Education

CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison says he will resign to spend time with family

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent candidate Heath Morrison addresses a luncheon at the UNC Charlotte Center City Building on April 12, 2012. David T. Foster III-dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent candidate Heath Morrison addresses a luncheon at the UNC Charlotte Center City Building on April 12, 2012. David T. Foster III-dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

In a sudden and unexpected departure, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison said Monday he’s resigning to care for his ailing mother.

His term marks the shortest tenure for a CMS chief since at least the mid-1970s, despite his earlier assurances that he intended the job to be long-term.

The announcement came after hours of closed-door meetings and without comment from school board members. Morrison was not on hand as reporters staked out the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.

Morrison’s resignation will be effective Thursday. Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark, who was one of the other finalists for superintendent when Morrison was hired in 2012, will take over the interim role. The school board will look for a replacement but said in a statement Monday it has not made plans to begin a search.

Morrison said in a telephone interview Monday with the Observer that the decision was the hardest of his professional career. He said he has been traveling back and forth to visit his mother in Williamsburg, Va., but felt that he needed to leave to better tend to his family.

“That’s where my focus needs to be,” he said. “It’s a hard decision, but it’s been the right decision.”

He did not address the specifics of his mother’s condition.

In a letter to CMS employees, Morrison, 48, said the job of superintendent requires a “singular and unwavering focus.”

“Recent events have challenged that focus, and I must now rededicate myself to my family, most especially my mother,” he wrote.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board said in a statement that board members would meet Thursday to take action on a separation agreement.

“We respect the personal decision he has made at this time to put family first,” the board said. “The board and the leadership of CMS are committed to a seamless transition as we maintain our focus on excellent teaching and learning in every CMS school.”

Long meetings

Morrison came to CMS in July 2012 after serving as superintendent in Reno, Nev., just months after being named national superintendent of the year. He’d been on the job at the Washoe County Schools in Nevada for three years before leaving for Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

CMS board members cited his charisma and energy when picking him for the job over Clark and Memphis City Schools chief Kriner Cash.

The announcement Monday came after hours of closed-door meetings held by the school board in the past week. On Friday, the board was scheduled to hold a six-hour work session. Instead, after a closed session ran an hour past the scheduled time, Chairwoman Mary McCray announced that the work session would be canceled and the board would continue to meet privately to deal with a personnel matter.

Morrison did not attend the board work session even though many of his top lieutenants were there.

Several board members contacted by the Observer on Monday declined to comment. McCray and Vice Chairman Tim Morgan did not respond to phone calls.

McCray was spotted at the government center Monday afternoon, outside a meeting with top CMS staff. She declined comment and returned to the closed-door meeting.

Later, she responded to a text asking about her decision not to comment or field questions. She said she can’t do so until “the process” is completed.

Morrison earns a base salary of $288,000 per year. Last November, the school board voted to increase the value of his retirement perks with the intention of enticing him to stay. Some provisions required him to stay through 2022 to collect the benefit.

Before taking the job, Morrison said he was known for sleeping only four hours at night, and frequently composed emails to staff during 4:30 a.m. workouts.

He said he intended to spend a decade or more in Charlotte to make the system better. “I want to plant some deep roots in Charlotte-Mecklenburg,” Morrison said at the time. “I want to build something.”

At CMS, he developed a reputation of working extremely long hours and being demanding of his staff.

Questions about timing

The suddenness and timing of the departure, on the eve of Election Day, raised questions about both how the district handled the announcement and what precipitated it. The ballot includes a sales-tax measure to pay for raises for CMS employees.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools chief communications officer Kathryn Block said in a 3:30 p.m. briefing that she could neither confirm nor deny whether Morrison was leaving, but said the school board was drafting a statement.

Morrison was not in his office Monday, CMS staff said. Block said he was not scheduled to be at work Monday but couldn’t say the last time he was in his office. She said she had not spoken with Morrison on Monday.

It took hours after word began seeping out about Morrison’s departure for official confirmation. McCray met with high-level CMS administrators Monday afternoon.

Principals and assistant principals met at 4:30 p.m. at the district’s Spaugh Professional Development Center.

Charles Smith, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, said he didn’t know that anything was afoot until his son, a college student, texted him while Smith was teaching. Soon after, he had a flood of messages from other teachers asking what he knew.

“I had to tell them, ‘I’m as blind as you are. I don’t have a clue,’ ” he said.

The district’s official statement was released at 5:45 p.m.

“I know it was fast-moving and they were worried about confidentiality and things, but somebody should have stepped up,” said state Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Mecklenburg Democrat and former CMS administrator. “People were uneasy. There should have been stronger leadership to set the tone and say, ‘This is what we can tell you right now.’ ... This is where they as a district have to lead and they have to do this right.”

Caught off guard

The news surprised many leaders in Mecklenburg County, some who had met or spoken with Morrison as recently as late last week.

Mecklenburg County commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller said he thought the timing of the announcement was strange, coming just two months into a new school year and on the eve of Tuesday’s election – which includes a referendum on whether to raise the county’s sales tax by a quarter-cent. Eighty percent of the increase would go to CMS to fund teacher and staff salaries, according to guidelines put forward by county commissioners.

The remaining 20 percent of sales tax proceeds would be split between Central Piedmont Community College, the Arts & Science Council and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system.

Fuller said he understood Morrison’s desire to take care of his family, but his departure will create “a huge adjustment period” that the district will have to overcome.

Fuller helped lead the effort to get the referendum. He said he doesn’t think the news about Morrison will have much impact on the measure.

“This referendum has never been about one person or the school district’s leadership,” he said.

Swift start

Morrison took over for Peter Gorman, who resigned in 2011 to work for News Corp.’s Education Division.

Morrison got off to a swift but low-key start in Charlotte. In his first 100 days, he toured all of the district’s schools and spent time talking with employees and community members.

Ultimately, Morrison launched 22 task forces to tackle topics ranging from special education to school bell times. He also spearheaded a five-year strategic plan aimed at bringing graduation rates up and retaining talented teachers, among other goals.

In his goodbye letter to staff, he cited the district’s increasing graduation rate – it hit 85.2 percent this year, outpacing the state – and improving test scores as highlights of his tenure.

Leaving a job

Morrison left his last job in Washoe County Schools on good terms. Rather than leave abruptly, he kept making public appearances and advocating for the district until he departed.

At the time, he said how a superintendent leaves a job is just as important as how he enters one.

On his last day, the Washoe school board released a glowing review of his performance.

“The many relationships that Heath has built with constituents along with our improved student achievement results have culminated in a positive change in the perception our community has of the school district,” the written review said. “Heath Morrison is a recognized tour de force!”

On Monday in Charlotte, Bill Anderson, executive director of the education advocacy nonprofit MeckEd, said he said he was stunned by the news.

“I don’t think any of us saw this coming,” he said.

Staff writers Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and David Perlmut, and staff researcher Maria David contributed.

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