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New school board means big potential for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools 

I was startled in August when Creative Loafing readers picked Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools as the issue they were most sick of hearing about. Then I noticed that the readers' pick for the issue that needs more attention was education. Huh?

After mulling it over, I understood the dichotomy. CL readers, like any citizens genuinely concerned about this community, want students to get a good education, since it's a pillar of civilization and all. At the same time, the school board's venomous bickering and dysfunction — not to mention the rising number of gripes about former Superintendent Pete Gorman's heavy-handed policies — were discouraging, even maddening. The more I thought about it, the easier it was to see how you would want education to be a priority, but simultaneously wish Gorman and the school board would just go away.

The thing is, improving public education is something that has to go through an administration and the school board. There's no getting to the goal of providing a better education without getting and staying involved with political or bureaucratic bodies, no matter how distasteful getting down into the muck with the arguers can be. Luckily for all of us, recent elections here show that parents, teachers and education advocates did get heavily involved in the schools' struggles, and in fact won major battles in what was, in effect, a grassroots rebellion against CMS' status quo. As a result, I'm more optimistic about the future of the schools than I've been in a long time.

It was heartening to watch the school board elect a new chair and vice-chair last week, and, just as important, to do so without the squalid squabbling that gave past boards such a bad name. New members Ericka Ellis-Stewart and Mary McCray, the chair and vice chair, respectively, were catalysts for what I'll call the "insurgent movement" to get our schools right.

(A similar "insurgent" outlook led to big changes in City Council elections, too, but those are perhaps for another column.)

In a blog post last week, I urged readers to shout "Hallelujah" over the elections of Ellis-Stewart and McCray. Why? Because their presence, as well as the refreshingly civilized way in which Ellis-Stewart led the new board through its first meeting, signals the arrival of a group that could take back control of CMS from the bureaucrats downtown. Hopefully, it will also mark the beginning of a much-needed, 180-degree turnaround from the data-driven, corporate-model style and policies of Gorman and his chief school board disciple, former chair Eric Davis. Some of those policies, and the attitudes they embodied, wound up antagonizing teachers and wrecking their overall morale.

When Gorman left Charlotte to take a job with Rupert Murdoch's venture into peddling for-profit education technology, the former superintendent left a firestorm of discontent in his wake. Granted, under Gorman's leadership, CMS increased the number of low-income students scoring above grade level in middle and high schools, while supplying extra staff and money for struggling schools. Those achievements are a feather in CMS' cap, particularly in view of how many school systems nationwide struggle with those same issues with limited success.

The problem, though, was how those results were achieved: testing-obsessed policies that treated teachers and students as so much cattle to be poked and prodded, with a near total disregard for the subtleties of teaching or learning. When Gorman tried to institute a controversial teacher performance-pay system requiring 52 additional tests, strong opposition arose among teachers and parents, who essentially said "enough is enough."

The final kicker for Gorman and Davis' joint reign came when Gorman snuck behind CMS teachers' backs to convince the N.C. legislature to change things so that teachers' approval would not be needed before implementing the performance-pay plan. At that point, the writing was on the wall for Gorman and he left soon afterward. It surely was no coincidence that the day after Ellis-Stewart became school board chair, interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh announced that CMS is "slowing down" its rollout of new tests. And Gorman's teacher performance-pay plan? That may happen in, oh, let's say 2015 or so.

One possible bone of contention for the new school board will be the hiring of a new superintendent. Former chair Davis and vice chair Tom Tate have led the superintendent search, which is expected to conclude with a hiring in March. Here's hoping that Ms. Ellis-Stewart and Ms. McCray will aggressively seek a superintendent who will emphasize the importance of teachers and parents, and delegate more authority to those two groups rather than accumulae yet more power in a bloated CMS administration that has routinely stifled teacher initiatives and sapped their morale.

Image credit: Davie Hinshaw

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