Saturday, February 28, 2009

Go Fraser! Get Some Answers from CCSD

Heard in passing on the TV news last night: a group of parents from the soon-to-be-closed Fraser Elementary are suing CCSD. No one likes the idea of taxes going to pay for CCSD's legal expenses, but, let's face it, when a district behaves like that of Charleston County, what other choice do concerned citizens have?

Children now at Fraser will be moved first to the Archer building next fall and then to the new Sanders-Clyde when it is ready mid-year. Parents want some answers:
  • Why two moves?
  • What will become of the Fraser building? [Rumor has it that the city wants it for a police academy]
  • Who's looking out for the Fraser children at 75 Calhoun?
  • Why are district figures on the attendance zone and students living in it unavailable, to the point that District 20 residents have been forced to file a FOIA request?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

CCSD Needs a Good, Effective State Audit

Where do the tax dollars go? And how many are there? The Charleston County School District's finances are so arcane, and have been for so many decades (probably forever), that to regain public trust a state audit should be conducted.

Gone are the days when we could trust the good ol' boys on a handshake.

Even New York State has recognized that school districts need a watchdog, and not a local one. So reports The New York Times. Preliminary New York auditors' results should interest Low Country taxpayers:

"State auditors found that the Niagara Falls, N.Y., school district overpaid 272 employees by more than $500,000 in 2006, apparently incorrectly sending out an extra paycheck to each of them.

"Separately, they discovered that a laptop computer assigned to a school administrator in Vestal, west of Binghamton, had been used to visit Internet sites for pornography.

"And they determined that districts in Mount Vernon, Newburgh, North Syracuse, Schenectady and Williamsville could have saved a total of $212,000 on electricity if they had shut off computers at night and used power-save settings.


"The audits are the first such routine checks of school district finances in decades, and they were prompted by a scandal in which half a dozen people, including the former superintendent, were convicted of stealing as much as $11.2 million from the Roslyn district on Long Island. “If it could happen in Roslyn, it certainly could happen in any district,” said Mr. DiNapoli, who sponsored the legislation while a state assemblyman from a district including Roslyn. “You really have to be sure that money is not being used in a wasteful way, because for many of the communities, school district spending is such a large part of the property tax burden, which is the most onerous tax for people to pay.”
You don't say! Now there's an idea to cut wasteful spending. Pass it on.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

McGinley's Responses Reveal PR Focus

Who writes this stuff, Elliot Smalley? If so, he needs to pull out his Strunk and White.

In response to a constituent's complaint that Burke High School's much-touted improvement consists of smoke and mirrors, Charleston County Schools Superintendent Nancy McGinley "wrote":
We have received many words of congratulations [sic], elation, and much support from many of our downtown residents, along with the numerous volunteers and partners that work on a regular basis with the students and faculty of Burke High School. Even as recent [sic] as yesterday, the Post and Courier applauded the leadership and staff of Burke High School for their major accomplishments. [Perhaps we don't get the same version?] Why would we choose not to celebrate a school that has advanced from an eight year "unsatisfactory" rating? Why would we choose not to celebrate a school whose graduation rate has increased by 23 percentage points to a rate of 60% for on-time graduation? [Why, we're now actually keeping track of them as we shove them over the line with "credit-recovery" programs.] Why would we choose not to celebrate a school where students are feeling that their learning environment is safer and more rigorous? [One student was reported as saying this--no doubt an excellent statistical survey!]
Defensive, aren't we? McGinley focuses on CCSD's receiving a grade of Excellent for growth, never mind that the growth comes from learning how to count and track its students!

Let's face it. Superintendent McGinley is all about public relations.

It's for the children.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Encouraging Magnet Schools = Busing in CCSD

No one in his or her right mind would trust the numbers game being played by the Charleston County School District in regard to its next budget shortfall. However, one phenomenon is clear: closing schools and reorganizing "partial" magnets produce more busing.

Somehow these costs never seem to figure into the "savings" asserted by these proposals.

We've come to a sorry state when the lowest-paid employees of the district are forced into unpaid furloughs, but even so the powers-that-be at 75 Calhoun have no difficulty living with themselves. Their next step is supposed scrutiny of the millions spent on busing within the district. (Perhaps this step is as disingenuous as the "let's-sell-75-Calhoun ploy; perhaps not.)

