Ann Clark to lead CMS, but will it be temporary or permanent?

Two years ago, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board chose outsider Heath Morrison over district veteran Ann Clark after a national superintendent search.

This week Clark, whom Morrison tapped as his deputy, takes over leadership of the district as Morrison steps down for family reasons. The question facing the board will be for how long, and under what terms.

The board could launch a new national search, such as the one that led to Morrison’s hiring from Reno, Nev. Conducted by an Illinois-based search firm, it took most of a year, cost more than $76,000 and involved a long series of public forums and finalist interviews.

Or members could promote the person who was described as a close second after the board narrowed the field to three in 2012. Clark, 56, has worked for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools more than 30 years, starting as a teacher and rising to administrative posts leading some of the district’s biggest projects. She was a favorite of many CMS employees during the last search, but the board opted for new eyes and fresh energy.

The board will hold a special meeting Thursday to act on a separation agreement with Morrison and start planning succession.

There’s recent precedent for both approaches. After the last two departures, the board appointed an interim leader and conducted a national search, hiring outsiders over inside candidates in 2006 and 2012.

But in 2002, when Superintendent Eric Smith resigned as CMS was poised to launch a new student assignment plan, the board promoted Deputy Superintendent James Pughsley without a search, saying the district needed the continuity.

Clark has made it clear she’d like to lead a district. After being passed over for the CMS job, she applied to lead Wake County Public Schools in 2013. Again she was one of three finalists who faced public scrutiny, and again she came in second, losing out to Jim Merrill in a split vote.

During the 2012 CMS search, Clark won praise not only for her education expertise but for her community involvement and passion for the children CMS educates.

She was a leader in developing Project LIFT, a public-private partnership that brought more than $50 million in pledges to improve West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools. In 2013, she and philanthropist Anna Spangler Nelson – they have worked together for decades – were named Charlotte’s women of the year.

At that time, Nelson praised Clark’s dedication to CMS: “She just pours herself into the work of the school system.”

One question about Clark has been whether she has the charisma to handle the political side of leading a district.

“She needs to get more personal, smile more, look like she’s having fun,” one board member said during the 2012 search.

Clark said being a finalist gave her a rare chance to show the public a more personal side. She said it was her favorite part of the process, even though she wasn’t chosen.