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Gorman Wants CMS Board To Stick With Nov. 9th Vote

The tension at CMS forums increased this week when the school district scratched its plan to close E.E. Waddell and recommended that the school board instead close Harding University High. On Wednesday, Superintendent Peter Gorman spoke to reporters for nearly 40 minutes about the district's plan to close and consolidate about a dozen schools. Here's a transcript of that press conference (thanks to WFAE intern Alex Merritt). A forum on the Harding proposal was held later that night. Peter Gorman: Good morning everybody. We've got one topic for today's media briefing. The only topic I've got scheduled is talk to about what we are doing with the discussion of schools. And at the end I'll certainly answer questions on any other topic you have, but I'm only going to present any information on that one particular topic. Last evening we made our final recommendation to the Board of Education, and in making that recommendation the board is now preparing for the vote on November 9, and they'll continue to gather information and listen to constituents, and they'll do that in a number of ways. Tonight we have a forum at Harding High School, and the board members will be there for that forum, and board members will continue to do things on their own such as meet with community groups, meet with individual constituents, they'll communicate with individual constituents by phone and email, etc., so the board is not done listening. Tonight's meeting will be, I believe, the 14th public community meeting we have had since we started this entire process. Fourteen different meetings - I've never been part of a group that held so many meetings. And part of the challenge, even though we've had 14 meetings, is how do we make sure that the facts get out. So, let's talk about some of the facts to start this. Why are we doing this? Well, we talked about doing this initially last year during the budget process. I don't know if everyone remembers that that's when the first discussions occurred. That's when individuals on the board said: "Let's talk about closing schools or moving programs or consolidations." And what we said last year was that during the budget process, we didn't have enough time to do it. We need to start this because it's going to take several months. We've actually been at this since June, we've got June, July, August, September, October, you know, that's quite a time. And when we went in to do that, people said: "How can you do it in summer?" Well, we had 800 people attend those events, so we think that really shows that this community is involved and really cares about this issue. And coming back to that budget piece, we know that we have some huge budget challenges. The governor has sent out a letter that talks about preparing, initially, for reductions that could range from 5 to 15%. For us, that is from over $30 million to almost $95 million in budget cuts. We also have the end of the federal stimulus funding that drops off. Now we did get some new stimulus money this year, which we are rolling over into next year to push off part of that repayment, but when it's all over with, we've got well over $45 million that we have to find to replace the stimulus money. So when you look at those items coming together, we've got challenges, and some people say, "Well, as we're talking about moving programs or closures or consolidations, don't close schools." We are not in a "don't close school" position; we are in a "close, consolidate, and change programs, and what else?" Because to reach the dollar numbers we've got to come up with, it's going to be large. And I thought Trent Merchant shared it in an interesting way last night: we'll be talking about the currency of teachers coming up later in the year. For every dollar we save is a potential save-a-teacher. So something I've been talking to board members about is October priorities and April priorities. And certainly our priority in October is to save teachers, and it's to keep schools open. When we get to April, will those be the same priorities? Well what happens when it comes to saving teachers, principals, assistant principals, support staff, or close a school? Then, maybe making some of those decisions will not be as high in the priority ranking. Well, we're having to take that long-term view. And with these huge budget cuts, if we can take some actions that in the first two years alone will be over $10 million in savings, and in the second year and from there on out, will be over $6 million in savings, I think we've got to make those decisions to do that. How are we making those decisions? Well, we're using the board's guiding principles. The board took months to develop those - had a great deal of community input. One of the comments I've heard is the community didn't have input on those guiding principles - over 800 individuals attended those meetings discussing guiding principles and how to develop them. And in that process, we've gotten ourselves in an interesting quandary, where we rolled out some initial options, and then we've had community meetings and gotten feedback. And as we've gotten feedback, individuals saying, "Well, why are you changing things or why are you changing things so late?" If we don't take the feedback from community members at the community forums, then we're close-minded and the forums were a sham. If we do take the feedback from the community forums and change, then it's last minute or we didn't have time to prepare. It's a challenge. So I think the board's made a good decision in the sense that the