Saturday, June 27, 2009

DSS money misspent, receipts altered

Auditors found numerous problems with a Christmas charity run by the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services.

The now-defunct Giving Tree program collected gifts and donations for children in the county's foster care system

The Giving Tree audit, which triggered an agency-wide probe, found:

- No receipts for a $10,000 check made out to an employee.
- For the remaining $152,289 disbursed, $138,978 in receipt copies were provided.
- Of those 840 receipts, 799 had problems, including:
- Parts of receipts whited out, or omitted in photocopying.
- Altered dates.
- Gift card misuse.
- Multiple submissions of altered receipts.

Click here to read the Giving Tree audit.

- Doug Miller

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Jones: E-mails, blogs changed my job

Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones says he is no longer the main source of information for county commissioners on his board.

Today, the barrage of emails and blogs sent to commissioners raises new challenges "in terms of keeping up with the information board members have to make decisions," Jones wrote in column published Sunday in the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record.

He wrote: "In the 'old' days before e-mails, Blackberrys, and blogs (which was not that long ago), a county manager had what would now be considered a luxurious amount of time to research and communicate facts and recommendations to the elected body."

"In many cases, this would constitute almost the full extent of the information available to the governing group. In today’s world of instant access to information, elected officials often receive a barrage of data and opinions that may or may not be accurate or valid, but are, nonetheless, provided with the intent to influence decision-making."

A recent trend, he notes: board members who use laptops during meetings.

The computers are "green" because they save paper, he says, but commissioners send and receive email during discussions.

"In short, technology has expanded the partnership that once existed mostly between the board and its appointed manager to include anyone with an e-mail account or a cell phone," Jones wrote.

- Doug Miller

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Gaston schools report big gains

Charlotte-Mecklenburg wasn't the only district celebrating test-score gains this week.

Gaston County school officials also reported preliminary results of elementary and middle-school exams.

Unlike CMS, they haven't yet reported high-school scores, and they didn't break out how much of their boost came from retesting. But like CMS, they saw big gains across the board:

Click here to read Gaston County Schools' summary of results.

Click here to see reading scores for all elementary and middle schools (Note: 2009 scores include results from students who passed on their second try, while 2008 results do not).

Click here to see math scores for all elementary and middle schools.

Click here to see science scores for fifth- and eighth-graders at all elementary and middle schools.

Click here to see how test scores break out by grade level.

- Ann Doss Helms

View school-by-school rest results from CMS

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools improved in nearly every category in this year's North Carolina tests, CMS officials announced Wednesday morning. Here are the full results provided by CMS.

No. 1 - Here's the presentation Superintendent Peter Gorman gave at today's news conference. He suggested using 2009 results without retests as a fair comparison with previous years, while the higher pass rates with retests will be used going forward:

Read Supt. Gorman's presentation

No. 2 - Here's the total pass rate for each high school on End-of-Course exams given at the end of 10 English, math, science and social studies classes. These results are comparable to previous years because there was no retesting. Marie G. Davis Military Academy was not open in 2007-08.

Read the EOC composite scores, for high schools

No. 3 - Here are results of each subject at CMS high schools, with results broken down by race, family income, students with disabilities (EC) and students with limited English proficiency (LEP). Students who qualify for lunch subsidies are considered economically disadvantaged. "lt6" means fewer than six students in a category took the exam; CMS does not report results for such small groups.

Read the EOC scores, by subject

No. 4 - Here's how each CMS elementary and middle school fared on reading and math, given in grades 3-8, and science exams, given only in grades 5 and 8, along with a composite pass rate for all three subjects. The 2009 proficiency rate -- the percent who scored at or above grade level -- includes results before and after the retesting.

Read the EOG rest results

- Ann Doss Helms

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Papers: Feds doubted Black will ever talk

Testifying may be Jim Black's ticket out of prison, but he'd have to offer up more than he has before.

According to a court papers used in the former N.C. House Speaker's July 2007 sentencing, U.S. Attorney George Holding wrote, "The information provided by the defendant in these sessions did not substantially assist in the investigation or prosecution of others, nor it is likely to ripen into such assistance."

Holding this week explained that under Black's plea agreement, federal prosecutors agreed to recommend a shorter sentence in exchange for "substantial assistance." He was responding to recent reports that more than 150 people have asked officials to commute Black's sentence or move him closer to home.

Black's scheduled release from a federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa. is in March 2012.

