Saturday, May 28, 2011

In CMS, a makeover and a mess

Earlier this spring, nine corporate and nonprofit executives gathered around a table at Shamrock Gardens Elementary School to ask Margaret Hollar about her media center.

That’s what we call our school libraries now that they have computers and cameras and media specialists, which is what Hollar has been at Shamrock for the past four years. She’s Ms. Hollar to everyone, and she’s a very good librarian, and that’s why executives from Target and Heart for America wanted to talk to her.

Ms. Hollar’s library is a smallish and ragged kind of place, with dated furniture and few comfortable spots for children to tuck themselves away with a book. And so, Shamrock applied last year – and again this year – for a Target Library Makeover, awarded to about 40 U.S. schools. Those winners get modern furniture, carpet and shelving, all of which would make
Shamrock’s media center look as good as Ms. Hollar already makes it feel.

Like many libraries, Shamrock’s is a nerve center for the school. It hosts the morning TV announcements, and it serves as a workroom for the science projects and research that comes from classrooms throughout the building. At its core, though, it’s a place where kids learn to love books, and that’s where Ms. Hollar comes in.

She’s spent most of her 24 years in education teaching theater and arts, so when she reads to her young students, she does it with a thespian’s flair. She sings. She dresses up. She makes books inviting – and while many kids don’t need much convincing, there are always some who do.

Shamrock, located east of Plaza Midwood, is like a lot of schools that have lower-income populations – with more kids who don’t get read to at home, more who struggle in the structure of a classroom. Libraries give children opportunities to learn in different ways. “It gives them a reason to want to go to school,” Hollar says.

That’s what she told the Target folks that day in March. She told them also about the good things happening at her library – the fourth-graders doing film projects and presentations, and the plan she had to offer the media center to Shamrock parents who need a computer to help with job searches and research.

The executives seemed to especially like that, and they already were familiar with Shamrock from last year’s contest. This time, it took them just a few hours to issue a judgment: Ms. Hollar’s media center was a winner.

“We’re very proud of the things we’ve done,” she said Thursday morning, driving to the school that has since eliminated her job.

Earlier this month, Hollar was called to a meeting that included Shamrock’s principal, Duane Wilson, and a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools human resources officer. Because of budget cuts, Wilson, like other CMS schools, was given the difficult choice of eliminating one of three positions – media specialist, counselor or literacy facilitator.

At Shamrock, it was the media specialist. The librarian.

A caveat here: It’s easy these days to make a strong case against anyone or any program getting cut, especially when previous cuts have left us with only the most critical positions. So as we look hard at the county and schools programs we want to keep, we should at least make sure they’re as valuable as the librarians and counselors and teachers we’re sending away.

Hollar, by the way, was offered another position within CMS – teaching theater and arts in Cornelius. “I know I’m lucky to still have a job,” she says. There’s a possibility, too, that the state or county will give CMS enough money to restore some positions. But in the unlikely occurrence that the Shamrock media specialist job reappears, Hollar will have to apply for it with everyone else.

Wilson, the principal, was not available for comment. He was in Washington for part of the week, accepting the honor from Target and the Heart of America Foundation. Shamrock, the only N.C. school to win, will still get its makeover. Its library will change from shabby to showy, but without the woman who made it shine.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

On homosexuality, a discussion that's different than others

On a rainy afternoon in Charlotte this past week, two friends got together to discuss why the other was wrong about homosexuality.

Kate Murphy and Robert Austell have had this conversation before – usually over the coffee they enjoy each week while catching up on their work and lives. But this time, they chose to disagree in front of 500 or so of their colleagues – ministers and church elders of the Charlotte Presbytery.

Kate is the pastor at Hickory Grove Presbyterian Church, and she is in favor of Amendment 10-A, which changes her denomination’s constitution and allows for gays and lesbians to be ordained ministers and elders. Robert is pastor at Good Shepherd Presbyterian church, and he is against the amendment, which the seven-county Charlotte Presbytery voted on Tuesday afternoon.

Going into that vote, the amendment already had been backed by a majority of presbyteries across the country, so Tuesday’s vote might have been considered merely symbolic. But as Kate and Robert know, discussions about homosexuality are anything but.

It’s a debate that not only has divided their denomination, but their community and their country. It’s also a debate that we’ve largely ceded to the extremes among us, to the shouters pointing at each other from across the road, to the pedophiles and bigots, if you believe what each side says so loudly.

