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The Educate! Archive

Click above for archived editions of Educate!, the community journal on education in Charlotte-Mecklenburg published by the Fellowship between September 2000 and September 2005.

The Swann Fellowship
1510 E. 7th St
Charlotte, NC 28204

Jan. 7, 2015

Jan. 8, 2015

Independent eyes

Dec. 11, 2014

Two conversations at the Fellowship’s meeting this morning bore on current topics of public interest.

Procedural oversight

CMS board member Eric Davis continues to suggest publicly that the school board hire outside counsel to examine due-process questions raised by the resignation of Supt. Heath Morrison. Sadly, he may well see such narrow action taken.

Sadly, because the questions about due process in CMS range far more broadly than the handling of a superintendent’s tenure. Some staff complain that favoritism is routine. Some teachers have long felt under the thumb of principals. Perhaps there will prove to be no fire here, but there seems to be enough smoke to ask Lois Lenski to call Fireman Small.

But who is Fireman Small? By what procedures does this community come to grips with an inadequate superintendent? By what procedures is the work of the school board’s general counsel held up to public scrutiny? By what procedures are the actions of an elected school board reviewed in the long months between elections? There was a day when the answer to all of these questions was a vibrant and independent press, protected by the First Amendment. The First Amendment is still in place, but this isn’t baseball and batting .333 is not reassuring.

For responding to illegality, there are established procedures, laws on the books, sheriffs and police and FBI already in place. But how does this community address issues of competence and loss of public trust and credibility – without sweeping issues under the rug?

These kinds of questions may suggest having in place a set of objective eyes trained in the ways of finding and communicating truth. It would be wonderful if such a group met regularly, were always ready, but never had to deal with a single issue. Just having an established, ongoing, independent body would improve trust in this community, in a way that a short-term contract with a lawyer to review procedures in the current case will not.

Perhaps such a body of volunteers could be called for by school board resolution. Perhaps instead it should be brought into existence in the “Charlotte way,” by an ad hoc gathering of community leaders representing a cross-section of the community. Perhaps a local judge would agree to appoint its members after an open nominations process. Perhaps a religious congregation would offer them a room to meet in. Perhaps the volunteers would pay for their own coffee. Independence of existing structures is hard to pull off, but essential to the task.

An interim leader

This is not a process question. If the deputy superintendent were to leave for any reason and the school board chose to look outside for an interim leader to calm the waters during a proper and thorough search for a new superintendent, whose names should be on the candidate list?

The discussion this morning led to five names. Every one of these persons has, via one avenue or another, had a decade or three of experience with CMS. Every one knows the system inside out. And every one is now outside the system.

There’s no need to share the list of five. The point was not to settle the issue, but to raise it.

The exercise did raise two important points: Every name mentioned was of a person whose leadership style would be suited to the turbulence of these times. And every person mentioned has earned the trust of this community.

 – Steve Johnston


The 'culture of fear'

Nov. 7, 2014

We used to see it in schoolhouses in the ’70s and ’80s. Some teachers lived in fear of old-school principals who could wield unchecked power on a campus while system officials were distracted by assignment and budgets and the like.

This week’s resignation of Supt. Heath Morrison brought to light more fear, but this time at the administrative heart of the system. Fear seems to be the only explanation for why good-hearted people failed to protect others around them, with whom they worked.

Fear may also be why obvious wrongs went unreported to school board members, who are legally responsible for oversight of the district.

Fear of sharing the truth appears to be the only explanation for why those who for months or years have sought transparency in how CMS operates with the public’s money were not given the information they sought.

The most pressing big-picture issue facing the system and its top leadership is to reshape not policy, but culture. CMS needs a level of transparency that a host of its former leaders have found inconvenient, or threatening, or anathema.

A coalition of board and staff and community leaders can press for this culture change to occur. Such pressure can be mounted without violating any of the conditions built into the board’s acceptance of Morrison’s resignation. The community should not accept those gag rules as grounds for anyone to sidestep or sabotage this effort at confronting the need for culture change.

A beginning should be made with a joint appearance and statement by a small host of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s public, private, corporate, faith and education leaders. They should come from all walks of life, and all areas of the county. They would coalesce in advance around a simple statement, such as:

“We rededicate ourselves to creating in this place a school district that educates all children, nurtures the lives and dreams of all children and adults within its reach, and is accountable for all the resources devoted to this effort.”

– Steve Johnston