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Charlotte, NC

April 25, 2007

School board chair: Don't hurt kids, build new schools

CMS Board of Education Chairperson Joe White Tuesday pitched the need for a November 2007 bond issue. The funding is needed to build seats for new schools, he told the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum. Do not punish children, he warned, by withholding support for needed school construction over disagreements over other school policy.

But White, who has attended the Forum off and on for decades, got a frosty reception from some Forum participants with strong disagreements over a variety of school policies. Issues discussed Tuesday ranged from curriculum to funding of high-poverty schools to the existence of high-poverty schools and the far superior learning environments offered at high-wealth schools.

White was asked to speak on short notice by Forum co-founder Sarah Stevenson. Stevenson, a school board member from 1980 to 1988,  was not present because of an appointment.

White had to leave for another meeting at 8:45. After his departure, Forum members discussed school issues. Then when District 2 school board member Vilma Leake arrived, Leake spoke and responded to questions. But first, Joe White:

Integrating the Forum

"It's always a pleasure to be here," White said. "For those of you who don't know, I am probably the old white face that integrated this meeting many, many years ago. When it used to get to nitty-gritty time and they'd say, Would any press and the white people leave? one morning Miss Sarah Stevenson says Coach White doesn't have to leave, he's one of us. I tell that story quite often because it's one of the greatest honors. I thought it was one of the greatest tributes that I'd ever been paid, for somebody to say that they believed and they trusted me enough that I could be with them, and understood.

"Miss Sarah called me last night. I've known Miss Sarah for many many years. She's been a great friend of mine. When she calls I try to do. She called me last night and said I need you to be there in the morning. So I didn't really know what you wanted. I've read all of Foluke's books. I didn't know whether it was going to be an inquisition or what it was going to be. So I said, Miss Sarah I will be there and I'll stay as long as I can. I do have a 9 o'clock meeting with the H.E.L.P. organization. All of you know H.E.L.P. They're a very important group, and a very focused group. So it's very important that when I do make an appointment, and I made that appointment about two weeks ago, that I keep it.

"School system. I always try to start out by making sure you know what you're talking about -- what I am talking about. I spent last week in San Francisco with 14,000 school board members from all over this country. I just shared: When I walk in places like that I am treated like a king, because the perception of Charlotte-Mecklenburg around this country is different from what you and I get here at home. Not that we have done everything well, but that we have done a lot of things a whole lot better than a lot of them have. So we need to keep working at it.

"Make sure you understand: We are now a school system of 100 and almost 33,000 kids. 43% of those kids are African-American, black kids. About 38% of them look like me -- well, I hope they don't look like me, but their skin color is similar to mine; they're white kids. The growing part of that, about 19 or 20% -- it depends on what day you look at it and talk about it -- is what we call 'other' but in all fairness, about 14 of that is Mexican kids. I spent two weeks ago a week in Mexico that I could talk all day about, but I don't want to do that. That's a serious issue that we must address in this country.

Educating the neediest group

"The bottom line that all of you know is that we still do not, and nobody in this country has found a way that we educate the most needy of that group of kids. And basically whether you lump them because of race or because of socioeconomics, it boils down to poor, black and Hispanic kids are still not getting the preparation they need to be successful in this country, and we're working on how to do that.

"Now, the biggest challenge I have as your school board chair is that it costs more money to provide what those children need, and a lot of people don't want to spend that money. So I'll talk about two things, because that's what it comes down to:

"We just adopted -- we, this school board -- adopted a budget that we asked them, across the street, the county commission. There are a number of things in that budget that help us to address those things. We think it still keeps, and I know there are people that don't think we've kept the equity program alive and well -- and there comes Miss Equity herself [former school board member Louise Woods enters], the lady who started this long before I did, and devoted half of her life to pushing that, Louise Wood -- but, uh, folks, we understand that's important, that there's got to be money spent in equity, meaning you spend more money where it's needed, not equal money everywhere. We understand that.

"As to how much money the county commission will come back with: As I talk with my friends across the street, we probably won't get everything we asked for so we'll end up having to come back and fine-tune that budget. But it'll be fairly close. They're going to do well. It would be irresponsible of us at this point, this year, to ask them for a tax increase, in my opinion, because of some of the things they plan to do next year and the year after. I think it's important that we not put them in that position this year.