Which is why Robert wanted to have one more conversation.

On Tuesday afternoon, he and Kate sat in the front of the shell-shaped sanctuary at Albemarle Road Presbyterian. They were scheduled to speak first, before those in attendance were invited to line up at the microphones on opposite sides of the room – left side for those in favor of 10-A, right side for those against.

A couple months back, while they were doing some work for the Presbytery, Robert had asked Kate if she would speak on this day. Kate initially said no – she already had talked about ordaining homosexuals at a similar meeting two years ago. But Robert wanted them to discuss not only what they believed about homosexuality, but about each other.

“She loves Jesus Christ and the Church,” he told the audience Tuesday, speaking first. He said he and Kate were friends who had much in common. “I would have her as my pastor,” he said.

Said Kate of Robert: “He has great integrity.” And: “I greatly appreciate the way he interprets Scripture.” And this: “I commend to you to listen deeply to what he has to say.”

Each also made their case eloquently. Kate challenged the nine Bible passages commonly used in the condemnation of homosexuality. Some passages, she said, were about lust, not sexual orientation, and none applied to people in committed, monogamous relationships. Robert urged that Christians not turn their backs on homosexuals, but he said that Kate’s challenges ultimately didn’t answer all of the questions the Bible presented about sin and sexual boundaries.

All of which wasn’t very different than the arguments others have made for and against homosexuality. But what they wanted to get across, said Robert, was this: “We really want you to listen to the other person, because we respect that person.”

And when they were done, they sat together again as others spoke for and against Amendment 10-A, which eventually passed, 162-154. It was a passionate and polite debate – perhaps because Kate and Robert had set a tone, but also because of something else they want their community to know: that good, smart, faithful people on both sides are struggling and sorting through this debate.

One conversation. A different conversation. It’s not that hard to have, if you’re humble enough to understand you might not be right. Which, by the way, Kate and Robert each know. And so they talk. And they listen.

“I think everybody is trying to be faithful,” says Kate. “I think the trick is to be loving.”

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Is having a photo in the paper still a big deal?

In June 1977, I was starting pitcher for the Windham (N.H.) Babe Ruth All-Star team in a regional tournament game against the town next door, Salem. It was (ahem) a solidly pitched ballgame on both sides, but Salem won with a late-inning rally. I was 13 then – and crushed.

But a few days later, my parents opened the weekly newspaper that covered my town. There, on the front of the sports section, was a centerpiece photo of Peter St. Onge, Windham pitcher. The picture caught me mid-pitch and in full, early-teen awkwardness, complete with braces and bottle-thick brown glasses.

“It was a great picture,” remembers my mother, who is contractually obligated to reach that conclusion.

It was also a big deal. My parents bought extra copies and dutifully sent them to family. One copy was folded and placed among our boxes of family keepsakes. All of which is what you do when your picture is in the paper.

Today, the Observer celebrates its 125th birthday with a special commemorative section. You’ll read about our history – good and bad – and about the people who’ve led and written in and delivered the O. One story, which I had the privilege of writing, is about readers who’ve had their photos in our newspaper and saved them 30, 50, even 80 years.

An Observer photo, some told me, was an important moment in their lives.

Is it still? Is having your picture in the paper a big deal today, wherever that paper may be?

I asked friends this week, most of them non-journalists, and most say yes. But, said one, it’s different now. Quainter.

Part of that is technology. If young Peter pitches in an All-Star game today, family and friends can read about it on Facebook, see his photos on Flickr, maybe even watch a video of highlights in Dropbox. We’re our own publishers and photographers now, and for better or worse, having our lives available for public consumption just isn’t as unusual.

A bigger part of the change, maybe, is societal. Talk to those older readers who had their photos in the Observer, and they’ll tell you it wasn’t only the picture that was a big deal – it was who took that photo and told their story. The newspaper was a pillar of the community – an institution. But we’ve come to view our institutions more skeptically now.

Lots of folks point to the Watergate burglary and its political aftermath as the time when society began to tilt toward cynicism. Not only did Woodward & Bernstein give Americans reason to lose confidence in government officials, they ushered in an era of journalism where all the pillars – doctors and bankers and elected leaders – were fair game for suspicion.

