March 04, 2010
|County Grills Schools On Office Staffing|
Meetings of a joint budget committee of the Guilford County Board of Education and the Guilford County Board of Commissioners are turning oddly collegial after months of fighting.
That the committee would be civil was by no means certain. Created a year ago at the instigation of the commissioners and led by County Commissioner Bruce Davis and school board member Kris Cooke, the board was tasked with doing a line-by-line review of the school system's budget, and has met intermittently since to study Guilford County Schools programs and expenditures.
The school board had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the committee table. Its members spent a week last year arguing against the committee's creation, and the commissioners and school board members spent the first several meetings fighting – the commissioners accusing the school system of refusing to provide them information, and the school board defending its honor against what school board members saw as violations of their prerogatives.
That the two boards needed to create something like the joint budget committee wasn't in question. They were court ordered to create something of the kind in 2000, when the school board sued the commissioners for providing less money for the schools than the school board wanted. (In the end, the school board settled for less money than the commissioners had originally offered and declared victory.)
Those first few meetings were fiery, entertaining, but not hugely productive, affairs. Now, after a year of sitting in the same room, the meetings are pretty tame. Part of the reason is simply that the members of the two boards have stopped bristling at the sight of each other. And part is that School Superintendent Mo Green has taken to kicking off each meeting by giving the commissioners reams of documents, blunting the commissioners' outrage at being left out of the loop.
The committee's Tuesday, March 2 meeting focused on school system programs, such as magnet schools, that the commissioners want reviewed to see if they are productive enough to keep paying for. Davis and Commissioners John Parks and Steve Arnold represented the Board of Commissioners. Cooke and school board Chairman Alan Duncan and members Sandra Alexander, Amos Quick and Darlene Garret took the field for the school board.
At recent meetings, the commissioners have asked the school system for reports on a variety of subjects – "our homework," as Green puts it. Green responded Tuesday with reports on magnet schools and on the number of administrators the school system has per student and per teacher.
The figures on the number of administrators are interesting, if only because the commissioners have repeatedly accused Guilford County Schools of being top-heavy with administrators, but numbers on which to judge that accusation have been hard to come by.
According to a breakdown Green provided the commissioners, Guilford County Schools has one central office administrator for every 700 students and one central office administrator for every 49 teachers. The breakdown reports that, statewide, school systems average one central office administrator for every 446 students and one central office administrator for every 30 teachers – but those statistics include smaller school systems that have fewer students and skew the averages.
Green also provided the commissioners the same statistics for five other urban school systems in the state – those in Forsyth, Durham, Wake, Mecklenburg and Cumberland counties. The school systems differ in what employees they consider administrators – Guilford County Schools, for example, includes counselors and other student-service positions in the count, where some other school systems don't
Forsyth County has one administrator for every 238 students and one administrator for every 16 teachers. Durham County has one administrator for every 610 students and one administrator for every 45 teachers. Mecklenburg County has one administrator for every 415 students and one administrator for every 28 teachers. And Cumberland County has one administrator for every 637 students and one administrator for every 42 teachers.
That, if accurate, makes Guilford County Schools lighter on central office administrators, either per student or per teacher, than the other large school systems in the state. But there is no uniformity to the reporting, as the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction does not require school systems to use any standard method of reporting administrators.
The big discrepancy in the data is Wake County Public School System, which came in much lower still, reporting one administrator for every 1,268 students and one administrator for every 87 teachers. Guilford County Schools Chief Financial Officer Sharon Ozment, who presented the report, said that conversations with administrators in Raleigh revealed that the Wake County system lists only its most senior administrators – what in Guilford County is called, "the cabinet" – when reporting how many central office administrators it has.
"Simply put, the difference is in methodology," Ozment said. "We do not think it's an indication that Wake is staffed any leaner than Charlotte-Mecklenburg or Guilford County Schools."
The Guilford County Schools administrators also told the commissioners that Guilford County Schools has an average student-teacher ratio of 14 to 1 – something that surprised Arnold.
"That strikes me as being a good student ratio," Arnold said. "It may be too good."
"The class sizes in all my schools are not 14 to 1," she said. "I don't know how that got in there."
Duncan said that ratio includes teachers who are not always in front of classes, including coaches and teachers of special subjects. He said actual class sizes range from the low to mid 20s in elementary schools to as high as 60 in some high school classes.
"You're not looking at classrooms that are 14 to 1," Duncan said. "We don't have that."
The report on magnet schools was material that had been presented at school board meetings before. The commissioners wanted it because magnet schools are expensive. The school system spends about $6 million on transportation alone for magnet and choice programs each year.
Magnet schools – specialized schools that draw students from across the county, rather than from geographically limited attendance zones – in Guilford County offer programs in subjects such as global studies, science, technology, Spanish, Mandarin, art, leadership and aviation. Guilford County Schools now has 50 magnet programs in 44 schools.
Of those schools, Green has identified 11 as failing, and next year, Guilford County Schools will remake the programs at four of the 11. Green plans to turn Montlieu Math and Science Academy, which has never been particularly good at math or science, into a magnet school for "21st century technology"; Bluford Communications Magnet into a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) magnet; Parkview A+ Magnet into an "expressive arts" magnet; and Hampton Leadership Academy into a "university school" at which students would be coached by tutors from local colleges.
Some of the magnet programs are funded for their first three years by federal grants – which explains why Green is changing the failing magnet programs at the four schools, rather than just turning them into neighborhood schools.
Davis said, "The philosophy I'm hearing is that we just try to keep it going to keep that money coming."
Green acknowledged that was true for those four schools – but said the school board could decide to do anything it wants with any of the schools.
Cooke said, "That option is always there."
Quick, who has been the most vocal opponent of magnet schools that don't work, said he and the other school board members thought long and hard before approving the four new magnet programs. He said, "We've had a lot of conversation about whether we should continue down the path we're traveling, or change."
Magnet schools were originally created as a form of voluntary desegregation, although Duncan said the rationale for the schools is changing. He said, "Some remnants of that terminology is still there in the magnet grants."
Green has also proposed a new magnet school for Allen Jay Middle School in High Point, although its not yet clear exactly what the program will teach. Guilford County Schools Chief Academic Officer Beth Folger said the school would combine the programs and methods of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools, the Ron Clark Academy private school in Atlanta and the Mastery Charter Schools chain.
The school board will hold a work session on magnet school programs on Friday, March 5.