Friday, January 30, 2009

No bonuses for CMS senior staff

Maybe President Barack Obama got through to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' leadership too. On Thursday Obama scolded Wall Street bankers who received millions of dollars in bonuses last year, calling the payouts "shameful" and irresponsible. "Thew will be a time for them to get bonuses," Obama said. "Now's not that time."

That's what CMS superintendent Peter Gorman said this morning too. There will be no bonuses for senior staff this year, he said during the discussion with school board members of anticipated big budget cuts.

Gorman gave that as an example of cuts already being made. But given the furor over clueless bank executives giving out big bonuses while their companies imploded, his public announcement might have been attempt to stave off a potential storm here too.

Temper, temper, Larry Gauvreau

Things didn't suit Charlotte-Mecklenburg School board member Larry Gauvreau at this morning's CMS session on possible budget cuts. So a little more than half way through the meeting he grabbed his stuff and left in a noisy huff.

He wasn't interested in listening to a report from Education Resource Strategies, the consultants who were suggesting strategic ways to use available resources. He said the report compared apples to oranges when it looked at other school systems nationwide vs. CMS because the cost of living is different. But the consultant said the figures were adjusted for regional cost differences.

Umm. Maybe Gauvreau, a constant CMS critic, just didn't like that fact that the comparisons put CMS in a favorable light. For instance it showed CMS spent less on its central administration than all but two of the seven urban districts.

But Gauvreau really got ticked off when the CMS staff starting talking about potential budget cuts. The state government, which provides much of the school system's money, is asking for budget reductions. So is the county. CMS staff identified potential cuts of 5 percent or so based on suggestions from the state and Mecklenburg County, which provides the second largest chunk of money for the schools.

But what about my request for a scenario showing 10 percent cut, Gauvreau asked. Did you do that? No, said Gorman tersely.


A few moments later, Gauvreau was gone.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Partner benefits: Yes, study them

Despite the usual sexually tinged remarks from Mecklenburg County commissioner Bill James, the board of commissioners Thursday agreed, 6-3, that yes, it will study whether to offer benefits to domestic partners of county employees.

It's the right decision. Further, commissioners are right to ask county staff to be sure to give them information on the legality of such a move, and whether it would add to costs, and how such a benefit might be structured to inhibit fraud. While adding the benefits is the right thing to do, the commissioners should know the fiscal and/or legal repercussions of such a decision.

Instead of debating the issue, each commissioner was asked to give his or her position on whether to study the proposal, so the discussion was civil and relatively tame – at least until James got going. James opposes the idea and has in the past made remarks that some consider anti-gay. It was James who, in a mass e-mail, called the domestic partner issue "icky."

At one point, he asked commissioners' chair Jennifer Roberts – who was trying to say that the issue isn't about sex – whether she has sex with her "domestic partner" (she's married). Then James (also married) noted that he does have sex with his.

Commissioner James, there are some things we really would rather not hear you discussing. Yes, "icky" is about right.
- Posted by Mary Newsom

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What's United Way afraid of?

United Way of Central Carolinas talks about transparency and disclosure. Yet it has pulled the curtain tight and refused the public any meaningful details that would explain the extravagant expense account of a former director it fired.
C'mon. folks. You say you want people to trust you again. This is a crucial test. And you're flunking.
What's so urgent? Airing those details is the only way to show whether the executive board provided sufficient oversight of the director's spending.
Read the Observer story here.

United Way officials said they do not want to divulge itemized details such as what hotels former director Gloria Pace King stayed in and what food she ate to amass a $2,800 meal bill during four trips.
That's insulting to the public that is being asked to support United Way with donations despite the record of secrecy and lack of oversight by the executive committee that led to a huge mistake: a lavish compensation package for King that was way out of whack with what other CEO's make.
Time after time, board chair Carlos Evans has pledged disclosure and transparency. He has sounded serious, and sincere.
But this isn’t walking the walk.
C'mon. United Way has a problem. It's lost public confidence and must clean up its act to regain it.
Give the public the details. That's the only way anyone can know whether what was spent was reasonable or ridiculous - and whether a valuable community organization is in fact changing poor habits.
- posted by Mary Schulken

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Anti-immigrant mood dropping in N.C.