And newspapers? Used to be we were content to have a mostly one-sided relationship with you. We’d bring you the news, and we’d tell you stories about you, but we did it all from our spot on the hill with the other community leaders. Now we invite you to help us learn what’s happening, and we give you more places to say what you think about our decisions and our flaws. And boy, do you.

But there also are days when an issue roils our city, or Osama bin Laden is killed, and we’re reminded how many of you turn to us – more than ever in print and online. And still, I get calls from people asking if I can grab extra copies of their story, their photo in the paper.

Is it still a big deal, that photo? You’re surely expecting the newspaper guy to say “yes.”

Let’s say this: It’s a different deal, for sure. We’re more fragmented now, technologically and ideologically. We trust each other less. But in a community, a newspaper is still one of the few places where you’ll find not only your 13-year-old ballplayer, but your neighbors’. It’s where our individual big deals are still brought together, still shared, each day, 125 years later.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Do's and don'ts in the land of the Free

In Tim Newman's world, you can put away that wallet. The tickets are comped and the drinks are free. Somebody always picks up the check.

It’s a world of corporate tents and arena suites, a world some of us get to see sometimes, if a friend of a friend shoots us an invite. But it’s fun when it happens, because who doesn’t like getting stuff for nothing?

Free is the fuel that revs the hospitality world. It’s what clients expect in the tents at big events. It’s what event organizers expect from the cities that woo them. And it’s where Newman, head of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, excels.

Newman is tasked with bringing visitors and events to the arenas and convention centers the CRVA runs. And while some might debate how much our city wants or needs showpieces like the NASCAR Hall of Fame or 2012 Democratic National Convention, this much is true: Newman gets Charlotte things that other cities want.

He does it, in part, because he knows the power of Free. Take a peek at the CRVA’s expenses, and you’ll see some fine wooing – concert tickets and lavish parties for people who might help steer something to Charlotte someday.

It’s a necessary but sometimes unseemly endeavor, which is why some cities set up their CVRAs as private nonprofits, which have looser rules and harder-to-find financial statements. In Charlotte, however, the CVRA is public, and right now it’s a public mess.

The Observer, in recent weeks, has told you about some ethical iffiness at the tax-supported CRVA, including most recently how Newman has graced dozens of Charlotte business leaders, public employees and CRVA board members with gifts. Among the eyebrow raisers: $4,600 worth of tickets to see the New York Yankees.

Newman defends those gifts, saying they help people in Charlotte get enthused about Charlotte, and that’s good for everyone.

That’s the problem with Free – it’s easy to rationalize. Sure, it’s Public Employee 101 that you don’t take gifts from people who want to influence your decisions. But what if those freebies are coming from the chief of a public body, who just wants to say attaboy?

And if you’re a CRVA board member, what’s the harm in using the CRVA suite for a Bobcats game or concert? Board member Anthony Lindsey did so out of duty. He told the Observer he wanted to see how the arena worked, and he did some thorough investigating, using 44 tickets in two years.

Now, board members have concluded it might be a good idea to look at exactly how things work at the operation they oversee. They’ve hired a consultant – PricewaterhouseCoopers – for $25,000 plus expenses to report on how CRVA compares with everybody else operating out there in the Wild West of hospitality.

“We’ve got to know what the rules are,” said board member Geoff Durboraw on Wednesday, at a CRVA operations committee meeting. “We can’t come to you and tell you that you broke a rule if we don’t know what it is.”

Might that be something the board would want to know, say, back in 2004, when the CRVA was formed?

The board will provide PricewaterhouseCoopers with everything from financial statements and code of ethics to the employee newsletter. PricewaterhouseCoopers will get back to the board in mid-June, a remarkable turnaround for a critical report, which might make you wonder if this is one more check that shouldn’t have been written.

Because the CRVA already should know what it shouldn’t be doing.

You don’t offer public officials and employees gifts for doing something that’s part of their job.

You don’t allow board members to accept freebies from the people they need to supervise and, perhaps, discipline.

What you do is remove the temptation of Free. Because in Tim Newman’s world, someone actually is picking up the check.

That somebody is us.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

With verdict, a mother gets her daughter back

Johnnie Mae could sing. Lord, she could sing. Gospel or blues or whatever came into her head and crossed those lips. “Didn’t matter what it was,” says her mother.

In fact, Edna Shine says proudly, a teacher once told her that music and Johnnie Mae always went together beautifully.

Then, with a small smile only a mother is allowed, she adds: “But she didn’t believe in doing much homework.”