Here is how Holding assessed Black's contributions to prosecutors at the time:

"The defendant provided mostly what might be described as intelligence information about activities in state government. Much of what the defendant reported was already known to
investigators, from news accounts and other sources. Moreover, it is the Government’s assessment that the defendant was not completely forthcoming and truthful in the debriefing."

- Doug Miller/Jim Morrill

Monday, June 22, 2009

CMPD report: Chase thresholds vary

A new Charlotte-Mecklenburg report details how local police departments have different rules for when to pursue suspect vehicles.

The report, prepared for tonight's Charlotte City Council meeting, comes after Councilman Michael Barnes criticized Concord police for a May 22 pursuit.

The pursuit began as a simple shoplifting call but escalated after an officer saw the alleged thief climb into the back seat of a car full of people where a “violent assault” took place. It started in Concord, but resulted in a fatal collision in Charlotte between the suspect and another vehicle.

The CMPD report shows:

- Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville and Mint Hill require a 'felony dangerous to life' as a condition to initiate a pursuit.

- Concord, the Union County Sheriff and the N.C. State Highway Patrol require that the suspect commit a felony.

- CMPD policy states that officers are authorized to engage and continue in a pursuit only when they have reasonable suspicion to believe the driver or occupant has committed or is attempting to commit a crime dangerous to life - or because of the potential for harm to the public.

Barnes requested an update on pursuit policies during a May 26 meeting. Click here to read the report.

Concord police Chief Merl Hamilton has said his officers acted properly in the high-speed chase.

- Doug Miller

Tonight's debate: Taxes for teachers?

The N.C. Legislature reconvenes at 7 p.m. , and Gov. Bev Perdue wants to raise taxes to protect classrooms.

Click here to read the latest budget proposals. Look under "News and Information" for a list of links related to the 2009 budget.

Topping the list of new items is a list of "budget conferees" who will iron out differences between the House and Senate spending plans.

Sen. Charlie Dannelly and Rep. Martha Alexander, both Mecklenburg Democrats, are among the co-chairs. Click on the links to email them.

Perdue is traveling the state, rallying educators and their supporters in support of raising taxes to protect classrooms. Judging by comments posted on the Observer's report on Perdue's Charlotte visit, people who support her and those who oppose a tax hike feel strongly about the matter.

- Ann Doss Helms

Saturday, June 20, 2009

CMPD: One in four pursuits leads to wreck

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police released an internal review of 2004-2008 pursuits that shows the overwhelming majority were justified and 23 percent resulted in a collision.

The review came after Councilman Michael Barnes requested an update during a May 26 meeting. Barnes questioned an incident where Concord police were involved in a pursuit that started in Concord, but resulted in a fatal collision in Charlotte between the suspect and another vehicle.

The report says that in the past 5 years there have been 18 pursuits where another law enforcement agency pursued into CMPD jurisdiction.

These pursuits ended in the following manner: in 6 cases, the suspect fled on foot; in 4 cases, a tire deflation device stopped the suspect; in 4 cases, the suspect stopped voluntarily; in 3 cases, the suspect crashed the vehicle; and in 1 case, the suspect crashed and caused a death.

Click here to read the full report, released Friday.

During that time period, CMPD has had 220 pursuits.

The review shows that of the Charlotte pursuits:

- In 24% the subject eluded the police officer on foot; in 23% of the pursuits the subject vehicle was involved in a collision; in 13% the subject eluded the officer with the vehicle; in 13% the subject stopped voluntarily; in 12% the officer terminated the pursuit; in 9% a police supervisor terminated the pursuit; in 4% a tire deflation device was used to stop a pursuit; and in 1% of the pursuits, the officer was involved in a collision.

The report shows in the last five years, overwhelming percentages (90.5%) of pursuits were justified.

- Doug Miller

Friday, June 19, 2009

New monthly stormwater fee: $8.25

That's the new rate for most Charlotte residents starting in July, a 23 cent increase.

Others will either see monthly increases of up to $1.99. Commercial property owners will pay up to $3.75 more an acre.

Click here to see how your monthly bill will change. (Most people are in Tier II).

Here's why about 10 percent of residents will actually see their bills drop:

Even though the Charlotte City Council recently agreed to raise its stormwater fees by 5 percent starting July 1, Mecklenburg County went to a staggered system.

