Thursday, November 20, 2014

Ann Clark goes 'full Hillary' on question about CMS' top job

Will she or won't she? That's the question of the moment when it comes to acting Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent Ann Clark, the veteran administrator who assumed the duties of the school system's top job early this month after the school board voted to accept Heath Morrison's resignation.

Clark has been around the school system some 32 years, and was a finalist for the superintendent's job in 2012 when the board instead picked Morrison. She was the steady, reliable insider who rose through the ranks. He was charismatic outsider, a national Superintendent of the Year winner. But he flamed out here under the weight of a report from the school district's general counsel that said his fiery temperament had stoked a "culture of fear" among employees.

The board asked Clark to lead the district on an interim basis, but hasn't decided whether to pursue a national search for a permanent replacement. The board didn't even officially name her the interim superintendent. At a press briefing Thursday, reporters asked her the inevitable question: Do you want the job permanently?

She went into full Hillary Clinton mode.

"Everyone's clear that I applied for the superintendent's position two and a half years ago, but I'll be honest, I've really not had the opportunity to hit pause on the day to day operations of the district in the last three weeks to really be thoughtful about what the next step is in my leadership journey. Nor have I had the chance to talk with the board. I'm hoping I'll have that time over Thanksgiving break to really be thoughtful. But I'm just clear my task right now is to move us forward. And that's what I'm doing."

Ann Clark is "being thoughtful" about applying for the top CMS job in the same way Hillary Clinton is "being thoughtful" about deciding whether to run for president in 2016. Which is to say Clark clearly wants it and has likely already decided to pursue it -- she's just not ready to spell it out publicly yet.

Ann Clark addresses the media Thursday
A couple of points are already clear, however. One is that the school board can't afford to take a breather right now. They must surely be tempted, after these tumultuous few weeks, to step back and collect their thoughts while Clark steers the ship. But they need to decide, sooner rather than later, whether they will launch another national superintendent's search, or if they're inclined to give the job permanently to the always-reliable, if not flashy, Clark.

Comforting though her presence must be, Clark cannot fill the gaping leadership void left by Morrison's departure without the full weight of the office behind her. Every directive she gives the staff comes with an asterisk, subject to change by the next permanent superintendent.

And speaking of asterisks, there's a second point that must be made. Morrison's departure has left a cloud of questions around Clark. General counsel George Battle's report quoted Clark as saying Morrison created the "culture of fear" among the staff.  Asked about that by the Observer's Andrew Dunn, Clark declined to say whether that quote was accurate or whether she brought any concerns about Morrison to the board or to Morrison himself.

She cited Morrison's separation agreement, approved by the board, which includes confidentiality and nondisparagement clauses.  We understand there are legal issues involved here. But public confidence in CMS and the board has been badly dented. If Clark decides to announce for the job, and if the board wants to give it to her, those questions must be addressed somehow.

But for now, board members seem desirous of a break from the problem. At their meeting Wednesday, they didn't take up the issue of next steps in the search for a new superintendent. Chairwoman Mary McCray said the board already knows its next steps -- teaching and learning, as outlined in CMS' overall strategic plan.

That's fine. But you need a CEO to implement that plan -- one who isn't distracted by questions about whether the job is his or hers to keep. The board would be wise not to let another meeting pass without addressing the issue.

-- Eric Frazier

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Snitch? Charlotte Disturber? George, that hurts...

A good rule of thumb: When politicians start lashing out at colleagues and others, they're usually feeling defensive about something. When it's Mecklenburg commissioner George Dunlap, it's also a reminder that good manners aren't a requirement for public office.

Dunlap had another one of his outbursts Monday. In a post on his Facebook page, he called fellow Democratic commissioner Pat Cotham a "snitch on the board."  He also questioned her ethics and leadership and said that she "can't be trusted."

Cotham, of course, is an at-large commissioner who was the leading vote-getter in November's election. In every election in the last quarter century, the leading vote-getter is named commission chair for at least a year. But current chair Trevor Fuller is lobbying to keep the job, despite finishing in third place, 22,000 votes behind Cotham. Dunlap and four other board Democrats don't want Cotham to have the gavel, and they're feeling some heat.

Dunlap also is apparently still upset that former Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones was dismissed by the Cotham-led board last year. In his Facebook post, he said that Cotham was doing the bidding of the "Charlotte Disturber," which wanted Jones fired.

He got part of it right. The Observer's editorial board had long believed that Jones should be replaced, as did many others, including six of Dunlap's fellow commissioners. Dunlap might be disappointed to learn, however, that Cotham didn't call the Observer for approval or permission. (He also might be disappointed to learn that we kind of like "Disturber." It's part of what we do.)