one item that did change that's the most substantive - have another community forum after that fact, which is tonight's community forum, to allow more time. So, it's a quandary that we're in. What do you do? How do you make everyone happy? And in the end, I think the board following their guiding principles and making decisions that are best for their students are the best way to go. One question I've been asked is how did we come up with making the change in that recommendation regarding Waddell, Harding, and Smith? I'll be glad to answer that. We've been listening at the community forums, and at the community forums one of the points that's been shared was "that didn't align with the guiding principles." And I think folks were right with that. We also had feedback from board members, there's been some discussion. What does this board member or that board member support? And I believe that our board members are still open to input, and have not made up their mind fully. They are thinking about those different options and here in the community. Same point in time, my guess is they have strong feelings toward particular parts of this. So how did we make those final recommendations? That change in recommendation? We looked at guiding principles, we listened to input from community forums, we talked to board members, and then the final piece is we talked as a staff. We talked about his as a staff constantly. Put that together as an amalgam, decided that was the right way to go, and decided to make that change in recommendation, notified the board this weekend when we made that change, shared it with the staff at the schools Monday, put it out to the public later that afternoon, did ConnectEd messages, tried to as broadly disperse it as possible. So that's where we are with this. We're moving towards November 9th, I believe we need to go ahead with November 9th. These are actions that we have got to take. We've got spirited debate and discussion, and I think that will continue. I'm happy to take questions. Reporter: Do you understand when your critics say it just seems that the decision making was very targeted to the African-American community, and they cite the example of Villa Heights moving into Lincoln Heights, where, you know, folks at Villa Heights say "We don't want to move." Lincoln Heights says, you are moving us into schools that already are hard to begin with." And then people say, "Well, you were trying to move Villa Heights into good school buildings, then why not tackle Elizabeth or Myers Park (Traditional)? If your guiding principle is "we've got to make hard decisions" but it seems that the hard decisions are being enforced upon the African American community and not other communities, like, you could have closed Myers Park or these other schools. Do you understand why, then, your guiding principles don't make sense to certain people who have been protesting at these meetings. Gorman: Sure, I do. These are very difficult decisions. I did recommend something different involving Elizabeth and Myers Park, and the decision was made not to go with it. I support that, we'll make it work. We've got a couple of challenges that we face with this. We're looking not only at performance but also at capacity. We made some decisions in the late 90s and the early part of this decade that I think was the right one: and that was that we were not just going to build schools in our suburban areas, but we're also going to renovate and replace schools in our urban core. I absolutely think that was the right thing to do. We've got capacity at some of those schools. So when we talk about "well, why don't you close schools in this part of town." Well, we don't have capacity in those areas in greater numbers. We do have capacity at some schools, but I think you'll see us target those areas too. I don't think we're done with consolidations for years down the road. Now, please don't leave here today and say "Pete Gorman says that we're going to repeat this next year and the year after. What I'm saying is: tough budget times are here for a long time. We're going to constantly now be having to look at where will we be having to do that? Because anytime we can consolidate means we can possibly save a teacher's job. So as we look at that, where we have capacity are in certain parts of our community. And where we have capacity in certain parts of our community, we want to make sure that we can continue to do the things that have been leading us to success. What do I mean by that? Well, we have 800 teachers that we employ above our teacher formula. We put those in high poverty areas. This is not a "those teachers versus buildings: you make a choice." That's not what I'm saying. What I'm telling you is our strategy to increase student achievement is more teachers with our children who are struggling. It's the right thing to do. If we want to be able to keep doing those kinds of things, we've got to then maximize our facilities. Our facilities that have capacity are more clustered in certain areas, so an individual can say, "Gee, you're targeting that area." And I understand how they could see it that way. My response would be we're trying to target resources for particular areas, and the only way we can target human resources is to take a look at what we can do in other areas that aren't people. And these are areas that aren't people we can look at doing. And I'll use the Harding-Waddell. The Harding-Waddell choice: The Harding program stays in its entirety together and moves. Part of it moves to Berry, part of it moves to Waddell. To us, that was important. It's more important to keep the program together