Edna got her daughter back this past week. After 10 years of waiting for police to find and arrest
Johnnie Mae’s killer. After one year of waiting for a murder trial, then one week of having to relive Johnnie Mae’s addiction and stabbing. Finally, on Wednesday, Tyrone Johnson was convicted in Charlotte and sent to prison for life.

And all of it ended the week leading up to Mother’s Day.

Johnnie Mae “Coochie” Shine was the first of seven girls Edna raised in Charlotte. She gave each the same foundation, took them all to church every Sunday. But like any parent, she came to know that they may be our children, but they become their own people, often so different than each other – and us. “You just never know why,” Edna says.

Coochie was different, for sure. Edna knew it from the time she looked over and saw her 6-month-old dancing to the music in the room. Even when six other sisters filled the house, it was Coochie who stood out. “She was the oldest, the smallest, the shortest,” Edna says. “Everything you say about Coochie, you just put an ‘est’ on it, and that’s about right.”

It was in her 20s that Coochie started to get high. She would go on binges and stop eating, and her family would pray. She would come out of it, start eating again, and give her family hope. And always, she lit up a room, still singing and dancing, still generous and impulsive. “God protects the fools and babies,” she liked to say.

Early in the morning of May 29, 2000, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police found the body of Johnnie Mae Shine, 40, near her Plaza Midwood home. Police immediately had a suspect in Johnson, but it wasn’t until years later that the department’s cold case unit was able to link him to the murder through DNA obtained from a 2006 arrest in South Carolina. Last May, they made an arrest.

At the trial, Johnson described the same Johnnie Mae Edna knew – the one who made everyone laugh. But he also described them smoking crack together, and prosecutors told the jury that he chased her to a neighbor’s porch and stabbed her 10 times. “They showed that tiny body with all them holes in it,” Edna says, and she covers her mouth and turns her head from the thought of it.

Edna decided not to go to the final day of the trial Wednesday, but shortly before noon, her daughter Clarissa called and said, “Mama, we got him.” Then Shirley called, then all the others, and everybody got to crying.

Edna Shine did, too, because now Coochie could rest. She cried because she loved Coochie like all of her daughters, six of them with good lives and families. That’s what mothers do, which made Edna cry for one more person.

“I felt sad for his mama,” she says of Tyrone Johnson.

“It’s her child. And you love your children.”

Friday, May 6, 2011

A bell finally rings for death - and life

A dozen years ago, Ken and Estela Ross found a bell at a flea market while vacationing near Washington, D.C.

Actually, it was Ken who found the bell, which was iron and about a foot tall. Estela wasn’t so sure about it. But her husband had long wanted to hang one from their west Charlotte house, so home the bell came, where it sat in storage until Sept. 11, 2001.

After the World Trade Center buildings fell, Ken found the bell and painted it red, white and blue. He fabricated a bracket and hung the bell on the back left corner of their house. Ken wasn’t an overtly patriotic man, but the country swelled with such sentiment then, and Ken told Estela that they wouldn’t ring the bell until Osama bin Laden had been captured.

And so the bell had been silent when Ken died of organ failure in 2003.

Last Sunday evening, Estela went to bed before President Barack Obama told a nationwide television audience that U.S. special operations forces had killed bin Laden in Pakistan. She is remarried now, and her husband, Ralph Breckle, woke up Monday and went out front to get the paper. He told Estela the news.

The bell, she thought.

Ralph had thought of it, too, so he went outside and oiled the joints, then attached a rope to the handle and gave it a test tug. At first, it didn’t want to move, but as he worked with it, the bell remembered what it was here for, and Ralph was ready.

There’s been some discussion this week about how we should acknowledge the death of Osama. We’ve celebrated, both publicly and privately, then wondered if a few of those celebrations were too much. Some have talked about finding closure by seeing photos of the dead terrorist, and some have recoiled at the thought of needing that.

What should you do when you’ve killed your greatest enemy?

Maybe this is about right:

About 2:30 on Monday afternoon, Estela came outside, and Ralph took a picture of the bell – and Estela with it. He said a prayer for all the souls that were set free when the Twin Towers fell.
He asked that we might be able to put aside the past and begin a new era of peace and understanding. He rang the bell.

Estela cried – for those souls and the one she misses. Then she told Ralph his prayer was good, and she got ready to go to work.