If Dunlap were an editorial page reader, he'd know that although we endorsed Cotham - and Fuller - we've also been sharply critical of her for shutting fellow Democrats out of Jones' dismissal and other board discussions. Dunlap complained mightily about that, too, but he didn't seem so bothered this summer when he and four Democrats forgot to tell board Republicans and Cotham about the quarter-cent sales tax referendum they had crafted for a vote.

Normally, Dunlap being Dunlap is not news, but this time it's part of a larger tension on the board regarding who should be chair. Dunlap and the other Democrats know well the precedent of the leading vote-getter receiving the chair's gavel - in 2010, Dunlap actually asked the rhetorical question "Under what circumstances does the third highest vote-getter become the chair?"

Now, Dunlap and the Democrats have a laughable answer - that they adopted a policy last year stating that board members can elect the chair. Translated: We're ignoring the will of the people because we adopted a policy that said we can ignore the will of the people.

That policy was unnecessary. Commissioners were never bound by the people's vote when determining the board chair. They were just smart enough to acknowledge it and abide by it.

They should again. We don't expect that of Dunlap and some others, but we do of Fuller. He could put an end to the silliness by declining the chair and throwing his support behind Cotham.

Fuller didn't do that last year and looked opportunistic because of it. That probably contributed to his finishing ahead of only Republicans this month in a predominantly Democratic county. The people have a way of reminding you that they count. The commissioners - all of them - should listen.

Peter St. Onge

(This post has been updated to reflect that in every election for the past quarter century, the leading at-large vote getter is named commission chair for at least a year.)  

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Gov. Jim Hunt pumps up the faithful

Former Gov. Jim Hunt, North Carolina's most noted champion of public education, threw some red meat to a crowd of advocates in Charlotte this morning.

Hunt raised N.C. teacher pay from the dumps to the national average during the last of his four terms in office. So he has the credentials to talk about the state's current embarrassment on teacher pay. He gave a nod to the teacher pay raise the legislature approved this summer but pointed out that "Veteran teachers who have spent their whole life teaching our children, they received a mere pittance and lost their longevity pay."

N.C. teacher pay is below that of South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia, Hunt told the MeckEd breakfast crowd. He told the story of a friend whose daughter could take a job as a first-year teacher in South Carolina paying $41,000 -- the same amount she would make after teaching in North Carolina for 15 years.

North Carolina's low pay is driving teachers out of the profession, Hunt said. The number leaving the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has nearly doubled over the past four years, he said, and enrollment in UNC schools of education has plummeted.

"Where will our future teachers come from?" Hunt asked. "Will we have enough good teachers?"

Hunt laid out Charlotte-Mecklenburg's proud history on education -- from leading the way on desegregation to helping create public school kindergarten in North Carolina -- and said education leaders need to build on that now.

He urged the community to support the quarter-cent sales tax referendum on this fall's ballot.

"You can be the best school district in America if you work at it," Hunt said.

-- Taylor Batten

Monday, September 22, 2014

Long Leaf Pine gets license plate

N.C. Rep. Bill Brawley joined a packed room full of recipients of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine at The Levine Museum of the New South on Sunday. And he had some news for them. A special license plate is now available to state troopers and other law enforcement, designating their honor.
Brawley said in jest that it could prove helpful if a recipient got stopped by law enforcers.

Probably not.

But Brawley was right in acknowledging that the Order of the Long Leaf Pine designation does recognize a lot of public and community service that is significant and worthy of taking note of. That's what happened Sunday at the reception at the Levine. It was the brainchild of well-known community activist Theresea Elder and was coordinated by former district court Judge Nancy Norelli, UNC Charlotte's Jennifer Harkey and Levine historian Tom Hanchett.

Among the recipients who showed up were former Commerce Secretary Howard Haworth (in Republican Jim Martin's administration) who is also chairman emeritus of the North Carolina State Board of Education.

The Levine event was the first ever gathering of recipients of The Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the state's highest civilian honor.

The award was created in the 1960s during Gov. Terry Sanford's administration and is given by governors to those who have done great service to their N.C. communities or the state, or those who have significant achievements in their lives. The certificate dubs the recipient an “ambassador extraordinary.” Some well-known North Carolinians lay claim to being part of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine. Among them are evangelist Billy Graham, poet and entertainer Maya Angelou, artist Bob Timberlake and Hornets owner Michael Jordan.

The award is truly egalitarian though, honoring teachers, community leaders as well as politicians and famous N.C. residents. On Sunday, the broad swath of civicly engaged and community-minded honorees were represented.

Phillip Fisher, who founded The Order of the Long Leaf Pine Society, said a statewide reception is being planned for next year. Fisher has compiled  a list of the more than 15,000 recipients after discovering the state had not kept a comprehensive list of recipients.

