For the more than 900,000 residents of Mecklenburg County, Heath Morrison is about to become the face of one of their most cherished and controversial institutions.
Morrison arrives with a self-proclaimed mission of reviving public trust. The entry plan he unveiled in May dictates a nearly superhuman schedule of visiting schools and meeting people in his first 90 days. Even before he starts work, he has crossed the county for more than a dozen meetings with individuals and groups.
Those who have met him give him high marks for knowing the issues, asking smart questions and seeming sincere about follow-up.
“His sheer knowledge of the community already is astounding,” says Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, who met with Morrison in May. “You can tell he is fully committed to bringing this community together.”
Morrison says he’s out to understand why so many local folks gripe about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, while educators and experts across the country sing its praises.
He inherits a strong network of support from businesses, foundations, houses of worship and civic groups. But he also understands deep fault lines lie beneath the enthusiasm for public education, from urban Charlotte neighborhoods angry over recent school closings to suburbanites worried that their schools get shortchanged.
“He talked a lot about the various pockets of our community and the challenges we have faced,” Foxx said. “He gets where the fissures are.”
Since his hiring in April, Morrison has made four trips to Mecklenburg County and countless phone calls, seeking a balance of voices and interests. The day he was hired, he visited west Charlotte and suburban Matthews. On Father’s Day, he left his family behind while visiting two Charlotte churches – one mostly black, one mostly white.
Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor says he found Morrison refreshingly down-to-earth. Taylor says he told Morrison about Matthews families’ passion for their local schools and their desire to keep their children together: “Don’t ship our children around. Don’t use our children as pawns.”
Michael DeVaul met Morrison as a YMCA executive, but talked to him as a Mallard Creek High parent and an African-American suburbanite. He says he showed Morrison statistics about the growing number of middle- and upper-income minority families moving to homes near the Interstate 485 loop. Their concerns are different from those of what DeVaul calls “historic black Charlotte,” where many schools struggle with high poverty and low graduation rates.
DeVaul was impressed that Morrison asked “probing questions” and plans a follow-up gathering with a racially and economically diverse group from the University City area.
Former Superintendent Peter Gorman “spent a lot of time in the business community, the upper end,” DeVaul said. “I’m saying you’ve got to get out in the field. I think Heath understands, ‘I’ve got to get closer.’ ”
In Reno, Nev., Morrison held dozens of town hall meetings before making big decisions. He went to community centers and workplaces to meet with parents and anyone else who wanted to stop in. He’s likely to do the same in Charlotte.
Carol Sawyer of Mecklenburg ACTS, a group that advocates for high-poverty schools and opposes overuse of standardized testing, says she found Morrison “very engaging,” but says her trust will have to be won.
“We won’t know anything till the first hard decisions are made,” she says. “He may have talked to a lot of people, but then we’ll find out who he’s listening to.”