than to have an extra site because if we close an extra site, we can more likely keep the program together. So, that's about the longest answer, I'm sorry if it went on and on and on. I understand how people feel that way. We try to explain it and share the facts that it's about trying to do the positive things for the community. And when we make decisions involving facilities, we do based on performance and capacity, and we're struggling with that. Reporter: Dr. Gorman, we had some Harding parents at our studios yesterday, talking about their concerns of being told that they feel really late about the changes to Harding University. What do you say to them when they feel like they're being singled out at the last second? Peter Gorman: My response to that would be: anyone who has something like this happen would feel singled out because it's not another school. That's natural and understandable. And it did come late, which is why we're doing a process of what we're doing of another community meeting, and the board's still not voting until November 9th, so they'll have time to review that. Yes, not everything came out at the same time, but part of the challenge is if we didn't make that change, then we could have a situation, and I'm not trying to pit Waddell versus Harding, but the Waddell folks say to us, "You wouldn't listen to us and consider a change, even after all that input. So how do you balance both? I think the best way we've been able to balance both is when we made a recommendation for a change, we offer another community forum, we still try to keep listening and we still try to keep gathering information. So I understand why they feel that way. Reporter (Julie Rose, WFAE): You made reference to some of the strategic staffing focus improvements that have been made in some of these schools that are on this list, because of changes you've made, because of a focus you've had. So what is the message then to those schools who feel like this is a punishment though? I mean, here are these schools, you're making gains, why risk losing that by, you know, sending those schools off into a K-8 scenario or disbanding their programs and sending them off to other areas? Gorman: Sure, my response to that is we want to keep doing things we're doing and the reason the success is because of the adults who have done a good job, the teachers, the principals, the assistant principals. And if we want to keep the staff that we have, who are doing that great work, in the greatest numbers possible, we've got to make tough decisions. For example, those high quality teachers at those middle schools we're closing and will be converting to K-8s, we will hire those best teachers and have them in the K-8s. They'll be teaching the older kids at the K-8s. We will bring those folks on board. We will interview them, we will pick the best of the best, and we'll keep doing that. But to keep the same number of buildings in our portfolio would cost us, and the same programs where they are, would cost us $6.5 million dollars in two years, and over $3 million next year more than we have got to spend, so this lets us keep the people. These results came not because of the building, but because of the great people. Reporter: When Harding parents hear that CMS has made its final recommendations, you have to imagine that they feel a little bit unfair because they can't sway your recommendations, even with this community forum. Is that fair to those parents? I just think of Waddell parents who had two weeks to make and maybe sway CMS's recommendations, and now Harding can't. Gorman: Yes, you know if you look at that too, I can certainly see how they would feel that way. I'm empathetic toward that and I understand that. I will tell you that we did listen to what a great number of Harding parents shared last night at the community forum. So I think we have been listening to that piece. But as far as the staff recommendation, we have now made our recommendation, the board will make the final vote, and we're offered an opportunity for the board. The board doesn't have to take any of our recommendations. And I've been here long enough to have a lot of my recommendations not accepted by the board. We have a freethinking board, and we'll see how that plays out, but they will have the opportunity to speak to board members and share that. Reporter: If I gave that answer to Harding parents, they would say that we only had 3 or 4 hours to come up with a response by that time. Gorman: Sure, and they'll have another opportunity tonight, and then that doesn't also end the communication. Board members, myself, and others constantly read emails and messages, talking to individuals. You know, I know one of our board members was going to talk to some students from Harding today, so that will continue. There's more than this one opportunity. And then the other piece too is the overall structure of what we're doing. We're going to keep the Harding program intact, and I think that's the right thing to do. They will be in a different location. That will be difficult for some families, it will. I have had another individual from a family who said, "I will be much closer to that school now that it's going to be at Waddell. This is great for me." That doesn't mean that this is great for everyone. But what that means is that there's an individual circumstance and situation, so in that case it works out well. But I know for some families, any of these decisions may involve or result in an individual hardship. And for that I'm sorry. But we've got to make overall decisions for the whole district that are pretty tough. Reporter: Initially, why