We've always been surprised at the intensity of anti-immigrant sentiment in North Carolina. Several polls over the years, including ones by The Charlotte Observer, consistently showed immigration as one of the most pressing issues for North Carolinians. It placed ahead of health care and education in more than one poll.

Well that, like so many other things, apparently was a luxury that folks can no longer afford. Public Policy Polling in Raleigh this afternoon released results of a new poll about what issues most concern N.C. voters, a question PPP asks regularly. The economy is far and away #1, of course. And the Iraq war has all but disappeared as voters' top worry.

But Tom Jensen of PPP highlights one particular finding. In October 2007, immigration was the biggest concern of 10 percent of voters in a PPP poll. Then that number dropped to 9 percent, then 5, then 4 and now 3.

"I guess for some voters having immigration as your biggest issue is a luxury that can be afforded only when the economy is relatively strong," Jensen says.

It confirms what a number of strategists were saying last year -- that immigration had declined as an issue among voters in North Carolina, who were concerned about real issues and not whether someone was going to college at out-of-state rates. Gov. Bev Perdue's people surely knew this, and why she pandered to a voting group that did not exist in any significant number continues to be a mystery.

Go here for more detail.

-- Posted by Taylor Batten and Jack Betts

Monday, January 26, 2009

The guy with the gilded trashcan


We've heard of golden parachutes. Now, we get the gilded wastebasket.
You can say you're sorry, Mr. Thain, but you can't erase your new image in the minds of millions who – until last week – probably didn't know you from Marie Antoinette. You're the guy with the $35,000 "commode on legs," an $87,000 area rug and a $1,405 wastebastket.

John Thain (above, left) was the former CEO of Merrill Lynch & Co., which Bank of America bought last September, although the deal didn't close until Jan. 1. He lasted only three weeks with BofA, and "resigned" Thursday, after it became public how many colossal PR screw-ups he had managed to squeeze into a relatively short period of time.

While Merrill Lynch was losing $15.3 billion in the fourth quarter of last year, Thain signed off on bonuses that the Financial Times has reported were $3 billion to $4 billion – paid out in December instead of January as had been the habit. To compare, the proposed stimulus package for the whole state of South Carolina is $3.2 billion.

Driving Merrill Lynch into the toilet was, in Thain's mind, a strong enough performance that he reportedly was lobbying in October for a $30 million to $40 million bonus for himself. By December he'd lowered it to a mere $5 million to 10 million – December also being the month that BofA was learning that Merrill's losses were far vaster than it had known. (No, he didn't get the bonus.)

And last week CNBC broke the news of Thain's amazing $1.2 million office makeover, which included a $35,000 "commode with legs," a 19th-century credenza for $68,000, and that "parchment waste can" for $1,405.

Today Thain said those purchases had been "a mistake in the light of the world we live in today," and he'll reimburse the company for the costs. He said the size of the bonuses had been determined "together with Bank of America." BofA noted that before Jan. 1 it had no legal standing to say yes or no to any Merrill payouts. (BofA CEO Ken Lewis -- above, right -- had previously recommended that he and his top reports not receive bonuses for 2008.)

Here's the scary part: Thain was considered a bright guy who might have been a successor to Lewis. He was CEO of the New York Stock Exchange for a time. At Goldman Sachs, he was No. 2 to Hank Paulson, who became President George W. Bush's Treasury secretary.

And the man is obviously clueless, with a blind spot the size of an $87,000 area rug, and the common sense of an armadillo trying to cross a country road with cars zipping past. He's one of Wall Street's best and brightest? Hmmmm. That may explain some things.
– Posted by Mary Newsom
More Thain reading:

Friday, January 23, 2009

An Obama 'bounce' for students?

Barack Obama has been president less than a week but professors from Vanderbilt, Northwestern and San Diego state universities say they’ve already documented the “Obama effect” on black students.

They gave a 20-question test, gleaned from the Graduate Record Exam, to blacks and whites before Obama’s nomination and after his acceptance speech, and again after the presidential election. On the initial test last summer, whites on average correctly answered about 12 of 20 questions, compared with about 8.5 correct answers for blacks. But on the tests administered immediately after Obama's nomination acceptance speech, and just after his election victory, black performance improved, rendering the white-black gap “statistically nonsignificant,” researchers said.