The Mecklenburg fee structure divides all residential accounts into four tiers based on the amount of hard surfaces like driveways, sidewalks or patios. The impervious surfaces can lead to flooding in heavy downpours.

The four-tier system, commissioners said, would make the rates more fair and raise fees for those with larger amount of hard surfaces and lowering them for those with less. Davidson also has approved the four-tier structure.

So people with smaller areas of hard surfaces, typically small properties, will see a drop because the county's share of their stormwater bill will more than offset the city hike.

- April Bethea

Thursday, June 18, 2009

No references for laid-off teachers?

Teachers who have lost their jobs at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have been complaining that the district won't even let their principals provide references for them.

Actually, they can, but they have to follow a carefully prescribed process, with CMS's Human Resources department signing off on everything that principals write.

The following memo was sent to all principals on May 11. A little context first: While some teachers were targeted for layoffs because they got subpar job evaluations, others are viewed as excellent by colleagues, students, parents -- even Superintendent Peter Gorman and school board members who know them.

They've been cut because their circumstances fit certain layoff criteria; for instance, part-timers, retirees and teachers who were working on end-of-year contracts.

Here's the reference memo (for those not used to CMS terms, "learning communities" are the seven administrative offices that oversee groups of schools):

Dear CMS Principals,

These are difficult times for all CMS employees—especially those who have been affected by the reduction in force ( RIF). Many principals have inquired about the board policy related to providing letters of reference. The policy does allow staff to provide letters of reference.

However, it is important to remember that you are not required to provide a letter of reference—it is strictly voluntary. There are specific guidelines that must be followed in order to be in compliance with the policy.

Board policy GBJC says that all requests for employee references are to be coordinated with Human Resources before responding to such inquiries. Below is the process for providing a reference to employees affected by the reduction in force.

The reference letter must be prepared in collaboration with your learning community HR manager, who will provide a template and final review of the reference letter before it is forwarded to any third party. A final copy of the letter must be sent to the HR manager, who will keep it on file;

The reference letter must be in response to a written request from an employee who has been terminated (or has received notice of termination) as a result of the district's current reduction in force process;

The written request from the employee must identify the person who will receive the reference letter; do not provide a "to whom it may concern" letter;

The reference letter must be true and accurate and match your most recent written evaluation of the employee;

The reference letter should not give personal opinions or feelings; if you make subjective statements or give opinions because they are requested, clearly identify them as opinion;

The reference letter must respond only to specific inquiries; do not volunteer information.

These guidelines are in place to protect everyone involved. These employees deserve a credible reference and an efficient process. If you have any questions please contact your learning community HR manager.

- Ann Doss Helms

Audit: DSS mishandled Social Security money

Mecklenburg County officials paid for "various programs" out of an account for recipients of Social Security benefits, according to an audit of the Department of Social Services.

The practice, auditors say, is a violation of Social Security Administration regulations.

According to the report:

"The non-guardianship expenditures made from the account are an inappropriate use of the guardianship funds and may be in violation of North Carolina general statutes."

Click here to read the full audit of cash receipts and disbursements.

In response, county officials say they have changed their use of the account.

Officials say effective March 31, "Only expenses related to Social Security guardian funds are expended from the Social Security account."

Click here to read the full response from Mecklenburg County.

DSS Director Mary Wilson, who took over in July 2008, ordered the audit after learning earlier this year about accounting irregularities in a charity program. Read more about the report in today's story, "Audit reveals more DSS problems."

The county paid $93,000 to Cherry, Bakaert & Holland, which studied records from July 1, 2007 through March 31 of this year.

- Fred Clasen Kelly

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Concord police chase: 'He hit head on'

A transcript of radio traffic between Concord officers and headquarters shows how a police pursuit turned deadly.

Chief Merl Hamilton released the document Wednesday.

Hamilton said an internal Concord Police investigation cleared several officers involved in a high speed chase May 22 from Concord Mills mall to Mallard Creek Road in Charlotte.

Fleeing suspect Demario Rollins, 18, crashed head-on into 84-year-old Docia Barber who was returning from a trip to the pharmacy. She died at ther scene. Rollins is charged with second-degree murder.

The transcript describes the initial shoplifting call about a woman taking shoes from Finish Line and how officers tracked a car believed to be involved in the theft.

Click here to read the transcript.

- Christopher D. Kirkpatrick

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Iranian protestor on Twitter: 'We need help'

The messaging service has become one of the most reliable sources of information coming out of Iran, where hundreds of thousands of people are protesting the disputed presidential election.