According to news emanating from the latest CCSD Board of Trustees meeting, "$276,472 to provide transportation for students who attend the six new partial magnet schools" will be added to the millions for busing next year. [See Board Approves Another Furlough.]

Let's get this straight: low-paid employees will pay for students' transportation to the partial magnets next year: "The furloughs will save a projected $191,942"; why, that leaves $85 thousand in chump change for the Superintendent to pay outside consultants! What could be fairer? So fair, in fact, that the Board saw no need to discuss the merits of the additional furloughs.

Back to busing. According to CCSD (and who trusts them to be accurate about this?), busing to the district's magnet schools costs "about $2.49 million annually." The proposal suggesting that magnet-school parents contribute to the costs opens up a whole new can of worms. Who would trust CCSD to decide which parents could afford to pay and how much they could afford? For sure, if all parents are required to pay busing costs, these magnets will become even more so the bailiwick of the wealthy.

Parents didn't create this problem; CCSD did as it was drawn down that magnet road years ago by--could it be?--present Board member Gregg Meyers. Ask him how to pay for the busing.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Marriage Made in Heaven? Greg Mathis & Sea Islands

If you foolishly lease a building for a charter school that is about to be terminated, what do you do when it is? Apparently, Sea Islands YouthBuild has found the answer--turn it over to another charter school that's having a tough go: Greg Mathis Charter. [Greg Mathis Charter Expands to Include Shuttered Sea Islands YouthBuild .]

Both charters were designed for at-risk students. Greg Mathis has enrolled the remaining Sea Islands students in its school while taking over the Sea Islands-leased building. Greg Mathis's financial picture should improve. The students from Sea Islands will get their chance. Looks like win-win.

Let's hope that the administration at Greg Mathis can get a handle on its previous problems regarding truancy and discipline.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Improved Counting Masks CCSD Achievements

No one should fault the principals, or even Superintendent McGinley, for their delight in CCSD's school report card improvements. Too bad most of the statistical improvements counted by the state did not reflect actual learning. [See School Grades Climb in Friday's edition of the P & C.]

A quick perusal of the PDF in the on-line edition shows that "improved growth ratings" were the best news to the district. Absolute ratings, while improved in some cases, were not as encouraging.

How would CCSD have fared if it hadn't improved its tracking of students in the system? How much of the improvement was due to "credit recovery" programs assisting the high school graduation rate?

So the district can tout its statistics all it wants, but are more students really graduating or are they merely being accounted for?

And are "credit recovery" programs truly educational, or are they simply a way to award (and count) a diploma that becomes more meaningless because of that process?

There is real academic news for Burke High School in one category, though: end-of-course test scores of 70 or better improved to 42 percent of test takers. That is progress, although I wonder what percentage of the test-takers who scored below 70 got credit for the course.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Buist Again? Let's Take a Step Back

Charleston County School District Board member Ruth Jordan, who lives in West Ashley and is chairman of the Board's Policy Committee, has roiled the waters by suggesting that Buist Academy not be allowed "to become segregated again." Putting her in charge of the Policy Committee is an exercise in chaos now and yet to come! Nevertheless, any suggestion that the "magnet school's admissions procedures could be overhauled to attract more minority students" coming from this quarter should be met with the derision it deserves.

Here is a history lesson that attempts to be purely expository:
  • Buist began as an all-black school when Charleston's schools were segregated and not consolidated into one district.
  • To meet requirements imposed by desegregation lawsuits, Gregg Meyers (a present Board member) put forward the plan to create a 60-40 school to show the Civil Rights Division that the district was integrated, and the plan was accepted.
  • The school's admissions process uses four lists and a lottery to select students, but the results were required to be 40 percent minority.
  • The school thrived while other schools in what became District 20 of CCSD disappeared or became all-black and failing.
  • A lawsuit about five years ago killed the 60-40 race-based requirement.
  • Since the ruling, the percentage of minority students attending Buist has declined--CCSD putting the percentage at 25; those in District 20 suggesting that in the lower grades the percentage is more like 15.
Now, the rest of the story.