Harvard professor Ronald F. Ferguson, who studies the achievement gap, wasn't surprised. He said there is "empirical support for the proposition that Obama's election could increase the sense of competence among African-Americans, and it could reduce the anxiety associated with taking difficult test questions.” In SAT test score comparisons in past years, researchers have found that blacks performed significantly poorer when asked at the start to fill out a form identifying themselves by race.
The study has not yet undergone peer review, and academics said they would be interested to see if other researchers would be able to replicate its results.
A lot of teachers, parents, politicians and others are likely anxious too.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hot lead on United Way exec


While donations to United Way of Central Carolina crater, something's going very, very right in High Point.
The campaign there is the only one in North Carolina to exceed its goal this year.
Read about it here.
Hmmm. Is High Point fertile ground for recruiting a new director for the ailing local agency, struggling to overcome public doubt after granting former director Gloria Pace King's a luxurious compensation package?
The campaign chair is Coy Williard. Check out this photo of him in a female N.C. State cheerleader outfit (he's a die-hard Chapel Hill fan) He's promised to walk down Main Street in it as a gimmick to raise money.
It's a far cry from King's famous fashions, but with the right colors, that just might work in Charlotte.
- posted by Mary Schulken


-

Get the smoke out of N.C.!


We're sick and tired tired of South Carolina being more modern than North Carolina.
Just over the South Carolina line, in Rock Hill, you can safely eat, drink (or work) in a restaurant or bar without risking your life.
Not here in Charlotte. That's because N.C. stubbornly refuses to let city and county governments ban smoking in public establishments. And our lawmakers have repeatedly rejected a statewide ban.
N.C. needs to get the smoke out. We're behind the times.
Three years ago, the U.S. Surgeon General said any (yes, ANY) exposure to secondhand smoke is dangerous.
Twenty-four states have banned smoking in public places. Here's a map. (Note we're surrounded by public health-minded states.)
Here, too, are the latest cancer stats from the American Cancer Society.
The issue isn't just the health of patrons. It's protecting North Carolina workers who breathe smoke for hours.
It's time to snuff the danger. Go to http://www.ncleg.net/homePage.pl, find your lawmaker's e-mail address, and send this message: "Get the smoke out of N.C.!"
In the meantime, if you want to dine and drink safely (or want your college kid to work somewhere he or she isn't exposed to danger with each breath), here's a list of smoke-free dining establishments in N.C.
- posted by Mary Schulken

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama's first compromise?

Today's editorial cartoon prompted a few emails from readers debating whose fault it was that the Presidential Oath got flubbed. Looking again at the tape, here's my take on it:

It seems to be mostly Roberts' fumble. Obama is a little too eager, and starts repeating after Roberts before the Chief Justice is ready to pause. This rattles Roberts, who then messes up the words to the rest of the Oath, putting the word "faithfully" in the wrong spot. Obama pauses, recognizing the error, and waits for Roberts to start over and get it right. Then Roberts stumbles around, trying to correct himself, and Obama then repeats the first garbled version that Roberts had said. It strikes me as Obama's first official compromise of his administration -- as in, "Ok, have it your way." We'll see if the bipartisianship continues.
-- posted by Kevin Siers


The Cult of "Responsibility"

New President Barack Obama has called for a "new era of responsibility." Some folks are soooo ready to get behind this. Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, for instance, have released a internet video pledging to the "be the change" they want in an Obama administration. They're joined by a bunch of other celebs (Cameron Diaz, Sean "Diddy" Combs, Joel Schumacher, Eva Longoria, Jason Bateman and others) all declaring what they're ready to do to make this a better planet. Not bad stuff individually, but a little scary when taken in one dose, almost a parody of cultish liberalism. The last 30 seconds are the best.

How about you? Are you ready to pledge to be a servant of Barack Obama?
--posted by Kevin Siers

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Wells Fargo knows N.C.? Not!


Wells Fargo is reaching out to North Carolina, its newest territory in the merged sea-to-shining-sea bank. If you haven't spied the new TV commercial that showcases icons from the states where the combined Wells-Fargo-Wachovia has a presence, take a look.