A post from this morning:

"@leiyers call frm student (Mazandaran Uni): "We R abt 1200 uni student locked in uni by ahmadi's Militia. We need help." #iranelection from web

The following Twitter accounts have been among the most active in sending live updates:

The New York Times reports that "Iranians are blogging, posting to Facebook and, most visibly, coordinating their protests on Twitter, the messaging service. Their activity has increased, not decreased, since the presidential election on Friday and ensuing attempts by the government to restrict or censor their online communications."

The photograph above is from The New York Times, showing Iranians who support presidential opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi.

- Lindsay Ruebens

Friday, June 12, 2009

Smith principal: Immersion teachers to stay

Smith Language Academy Principal Ynez Olshausen today sent this email to families of students at the magnet school:

Friday, June 12, 2009 1:45 PM

Dear Smith Academy Parents and Families,

This week the names of 12 Smith Academy language immersion teachers appeared on a non-renewal list published in the Charlotte Observer, apparently in error.

Our Human Resources department has determined that the names were generated because these teachers - and teachers at other CMS schools as well - were on H-1B visas or green cards. CMS will continue visa sponsorship for teachers on the H-1B visa, and they are not being non-renewed. Teachers who already have Green Cards are expected to return as full time teachers in the fall as well.

Our HR staff is getting in contact with our teachers to relieve some anxiety they have been feeling. Unfortunately, the HR staff member who takes such good care of our international teachers, Ms. Coston, was unaware that these teachers had been submitted for non-renewal until today.

The HR staff is so sorry for this, and assured us that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools anticipates their return for the upcoming school year. These teachers will receive contracts. CMS Communications is talking with the Observer and the media.

Thanks to all of you for your support and concern. Knowing that parents and families stand behind them meant so much to our teachers! Please let me know if you have other questions or concerns.

Schönes Wochenende, bon weekend!
Ynez Olshausen

An Observer reporter contacted a CMS spokesperson Friday regarding the error. The spokesperson confirmed that the list released by CMS of non-renewals for Smith Language Academy is incorrect. CMS, the spokesperson said, would release official corrections to the Smith list and for any other schools on Monday.

- Doug Miller

Thursday, June 11, 2009

CMS releases layoffs list

CMS released a list of 855 names after the school board signed off on 2009-10 layoffs this week.

But it's a bit confusing. It includes certified staff - that's teachers, assistant principals, school psychologists and social workers - whose contracts were terminated as of June 30 because of budget cuts. It also includes an unspecified number of people whose contracts are not being renewed for other reasons.

Click here to see the list.

Others who were laid off are not on the list if they're not certified. That group ranges from maintenance workers to central-office administrators.

The CMS list does not specify the reasons teachers were cut. While some were cut for weak performance, others were targeted because of their job situation, such as rehired retirees.

Read the district's layoff memo

The people on the list have already been notified as part of the cuts approved and reported earlier, CMS officials say.

More cuts may be coming as the state's budget picture worsens.

The Observer has requested more specifics from CMS about who has lost jobs in the first round of cuts. We're also working on a version of this list that will let you search by school, name or position. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Superintendent Peter Gorman just offered this breakdown for layoffs of teachers and other certified faculty: 161 had below-standard job ratings, 72 had licensure deficiencies, 99 were retirees receiving pensions, 14 were interim hires, 294 had "end of year" contracts, 16 were psychologists and social workers and 42 were "not placed from districtwide pool" (that is, people whose positions were eliminated but were eligible to be picked up by other schools). He notes that adds up to more than 855 because 12 fell into two categories: "i.e. they may have been below standard but also were an end of year employee."

- Ann Doss Helms

Fed emails released today

Internal documents were released today in connection with Bank of America's deal to buy Merrill Lynch & Co.

Click here to read the emails

The documents were released as the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and Subcommittee on Domestic Policy began its hearing on: “Bank of America and Merrill Lynch: How Did a Private Deal Turn Into a Federal Bailout?”

Click on these links to view other documents made public today:

Opening Statement of Chairman Edolphus Towns

Prepared Testimony of Mr. Kenneth D. Lewis

Opening Statement of Chairman Dennis Kucinich

Republican memo

Black's attorneys ask Obama for leniency

Former House Speaker Jim Black wants President Obama to send him home, or at least send him to a federal prison closer to it.

