A week before he becomes superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Heath Morrison faces a dilemma: He knows many families are frustrated by changes in their schools. And he feels pressure to make more changes fast.
He has promised a listening tour before he makes big policy decisions. But even before he starts the job July 1, he has given the go-ahead for principal transfers and started interviewing job candidates.
And thats creating tension with some families. Principals are the heart of a school community and uncertainty at the schoolhouse creates anxiety at home.
Weve been here. We know our kids. Listen to what were telling you, says Vance High parent Brian Broomfield, who thinks Morrison should have told interim leaders to hold off on transferring Vances principal at the end of the school year.
Morrison understands the hazards of haste. He has said his predecessor, Peter Gorman, jeopardized staff morale and public support by moving too fast on sensitive matters like testing and performance pay.
But getting the right principals into the right schools cant wait, Morrison says. If CMS doesnt snag the best national prospects, other districts will.
At the end of August we get 140,000 students coming into 159 schools, he said. A week later, he notes, the Democratic National Convention sweeps in, bringing logistical challenges and increased visibility for CMS.
Many see the superintendent of a big-city district as a sort of salesman-in-chief for public education, a role Morrison embraces. But his cadre of principals and top lieutenants will ultimately determine whether students thrive, teachers do their best work and communities feel good about their schools.
For the past three years, Morrison has led the Washoe County School District in Reno, Nev. Those who worked with him are familiar with the tension thats emerging in Charlotte. He does take time to listen, they say. But when it comes to making schools work, hes a man in a hurry.
Inspiring or intimidating?
Washoe County employees describe Morrison as an inspirational figure who demands much of his employees and even more of himself. Some question whether he pushed too hard too fast, leaving weariness and wariness as he moves on.
Our teachers are tired. Theyre working harder than theyve ever worked before, said Dana Galvin, president of the Washoe Education Association. I think in the long run well see results, but the short run is theyre tired.
David Fullenwider, president of Washoe Schools Principals Association, praised Morrisons management skills and vision, but said some good principals lived in fear of being fired. If you mess up, man, its pretty harsh, he said.
Morrisons energy and vision have drawn national attention. He has never worked more than five years in any job and was national Superintendent of the Year after just two years in Reno. Before his third year ended, he took the Charlotte job.
Morrison says he strives for balance: Give employees guidance and support if theyre falling short, but dont keep them around if it means kids suffer. Set standards high, but dont be unreasonable.
Morrison, who says he sleeps about four hours a night, says when he started in Reno, he used to bang out emails to principals during his 4:30 a.m. workouts. Then principals started apologizing for not responding promptly and he realized he was pressuring others to emulate his schedule. He kept writing early-morning notes, he said, but waited to send them during school hours.
I dont ask anyone to be me, he said, and I dont try to be anyone else.
Building a cabinet
Morrison has already interviewed candidates for high-level openings in CMS. On Tuesday, hell reveal which of the current executives will stay on, as the school board approves contract renewals.
Few know as much about working with Morrison as Jane Woodburn, who was just named one of five finalists for the Reno job hes leaving. She worked with him in Montgomery County, Md., where he supervised several schools, before joining him in Reno as his deputy.
Woodburn says Morrison likes strong leaders who challenge him privately and present a united front in public. He is tolerant of mistakes, she says, but not incompetence or excuses. We dont want to hear its because of those kids or those parents.
In Charlotte, many are watching to see how hell work with Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark, who was one of three finalists for CMS top job. Clark, who has been with CMS almost 30 years, is widely respected by local educators and others who have worked with her, but was generally seen as a less dynamic communicator than Morrison.
Both have said theyre eager to work together.
Ann being around is going to be a big tool in his arsenal, said Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor, who has met with Morrison a couple of times during his visits to Charlotte.
Morrison said last week he isnt ready to disclose Clarks title or role, but I have a good sense of what Anns going to be doing and shes excited about it.
Morrison arrives in CMS with five of 159 principal posts open, including two large high schools, West Charlotte and Vance.
After a year of extraordinary churn, at least 45 of 159 CMS schools have principals who have been there less than two years. Many will be watching to see whether Morrison does more juggling.
Morrison says he wants to launch a world-class recruitment of the best principals in the country, using that approach to fill about 25 percent of the vacancies.
He hopes to find and develop the majority of principals from within the ranks.
Neither is a new vision for CMS. The district already does its own national searches and works with national recruiting groups such as New Leaders. Clark and others have developed local programs to identify and prepare prospective principals.
Whether hes hiring from inside or outside, Morrison says he wants leaders with vision, passion, high standards and skill with data.
I dont want somebody whos conflict averse, he said. You dont need to go find it, because every day it comes to you. I want people who are not going to go with the easy no but will look for the hard yes.
The principal puzzle
Morrison says the goal is not only finding a great principal, but making the right match with a school. You try your best to get it right but sometimes you get it wrong, he said. If you get it wrong with a principalship you have to act because the principal is such a driver for the success of the entire school.
When he arrived in Reno, Morrison says, he replaced about 15 of 100 principals. He looks at student achievement and faculty morale, as measured by teacher surveys. If both are bad, its a crisis.
Low morale might be tolerated while a new leader tries to set higher standards, but in the long run its a problem even if test scores are high, Morrison says.
Low achievement demands some kind of shakeup, he says: Its not great to say everybodys happy at the school if the kids arent learning.
Jonna AuCoin, principal of Sierra Vista Elementary in Reno, has experienced that pressure. Its a school where most students come from low-income families with roots in Mexico. Soon after he took the Nevada job, Morrison held a news conference at Sierra Vista to laud the strong growth her students made on exams.
Last year she was ready to celebrate again, as her school met the federal No Child Left Behind targets. Then her supervisor came to talk about the data. Student progress had slowed. The scores werent good enough.
I had tears. It was a horrible, horrible conversation, AuCoin recalls. But she set to work reviewing each teachers data on student progress.
It was hard, and they cried, she says. AuCoin says she assured her faculty theyre all in it together and need to find ways to improve, rather than feeling sorry for themselves.
Hes going to shake things up and its going to feel uncomfortable, AuCoin predicted of Morrisons arrival in CMS. Any time you grow, its uncomfortable.
Morrison said hes aware of frustration about principal changes in CMS.
In the wake of some retirements and resignations, rumors have flown about mistreatment of principals. Parents have complained they got scanty and confusing information about leadership changes. Those are things we need to address as a school district, Morrison said.
Because of personnel confidentiality laws, its not always possible to explain a decision to transfer or remove a principal, he said.
Where CMS needs to improve, he said, is providing prompt, clear follow-up.
I think we need to be out there the day the announcement is made. I want the zone superintendent out there having meetings with teachers, having meetings with community members, he said. We will tell as much as we can about why we made the decision to remove the principal from the school.
At Vance, Broomfield says he and other parents are still trying to sort out who made the transfer decision and why. This seems that its business the same way its always been and parents have no voice unless it is to agree, he said.
Morrison says he was briefed on the move, but trusted the judgment of interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh and Clark.
Now the question is whether parents like Broomfield will come to trust Morrison and CMS.