It's a pretty obvious pitch to be seen as a hometown bank in N.C.
You'll recognize the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, which is Wells Fargo headquarters.
And you'll also pick out the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse at Buxton on the N.C. Outer Banks.
There's probably no more recognizable symbol of the Tar Heel State than that 208-foot historic light. (Here's a live cam Lighthouse cam.
But the PR honchos for this plug to think of Wells Fargo as one of us missed one detail. The commercial shows the familiar black-and-white spiral striped lighthouse perched on the sand, with the waves of the Atlantic breaking near its base.
Anybody from North Carolina - or who knows about North Carolina - knows the lighthouse is no longer on the lip of the Atlantic. Erosion threatened its base, and it was moved 10 years ago to a spot some half-mile inland. There are ponds nearby, but no lapping ocean.
Wells Fargo may know banking, but it apparently doesn't know North Carolina.
Hometown bank? Not yet.

- posted by Mary Schulken

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

George Bush the gracious?


Fair's fair.

Yesterday we had fun at George Bush's expense, sharing a compendium of Bushisms (that's become a new genre in his eight years) as we look back on presidential slips of the tongue.

Today we came across a remarkably gracious comment by the president in an interview this week with talk show host Larry King. King asked the president if he was ambivalent about the change of power in the White House and the inaugaration of Barack Obama. Here's the reply:

George Bush: No. I don't think you can be ambivalent. I've been looking forward to the inauguration of Barack Obama. I'll have a front row seat in what is an historic moment for the country.

King: Do you like him?

George Bush: Yes, I do like him, and you'd like him, too.

That's gracious, Mr. President. And downright eloquent. Thanks for reminding us presidential rhetoric cuts both ways.

Here's a link to the entire interview.

And, here's a sampler of other coherent (dare we say articulate?) Bush quotes, such as this one:

"After the chaos and carnage of September 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers."

Other sources for non-embarrassing Bush quotes:

http://thinkexist.com/quotes/george_w._bush/
http://www.allgreatquotes.com/george_w_bush_quotes.shtml

A little googling shows W could be deliberately (not accidentially) humorous, too. Click here to browse more examples such as this:

"I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to come and witness my hanging."

Now if you've had enough serious stuff, don’t miss this great BBC story about Bush's gaffes that has good video links.

- posted by Mary Schulken

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The last Bushism?


From President George Bush's press conference Monday:
"I'm telling you there's an enemy that would like to attack America, Americans, again. There just is. That's the reality of the world. And I wish him all the very best."

Do what?

In one short week, the master of malapropisms will exit the stage, leaving a legacy littered with Bushisms. Not since Vice President Dan Quayle have we seen such mangled meanings and misplaced modifiers.

In honor of that record and that pending exit, we offer a compendium.
Click here for Bushism such as these:

"You know, one of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror." -­ interview with CBS News' Katie Couric, Sept. 6, 2006
"I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family." — Greater Nashua, N.H., Chamber of Commerce, Jan. 27, 2000

Also check out Jacob Weisberg of Slate.com, one of the most attentive collectors of Bushisms over the years.
Want audio of actual statements?
How about videos? There's plenty.
And as we say good-bye to the era of W-speak, remember this:

"I've been in the Bible every day since I've been the president." - George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., Nov. 12, 2008

-posted by Kevin Siers and Mary Schulken

UNC Charlotte dissed?


Monday we told you the City Council was going to the National Whitewater Center this year for its annual planning retreat.
We predicted, somewhat light-heartedly, that might signal rough water might be ahead. Well, let's just call today's chapter "as the turbulence swirls." Here's the skinny:

District representatives Michael Barnes and James Mitchell wanted the retreat, coming up in less than three weeks, to be held at UNC Charlotte and took issue with the planning committee's recommendation to hold it at the Whitewater Center.

Barnes, a Democrat whose district includes the university, suggested the committee had dissed UNCC without even considering it. The city council ought to make a gesture and work on that relationship, he said, especially after a 2007 retreat on campus was cut short by ice and snow.
Then the water really started to roll.

"This is ridiculous," said Council member Andy Dulin, a Republican who represents south Charlotte. "The committee gets together and plans it and we show up."