WRAL-TV reported Wednesday that the Mecklenburg County Democrat's attorneys have asked Obama to commute his sentence, or let him serve the remainder of his five-year sentence for a corruption conviction in North Carolina or South Carolina. Here's the story.

Friends and colleagues have reportedly written letters of support for shortening the prison sentence or moving Black to a federal prison in the Carolinas.

Black testified at a state sentencing hearing on July 31, 2007 explaining why he gave money to Rep. Michael Decker after the Republican switched parties, admitted to attempting to coerce the testimony of chiropractors and why he received a $500,000 loan from a lobbyist in 2000.

An excerpt:

Q. Would you tell us your name, please?
A. James Boyce Black.
Q. And, Dr. Black, did you enter a plea of guilty here on February the 20th of 2007 to the charges of bribery and obstruction of justice?
A. An Alford plea, as I understand it.
Q. But you did plead guilty but you did not admit
your guilt?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. And did you agree to be -- to cooperate in the investigation and be completely truthful?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. Dr. Black, do you admit that you accepted at least $25,000 in cash from Dr. Brown, Dr. Keith, and Dr. Willen?
A. I agree with that.
Q. And did you acknowledge that you accepted at least $2,000 in cash from David Baucom?
A. Yes, I did.
Q. And did you admit that you accepted other cash from other chiropractors?
A. Yes.
Q. And do you now admit that you gave at least $10,000 in cash to Representative Michael Decker?
A. Yes.
Q. And did you do that after he had voted for you in the speaker-of-the-House race in early 2003?
A. I believe that it was after, but that's been eight years, and I don't remember exactly when it was, but I believe it was after.

- Doug Miller

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Hudson pilot: 'Got any ideas?'

"Actually not," replied the first officer. That exchange was in newly released black box recordings of cockpit conversation aboard US Airways Flight 1549. The airplane lost its engines after colliding with geese and ditched in the Hudson River.

Everyone aboard survived the Jan. 15 incident.

The NTSB this week released a transcript from the cockpit voice recorder from the dramatic last moments of the flight from New York City to Charlotte.

Here is an edited version:

The number '1' indicates Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger is speaking.
The number '2' indicates First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, the co-pilot, is speaking.
HOT-1 uh what a view of the Hudson today.
HOT-2 yeah.
HOT-2 flaps up please, after takeoff checklist.
HOT-1 flaps up.
HOT-1 after takeoff checklist complete.
HOT-1 birds.
HOT-2 whoa.
[sound of thump/thud(s) followed by shuddering sound]
HOT-2 oh #.
HOT-1 oh yeah.
[sound similar to decrease in engine noise/frequency begins]
HOT-2 uh oh.
HOT-1 we got one rol- both of 'em rolling back.
[rumbling sound begins and continues until approximately 15:28:08]
HOT-1 ignition, start.
HOT-1 I'm starting the APU.
[sound of single chime]
HOT-1 my aircraft.
HOT-2 your aircraft.
[sound of single chime]
[sound similar to electrical noise from engine igniters begins]
[sound similar to electrical noise from engine igniters ends]
HOT-1 get the QRH... [Quick Reference Handbook]
loss of thrust on both engines.
RDO-1 mayday mayday mayday. uh this is uh Cactus fifteen thirty nine hit birds, we've lost thrust (in/on) both engines we're turning back towards LaGuardia.
DEP ok uh, you need to return to LaGuardia? turn left heading of uh two two zero.
HOT-2 airspeed optimum relight. three hundred knots. we don't have that.
HOT-1 we don't.
DEP Cactus fifteen twenty nine, if we can get it for you do you want to try to land runway one
CAM-2 if three nineteen-
RDO-1 we're unable. we may end up in the Hudson.

HOT-1 yeah. the left one's coming back up a little bit.
HOT-2 distress message, transmit. we did.
DEP arright Cactus fifteen forty nine its gonna be left traffic for runway three one.
RDO-1 unable.
DEP okay, what do you need to land?
HOT-2 (he wants us) to come in and land on one three...for whatever.

RDO-1 I'm not sure we can make any runway. uh what's over to our right anything in New Jersey maybe Teterboro?
DEP ok yeah, off your right side is Teterboro airport.
PA-1 this is the Captain brace for impact.

DEP Cactus fifteen twenty nine turn right two eight zero, you can land runway one at Teterboro.
RDO-1 we can't do it.

