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Judge Manning Unglued, Part 2 

The story you didn't hear

It really was priceless. All the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bureaucrats had to do last week was to convince Judge Howard Manning that they have a coherent plan to turn low-performing schools around.

Since the guy doesn't have a Masters in education and most of them do, this shouldn't have been rocket science. Just gift-wrap some save-the-children b.s. and mention a program or two and the judge would have never known the difference if the whole thing made sense on the surface.

Things began to go downhill, though, when Manning, who is presiding over the long-running Leandro suit over state funding for poor school districts, noticed that CMS had neglected to add goals to their plan. As in achievement goals. You know, for what they want the kids to, um, accomplish? Foreign concept around here I know, but since Manning has been railing about goals for some time now, you'd think someone would have thought to tack some damn goals onto the plan, which was really nothing more than a rehash of what CMS is already doing.

Then Manning asked about the kids who are just barely passing, the ones who will hit ninth grade, walk into our high schools, and disappear. Was there a program for them? Hello?

After foot shuffling from CMS bureaucrats and their lawyers and an uncomfortable silence, someone mumbled something about asking the superintendent about that. So Manning reminded them once again that Pamlico County has this great program that targets those kinds of kids and it doesn't cost one red cent. Not one red cent, he kept saying, not one red cent.

CMS initially added itself to the Leandro lawsuit a few years back in hopes that the court would add Mecklenburg to a list of poor counties deserving of more state funding, even though Mecklenburg isn't a poor county. That plan backfired when Manning figured out that although we had the third highest per pupil funding rate in the state last year, our test scores trailed some of the poor counties who originally filed the lawsuit.

Since then, Manning has made it his personal mission to straighten out CMS. After the school system bureaucrats' courtroom performance last week, he finally lost it. He's lost it with the district before, mind you, but now there were a few new twists.

This time, Manning essentially told the CMS bureaucracy they should all be fired, and that he'd love to send someone down there to do it if he could.

"If they can't get this job done, they need to go somewhere else," Manning said. "That's leadership. It doesn't have anything to do with money. You can't continue to have these scores be so bad."

Before you feel sorry for the CMS crowd, who were publicly humiliated once again, take a look at the situation from Manning's point of view. The public school system here has spent over a million bucks on this suit over the last eight years while kids in counties where nearly everyone is poor, counties that spend half the amount per pupil that we do, have blown by us with double digit test score increases.

"The problem has been there since 2001," Manning told CMS officials. "It has taken five years to get anybody off their so and so. To get any movement at all has taken me having to be ugly and turn the light on and lift up the rock and show where the worms are just to get this far. That's what's frustrating about Charlotte."

If this is the first you've heard of these statements by Manning, that's probably because the Charlotte spin machine was operating in full-throttle damage-control mode last week.

Harvey Gantt, co-chair of a committee aimed at improving school management here, hit the talk radio circuit to explain how school management changes were important and were being addressed, but what we really need is more money, the opposite of what Manning told CMS officials last week in court. We're doing much better than most urban school districts, Gantt assured people, without mentioning that the urban districts CMS likes to compare us to are at the bottom of the national barrel.

Meanwhile, I'm sure Manning would be thrilled to learn that CMS is in the process of bungling the high school challenge, one of the improvement programs for low-scoring schools it keeps touting in court. The program, which involved everything from coordinating with Social Services to providing tutors for kids, was supposed to go into effect last August, but CMS didn't get around to fully kicking it off until February, and so far has only spent half the funds allocated by the county for this year -- all the while screaming that the county doesn't give them enough money to save the children. And as usual, no one has a coherent explanation for this.

I wonder what Manning would think if he knew that. I think I'll send him a copy of this column and find out.

Thanks to WBT 1110 AM for sharing an unedited audio copy of last week's court session with Creative Loafing.

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