"The second thing: Facilities, and that's what's on my agenda tonight and it will be -- actually, the superintendent and I, and we've been criticized by some, have moved that meeting tonight, because when we get in the Government Center and all the cameras get to rolling, we do a lot of posturing. We do a lot of politicking. We can do a little better if I get us back in the Ed Center, which is not a good meeting place, but sitting around the table rather than around a dias so we're looking at and talking WITH each other, rather than AT each other. So that's where we'll be tonight. It will still be televised so it will still be a very very interesting conversation. If you don't have any reality show that you want to watch tonight, you can watch us tonight. All we'll try to do tonight is to put together a bond package that we can bring back to this community and have it pass this time. It is absolutely imperative that whatever we put on the table pass this time.

The kids are here

"We are growing by, well, this year 5,400 kids, which means that literally just to keep up with what we grew we need to build one high school, one middle school and three elementary schools this year to house those kids. And yet, people tell me, we don't need to -- those people are moving out. They're going to Weddington. They're going to Union County. Well, I'm somewhat of a smart aleck. I say, if they're moving out, we need to pass a law that says they've got to take their kids with them. The kids are staying here, folks.

"Like it or not, the numbers are numbers, and we are growing. And we're about 20,000 seats behind right now, so we must come to you with a bond package that's not going to close that gap of needed seats but certainly is not going to let it continue to widen. So I look for the bond package to be somewhere, I don't know, Louise knows what a job I've got to find a compromise, and it's unreal. We just got an 8-to-1, although I had one member vote for the budget like this -- she held her nose and voted for it, beause she's running right now, but I won't get into that. I can get nasty when I get into that. Steve Johnstom is dangerous because he quotes me. He writes down what I say. He does a great job. But anyway.

"Let me say what I've said and where I am. I've asked people to come tonight not dug in but willing to fight for what they want, but maybe willing to give a little bit here. I sincerely believe that compromise is the mother of progress. And if we don't find some place that we are all dug in, with this board are far as we are in either direction, then we end up dug in and nothing happens for the good of kids.

"I think there are some things that have to be in that bond package. There have got to be some new seats, and those seats have got to be where the major growth is taking place. That comes back to: People try to make this an urban-versus-suburban. It's not about that. There are kids that live in both places. It's about kids.

Bending the rules to make good on 2005 promises

"But in that package, what we have suggested, and I can say to this group what I have suggested, is that we changed the rules in the middle of the game. From the last bond package to this bond package we instituted a new bond priority rating system. I love the priority rating system. It is done by staff and not by us politicians. Which means, if West Charlotte [High School] is deserving of so many points in terms of needing this and this and this, staff evaluates that, not me and [District 2 board member] Vilma [Leake] and [District 3 board member] George [Dunlap], which takes the politics out of it.

"But what resulted is some things that were in the last bond referendum fell out of this one because of that changed system. And I hope I've said that well enough that you understand that. I think that in order to be fair we've got to say, this time around, that we've got to add those things back into this bond referendum.

"Now, I've got some board members that are going to balk at that. I've got some others that are going to balk at not adding enough back. I hope that we're going to come to some compromises, and back to you with somewhere around $500 million, about a half-billion dollar bond referendum.

"If we come with less than that: Now let me go back for one thing and then I'll take questions. I just told you we needed one high school, one middle school and three elementary schools. That equates to about $250 million. And we're actually growing to the point that we're growing a bit faster, so we need to build six schools a year. Now, if we ask for less than $250 million a year for what's supposed to be a two-year bond referendum, we'd simply go further in the hole and that deficit I was talking to you about. So I think it's irresponsible for us not to come and ask you for that much, but I've got to have something that goes out there that I think the majority of this community will support. It must pass. We cannot continue to try to build schools on COPS alone. We simply can't do it.

"I could talk on and on. I love the school system. I think I know a lot about this school system. I know a lot of you disagree with what I think I know about this school system. But that's what makes this a great country.

"The one thing about me you know: I'll tell you what I know and I'll tell you to the best of my ability and I'll tell you what I believe."

Doing for kids what resources will allow

A questioner recalled White's statement that the schools don't know how to teach poor kids, then pointed to the once-poor kids in the room who are now doctors and lawyers and so forth.