RDO-1 we're gonna be in the Hudson.
DEP I'm sorry say again Cactus?

GPWS too low. terrain.
GPWS too low. terrain.
GPWS too low. terrain.
HOT-2 no relight.
HOT-1 ok lets go put the flaps out, put the flaps out.
EGPWS caution. terrain.
EGPWS caution terrain.

EGPWS terrain terrain. pull up. pull up.
DEP Cactus uh....
DEP Cactus fifteen forty nine radar contact is lost you also got Newark airport off your two o'clock in about seven miles.
EGPWS pull up. pull up. pull up. pull up. pull up. pull up.
HOT-2 got flaps out.
HOT-2 two hundred fifty feet in the air.
GPWS too low. terrain.
GPWS too low. gear.
CAM-2 got no power on either one? try the other one. 4718 two one zero uh forty seven eighteen. I think he said he's goin in the Hudson.
HOT-1 try the other one.

HOT-2 got flaps two, you want more?
HOT-1 no lets stay at two.
HOT-1 got any ideas?
DEP Cactus fifteen twenty nine if you can got uh runway uh two nine available at Newark it'll be two o'clock and seven miles.
CAM-2 actually not.
EGPWS terrain terrain. pull up. pull up. ["pull up" repeats until the end of the recording]
HOT-1 we're gonna brace.
HOT-2 * * switch?
HOT-1 yes.

15:30:43.7 [End of Recording]

- Doug Miller

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

NASCAR court fight: Did driver inhale fumes?

Suspended for failing a drug test, driver Jeremy Mayfield said he "inhaled fumes from a fiery wreck in the Talledega race," according to more court papers filed in the battle between Mayfield and NASCAR.

Mayfield was indefinitely suspended May 9 for failing a random drug test conducted May 1 at Richmond International Raceway. He filed suit to overturn his suspension on May 29.

In legal papers obtained Monday, a response by NASCAR drug testing firm Aegis Labs said a doctor asked Mayfield if he had taken any diet medications or inhalers, specifically, Vick’s Inhaler. Mayfield said he had not, the papers say.

Doctors said in the documents that they agreed with Mayfield's account from an earlier suit that in a subsequent phone call Mayfield said "he was in a fiery wreck while competing in the Talledega race in late April .... and inhaled a large amount of fumes."

The Talledega race was in late April, prior to Richmond.

NASCAR on Friday filed a countersuit, which claims Mayfield's admission of using attention deficit disorder drug Adderall without informing NASCAR - and his use of the drug at unsafe levels - violated the substance abuse policy. That violation would be in addition to an undisclosed illegal drug that showed up in his Richmond test. The name of the illegal drug was blacked out throughout the court documents.
- Doug Miller

Monday, June 8, 2009

County pays $111,631 for workers' tuition

In January, DSS Director Mary Wilson wrote a letter telling workers the county would reimburse them for 50 percent of their college tuition, fees and books. The letter says the county would provide reimbursement retroactively, to January 2006.

Click here to read Wilson's e-mail.

As a result, Mecklenburg County paid $111,631 for 37 Department of Social Services employees who took college courses or other training.

The Observer and its news partner, NewsChannel 36, inquired about the expenditure last week, as detailed in Saturday's story.

Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones on Friday defended using taxpayer money to help pay college tuition for county DSS workers despite proposing reductions in county services and job losses.

Commissioner Bill James criticized the decision, calling it a “dumb thing to do” in a faltering economy.

County board chairperson Jennifer Roberts said the “timing of these reimbursements is questionable.” But she also noted that employees paid their own money for training to make them better at their jobs.

- Fred Clasen-Kelly

Friday, June 5, 2009

D-Day front page: Hot type, hot history

If newspapers are the "first rough draft of history," as publisher Philip Graham once famously said, The Charlotte Observer performed admirably on June 7, 1944.

With its screaming headline "Allies Widen Foothold And Battle Way Inland," the front page announced the prior day's invasion of Allied troops along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline to fight Nazi Germany, as described at this comprehensive government web site.

But the newspaper did more than that.

Sixty-five years later, we recognize what what those Charlotte journalists were thinking: context and meaning.

Click on the image to the right to see how readers learned of the historic battle - the Allies' widening foothold, their powerful air fleet, Churchill's light losses.

Think about what those developments, written on the day of the invasion, would portend for the American Century.