-- Fannie Flono

Monday, September 15, 2014

Harold Cogdell: I know why Greg Hardy deserved better

More than a decade ago, then-Charlotte City Council member Harold Cogdell was charged with misdemeanor assault on a female. His subsequent journey through the court system offers him a somewhat unique perspective on the Panthers' decision Sunday to deactivate defensive lineman Greg Hardy in light of a pending domestic violence charges.

Hardy, as you know, was found guilty by a District Court judge in July of assaulting and threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend. He awaits a full jury trial, which could take place in November but might be delayed until early next year. Cogdell was found guilty by a District Court just in 2002 of pushing a former employee down a staircase. Like Hardy, he chose to pursue to full jury trial and was found not guilty.

On Monday, Cogdell sent his thoughts to the Observer's Editorial Board.


I never thought there would be a set of circumstances that would motivate me to want to remind the general public about my own legal troubles that I found myself in several years ago.  In January 2002, a former female employee accused me of assault.  Let me be clear, at no time did I ever assault her.  I had just gotten elected to the Charlotte City Council and local media followed my case closely as it progressed through the court system.  

After a bench trial in front of a District Court Judge I was found guilty.   I appealed.  Immediately upon appealing a misdemeanor, a defendant’s conviction is set aside (no longer guilty of the offense) and the defendant is entitled to a new trial.  Several months later I was found Not Guilty by a jury.  During the almost 18 months the case was pending, I continued to serve on the Charlotte City Council and practice law.  In the minds of some, I was guilty period - without any need to know the facts or hear any evidence.      
As we all make up the court of public opinion, it is important for us to be mindful that there many unknown facts about virtually any pending legal case and there are instances where purported victims or witnesses have unscrupulous motives.   In theory, a defendant is presumed to be innocent unless and until 12 jurors unanimously find him/her guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  It is disheartening that the instantaneous nature of our society has gravitated so far away from this cornerstone of our judicial system.  Keeping an open mind and admitting that there too many unknowns to form an opinion about a specific alleged domestic violence incident is not the same as being apathetic about or turning a blind eye to an unacceptable culture to violence against women.  

I am very disappointed in the Carolina Panthers decision to deactivate Greg Hardy prior to allowing the judicial process to run its course.  However, I am even more disappointed in the general public’s increasing willingness to rapidly form deeply entrenched opinions about situations and issues armed with such a limited understanding of relevant facts and circumstances.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Roy Cooper, aspiring governor

If there was any doubt that Attorney General Roy Cooper plans to run for governor in 2016, Cooper erased it today with a fiery speech to Charlotte Democrats.

Cooper has been dropping plenty of hints in recent months that he hopes to take on Republican Gov. Pat McCrory two years from now. But the four-term AG (that's attorney general, not aspiring governor) gave what was probably his most emphatic, political speech yet to the Uptown Democratic Forum.

Cooper told the crowd that North Carolina is now controlled "not just by Republicans but extremists." He ticked off all the biggest Democratic talking points -- from voting restrictions to teacher pay to Medicaid expansion to environmental safeguards -- and then said: "We have to beat them at the ballot box."

"2016 will be the battle for the heart and soul of North Carolina," Cooper said. "That's when we will take our state back from these extremists" and elect a new governor.

Asked by reporters afterward whether it was safe to say he's officially in the race, Cooper all but said yes. "It's too early to make a formal announcement, but I'm concerned about our state and I'm clearly making plans." Asked why it's too early, Cooper said "we need to get through the 2014 elections" and "show that I'm doing my job as attorney general every day."

Cooper repeatedly referred to the "extremists" running Raleigh. Is Gov. McCrory an extremist, Cooper was asked? "The policies he has supported have been extreme," Cooper said.

A Democratic challenger could still emerge to create a Democratic primary. But it's increasingly looking like Cooper vs. McCrory might be the second-biggest fight on the 2016 card, right under the presidential race.

-- Taylor Batten

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Roger Goodell wasn't just wrong

Now it's Roger Goodell's turn.

The NFL commissioner did the right thing Monday after it was the only thing left to do.

He suspended Baltimore's Ray Rice indefinitely after video released Monday showed what most everyone already suspected, that Rice knocked out his then-fiancee in an Atlantic City elevator in Februrary. But the new video might be almost as damning to Goodell as it is to Rice, because it's prompted everyone to take another look at Goodell's initial two-game suspension for the player in July.

It might not get easier for the commish today. TMZ, which released the elevator video Monday, was back today with casino officials who said they would've given the NFL a copy of the video, if the NFL had asked for one.