"It (UNCC) did not come up in two meetings where we discussed this retreat that we ought to move it to UNC Charlotte," said John Lassiter, a Republican who served on the planning committee. "We are taking our eye off the ball of what we've been trying to do here. It's what people are not happy with in the subject matter that we ought to be talking about."

Hear, hear, councilman.

Barnes is right to insist that the City Council give the university the prominence its due as a valuable community resource. But this frantic last-minute paddling looked more like party wrangling and posturing for respective constituencies. Stay tuned, and get out the life jackets.
- posted by Mary Schulken

Monday, January 12, 2009

Thrills, spill ahead for City Council?

A retreat is a euphemistic word for a public board getting together in an informal setting where the prying eyes of the citizens aren't quite as apt to follow. It means lots of talk about priorities, food, drink, and occasionally, some leisure activities (think golf).
On the City Council's agenda tonight is the issue of its annual retreat, always a source of intense public interest because (1) Councilmembers frequently head away from constituents to an out-of-town resort (think Pinehurst and Grandover) and (2) The tab can get a little pricey (last year at Grandover, near Greensboro, the bill came to a swanky $34,000.
This year City Council is out to the National Whitewater Center for two days of hashing out budget priorities, among other things.
Council members get brownie points for staying in town. This is a public meeting for the purpose of holding public discussion of public business, and having it in Mecklenburg County is the right thing to do. In the spirit of openness, it ought to be accessible to the people the council is elected to serve.
The cost is also less. It appears the city won't have to pay to use the Whitewater Center's meeting room. (That's good, since public dollars have helped this unique resource get up and running - and stay running.) Nor will taxpayers have to put council members and staff up for a couple of nights. City administrators say the cost of catered meals is still being worked out.
Yet the location prompts this question: Do council members expect rough water ahead? After all, the Whitewater Center is all about teaching people to navigate rapids, paddle together and stay in the boat …
This is an election year, and a wide-open one at that. Mayor Pat McCrory's bowing out and two solid contenders (Democrat Anthony Foxx and Republican John Lassiter) sit on City Council.
The official line from city staff is that no paddling sessions have been scheduled as part of the retreat.
But that's not to say there won’t be spills or chills or thrills ahead for City Council … or that somebody won’t somehow find themselves up the creek …. Well, you know how that saying goes.

Wonder who will it be?
- posted by Mary Schulken

Friday, January 9, 2009

An Obama cabinet of TV experts?

Some folks have a problem with Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN and CBS News being a candidate for U.S. Surgeon General. Mark Leibovich of the New York Times said in a blog that some "media types" are having a bit of fun with the prospect and are offering up their own choices for an Obama administration assembled "entirely from TV experts".

Included in their list? Martha Stewart as interior secretary, Tony Soprano (of HBO's mob show, "The Sopranos") as Labor secretary, Nancy Grace for Attorney General, National Public Radio mechanics "Click and Click"Martha Stewart as Transportation heads, Howie Mandel of "Deal or No Deal" TV show for Trade Representative. And how about "Cheech and Chong" for Drug Czars. Hehehe. Who would be on your list?

For the complete Times list, go to http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/01/07/obamas-media-cabinet/

On education, N.C. gets a "C"

"Quality Counts", the annual state-by-state report card from Education Week magazine, gives North Carolina average marks in the magazine's assessment of several education indicators. The state got a C, 75.5, in the rankings released this week. A "C" is also the U.S. average grade.


N.C. got slammed on K-12 achievement, earning a 66.7 or a D+. It also got a 67.8 or D+ for school finance. In a subcategory under school finance, the state got an F (48.2) on spending. One problem cited is the huge growth of English Language Learners, and insufficient resources to tackle the need. North Carolina is one of 13 states to see an explosion of ELLs, more than 200 percent from 1995 to 2005. Find more about this report at www.edweek.org

Thursday, January 8, 2009

State universities: Raise tuition or not?

Tons of information about tuition, fees and financial aid flowed to the UNC system's governing board this morning. But board members didn't get a firm answer to one question asked over and over: How will the issue of tuition and fee increases for in-state students play with the 2009 General Assembly?