Click on the second image for a larger image of the next day's paper - the June 8 front page.

Today, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's message prior to
the invasion is a click away - a concept surely few could
fathom at the time.

His words: "Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you.

In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened, he will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man to man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground.

Our home fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory!

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!
Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking."

- Doug Miller

Education cuts: 'Horrific, dangerous and scary'

Mad about state education cuts? Here's how to tell lawmakers how you feel.

The state's budget shortfall is driving talk of hundreds more layoffs in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and that's prompting local parents and taxpayers to perk up to the goings-on in Raleigh.

In a conference call this morning, state Rep. Tricia Cotham, who was an assistant principal at East Mecklenburg High before joining the legislature, called some of education cuts outlined by a House subcommittee "horrific, dangerous and scary."

CMS parent Kelly Langston is worried, too.

"I want to try to get parents mobilized to start an aggressive contact campaign to these representatives to protect our classrooms," she e-mailed after reading that Superintendent Peter Gorman is preparing $33 million more in cuts. "What representatives are on these committees so that any calls and letters could be directed to them, specifically? I am hoping to help support the teachers by getting a campaign underway very quickly."

Paper Trail set out not only to find the contact information, but to help budget watchdogs compare the three education budget proposals that are out there, from the House subcommittee, the Senate and Gov. Bev Perdue. Once the House approves a budget, as early as next week, a joint House-Senate committee will hash out a budget for approval this summer.

Comparing the three is a glimpse of an economy in decline. Perdue's budget, which came first, would spend $8.2 billion on public education (community colleges and universities are separate). She'd cut $6.5 million from salaries and benefits for central-office administrators in local school districts. She'd shave a million from More at Four, the state's prekindergarten program, by eliminating 202 slots that weren't claimed by 4-year-olds this year.

The Senate budget, which came next, echoes her central-office cuts and moves More at Four into another department's budget. It would cut $322.7 million in 2009-10 by bumping up class sizes by two students per teacher, which means teacher jobs will disappear. That total is $7.6 billion for public schools.

The House subcommittee's $6.9 billion budget, just posted Thursday, takes $9 million from central-office staff and $10 million from More at Four. It makes the same class-size bump as the Senate's budget in 2009-10, but adds one more student per teacher in 2010-11, for a $463 million cut that year.

There's a whole lot more, but don't be daunted by the page count. The line items for public-education cuts are only about seven pages each in the House and Senate budgets.

Click here to read the N.C. House committee's education budget.

Contact members of the House committee.

Click here to read the N.C. senate's budget plan.

Contact members of the Senate budget committee.

Click here to read the governor's education budget proposal.

Contact Gov. Bev Perdue.

- Ann Doss Helms

Thursday, June 4, 2009

'Runway incursions': Rare, but rising

FAA data shows an increase in incidents such as last week's near-collision of two planes at Charlottte/Douglas International Airport runway.

As described in an Observer story, the Federal Aviation Administration reports 24 runway incursions at CLT in the last six years.

Last Friday's incursion, when a US Airways Express regional jet and a single-engine plane came to rest 10 feet apart, will likely be considered an 'A,' which is the most severe after an actual collision. No injuries or damage resulted.

Click on the images to the right to see enlarged data charts of runway incursions for North Carolina airports, taken from a federal runway safety report. The information is for four fiscal years leading up to Sept. 30, 2007. Numbers after that were supplied by the FAA.

- Jefferson George

More on Memorial Stadium damage

A new engineering report recommends that three sections of bleachers at Memorial Stadium remain closed and the nearby concourse area be off-limits after several rows of seats at the stadium collapsed.

The preliminary report also said that a sinkhole appears to be forming at the Armory Drive entrance to a pedestrian tunnel that passes under Charlottetown Avenue, and recommends further study.

The report doesn't give a cost estimate for any repairs because its writers said more investigation is needed.

Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department officials ordered the study after staffers discovered last week that six or eight rows of seats along the Independence Boulevard side of the stadium had collapsed, James Alsop, a division director in the parks department, told the Observer yesterday. Alsop will discuss the report at a press conference later today.

The report said portions of a stone tunnel underneath the stadium and in the general area of the collapsed seats has "severe distress," and that another section of the tunnel has failed and allowed soil to be carried away.