The present situation couldn't appear more biased and controversial even if it had been put into effect by a White Citizens' Committee operating in cabal. And it's easy to see who is at fault: present and former school board members, their political cronies, and present and former superintendents hired by the school boards. Until the following messes are purified with the daylight of transparency, no one will accept new OR old guidelines.

Before present parents of Buist Academy start jumping down my throat, let me point out that most parents who have sent their children to Buist over its years of operation as a magnet have not played the system in any way! No, Buist's controversies derive from how CCSD has tampered with Buist's admissions to benefit the few and well-connected. The tampering has proceeded under CCSD's "trust us with no verification" policy. There are three aspects to the tampering: implementation of the lottery; verification of the lists; and abuse of "testing" procedures.
  1. The potential for abusing who "wins" the lottery is immense, as has been well-documented on this blog and elsewhere. Until the Buist lottery becomes as transparent as the SC Education Lottery, its results will continue to be suspect.
  2. Already well-documented here and elsewhere has been CCSD's reluctance to cull from the lists those who do not qualify for them. Due to some well-placed complaints (covered by the mainstream news media), procedures have tightened. However, due to the immense secrecy surrounding who is on what list and where and machinations when vacancies have occured in upper grades (such as allowing seats to go unfilled), no one will trust the process until the lists are public.
  3. Buist's potential kindergarteners are NOT taking an "entrance exam" that is an intelligence test; therefore, the school does not select the "best and brightest," as is frequently suggested. The school's results are a combination of motivated parents, self-selection (more likely to be middle-class), and resources that CCSD has poured into the school. In fact, concerning the entering "interview" a previous commenter wrote,
"In the preface to the YCAT, the publisher states that the test is not designed to be used as the sole criteria for assessing a student and the test results should not be used as a single determining factor for directing where a child is placed in school. It further states that the test is to be used only in combination with other measures of a child's abilities, otherwise its results if taken alone may be highly unreliable, especially at the youngest age levels of kindergarten and pre-kindergarten. If that is the recommendation of those who designed the YCAT test, then why is Buist using this test exactly in the manner that the publisher has said it is not to be used?"

If that isn't damning enough for you, how about that the proctors asking the children the questions are not uniform and not qualified, and the reported results are not verifiable by any other human being.

Now, here it comes: District 20 has been such a thorn in the side of the powers-that-be that CCSD will make it a county-wide magnet without a list for District 20. McGinley and Meyers will point out that District 20 now has several "partial magnets" for its population, so why should its residents complain?

Hey, as long as the voters of Mt. Pleasant and James Island can vote District 20 residents like Toya Hampton-Green into office over the objections of residents of downtown, it's deja vu all over again. What's mine is mine and what's yours is mine.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

School of Communications Needs Editor

If you're going to set yourself up as a magnet school for communications, as 75 Calhoun has encouraged Chicora Elementary in North Charleston to do, you need to employ someone who writes well--writing well is an essential component of communication, isn't it?

Therefore, reading the PDF for Chicora School of Communications (partial magnet) found on the Charleston County School District's website left me in a state of dismay:
Chicora students will be able to:

• Effectively use diverse forms of communication

• Use critical and higher order thinking skills to deliver engaging presentation to inform, persuade and solve problems

• Write proficiently in different genres

• Work cooperatively and exhibit self esteem and pride to communicate utilizing different media

• Effectively apply technology

Every teacher has seen a similar format of curriculum goals, and I will be the first to admit that most of the copy above is adequate; however, some of it is just plain wrong:
  • "deliver engaging presentation"? Surely the writer meant to use the plural form. You may see this error as a minor cavil, but remember what the purpose of the curriculum is!
  • "presentation to inform, persuade and solve problems"? Where to begin: inform problems? persuade problems? Mindless repetition is the culprit here.
  • "exhibit self esteem and pride"? How, pray tell, will this goal be measured?
  • "to communicate utilizing different media"? The speaker will inform us how to utilize different media?
I'm afraid what we have here is eduspeak. Let's hope that's not what Chicora will teach.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Unreported Stories About CCSD's Machinations

Call it loss of staff, or call it loss of interest. Whatever deserves the blame, the Post and Courier has ignored at least three stories making the rounds in the Charleston County School District:
  • Students now at Fraser will be forced to move three times (from Fraser to Archer to the new Sanders-Clyde) because the City of Charleston wants the current Fraser Elementary for use as a police academy. True or not true?
  • District 20 constituent board members are being railroaded to accept new district attendance lines without input from the communities they serve or the information they need for informed opinions. And the changes to boundaries are top secret, right?
  • While promising an explanation to District 20 residents over the removal of grades 7 and 8 from Charleston Progressive, Superintendent McGinley continues to be as absent from class as, well, a truant. Would you place money on District 20's ever getting an explanation? Not me.