The NFL says that it asked Atlantic City police and other law enforcement for the elevator video, along with any other pertinent evidence. Police didn't supply the video, according to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, so no one in the NFL offices watched it.

It's a lame defense, and it's ultimately just as contemptible.

First, the lame. The NFL - with its powerful private security force and relationships with all levels of law enforcement - couldn't get its hands on the same casino video that the police, Ray Rice's attorney, and TMZ managed to get? The NFL could also have asked casino officials for a copy. It could have asked Rice's attorney, who might have balked but had no real leverage to say no. 

But the NFL didn't ask. Because Goodell must not have wanted to know. Because the commissioner knew what we all knew. That Janay Palmer walked into that elevator conscious. That she was dragged out of that elevator unconscious. That it was hard to imagine any kind of reason that would justify her ending up that way.

But without visual evidence of those moments between, Rice and the Ravens and Goodell had just enough space to craft a way out. So the Ravens and Rice constructed the fiction that Janay Palmer was complicit in getting knocked out, that Ray was merely defending himself. They put her up in front of the cameras with Rice. They released this tweet:

Goodell, when he ruled that Rice deserved to miss only two games, made sure to note how counseling had been beneficial to both Ray and Janay Rice. Because this awful moment wasn't just Ray's fault.

It was a well-crafted, reprehensible falsehood.

No one really bought it then, which is what prompted Goodell to admit he was wrong and introduce a new, stern domestic violence policy.

But now we have another Ray Rice video, and now we know that Roger Goodell didn't perform the most basic NFL duty. He didn't watch the film before making the call.

Instead, he let a lie happen. A troubling and telling lie. It's his turn to go.

Peter St. Onge

Monday, September 8, 2014

'Contract to Cheat' and the newspaper industry

Updated 10:57 p.m. Monday

The Observer and other McClatchy newspapers this week are reporting the results of a year-long investigation of how the construction industry avoids billions in taxes by misclassifying workers. By calling them independent contractors rather than employees, the companies avoid payroll taxes, unemployment taxes, workers' compensation and other costs.

Most of these workers are clearly employees, not independent contractors. State and federal law and rules spell out the criteria for each. Many of the employers in the series essentially acknowledge as much.

Newspapers have long treated their carriers as independent contractors, and a few readers have sent letters to the editor saying the newspaper industry is guilty of the same thing our "Contract to Cheat" series reveals.

Phillip DeWitt of Huntersville, for example, writes: "I agree with your article that taxes and wages are short-changed in the illegal use of contract workers. But The Observer needs to get its own house in order. Your use of contract workers in the distribution of your newspaper is one and the same." Writes Coy Powell of Charlotte: "Should not The Observer, and McClatchy, clean your own house first? Will you publicize pay records for your carriers? I don't think I'll hold my breath on this one."

Some newspaper contractors have raised these issues in court -- and lost. As a story in Sunday's Observer said, McClatchy, which owns the Observer, and other newspaper companies have successfully defended the practice on various occasions. Other newspapers -- such as the Orange County Register -- have paid settlements, and the San Diego Union Tribune lost a case involving its carriers. The Sacramento Bee and the Fresno Bee currently face lawsuits on the question that could be resolved this fall.

The question with newspaper carriers is complex and hinges on each state's laws and on precisely how the job is structured and documented. McClatchy and the Observer argue that their carriers are correctly classified as independent contractors under the law.

UPDATE: I contacted Heather Fagundes, McClatchy's vice president of human resources, who said that McClatchy has several procedures and protections in place to ensure that all workers are classified correctly. The company, she said, regularly uses audits, training, legally approved contracts and gatekeepers who review contractor relationships in order to stay in compliance.

-- Taylor Batten

Thursday, September 4, 2014

5 questions I'm pondering today

Thinking about these: 

1. Does Henry McCollum, freed off North Carolina's Death Row Wednesday after 31 years, have the photo ID he needs to vote?

2. If President Obama is a Muslim and is undercutting America to further his radical Muslim plans, why do ISIS Muslims hate him so?

     2a. Does anyone believe Obama when he says he is going to “destroy” ISIS?

3. Did the promise that Medicaid expansion would be funded with federal money and essentially be free to the states hinge on many states turning it down? If every state had expanded Medicaid, as North Carolina should have, would every state essentially be paying its own way?

4. With the world on fire and domestic issues pressing, was the most lasting takeaway of Wednesday’s U.S. Senate debate that Thom Tillis alienated women and undecided voters by calling Sen. Kay Hagan “Kay” throughout most of it?

5. It’s fantastic that CMS graduation rates have climbed for five straight years and are now at 85 percent. But do we know what percentage of those graduates are truly prepared for college and work in the 21st century?

-- Taylor Batten