wasn't Harding on the list as opposed to Waddell if you were going to follow the guiding principles? You knew Waddell was a home school. Looking at the numbers Harding had more space to fill - 52 percent at Harding was being utilized as opposed to 72 percent at Waddell. . . Gorman: Sure. Looking back, I think we should have done it that way, and that was my mistake. I think we should have done it that way. I don't think we really made the best recommendation, but part of it too was we were swayed by some of the arguments we heard, and that's a good part of it. But we also thought we could move kids from Waddell to South Meck, that was a good thing. We thought we could give some relief to West Meck, which was a good thing. We're not adding those kids to South Meck now, we're not giving relief to West Meck, so part of that too was a balance and a trade. And with all that knowledge we have now, I think this is a better recommendation, and you always hope after the fact when you come up with something better, or you always wish when you come up with something better, that you had done the other part first. But what do you do? You get yourself boxed into a corner when you say, "Well, nope, that's it, I recommended it, I'm sticking with it. Or do you make ultimately the best decision in the long run for our students for the longest time, because I'm thinking of this not just for the families at Harding now but for the families long term, and for the families in the whole district? This is going to be hard and difficult for those Harding families in some cases and I truly wish it wasn't. But I think it's the best decision. Reporter: This plan that you introduced - if it's implemented in its entirety, it seems will only be a drop in the bucket compared to the huge deficit, so where else are you going to make up this money? Gorman: Well, the board will end up having to make some decisions in April, I'm not ready to say what particular areas, but I think Trent Merchant when he announced last night at the end when he made some comments, he actually announced other areas I want to look at. That was one individual board member. But Trent went through a litany of things. With as deep as the cuts we're looking at, right now, we're going to have an awful lot on the table. But I want you to think of a couple of things. We've already done shuttle stops for middle schools and high schools for transportation for magnets. We've already extended the Walk Zone for transportation. We've already increased class size; we've already cut assistant principals in number; we've already cut the number of months in employment for assistant principals. For example, the staff that reports to me has gone from 16 to 11. In LaTarzja's department (LaTarzja Henry, communications director), I think it was 27 three years ago and we have 8 today. Those cuts are gone, now we're to others. I think we will again look at things like transportation. We will again end up looking at extra-curriculars probably, we will look at class size, we will look at support services, we will look at programs, first and foremost we will go back again and look at the district office one more time. But we don't have the $100 million in cuts we've done. That's gone. So now we've got to find even other things. We can't do cuts as deep as we're doing without saying everything's on the table. Now again, please don't leave here and say, "Pete Gorman says it's teachers being cut, but I think one point Trent Merchant made was, a currency everyone gets is teachers. And an average teacher's salary and benefits is $50,000. So for every million dollars we save is 20 teachers. So when we get something that is $7 million or more, we're talking about 140 teacher positions potentially. And that's going to be difficult. Reporter: (inaudible) What about those students who have attended several high schools already and must move again? How do you solve the problem of stability? How do you smooth it out? PG: Until we have financial stability, we will not have that stability to the level of what we want it. As long as we continue to do the cuts that we have had to do, we will have to make changes. And our checking account has a fixed amount of dollars, and that amount of dollars is going down. The ways to bring that stability may be untenable for large parts of the community, such as increasing revenue, we cannot increase revenue, and the bodies that can increase revenue are facing other pressures. So, at the state level and at the county level, the ways to increase revenue are to increase taxes and fees, and in a tough economic situation, they are hesitant to do that. And I understand that. But the only way to bring about that stability we want is to have stability in funding streams, and let's face it, we can't continue to offer everything in outputs when our inputs financially are different. And that's hard. I sure wish we weren't doing this. I wish we weren't doing these types of reductions. But when you are in a position where you are responsible to balance budgets, and then you could respond and say, "Well, you're balancing the budget on the backs of our students," well, the comment last spring was, "You're balancing on the backs of the teachers; you're balancing on the backs of the assistant principals." We have a limited number of resources where 85 percent salaries and benefits. If we want to keep the salaries and benefits, the people, then we've got to look at the other 15 percent, and in the other 15 percent are buildings, programs, transportation, and we have to make some tough calls. Reporter: There have been some remarks of postponing the vote beyond