"Didn't say cain't," White said. "I certainly understand there are exceptions to everything. We've come a long, long way from when I was a kid and when you were a kid. We do a lot of things a lot better than we ever did before. But those kids that come to our front door that have not had a book read to them when they were 3 and 4 and 5 years old, and go back into a neighborhood that basically what they see the people who are the most prosperous are people who are not abiding by the law, it is a challenge. So what are we doing? We're doing everything -- well, no, that's not a good statement either because there's no way we're doing everything -- we're doing those things that we think we can within the resources that we have.

"And that means that we've gone back, if you want to start right here in this neighborhood, and spent a lot of money to employ what we think was the best principal we could provide, to now give that principal [John Modest, Forum Jan. 23] the authority to make decisions at his level that impact his neighborhood. And that's popular with some and unpopular with others. If you happen to be one of those teachers that this principal said you're not getting it done in my school and was asked to get on an improvement plan or leave, then you don't think that principal is doing a good job. But the authority has got to be pushed down the line to the principal.

"We also have said, you pick the programs. We picked the programs for years. We said what programs ought to be out there. Well, if this program is not serving this principal, then he has a menu that says I don't want to buy this program. We're not going to spend money on this program, we're going to buy another program.

"The other thing we're trying to do: Part of that puzzle that I have absolutely no control over, that is still the most important part, is we've got to find some way to build that education culture, that says to that entire community, and that parent of that child, and that child, that education is important, so come on in and get it. Now, if I had the answer to that... I'm not going to be wasting my time talkin' to you 'cause I'm going to making great big money talking to people all over this country.... I don't have a good answer for that. But I can tell you indeed that, a majority of the people, even those that I just disagree with politically on this school board, in the hierarchy of this school system, do indeed believe it's important to educate every child. Now, some of them are not willing to pay for it, but they actively believe it."

Disagreements that fracture the school board

Asked if the problem with the bonds is not the exact amount but rather the public's disagreement with the general direction in which the school system is going, White responded:

"I would simply say, and the template I use is the school board on which I serve: You can go from one end of the dias to the other, and the philosophical differences between this end of the dias and the other end of the dias, you can dialogue, you can bring together, you can do whatever you like, but you're not going to change. So yes, that effort has been made. And there will, I don't mean this ugly, but there will never be a day -- Louise has set there, Louise don't look at me like that, help me now and then -- there will never be a day when this school board reaches out and joins hands and sings Kumbaya. That isn't going to happen.

"I'll be very honest. Since there is no press, I can always be honest in this group. I've almost reached the point -- well, Steve, but Steve knows what to say and what not to say -- my goal when I first was elected to school board as chair was I was going to, you know, if anybody can bring this bunch together, old Coach can. After about the first year of meetings, I gave up on at least two members of that board. I don't have time to try to solve that.

"I'm going to be ugly: Folks, if you want to pick one little thing out there that you don't like, then vote against that budget, and vote against those bonds, and punish those doggone 133,000 kids in this school system because you didn't like something that Joe White did. That's blunt and that's honest and I hope it makes you mad, but doggone it, you need to support those bonds and that budget."

Curriculum? Talk to the educators

Asked if he would expand the concept of equity to mandatory teaching of African-American history and culture, a rewrite of textbooks to remove racism, and teacher training in black history and culture, White replied:

"I am open to anything. You and I had this conversation I guess 10 years ago when you got here, you ask me at every forum and the answer is I'm open to anything. Am I going to spend a lot of time on changing that curriculum? I am now the chair of the school board, and you need to talk to professional educators."

Where does the superintendent stand?

Told that Supt. Peter Gorman two weeks ago had told some people in the room that he would not even recommend a bond issue because he didn't believe the community would support it, White replied:

"I can't speak for Pete because he speaks very well for himself. We had the bond issue on the agenda, two, three, whatever it was, and we pulled it because we did not think we were ready to bring it to the board at that time. And we're still not sure, whether Pete, I or anybody else whether the community is ready to support a bond referendum. As you go out and talk to people there is every reason in the world not to support it. I'm sure Richard [McElrath] is going to give me one if he is recognized. Pam [Grundy] gave me one, that it isn't inclusive enough.

"The bottom line is, what I've said to you, folks, is -- I'm a very pragmatic, realistic person. I can tell you that we need seats. I can tell you that we're going to need more seats. I can tell you that all those kids, whatever, in that 5,400 kids, there will be some that act and look like each and every one of us and some of them that also speak Spanish. Regardless of what they look, talk like and act like, they need seats in order to have a chance to get an education. And that's what I'm building schools to do. Not whether they like me or whether they like Vilma or whether they like Larry [Gauvreau]."

