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Citizenship in Difficult Times

by Kathy Ridge

April 8,2009

Over the past few weeks, I have watched the implications of Mecklenburg County’s budget crisis become clear. Of particular interest to me, as the head of an organization that advocates for our public school system, have been the actions taken by the CMS administration and school board to make budgetary accommodations that minimize impact on student learning, and the ensuing public discourse that those cuts inspired. I was struck by the widespread misinterpretations, distorted sound bites and overly simplistic news “shorts” (compounded by CMS’s communiqués) that seem to further confound an already disengaged citizenry. I have watched as some school board members who could have rallied and risen in unity to the challenge of common purpose – making the best of a bad situation – revert to predictable accusatory behaviors. And so I am left with the question - how do we tone down the rhetoric and turn up our collective will to keep our public schools strong through these challenging times? 

First, a few clarifications about the budget cuts are in order. Fact 1: Central Office staff was among the first cuts, remaining salaries have been frozen and the superintendent’s bonus cut by 15%. Fact 2: The staff reduction plan calls for reduction of non-career elementary teacher positions (based on performance) before reduction of career positions. Fact 3: Middle school athletics would not be eliminated; the original proposal would have curtailed cross-town competitions for middle-schoolers. Fact 4: Salaries account for 80% of the entire CMS budget and the salaries of teachers account for roughly 80% of all salaries. Given the magnitude of the budget crisis, it is unavoidable that teaching staff will be impacted. 

Adding fuel to an already flaming discourse is the Governor’s message of last week, imploring districts not to cut teachers. In fact, the State budget will not be finalized until the 2009-2010 school year is already underway. Further, the Governor states that she will not support larger class size, although there is growing research to suggest that small classroom size may not be the most important determinant of academic outcomes. Larger classrooms with excellent teachers appear to be a stronger determinant of student success than small to medium size classrooms with average teachers. 

What’s a school system to do? 

In reflecting on the nature of communities and how they behave – in and out of crisis – famed author and consultant Peter Block observes that most community conversations are about escape from accountability - or blaming. We, as citizens, tend to abdicate our responsibility and civic authority to our elected officials, as though they hold all the answers and solutions to our community’s challenges (or so we will have someone to blame when they don’t).

I would propose a different model for community leadership. Each of us must assume the responsibility to learn and lead alongside our elected leaders. We are the ultimate owners of our public school system and so, as tax paying citizens, are duty-bound to protect our interests and investments. 

1. We must dig deeper to learn the details behind the headlines and web captions so we know what is really represented in the CMS budget, what is occurring during the School Board meetings and what the impact will be on all students, particularly those living at the margins of our increasingly fragile local economy. 

2.We must know in which district we reside and which school board member represents us. We must learn their positions on issues, philosophy about public education and how they make decisions on behalf of our children. School board members must be held to account for their representation of the interests of all children, their conduct and their leadership of the school system.

3. We must communicate, both to our district and at-large school board members, high expectations for setting standards, strategy, and direction and for their comportment in the execution of their duties. The gravitas with which they approach their work must befit the enormity of today’s situation and the high stakes facing our children and our community. 

The new leadership model for our schools is us – well informed, engaged, and initiating involvement with our leaders, emphatically communicating our concerns and expectations. There are over 126,000 children depending on us to share in leadership on their behalf.

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