Embarrassments in CCSD's March to Excellence

Is the Charleston County School District fudging the numbers in its attempt to close five schools by pleading financial hardship? It would appear so from the slipshod financial shenanigans used by the district to report local tax revenues.

According to one well-placed source,
"In the interim budget report given to [CCSD] board members last month, Mike Bobby admits current tax revenues are above what was budgeted. [italics mine] Then he says in writing the "overage" will not be reported as this year's revenue but will instead be "carried over" and reported in next year's tally. What he's also not saying is ad valorum revenues are recurring. So this year's surplus revenues (unreported as such) will be compounded when placed on top of the same low-balled revenue projections next year."
The source also confirmed that
"[. . .] All delinquent taxes are carried forward and paid in full by the following year (even if property is sold for back taxes or as a result of foreclosure), so the "uncollected" figures aren't really a loss to CCSD as the $5M-or-more item in the annual budget shows. Don Kennedy once spent over an hour arguing that unpaid taxes, past or present, were a normally projected revenue loss for a governmental agency. [. . . ] CCSD is confusing private business and government accounting. These are a few of the many ways CCSD makes the budget picture hard to understand."
I wonder if Kennedy gets away with that in Seattle.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Meeting Street Academy: Good School, Bad Policy

The plans sound great. For 200 motivated students and their parents who might otherwise get lost in the morass of Charleston County schools, Meeting Street Academy is a life raft available to the neediest. It's also a black eye to the Charleston County School District.

Perhaps it's Sherman Financial Group's guilty conscience from preying on the least educated among us that impels the plan for Meeting Street Academy into being. If so, we can live with its $9 million-and-counting expenditures for the school. However, I must respectfully disagree with Saturday's editorial praising the City of Charleston's involvement. [See City Is Right to Help School.]

What is the story behind this wheeler-dealer deal? You know there has to be one, even if the P & C's editorial writers are naive. Sherman Financial, a bottom feeder that must be raking in money hand-over-fist in this economy, could easily spend the almost $5 million to purchase the land itself.
  • Sherman Financial wouldn't build the school unless the City drew upon its taxpayers?
  • Well, why would that be?
  • The school wouldn't be built in that area unless the City paid for the land?
  • Well, why would that be?
  • The area wouldn't be developed unless the City paid for the land so that the school could be built there?
  • Well, why would that be?
And, most importantly, why isn't anyone representing the taxpayers asking these questions?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Horizon Middle: Must Not Be Friends of Joe

One private school gets the City of Charleston to buy and lease land for it to the tune of almost $5 million. At the same time a public charter school on Johns Island in Charleston County [see Organizers Work to Realize Dream of Opening School] can't find enough money to start up operations next fall:
"Finding a building is often the biggest hurdle facing start-up charter schools, and that held true with Horizon Middle. School leaders finally identified and bought the land on which they hope to build a school, but they still need about $1 million to cover the construction costs."
Is this a crazy system, or what?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Using SC Elementary Schools for Politics

Most South Carolinians wouldn't know a right whale even if one landed on their front lawn. The right whale is rightly identified with the whaling industries of Massachusetts (hint: it's the right whale to kill--that's where the name comes from). You will remember the tremendous impact the whaling industry has had on South Carolina history, right? Yeah, right!

So, why would a teacher in Sumter push her students into a campaign to name it the "State Marine Mammal"? Politics. To quote the P & C article [see Dolphin May Sink Right Whale for State Symbol]:

"Getting the whale named makes it a state symbol, a gesture that isn't any more than symbolic. The kids thought this rare, special animal was worth special attention by the state and were following the process. Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, sponsored the bill.

"'I think if we make the right whale our state marine mammal, it may make more people want to help it,' Granger [a fifth-grader] said."

Gee, I wonder where Granger and his classmates got the idea that they should try to influence the political agenda of South Carolina? I wonder if the teacher even told the class about the Ports Authority's right-whale problems at a time when the SPA is fighting the disappearance of its Maersk business. To quote again,

"The elementary school students' bill, however, never mentions threats to the whales or how they relate to container ship traffic.

"'This is just straight from the heart from these kids,' said Lynn Eldridge, the teacher working with them on the project. 'These are kids who worked so hard for so long, and they really believed in the Legislature. ... They're walking around with incredulous looks on their faces.'"

Well, maybe they've learned a valuable lesson that Ms. Eldridge didn't expect. It helps to know both sides of an argument: for every political action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Let's hear it for the dolphin. At least we know what it looks like.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

CCSD Plans for Segregated Sanders-Clyde

What white or Hispanic parent, given a choice, will send a child into a school with a curriculum specifically designed for African-Americans?

If you ever suspected that the Charleston County School District not only accepts segregated schools but actually works to create them, the plans for the revamped Sanders-Clyde will prove it. The truth of this statement is hammered home in the story in Saturday's P & C [ see Green Wins NAACP's Image Award] of artist Jonathan Green's success in receiving the Key of Life NAACP Image Award .

While Green's involvement with Sanders-Clyde reveals his admirable desire to inspire children who might otherwise not know of black artists, CCSD plans for a school that will not be as welcoming to students of other races. First CCSD approved the mural depicting only African-American children (shown here) to grace the new building's entrance.

Here are the latest components:

"Several years ago, Green began a partnership with Charleston's Sanders-Clyde Elementary School.

"'I think the school is important because the African-American and Gullah-Geechee culture must be preserved. But also, kids should be taught more about their own African-American heritage. In school, they mostly learn about the European influence in our country.'

"The artist adds, 'These kids, from the first through the fifth grades, will learn that 40 percent of the slaves in this country came through Charleston, and they will also learn the great contributions these African-Americans made to our culture today.'

"To teach these lessons, Green says the school will bring in local historians and speakers from the College of Charleston's Avery Research Center for African-American Culture, among other resources.

"'Our goal is for this curriculum to become a role model for the nation because all over the United States, African-Americans don't know very much about their own heritage and its importance; also, those in the private schools, which consist mainly of white students, don't know about this either.'


"'Jonathan has been very much involved in the design and curriculum of this school over the past three years,' says John Dinkelspiel, a community activist involved in the project. A 16-by-25-foot mural designed by Green will grace a new building at the school."

Here is an excellent example of why CCSD needs content standards. All elementary school students should learn about African-American culture, not one school singled out on the basis of its present racial makeup. CCSD clearly intends that Sanders-Clyde will remain segregated forever.

Can you imagine the uproar if a newly-built school in Mt. Pleasant put up a welcoming mural that depicted only white students? We'd all be on the Today Show.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Worm Turns on No Sub Plans in CCSD

A minor earthquake occurred in the Charleston County School District this week. However, this one cannot be corrected with seismic upgrades.

From every quarter word poured in: Superintendent McGinley's plan to eliminate substitute teachers for the rest of the year is dead on arrival. A dud. Deader than a dodo.

Forced to back down, district officials poured out their tale of woe to the P & C in Thursday's edition [see No Substitute for Subs?]. According to McGinley, "Everyone agrees this is not something we want to do [. . .]. I'm not disagreeing with people saying that this will impact our classrooms. That's a legitimate concern, and we don't want to do that."

Well, in that case why get it approved by the School Board in the first place?
This maneuver is usually called backpedaling.

Keystone Kops again.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

'Splaining to Do over Stuffing Archer Building

Maybe it's a mathematical deficiency. After all, not everyone really absorbs the meaning of numbers. Nevertheless, Charleston County Superintendent of Schools McGinley had months to figure out how many students could be stuffed into the Archer campus that Sanders-Clyde is using while it awaits completion of its new facility.