Chairman chastised for absence

Questioned about why he came on a day when he had to leave for another appointment, and urged to return when he had more time, White replied:

"I'm going to address that. Folks, I'm 72 years old. I got up at 6 o'clock this morning to get here. My wife got a call yesterday afternoon that they had put her mother on a morphine drop because she is literally dying and not expected to make it through the night. My wife spent the night at the nursing home. I got up and ate breakfast at Bojangles on the way to here. I made an appointment with H.E.L.P. two weeks ago because they'd been after me. I will go from this meeting to a 9 o'clock meeting to a 10 o'clock meeting to an 11 o'clock meeting to a 12 o'clock meeting, and probably discuss bonds till probably 12 o'clock tonight.

"And you're going to have the gall to tell Joe White, after spending all the years of my life that I have, that I've not been willing to come and give enough time? Folks, I'm sorry, I don't have a lot of patience with that.

"Have I not come and met with you? I understand. I know what you want. I cannot bus kids again. I'm sorry, go ahead. I was asked last night at 7 o'clock to come here.

"I meet with the superintendent, starting with Jim Pughsley, then Frances Haithcock, to now Pete Gorman, every Tuesday morning. It's usually 9 o'clock. We moved this one to 10 because I wanted to meet with the H.E.L.P. people."

Where will the schools be built?

Asked about construction plans that foresee new schools in the suburbs but half the new students actually living in closer-in poor neighborhoods, White replied:

"We stopped doing the projections because they claim we spin it -- we don't tell the truth. So the growth projections are done by the planning directors of the seven municipalities. And they tell us that we will continue to grow by about 52,000 kids over the next 10 years. I personally think that's conservative because we grew by 5,400 this year. That means it would be more than that, and I don't think growth in Charlotte is going to stop. That means that you will need to build 60 new schools just to accommodate that growth.

"Now as to where those schools are going to be built, that is a different story and will be dealt with as we go through that. I can't tell you exactly where they are going to be built. There is now a philosophy that you build schools where the growth is and where kids are. Growth is where kids live. I'm a very simple person. ... We now consider a school that is on the 1-to-16 ratio full. Now Larry Gauvreau is not going to agree.... Lousie Woods was the leader in causing that to happen."

Sky won't fall if bonds don't pass

Asked to explain why some people say it would be a disaster if a bond issue was not approved, White replied:

"It simply means kids don't have seats. Now, yes: Can we continue to put kids in mobile classrooms? Can you teach in mobile classrooms? Can you teach in, if you want to buy the old K-Mart? Yeah, but I'd prefer my grandchildren not to be there, but yes, you can do it. But we have looked all over the country and, to buy those buildings, most of the time it comes down to it's more economical to tear it down and start from scratch than it is to try to renovate 'em. Has it been done differently at some places in the country? Absolutely. There are loads of options out there.

"There was a cartoon of me and Frances Haithcock in the paper in the last bond election that showed me up lecturing, saying, 'The world will come to an end tomorrow if the bonds do not pass.' Folks, that's not true. But does it make it more difficult to do what most of us want to be done, and educate kids in a fair, safe, equitable school situation? Yes, a bond failure will make it much more difficult. The world will not, Chicken Little is not going to be here, the sky's not going to fall if we don't have them.

Offered best wishes for his wife's mother, White replied:

"It's the best thing for her. It's easy for me to say. She's my wife's mother. Nobody wants to lose their mother, regardless of how bad. But the best thing for her is to move on to her next home and enjoy life, leave the pain and suffering behind. It's easier for me to say than my lovely wife to say, but I appreciate your thoughts and prayers, and I appreciate you letting me be here. And even though I do get irate at times -- I'm getting old and am not as patient as I used to be -- I still love every one of you and regardless of what you think of me I hope you'll eventually believe that what Joe White finally does when he raises his hand is what he truly believes is best for each and every kid in this community. And if you don't believe that, then I have been unsuccessful in my life endeavors. I thank you. I love you. Tell Miss Sarah I said hey."

The Forum welcomes all persons to its meetings beginning at 8 a.m. most Tuesdays of the year
at the West Charlotte Recreation Center, 2222 Kendall Drive, Charlotte, NC
down the hill from West Charlotte High School.