November 9. Do you think that's a good idea? Peter Gorman: I don't. I don't for a couple of reasons. One is because we want to give parents and families as many options and opportunities after November 9. That is a school changes, for example, if someone says, "I am not interested in that, I'd like to participate in a magnet program, we have to have time to do that." If they want to go back to a home school. There is also the piece too where we have to move to the next phase of budget reductions, and we have to know what kind of savings come from this process so we can know our targets for the next piece. So I truly believe we need to move ahead with this and make the tough calls. I'd rather just never have these financial challenges, but this is the reality we're living with. Reporter (Julie Rose, WFAE): Dr. Gorman, the scenarios that you've painted - of potentially having to find $90 million in cuts - I guess I'm having a hard time understanding why for something that's only going to gain you $6 million, like she said a drop in the bucket, why is it worth it to go through so much angst and disruption? You know, I guess I'm kind of wondering if you could let us in on the thought process when you know you're going to have to find a lot more to cut, and yet to put the community through this kind of exercise for $6 million when in just a few more months you're going to have to look at something much more dramatic. PG: Sure, so when we get therewhen we're looking at what we still have to reduce, and if we get to cutting teachers. If we're cutting teachers that means we're cutting everything else we think we can. And when we get there, that means that if we have to find another $6 million, that would be $6 million more in teachers. That's what that is, $6 million more in teachers, actually it's $7 million. That'd be 140 teachers. That's a high school. That's shutting one more high school. That's taking one more high school staff away. That's taking equivalent to more than 3 elementaries. That's why every dollar counts where we are now. That's pretty dire. Reporter: This is designed to be a democratic process. You need a certain amount of buy-in from the community in order for this to work. Giving everything that's happened since you guys announced this comprehensive review plan, the outbursts, the disruptions at the meetings, the cries of racist practices, can you call this a success? PG: Well I think it's definitely a democratic process because it'll go to a vote in front our elected officials. And our elected officials have to step up and make tough decisions. And I think they will step up and make tough decisions. We elect our board members to make these tough calls, they certainly when they ran for office didn't want to have to go through this process, but that's the reality we face. And this is not me making this final decision. I make the recommendation. That's not a "pass the buck to the board," that's the reality of this is the right thing to do that our elected officials make the call. It's not an individual vote of every citizen. We've got limited dollars, and we also don't have an ability to put everything out to a forum, that's why we have representative government, and I think it's the right way to do it. I absolutely do. You know there are districts that have mayoral control. And the mayor hands it all over to the superintendent, and I have not supported that, I don't think we need that for Charlotte. I think for Charlotte we've got the right way and that's elected officials. Reporter: So did you, piggy-backing off of that question, what did you expect to happen? Did you expect all of this public outcry? And how would you characterize this whole process? PG: I did expect that people whose schools would be recommended for moving, consolidation, or closure, would be upset because there are challenges to that. And some people will be pleased, and it's more likely that those individuals will be more quiet, and I understand that, like that Harding parent, that Harding parent that said to me, "I'm closer to Waddell, I don't want to make a big deal about it." I don't want to put them in a position where they're enjoying something or glad for something against others, but when somebody is not able to do something which they feel benefited their child, it is reasonable for them to be concerned and upset. We've just got to balance the totality of the whole district. And that's part of leadership, we've got to make these tough calls. Reporter: Obviously you are expecting a crowd at tonight's forum. PG: Yes. Reporter: And some of the other forums have not gone so well. Last night's meeting did not maintain the calm as much as probably the board and you would have hoped for. What are you expecting this evening? PG: Well I'm expecting folks to be out and be passionate. And I expect our board to listen, and I'll be there listening, and that we'll have a chance to listen to them. I hope it will be in a manner that we can hear them. And that's what our goal is: to hear them. Reporter (Julie Rose, WFAE): So, at no point at this process, you have thought, "maybe this isn't worth it," for the savings that we're going to get, for all that we're going through. Gorman: Viewing it from the role I play as a superintendent having to work with the entire district, I believe that this as a process that we have needed to go through. Have I wanted to go through it? No. Do I believe we need to go through it? Absolutely, because I'm tasked with having to make recommendations in the best interest of the entire district. And as a whole district, we've got tough choices ahead with the challenges we face.