Here's the central question on their minds. Which is a better strategy: Hold the line on tuition in a difficult recession and take a chance lawmakers whose schools might have been spurned will take matters into their own hands and raise tuition with legislation? (Or that lawmakers will simply starve universities?) Or raise tuition and fees and risk the ire of lawmakers and citizens who say the UNC leadership does not understand the stress Tar Heel families are experiencing?

UNC system president Erskine Bowles has worked members of the legislature masterfully in his three years. He's almost never not in the know. But he did not have a good answer today for his board.

"I hear different things from different people in key places," he said.

That makes the decision coming in February about whether to raise the price of college in North Carolina even trickier.

One thing is certain: The stretch of flush budgets the state's universities have enjoyed since 2006 has ended. Bowles made it clear to board members the 5 percent reversions in this year's budget aren't coming back.

"Once a cut goes in, it rarely gets restored. ... " he said. "We have a 5 percent reversion for one year. Going forward, that 5 percent will be permanent."

-- Posted by Mary Schulken

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Forget? Bev? Not!

Bev Perdue must have been a little stung not to have gotten most of the N.C. newspaper endorsements in last fall's election for governor.
But her campaign polled to see what people thought - and found that a lot of them thought she'd been endorsed by the Charlotte Obsever and by The News & Observer of Raleigh, the state's largest newspapers.
Reporter Mark Johnson, who works in the Capital Bureau of the two papers, also reports that Perdue plans to mention that when she has the opportunity over the next four years. Here's a link to his blogpost in Under the Dome. - posted by Jack Betts

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Finally, decency on lavish bonuses

We're tired of reading about lavish bonuses for financial executives whose companies have had miserable years.
So are most people watching their home values and 401K retirement accounts race to see which can tumble the most in value the fastest.

That's why what Bank of America chief executive Ken Lewis has done strikes a chord of common sense and common decency.

Lewis has recommended to his board of directors that he and his top lieutenants receive no bonuses for their 2008 performance. Lewis expects the board to agree with his recommendation, and we hope it does.

At a time when bailing out banks has become the nation's spending priority, it's nice to see an executive acknowledge the times and that sacrifice with some restraint. (Some executives just had a billion-dollar party, remember?)
It's a tip of the hat, too, to the fact shareholders have seen the value of stock decrease by two-thirds. (Stock has fallen 66 percent and BofA has cut its dividend by 50 percent.)

- posted by Mary Schulken

Monday, January 5, 2009

Nick Mackey just doesn't get it

The Observer's editorial board interviewed Mecklenburg's would-be sheriff turned newly-elected state lawmaker twice last year during his campaign for the N.C. legislature. We did not endorse him in that bid, and one of the reasons was this: He excused away a number of instances where his actions as a police officer or lawyer had been publicly called into question by either blaming it on others or by simply blowing off the matter as trivial.

Now, as a newly-elected member of the House of Representatives he's doing the same thing with a pending misdeamenor charge and an unrelated professional grievance filed against him.
That distinction gives Mackey a degree of infamy as he takes his seat in the House, notes Laura Leslie in the Raleigh blog Isaac Hunter's Tavern.

How does Mackey respond to that spotlight, and his checkered past?

"It's no big deal," he told an Observer reporter.

Oh, yes it is.

Nick Mackey still just doesn't get it.

- Posted by Mary Schulken

Friday, January 2, 2009

Glee before gloom in 2009

The year is here. You know, THE year. The NEW year. 2009. The year every expert in 2008 talked about in hushed, solemn tones, predicting gloom.
The economy won't rebound, but perhaps grow worse.
A new, untested president will face a fiscal crisis and a globe churning with violence.
Enough!
Let's give the gloom a rest at last until the kids go back to school.
Until then, here's some less-then-serious reading about the year that's past:
Huffington Post's 10 worst media moments. (Hint: ABC's coverage of presidential debate is high on the list)

Plus some resolutions for Republicans, good GOP wishes for the year ahead …
And, you've read, we hope, the Observer editorial board's agenda for 2009.
For good measure, here's what pundits down the road in Greensboro wished for.
Happy reading. And remember, let's put off that gloom as long as we can.
-Posted by Mary Schulken