The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools general counsel recommended to the school board that Superintendent Heath Morrison be fired in a report completed days before he abruptly announced he would resign.
The Oct. 30 report, obtained by the Observer, details allegations that Morrison lied to and misled the school board about the costs of a building project at UNC Charlotte, against the advice of his top lieutenants. It also describes numerous accusations of Morrison berating staff members and calling them names in front of colleagues.
Attorneys warned that the school district could be at risk of lawsuits related to Morrison’s “dishonesty and mistreatment of employees,” the report states.
Four days after the report was finished, Morrison, 48, announced he would step down to care for his ailing mother. School board members did not answer questions. In a short statement, the board said they respected his choice to “put family first.”
Morrison told the Observer by phone Wednesday that he had not seen a copy of the report and could not comment on it.
He said he would rather review the report in full before responding to the allegations.
But he defended his handling of the UNCC project, saying he informed the board of the cost of the project when it became known.
“When we first presented it to the board, we had no idea,” he said.
In an interview at the Observer office on Tuesday, Morrison refused to answer whether the board had approached him about terminating his contract.
Board members are scheduled to convene at noon Thursday to discuss and vote on a separation agreement with Morrison.
The report marks a stark contrast with Morrison’s public persona, that of an energetic, charismatic leader who forged relationships across the Charlotte community in his two years on the job. Morrison was known for developing ties with state legislators, was a regular guest at community forums and events, and was admired by teachers for being their strong advocate.
CMS general counsel George Battle III, who compiled the report to the school board, declined to comment Thursday.
In the interview on Tuesday, Morrison said concerns about how he treated staff hadn’t been brought to his attention in evaluations or in one-on-one discussions with board members.
“What I’ve decided to do is spend time with my family right now,” he said. “I can’t fight things that are rumor and innuendo. I know the job that I do. I know how I do it. I’m proud of the work that I’ve done and that’s the answer.”
Covering up costs
The report, which lists 14 people who were interviewed, outlines a key incident from late last year that CMS attorneys describe as evidence of dishonesty.
CMS launched a new early college high school program at UNCC as one of 10 new schools to open in August. Setup costs ended up far exceeding what was initially presented to the board.
Interviews with senior CMS leaders asserted that Morrison knew about the costs and intentionally kept them from board members, the report states, and encouraged subordinates to speed through presentations to avoid questions.
Multiple administrators told investigating attorneys that Morrison was aware that the full costs of putting a mobile unit on UNCC’s campus would total $2.2 million or more as early as October 2013, and certainly knew by November. The senior leaders encouraged Morrison to make the costs clear to the board, according to the report.
Instead, Morrison told the school board at its December meeting that costs would only total $35,000, which would be for facility maintenance, according to meeting minutes.
At the next meeting, Morrison asked for and received approval for an additional $845,000 to purchase the modular building. In an August meeting, Morrison directed Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark to speed through a presentation about the UNCC project to avoid questions from school board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart, the report says.
Guy Chamberlain, who retired Sept. 1 as the associate superintendent in charge of construction, told the Observer on Tuesday that he briefed school board members in the spring about the full costs of the project. They were concerned about why they weren’t told earlier.
Chamberlain said after “a private conversation” with Morrison and Clark, they agreed he would retire after the Aug. 25 start of school. Chamberlain said he believed that his retirement was linked to concerns about the costs.
Dennis LaCaria, who worked in CMS’ real estate and facilities branch and has since left for a position with Mecklenburg County, said Wednesday that he was in meetings where Morrison was advised by staff to present the full costs to the board.
Morrison said Wednesday that dollar figures presented at board meetings represented new budget requests, and did not include money that had already been budgeted. But he said the board was informed on what costs would be.
On Tuesday, he said he handled cost overruns when he became aware of them.
“Obviously, when you’re trying to do a new type of project, there are going to be challenges,” Morrison said Tuesday. “When those were brought to my attention, I informed the board, asked for an investigation to happen, looked at the investigation, held some folks accountable for some of the issues and informed the board of that.”
‘Culture of fear’
Battle’s report also delves into allegations that Morrison mistreated staff and that the conduct was “pervasive.” Morrison did not address those complaints in the telephone interview Wednesday.
Clark, who is expected to lead the district beginning Thursday, described the environment as a “culture of fear,” the report states. Clark did not return a call for comment.
Morrison’s former assistant, Debi Baker, detailed numerous incidences in which Morrison publicly berated her and called her “stupid” and an “idiot,” the report says.
In one case, Morrison came to her desk and shouted at her about a presentation erased from a thumb drive, the report says. He then called his wife and told her he was surrounded by incompetents, called Baker “stupid” and talked about the “idiots” he worked with, the report says.
Other flashpoints involved travel arrangements. Baker was asked to send detailed parking directions for events, and if the lot was full, Morrison would call and yell, the report says. She also was required to research gyms in cities he would travel to. Morrison would call Baker upset if the quality of the gym wasn’t up to par, the report states.
Baker said she was in tears “almost every day” at work, the report says.
When asked Wednesday to comment on the report, Baker said she has not pursued any complaints against Morrison. She believed the issue was over when she was transferred to another job as an administrative assistant.
“I did not pursue it. I was away from him. I still had a job. Who was I going to go to?” she said. “There were tons and tons of people that knew what was going on. Nobody came to help. Nobody.”
Baker said Battle approached her two weeks ago and asked her to take a walk outside the CMS offices. He asked her about Morrison’s behavior then.
She said she has mixed feelings about the latest developments.
“I don’t feel like he needs to be superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools or any other school district,” she said. “…I hate it for CMS. CMS is a good school system. They will continue to do a lot of good things.”
Senior CMS leaders interviewed for the report said employees “fear Heath,” described him as “intimidating” and a “bully.” One CMS employee said he was asked to scour the voting records of all district principals to find out who had not regularly voted.
LaCaria said Wednesday that Morrison’s treatment of him and other employees was part of the reason he left for the county job. In their final conversation, LaCaria said Morrison called him “the girl with the curl,” a reference to the nursery rhyme about a girl who’s very, very good or horrid. Before that, LaCaria said, he had heard only secondhand that Morrison used that label for him, as the report says.
LaCaria said Morrison was telling him that “when I blew it, I blew it big. I don’t to this day know where I blew it.”
While LaCaria said that Morrison’s belittlement of staff was “well known in certain circles,” he doesn’t think anyone told board members for fear of alienating their boss.
“He managed the board relations pretty closely,” LaCaria said. “I think once they knew, they moved pretty swiftly.”
In the Tuesday interview, Morrison said he had never treated an employee unduly harshly.
“Here’s what I know about being a superintendent: You make tough decisions. Here’s what I also know about being a superintendent: I’m very passionate about this,” he said. “I never want to treat anybody disrespectfully. If I have, I’ll apologize and say, ‘I’m sorry about that, but let’s talk about the issue at hand.’
“I don’t need the amen chorus. I don’t need people making my ego feel good,” he said. “When we’re behind closed doors, I want people getting passionate, I want people to say, ‘No, this isn’t right,’ or ‘This is the way we ought to do it.’ ”