Tough love for CMS board: Stop arguing, start superintendent search

Former CMS board member Trent Merchant (right) offers advice on choosing a search firm, as board member Thelma Byers-Bailey (l-r), General Counsel George Battle III and board member Tom Tate listen.
Former CMS board member Trent Merchant (right) offers advice on choosing a search firm, as board member Thelma Byers-Bailey (l-r), General Counsel George Battle III and board member Tom Tate listen.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board turned to a former colleague Thursday to jump-start the stalled quest for a new superintendent.

Trent Merchant, a former executive search consultant who served on the board from 2006 to 2011, offered almost two hours of practical advice and tough-love preaching, urging the board to stop the arguments that undermine public confidence.

“This is your moment for a one-time-only reset for your board,” Merchant said. “It can offer you a common goal around which you can unify. It can refocus the community on your mission.”

The board emerged from its special meeting with a plan to hire a search firm by mid-April. Board members Rhonda Lennon, Thelma Byers-Bailey and Elyse Dashew are in charge of sifting through proposals from prospective consultants, and the board plans to hold a public meeting April 5 to question a handful of firms.

Members talked about the importance of public engagement, but they stumbled by failing to provide the 48 hours’ advance notice of the meeting required by state law.

The board services staff posted the meeting Monday on the online list of upcoming school board meetings, available to anyone who thought to look for an unscheduled session. Communications director Renee McCoy said Thursday afternoon she believes that meets the law’s requirements, and her staff notified the media only after the Observer asked about it Wednesday evening. She said her staff was discussing whether to send notice of special meetings to the media mailing list in the future.

But that’s not optional under the N.C. Open Meetings Law, which requires notice of special meetings “to be mailed, e-mailed, or delivered” to news media and others who have requested the information at least 48 hours in advance. Board Chair Mary McCray said she went ahead with the meeting because the board had done its part with the online posting, while the failure to notify media lay with the communications staff.

Challenges ahead

Thursday’s discussion provided insights into the complexity of the work ahead.

For starters, Merchant told the board to forget about setting a timeline to choose a new superintendent, which has been the subject of debate during the past month. Some board members want to make the hire as quickly as possible, while others want to take more time and focus on an ongoing student assignment review.

“You’re not really in charge of that,” Merchant said. “What you can control is when you start. The market will determine when you make a hire.”

Superintendent Ann Clark, who stepped in after Heath Morrison resigned under pressure in November 2014, is under contract through June 2017.

Clark, who was a finalist for Charlotte-Meckenburg Schools superintendent in 2012 and for Wake County superintendent in 2013, said she’s willing to help with the search by sharing her experience as a candidate. She warned them that choosing the right firm is essential to enticing leaders who are probably being recruited by several districts.

“You can lose incredible candidates just by the way the firm is handling them,” Clark said.

Merchant and other board members hinted about shortcomings in the national search that led to Morrison’s hiring in 2012. The board used the Illinois-based PROACT Search.

McCray talked about representatives of that firm calling with “the sky is falling scenarios,” causing the board to “feel like you’re being pressured to choose.”

Zip those lips

Merchant acknowledged the irony of one of his most emphatic bits of advice: Forget about past conflicts over leadership and stop airing personal opinions about the search.

As a board member, Merchant was known for colorful comments in meetings and interviews. But with the wisdom of hindsight, he said, no one but the board chair should talk about the search. If individual members need to speak to a public group, “the board needs to agree on a script and by God you need to stick to that script.”

“This is the most important thing you’ll do together,” he said. “There are no individual winners, I promise you.”

Merchant, Clark and CMS attorney George Battle III delivered stern warnings about keeping candidate identities confidential until the agreed-on time for finalists to meet the public. Battle noted that disclosing confidential personnel information “is actually a crime.”

The board approved a list of questions for prospective consultants, including what kind of personality/leadership assessments they use for candidates, how they manage confidentiality and what they charge. Merchant warned against picking the lowest price in hopes of appearing thrifty with public money, saying any fee will look excessive to skeptics.

“Doesn’t matter what you do,” he said. “Someone’s going to be upset with you.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

Related stories from Charlotte Observer