, choosing new “board members,” and holding a new vote on the mask issue.

The bizarre charade was orchestrated by a woman identified by the Asheville Citizen-Times as Stephanie Parsons. In the tirade that preceded the “coup,” Parsons claimed the figure of 48% unvaccinated in Buncombe County meant 48% of the population did not agree with the mask mandate. She added that the North Carolina Constitution states “if you are not happy with the government that you are to abolish it,” then went on to unilaterally elect a new board via a method called “whoever is crazy enough to stand up and come down here is elected.”

The new “board” unanimously decided masks would be optional.

You can watch the entire surreal episode below: