Thursday, January 31, 2019

To Our State Legislature and CCSD: Focus on Parents to Improve Education

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Frank Leister's Letter to the Editor, "Parents make the difference for students," should be required reading for all concerned with improving educational outcomes in South Carolina. As he posits below, all the money in the world will not budge those scores without major changes in how schools recruit the help of parents and inspire students to desire to learn.

"A Jan. 28 letter to the editor correctly pointed out that funding for schools has little or no effect on student achievement. More money for South Carolina students over the years did not result in higher achievement.

What does have a positive impact on achievement is parental involvement and expectations. For many years I headed a team that worked with school districts and schools on technology and later consulted with schools on the same. I also served on multiple district and school committees and a few at the state level.

No superintendent thought class size made a difference. All the teachers were more than competent to teach. New buildings or technology made little or no difference.

Parents did make a difference.

When parents expect their child to learn, to behave, do the work and make school their responsibility, achievement soars. For this to occur the family needs stability. That comes from jobs that provide parents the time to review school work, attend parent-teacher meetings, support school functions and discipline their children when behavioral problems surface.

This is a long-term fix — maybe as long as a generation or two to develop a solid economy that underpins good jobs.

Spending large sums on initiatives that don’t boost achievement simply lowers the standard of living through increased taxes while lulling everyone into complacency for a few years with no improvement until the next alarm goes off to improve education by increasing funding.

What can we do in the interim while building the structure for good families? Bring back recognition and shame.

Recognition should go to students who do well and their parents.

Public shame should descend on parents whose students fail to respect their school, its teachers and staff and under achieve. Yes, that may seem harsh, but it is less harsh than releasing unprepared students into the world.

The path to success is getting an education, getting a job, getting married and having children, in that order. It all starts with education and that starts with students striving to learn and parents setting expectations and following up.

Frank Leister
Archdale Street

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Attacking "Minimally Adequate" Wording Not a Fix for Education

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State Superintendent Molly Spearman wants to change the goal of South Carolina's education system to read more than "Minimally Adequate." We can change all the wording we want, but let's be honest: the system isn't delivering minimally adequate. If it was, there wouldn't be so many complaints.

Reality check: adequate IS adequate. What we're delivering now to too many students, especially the poor and black, is inadequate education. 

Yes, teachers need more pay. They certainly deserve better working conditions and more respect. 

Changing the wording may make us feel good. It will have zero effect on educational outcomes.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Want Diversity in CCSD? Simply Provide Busing for Charter Schools

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"East Cooper Montessori Charter School. . . ranks among the most segregated in the state, with 89 percent white enrollment as of last school year." 

Trying to imagine poor black parents getting their children to I'On for school, it's easy to see how that imbalance happened. Now that the district has done an about-face on allowing charter schools to use CCSD properties, the former Whitesides Elementary building presents less of a challenge, but what if you don't possess a car or if your job interferes with dropping off your child? What if you really don't understand this "Montessori" business anyway. 

The Charleston County School District is throwing money at this problem: "In a unique arrangement, the district kicks in about $216,000 per year to fund 32 seats in a prekindergarten program for three year olds. As a condition for that funding, East Cooper sets aside 40 percent of its 3- and 4-year-old seats for students from families eligible for SNAP food stamp benefits." The needle has moved from 1 percent to 5 percent black. The sending district is 38 percent black. 

That's too slow. Maybe in a decade the school will satisfy the state's law that "charter schools’ enrollment figures may vary from the racial percentages of their school district or 'targeted student population' by no more than 20 percent."

What a school called Midlands STEM did would help more. Its Board chairman "sent a letter to each of the 120 churches in Fairfield County asking permission to speak to their congregations. Of the seven that responded, six were predominantly black churches. . . He also knew transportation would be an obstacle for some. . . .Midlands STEM uses part of its per-pupil funding from the state to hire a school bus contractor. . . . [The Board chairman] went door-to-door at a largely black apartment complex in the county and now runs a bus there to pick up students."

You don't need much imagination to see that a similar plan would result in more diversity at the East Cooper Montessori Charter School. Time to get busy--and get busing.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

#1 Those Pesky Statistics Reveal Charleston County Schools' Woes

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Remember the good old days? When reports put South Carolina at the bottom of some achievement list, we could always count on Mississippi and Alabama to bring up the rear. When it comes to educational achievement, we don't have them to kick around anymore.

What looks even worse for the Charleston County School District is the enormous gap that exists between its best and worst performing schools. The gap is yet another example of unintended consequences: acts done with good intentions that have unexpected bad effects. That pretty well sums up the forty or so years that the consolidated district has existed. 

Twelve months ago the CCSD Board of Trustees set three goals for the district: "ensuring every student reads by grade 3, developing and retaining talent, and more equitably distributing resources across the district." It offered up a damning statistic: "Our bottom five elementary schools have only 7 percent of their students reading on grade level." 

Just pause to think about of the consequences for the middle schools those students will attend. 

In response, Superintendent Postlewait began a push for diversity. She must believe that spreading out the 93 percent of students in the bottom five elementary schools who aren't reading on grade level is the way forward. Wouldn't it be simpler to gear up the buses and close those five schools? Then each of the remaining elementary schools would take its fair share. That's what Nancy McGinley did.

Yes, I'm being facetious. Still, it's unclear how diversity will cause those students to read on grade level. On the other hand, Meeting Street Schools' resources and methods seem to be doing just that. We were told that we needed several years of data before concluding that MSS was really working. Does anyone now believe that it isn't? So why hasn't the school board tried to replicate its success? Sour grapes?

Incentive bonus pay to teachers who teach in the failing schools? Principal shuffling? Image consultants? Nibbling around the edges.

It's past time to acknowledge that educating the "under-resourced" costs more than educating the "resourced." Attempting to equalize funds spent on each is a fool's errand. Just ask Meeting Street Schools.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

#2 Coalition for Kids Dashes Hopes for Radical Change in CCSD

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It sounded so promising. 

When Charleston's Coalition for Kids announced its plans last July, its powerful, wealthy, and politically-connected members promised to bring serious change to the Charleston County School Board. Its director Josh Bell promised the purpose of the group was to "enact real, transformative change in the Charleston County School District." Former principal Liz Alston promised to look for "more members who have experience as educators" who are knowledgeable about our schools.

Then in the fall, the Coalition endorsed the incumbent Board members running for reelection. 

The Coalition's early support of using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers should have been a warning that the group formed to (a) support Gerrida Postlewait; and (b) continue business as before. 

In hindsight, former Board member Chris Fraser's remarks bear repetition: “'By its very nature we have people in the room that are not cohesive, if you will, with moving the ball forward.'” You see, Fraser wishes the Board to cohere, if you will, to whatever the superintendent desires, with little blow-back. That was his goal when a member not so long ago. Fraser wants people who think like he does. His worst nightmare would be actual experienced educators from the district such as Paul Padron and Jake Rambo, who might know enough about what really goes on.

The Coalition for Kids stomped all over the opposition with its deep pockets. In fact, more money was spent on re-electing the incumbents than has ever been spent on a CCSD school board election before. I'd like to think that some of those who signed on to its initial mission have become disillusioned, but they're not talking.

We can expect this gorilla to throw its weight around during the next round of school board elections as well. How can single candidates ever prevail against this "deep state" money machine?

Friday, January 11, 2019

#3 Time to Ditch the Charleston County School Board?

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The Medical University and Joint Base Charleston employ by far the largest number of workers in Charleston County. However, the number employed by the Charleston County School District is only slightly smaller than that of number three, Boeing. Probably the Charleston County School District doesn't have the fourth largest budget in the county, but its spending has a major impact on our economy. That's why the district needs proper supervision, just as the aforementioned already enjoy. 

Who supervises the superintendent of the Charleston County School District? Who approves the budget proposals of that superintendent? Who has the authority to hire, evaluate, and fire if necessary that superintendent? Here in Charleston County the answer to all those questions is, the elected Board of Trustees, or school board. 

It's not working. It most likely hasn't worked well since the seventies when the consolidated district was formed. We have more than forty years of failure to address serious deficiencies in local education, the result of myriad decisions made by hundreds of elected school board members. As it exists today, the system rots at the core.

The following have gutted the power of the elected board to supervise effectively:

  • no qualifications required to serve
  • no vetting by party, political or otherwise
  • members elected on a countywide basis
  • no remuneration for long hours of work
  • no investigative coverage of candidates by local media
Maybe this system worked well in the era of the one-room schoolhouse, but in this era of multi-million-dollar football stadiums, it is about as useful as the pot-bellied stove.

Unfortunately, the result is that the rich and powerful carve out their own agendas. Special interests see to it that their interests are met. The superintendent encourages flunkies to run for election. The so-called district representatives don't represent the needs of their districts. When presented with financial budgets, the typical board member who knows nothing about finance or reading a budget must kowtow to the chief financial officer and superintendent. The superintendent is more than happy to view a board that knows nothing about education or handling millions of dollars. The board's yearly evaluation of the superintendent becomes a joke, with the board's handing more and more power to the superintendent. 

Who supervises the superintendent? No one. 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

#4 in CCSD: The Principle of Principal Shuffling

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In an attempt to appear proactive, Superintendent Postlewait chose to shuffle Charleston County School District principals as though they were a deck of cards. She's still feeling the repercussions and ill-will her ill-advised actions stirred up. It was not a tempest in a teapot, nor will it be forgotten. 

Maybe Postlewait didn't like the principals she inherited, but changes in principals is yet another reason that teachers leave. She should know that. Once upon a time, a principal would stay in the same school until retirement, earning the love and affection of decades of teachers, parents, and even students. Such was the case with E. Bernard Hester, long-time principal at St. Andrews Parish High School. Every principal has faults, but his strengths produced a cohesive and proud student body. 

Imagine if the superintendent had transferred him to, say, the High School of Charleston! You think the French Revolution was bad?

Famously, Jake Rambo refused to leave his post and then quit the district. We don't need to lose good principals like that. In another ridiculous move, Paul Padron, who worked wonders at Haut Gap was kicked upstairs to an administrative position at the Taj, from which he retired. Another great principal lost. 

But we grieve for Sanders-Clyde. We could grieve for Sanders-Clyde on so many levels, but enduring five different principals in seven years is just adding insult to injury. Not one was at the helm long enough to provide stability with serious change. When its community spoke up in favor of Rashon Bradley last May as he completed a successful first year, the superintendent rejected their calls for his continued leadership.  Instead, Janice Malone, former Dunston principal, took her seat on the merry-go-round. Is it merely coincidence that the Marvin Gethers fiasco took place under her supervision?

What we do know is that each shuffle costs money, about $30,000. We also know that schools need stable leadership to prosper. Evidently, our superintendent either doesn't care or doesn't know. 

Apathy or ignorance, take your choice.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

# 5 CCSD's Spending Like a Drunken Sailor on Your Dime

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About this time last year, the Charleston County School Board faced the grim reality that future sales taxes are not enough to cover a rising operating budget. In fact, the Board released these figures: "For 2018-19, we are projecting a $498,000 deficit; in 2019-20, we are projecting a $18.5 million deficit; and in 2020-21, we are projecting a $43.5 million deficit." Those of us with half a brain saw this train wreck coming in 2006 when the funding burden was shifted from property to sales taxes. 

Contemplate that our sales taxes are higher than those of New York City.

As I commented last March, "What the residents of Charleston County see are expensive facilities and projected massive football stadiums at tremendous cost. The average Joe figures that the school board is always going to cry wolf and overspend its budget on frills." 

And it does.

Take the fiasco discovered by Jake Rambo through a FOIA last year. He discovered a hidden item of $65,000 paid to an image consultant in the summer of 2017.  You would like to think that, if a school district spends $2.3 million per year on "Strategy and Communications," as the office is named, it wouldn't need outside help. The revelation provoked these words from Andrew HaLevi, a former Teacher of the Year: "The sense of honesty and collaboration that guided previous superintendents has been replaced by confrontation and indifference under Ms. Postlewait. Instead of talking directly to teachers, she hires a marketing firm to communicate. Instead of engaging school-based administrators, she disrupts schools and communities by shuffling principals like branch managers of a bank. Instead of evaluating teachers based on established standards, she uses test scores that were never designed for the purpose of teacher evaluation."

Then there's Beth Havens, who, at a cost of $188,000 per year, serves as Eric Mack's daughter's advocate and Superintendent Postlewait's gofer to various departments.

Finally, take the diversity study and its aftermath. First the district threw tens of thousands to a Clemson team to tell the district what it already knew. I defy anyone to tell me what data they produced that showed something surprising. Next, Reos Partners got a cut of the action with an order to facilitate "bringing diverse viewpoints to actionable plans." As I wrote last October, "We pay through the nose for hundreds of qualified personnel in administration. Then we pay again for educational consultants to tell them what to do."

Contrast these expenditures with complaints from Board member Kevin Hollinshed regarding conditions in high poverty schools in North Charleston: "Hollinshead cited the recent rat infestation problem at Garrett Academy of Technology as a long-standing maintenance issue. He also pointed to Deer Park Middle School in North Charleston, which has toilets that frequently clog, no kitchen and a tiny cafeteria which only seats one-sixth of the students at one time. . . . Teachers and principals are afraid to come forward about facilities problems, fearing retribution from CCSD leadership. North Charleston community activist Elvin Speights notes that teachers from Mary Ford Elementary, the former Ron McNair Elementary (which now houses Burns Elementary), Morningside Middle School and C.E. Williams Middle School have all contacted him with reports of rodent infestation at their schools."

Disgusted yet? 

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

#6 Maintaining an Excellent Teaching Staff in CCSD: R-E-S-P-E-C-T

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The last gasp of boomers retiring from teaching echoes across the land as school districts bewail the lack of good teachers. The recruiting and retention model that worked for almost a century has met its demise, and good riddance to it. Gone are the days when schools required teachers to be single. Also gone are the decades when few other jobs were open to female college graduates. For other reasons the large cadre of females planning to work until marriage has also dried up. 

We are in a period of adjustment, or, some might say, the winter of our discontent. 

What incentives could coax some of our best and brightest to come into the classroom and stay there? As many pundits note, it's not just about the money, but it increasingly is about respect, working conditions, and advancement.

As Aretha Franklin might have said, "Give me a little respect when I get into school." 

We must return to principals as "principal teachers," the origin of that title. A principal who has never taught students or has not taught in more than a decade has no concept of how difficult a teacher's job has become. Too many lurk in their offices instead of proactively engaging with both teachers and students. Some see teachers as lesser mortals not bright enough to exercise good judgment, in fact, as simply larger students needing control. 

Improving the attitude of parents must also occur, although fixes remain complex. Given contemporary attitudes about money, it's true that teachers will get as much respect as NFL quarterbacks when their salaries are comparable. Not going to happen, ever. Yet how principals respect teachers and how students show respect to teachers must play a major role in resolving the problem. Too often society blames teachers for problems beyond their control, following the lead of superintendents, school boards, and taxpayers. 

Do students have the right to curse their teachers? If such behavior goes unpunished (and it does), why would any student show respect? Students show the same respect, or lack of it, to their teachers as they do to their parents. Therein lies a societal problem. 

Of course, teachers owe respect to their students. Should high school teachers dress in sweatshirts, jeans, and sneakers? All of us stereotype others according to fashion, teenagers most of all. To be treated as professional, teachers must dress so.

In addition, school boards and superintendents need to analyze how to improve teachers' working conditions. As Peter Smyth wrote last January, "Teachers need resources and especially time to build, reflect on, and polish lessons. Good lessons, like good teachers, are created, not born. It’s a hard job, and teachers need support to create and own those lessons. Teachers need meaningful opportunities to build and refine their craft. Teachers need to be allowed to grow in their profession and should be rewarded for that growth."

Last March, we read of attempts to learn why teachers leave the profession: "The SC Education Department committee solicited feedback from educators. . . . Among the 197 responses, the most common complaint, after teacher pay and a lack of classroom support, regarded the demands of assessments and accountability." 'What we know from having taught is not valued, and they’re constantly changing what they think should be taught in the classroom,' said former first-grade teacher Mary Ellen Woodside, who ended her 40-year teaching career at the Charleston County School District in June. 'There's less and less time to do the things that we know matter most at that age.'"

Jody Stallings puts it most succinctly: "The problem isn’t necessarily that teachers are underpaid in the main, but that they are woefully underpaid in proportion to the number of daily obstacles they are forced to overcome just to teach a simple lesson. One answer to this might be, of course, to pay them enough money to stay. But if you really want to keep teachers in the classroom, perhaps a better option is to actually address the reasons why they’re leaving in the first place."

Not to put too fine a point on it, the flat salary scale doesn't help retention. While CCSD now brags of increasing pay for new hires, experienced teachers receive little notice and hit a cap after 20 years. This flat scale doesn't exist in the business world for obvious reasons.

There are no quick fixes.

Monday, January 07, 2019

# 7 CCSD Enforces "Wall of Silence" on Sexual and Other Abuse

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Any employee of the Charleston County School District who criticizes the district will lose his or her job. That's why you never hear from current teachers or administrators when problems occur. Only those who sing the praises of the district may speak, or write Letters to the Editor, despite common knowledge of miscreants. 

One case in point now faces several lawsuits. CCSD's failure to act on employee Marvin Gethers's behavior will most likely cost the district even more than the $300,000 it paid out surreptitiously to one family at Dunston Elementary last fall. The district's failure to take serious action was only intensified by the failure of the North Charleston Police Department to investigate Gethers's computer in a timely fashion. In other words, when child pornography was discovered on that computer by an IT specialist from the district, a wall of silence descended. After a slap on the wrist, Gethers went on to work in an elementary school, receive a district award as a valuable employee, and get a promotion. 

And no one spoke up.

After nearly two years, CCSD fired him the day after he was arrested. Meanwhile, he had access to vulnerable children on a daily basis. 

Afterward, the district dragged its feet for months on a FOIA request by Channel 5 News. Despite the ranks of administrators at the Taj Mahal, such requests routinely get the "delay, linger, and wait" approach and/or outrageous fees for what should be public information.

Then we learned of a sex-crazed teacher in the district. A 17-year-old Burke student was harassed for sex by his female math teacher for months, both in the classroom and out, with the case still dragging on last September. 

No one knew? Really? It beggars belief.

How about the Stall High School chorus director arrested in November for "sexual battery" of a former student? Anything else happen while he was employed over six years? Someone knows.

To round out the issue, the inaction of Liberty Hill's principal when a white student was assaulted at least five times by black students is downright bizarre. Would Chris Haynes have taken action if a black student was harassed by whites? Somehow tapes of reported incidents vanished, as another lawsuit alleges. Haynes kept his job.

Well, so did Marvin Gethers. 

Friday, January 04, 2019

# 8: Education Lottery's Non-Support of Public Schools

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The purpose of South Carolina's Education Lottery is to take money from the poor and give it in the form of scholarships to the middle class.

Well, actually, that wasn't the stated purpose, but it is the result. Despite the promises that the lottery if approved would go towards public education, the money has been directed elsewhere. Making matters worse, the State Board of Education has adopted a ten-point grading system to make our athletes' grades appear comparable to those of nearby states. 

Another example of the tale wagging the dog. 

The unintended consequences are much worse than that. Now that move has bankrupted the Palmetto Fellows, LIFE and HOPE scholarships. That's what happens when everybody makes A's and B's.  

So far our own legislative delegation has ignored the reality that standards for those scholarships must be raised post haste! However, Rep. Neal Collins of Easley has a good proposal. As he cogently points out, the majority of freshmen lose their scholarships after the first year of college. Something major is going wrong, and it appears to be that the standards for scholarships are too low anyway.

Collins's proposal won't gain much traction because the middle class will bring pressure to bear, but it should see the light of day: eliminate the Hope and Life scholarships and redirect that money--approximately $250 million--to raising public school teachers' salaries. Palmetto Fellows scholarships, whose recipients have a much better track record, would continue untouched. 

If the state must encourage people to gamble, at least the proceeds should benefit K-12 education, the sector that needs it the most. Isn't that what we voted for?

Thursday, January 03, 2019

CCSD's Top 10 Stories 2018: # 9--Magnets and Attendance Zones for Sale

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At Number 9 on our 2018 list of top Charleston County School District stories comes the ever-expanding ability of the rich to purchase seats in CCSD's most desirable magnet schools and attendance zones. When the Board and Superintendent talk about more diversity in those schools, this is not what they have in mind. 

In some ways the chickens are coming home to roost. Interpretation of a 1962 attempt to allow white students to opt out of their school districts is the root cause. One elementary magnet affected is Buist Academy on the peninsula, where a child has a better chance of getting into Harvard, Yale, or MIT. Its lottery has been  subjected to multiple accusations of manipulation by the rich and well-connected, and its Byzantine eligibility lists suffer the same problem as the Academic Magnet and School of the Arts: students need not live in the county if their parents are rich enough to own property there.

If you live in Berkeley or Dorchester Counties, or anywhere else in the state, for that matter, you can scour the listings of dilapidated housing or arcane empty lots to buy a seat. The minimum price is $300--peanuts. And it appears that state legislators are on your side. Otherwise, why hasn't the law been changed? Last year 40 residents of Charleston County were cheated out of seats at Academic Magnet and School of the Arts by rich outsiders taking advantage of the law. 

But it gets worse.

This travesty expanded to buying a school attendance zone last September when parents living on the peninsula gave their child a one-percent share in a Mount Pleasant property they owned so that she could attend Mount Pleasant Academy. 

Look carefully at the Charleston County schools. The poor remain corralled in failing schools while the rich buy their way out. Past School Boards and superintendents created this problem with the collusion of the well connected. 

Why isn't every member of our state legislative delegation attempting to change the law being used, at minimum to raise the cost of the seats so that only millionaires can buy them? Right--they have friends and contributors who might object.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Charleston County School District 2018 Review: Top 10 Problems-- #10

In my arbitrary ranking of 10 problems facing the Charleston County School District during 2018, Safety in Schools comes in at number 10.

Just this week, our local rag published an op-ed bewailing the plight of schoolchildren who fear for their safety in school. That's a false narrative created and enriched by repetitive reporting of isolated events. Statistically, those students are much more likely to be injured in an accident on their way to or from school. Given the age of our school buses, maybe we should teach them to fear that.

As with the other lemmings encouraged by fearful parents, the Charleston County School District kicked into full gear, that is, grandstanding mode.  Yet in January of 2018, students at Gregg Mathis Charter High in a botched robbery shot a man to death on their way to school, then arrived late to class. The threat of bodily harm to CCSD students frequently comes from the student body: was that pistol ever inside Gregg Mathis? Seems likely. 

In March, as students across the country walked out of their schools to protest gun violence, three students at Morningside Middle School were arrested for having and handling a gun on campus. One student brought the gun because someone at school a fellow student had stolen his money. No outsiders needed to apply. Schools' reporting of weapons on campus is hazy at best and self-serving at worst. Perhaps our state legislature should put some teeth into reporting standards, starting with separating guns from knives.

By mid-April, egged on by the national "conversation," the Charleston County School Board set aside $2 million of its operating budget for more security in schools. Here's the list of expenditures that will surely make our schools safe: School resource officer in every elementary school: $1,800,000; District search team: $305,000; Emergency planner: $90,503;Security personnel at district office: $50,000; Private relief officers for elementary schools: $238,000; Private security officers to provide security checks at middle and high schools: $238,000; 24-hour security operations center: $167,000. In other words, mostly more bureaucracy. 

As grandstanding on gun violence wound down along with the school year, a charitable business offered to install bullet-proof doors to a few classrooms in a free pilot program. Actually, it wasn't a charity, but a business hoping that future Board members would spend up to $40 million to replace every classroom door in the county.

Feel less fearful? 

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

CCSD's Top 10 Stories 2018

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In order of increasing importance:
  1. Police and weapons in schools
  2. Magnet seats for sale
  3. Lottery scholarship standards /lottery support of public schools
  4. Overspending on stadiums / image consultant/ diversity consultant, etc.
  5. Principal shuffling/ lawsuits/
  6. Teacher recruitment and retention
  7. Hidden sex abuse at Dunston/ overall transparency
  8. School Board's responsibility: supervise Superintendent/ school board pay
  9. Coalition for Kids slams big bucks
  10. Damned education statistics