The 24,000-seat Memorial Stadium was built in the mid-1930s as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal program. The stadium hosts many community programs and athletic events. Alsop said yesterday that a volleyball event planned for this weekend and the Fourth of July fireworks celebration should go on as planned. -- April Bethea

- Read the report.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

$96,000 behind NASCAR court fight

Suspended driver Jeremy Mayfield's earnings after a random drug test helped send his lawsuit against NASCAR to federal court this week, legal papers said.

A motion filed Tuesday said: "The Plaintiffs have already earned $96,000 in NASCAR events subsequent to Jeremy Mayfield’s random drug test screening on May 1, 2009."

NASCAR argued the case should be heard in federal court because the litigants reside in different states and Mayfield seeks damages exceeding $75,000.

Mayfield sued NASCAR last week alleging he was wrongly suspended May 9 for violating the sport's substance abuse policy. A judge had set a hearing scheduled for today, but that was called off after the case moved to federal court from Mecklenburg County Superior Court.

Federal Judge Graham Mullen has been assigned the case, court records show. No new hearing date has been set, said Paul Hendrick, attorney for NASCAR.

Mayfield is the first driver in the sport's top division to be suspended under a new drug-testing policy. Attorneys for NASCAR have said he tested positive for a “dangerous illegal” drug, but Mayfield said he does not abuse drugs.

Mayfield's suit alleges NASCAR did not follow proper testing procedures and failed to give him a chance to prove his innocence.

- Fred Clasen-Kelly

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Pilot saw jet on 'collision course'

An NTSB advisory details Friday's near-wreck at Charlotte/Douglas between a regional jet and a private single-engine aircraft.

Here is the advisory released today:


National Transportation Safety Board
Washington, DC 20594

June 2, 2009




The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating a
runway incursion that occurred on Friday morning at the
Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) involving a
general aviation aircraft and a regional jet airliner bound
for New Bern, NC (EWN).

At about 10:17 a.m. on May 29, a PSA Airlines CRJ-200
regional jet operated as US Airways Express flight 2390, was
cleared for takeoff on runway 18L. After the regional jet
was into its takeoff roll, a Pilatus PC-12, a single engine
turboprop aircraft, was cleared to taxi into position and
hold farther down the same runway in preparation for a
departure roll that was to begin at the taxiway A
intersection. After the ground-based collision warning
system (ASDE-X) alerted controllers to the runway incursion,
the takeoff clearance for the regional jet was cancelled.
The pilot of the PC-12, seeing the regional jet coming down
the runway on a collision course, taxied the PC-12 to the
side of the runway. The FAA reported that the regional jet
stopped approximately 10 feet from the PC-12.

Visual meteorological conditions prevailed with 9 miles
visibility. There were no reported injuries to any of the 42
passengers or crew of three aboard the jet, or to any of
those on the PC-12.


Click here to read the story.

- Doug Miller

Where should low-cost housing go?

One Sedgefield neighborhood project, a mixed-income development that would replace existing housing, needs a waiver from the council because the homeownership rate among nearby properties is slightly lower than city policy allows.

Some district council members have complained that the city piles on subsidized housing in neighborhoods that are already struggling to improve and bring up their property values. A city policy is meant to avoid such concentration.

But council member Patsy Kinsey, the Sedgefield area's representative, said she didn't have a problem with the project.

Charlotte's Housing Trust Fund has recommended spending a total of $9.3 million in city money on a number of housing projects that would serve the homeless, elderly and victims of domestic abuse.

The trust fund awards money annually to nonprofit organizations and private developers to offset the cost of building affordable housing. City staff presented the recommendations to the City Council on Monday, and the council is scheduled to vote on two projects as early as June 8, and the rest on June 22.

The trust fund board has approved nine projects that include a total of 944 housing units.

Click here to see information about each project. (Scroll to the bottom, page 39, to see a map).

- Julia Oliver

Monday, June 1, 2009

Warrant: Witness implicated man in McPhatter death

Defendant Theodore Roosevelt Manning IV "was implicated by a witness who was present when the defendant used the victim's credit card and disposed of both the victim's vehicle and her body," an arrest warrant says.

Manning of Richland County, S.C. was arrested Friday and charged with murder in the death of missing Charlotte woman Nikki McPhatter, a US Airways customer service representative reported missing May 11.

Click here to read the arrest warrant for Manning.

After a search in two states over several days, police on Friday found a charred body believed to be McPhatter's in the trunk of a burned out car in rural South Carolina. - Christopher D. Kirkpatrick