First, in her initial School Redesign proposal McGinley seemed to believe that somehow all of the Charter School for Math and Science students would fit into the building. Now, she seems to think that all of the students at Fraser can join the Sanders-Clyde throng at Archer next fall, even though the total exceeds building capacity. But wait--

She wants to crush some of the students displaced from the seventh and eighth grades at Charleston Progressive Academy into the mix.

What is this? Is she trying to see how many students she can stuff into a phone booth?

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Seabrook Weighs in on CCSD Plans

Bona fides. Authentic credentials. That's what makes Luther Seabrook's op-ed for CCSD in Tuesday's P & C worth contemplating. How insulting to Seabrook that Butzon's remarks received equal treatment!

After pointing out that District 23 actually had plans on file that fit into and enhance Superintendent McGinley's now revised School Redesign plan, Seabrook kindly does not point out that much hot air and grief (not to speak of $25,ooo in consultant fees) could have been avoided if McGinley had looked to his district for ideas in the first place. So I will.

According to Seabrook,

Anyone may go to the files in the District 23 office. There they will find an unfinished plan for the reorganization of the district schools — a plan that fits into Superintendent McGinley's proposal.

The plan caps three of the four elementary schools at the third grade, giving Pre-K to third-grade teachers the responsibility to assure, by any means necessary, that students are functional readers before they move through the gate to the middle schools.

How like CCSD! Lots of plans developed over the years, often at a hefty cost, but most lie ignored, languishing in a closet or file somewhere.

Seabrook also requests that the district pour its most effective teachers into a school to show just how much difference that one act would make to "underachieving" students. As he writes,

If we believe that teachers cause learning and that competent and effective teachers will radically improve learning for our neglected students, then why haven't we done so?

Putting together one school with the most competent teachers in the district would not negatively affect a single school in our vast district. If successful, what will it teach us?

The plan sounds sensible--with one caveat: the curriculum. Schools must teach a sound core curriculum that allows those students who have developed the skills to continue to advance at the same pace as their more advantaged peers.

Monday, February 02, 2009

CCSD Financial Answers Severely Limited

We are just so ignorant, according to Charleston County Schools Superintendent McGinley (not her, silly, us), that we just "don't have a good understanding of the way the district funds its schools." [See Where the School District's Money Goes] That's why she had so much trouble getting attendees at her public hearings of the School Redesign plan to agree with her ideas. Let's set up a simple interview with simple questions that the dummies can understand. Just one problem, sister--the questions we want answered weren't asked, or if they were asked, they weren't answered!

Of course, most of the general operating fund goes to "teachers' salaries and classroom expenses." Duh. "Formula distribution" (we could quibble about that practice but not now) accounts for 64 percent of the budget, according to "the district's finance director." (Why was Bobby not questioned instead?) According to Terri Shannon,
"officials decide how they wanted to distribute the remaining 36 percent - or roughly $117 million. Some of the $117 million goes to high-achieving schools, but more of it goes to low-performing schools. Some of it pays for the district's administration, such as the superintendent and district workers' salaries, and some pays for schools' bills, such as heating and cooling."
What officials? Names, please. More importantly, what percentage goes to "the superintendent and district workers' salaries"? How does that percentage compare to a decade ago? What's wrong? Can't answer that one? Does it need a FOIA request too?

What about "heating and cooling"costs? Would it turn principals into business managers to know how much that expense is for their buildings? Is it possible to have a reward system for reducing those expenses where they occur? Everyone's father has complained about "heating (or cooling) the great outdoors," so why not get schools to be more aware of saving money? Too complicated? You don't have those figures available? Does it need a FOIA request also?

How much in Title I funds (not included in Shannon's answers) will be foregone by shutting down high-poverty schools? Ditto on FOIA?

How disingenuous is this statement:
"If the district were funded the same way it is required to fund charter schools, it would cost an additional $80 million." Show me the numbers. You're fudging by comparing apples and oranges. Charter school funding takes away money from the district overhead (like McGinley's salary).

Say, maybe $80 million inadvertently represents the administrative costs that are such a district-wide mystery!

Most important unasked (or unreported) questions:
  • On what legal basis does the district regularly put funds generated from the sale of properties (capital) into the general operating fund on an ongoing basis?
  • And is such a practice planned to make up the $23 million shortfall that the Superintendent claims for the district?