An October investigation by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools legal department into Superintendent Heath Morrison raised questions about a “culture of fear” among district staff and cost overruns at new schools.
Attorneys broached both subjects as part of interviews with numerous current and former employees in the days before he abruptly announced he would resign.
Morrison on Tuesday refused to comment on reports that school board members considered terminating his contract before he suddenly agreed to step down Monday.
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But multiple sources confirmed to the Observer that Morrison announced his resignation just days after the school board’s general counsel completed an extensive report that investigated allegations of misconduct, including belittling staff members.
“There’s a lot of things you face in this job. There’s some things that come out of the blue, and you have to decide how you’re going to approach those,” Morrison said in a Tuesday morning interview at the Observer office.
Guy Chamberlain, who retired Sept. 1 as the associate superintendent in charge of construction, said Tuesday he was interviewed about cost overruns in a magnet project at UNC Charlotte about 10 days ago by a CMS attorney, whom he declined to name.
During that interview, Chamberlain said, the CMS lawyer also asked about Morrison bullying staff.
“I never experienced that personally, but I’d heard anecdotes about that” with people who worked in and around Morrison’s office, he said. “It was legendary.”
No official answers
Morrison announced Monday that he would leave the position after just two years on the job. He said he was stepping down to take care of his mother, who is ill and lives in Virginia.
The timing raises questions. Voters Tuesday were deciding on a sales-tax increase that is largely designated for the schools to use on employee salaries. Morrison, 48, also had a multiyear contract that pays $288,000 a year.
School board members did not comment beyond a written statement saying they respected his decision to “put family first.”
The board has called a meeting for noon Thursday to discuss and potentially vote on accepting Morrison’s resignation. CMS said Monday a separation agreement had not been finalized.
An attorney representing Morrison is in discussions with the district.
According to Morrison’s employment contract, Morrison is required to give the school board 90 days notice before resigning. He would be owed payment through the resignation date.
If Morrison is fired without cause, he would be owed a payment equal to what his base salary would be through the end of the contract period. Morrison’s contract runs through June 2017 – which would bring the total payout to about $750,000.
If Morrison were to be fired with just cause, he wouldn’t be due any payments. But the employment agreement lists specific criteria for him to be fired with cause, including illegal activity and insubordination.
The employment agreement was updated slightly last year in a bid to entice Morrison to stay long term. He did not receive a bonus or raise, but the board voted to increase the value of his retirement benefits. The value would amount to $23,000 in the short term.
The full value could not be realized unless Morrison kept the superintendent’s job through 2022. The plan matched up with Morrison’s stated intentions at the time. When he was hired, he said he planned to stay in the role for a decade or more.
School board Vice Chairman Tim Morgan declined comment Tuesday. Chairwoman Mary McCray and CMS Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark made a brief statement at 4 p.m. Tuesday but did not take questions. Clark is expected to assume the superintendent’s responsibilities Thursday.
“I know that you have many questions at this time, but we’re unable to answer them,” McCray said.
Morrison said Tuesday that he was not aware of any report about his conduct, and general counsel George Battle had not approached him about any allegations.
Asked about whether any board members had spoken to him about allegations of misconduct, Morrison said: “What I’ve decided to do is spend time with my family right now. 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.”
Chamberlain said he believes the school board became concerned about the cost of preparing buildings for 10 new schools that opened in August.
Morrison presented plans for the new schools in October 2013 without discussing costs. The goal was to get them approved in time for the 2014-15 assignment lottery in January.
In December, after a board member asked about the costs of the projects, CMS staff presented a list totaling $3.7 million. In January, the board approved an additional $845,000 to buy a modular building for a new early college high school at UNC Charlotte.
But Chamberlain said the full tab for all of the new schools was originally about $14 million, and ended up closer to $15 million after cost overruns at the UNCC school.
He said the $845,000 for the UNCC school only covered buying the modular classrooms, while the total budget that included installing them was $1.4 million. That ran to more than $2 million when the district ran into unexpected costs for grading, electrical work and meeting standards set by the university, such as a brick facade.
Chamberlain said CMS staff who didn’t have authority to approve additional costs did so anyway, totaling “several hundred thousand dollars.”
“Taxpayer dollars have not been wasted, but internally we had a process failure, a pretty big one,” he said.
Chamberlain said he briefed board members on the costs for all new schools in the spring, and members said they were concerned that they hadn’t been told earlier.
Chamberlain said he had already been planning to retire soon, but after “a private conversation” with Morrison and Clark about the issue, they agreed he would retire after the Aug. 25 opening of school. Chamberlain said it was his understanding that his retirement was being linked to the cost concerns.
Morrison said Tuesday that the UNCC project had “uncertainties” from the start, and that the district didn’t initially know what the total cost would be. He said the project was different from most because it involved putting a mobile unit on a college campus, and it was overseen by district staff rather than a construction manager.
“Obviously, when you’re trying to do a new type of project, there are going to be challenges,” Morrison said. “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’
Several other sources told the Observer that the allegations included belittling comments Morrison made to staff members. One current employee, who asked not to be named for fear of job repercussions, said Morrison got angry with his staff on a daily basis, often over minor incidents. The employee said Morrison created a “culture of fear,” which made people reluctant to tell board members how they were treated.
“It’s my word against the national superintendent of the year,” the employee said, explaining why the issues were not revealed sooner. Morrison was the national superintendent of the year in 2012, months before taking the job in Charlotte.
Morrison said those concerns have not been brought to his attention.
“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.’ ”
Information provided to Battle also says Morrison, who takes pride in how little sleep he needs, contacted staff early in the morning, late at night and when they were on vacation, demanding immediate response.
Morrison said Tuesday that sometimes people would email him questions just as early as he would email them. But he said he did not set the expectation that emails needed immediate response.
“I don’t want somebody looking at their email and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, the superintendent emailed me at 6 o’clock in the morning and it’s 8 o’clock.’ If it’s an emergency, if it’s something I need your immediate attention, I’ll text, I’ll call.”
Morrison said that to the best of his knowledge, everything in his personnel file is positive. He said he would review its contents and decide whether to make it public.
Personnel files are not public records in North Carolina. But public bodies have the ability to vote to open files if they are “essential to maintaining public confidence.”
County commissioner Bill James called on the school board Tuesday to release Morrison’s personnel file under that exemption. The Observer has also requested his personnel file.
“State law gives them the right to go in and, with five votes, to release it,” James said. “You have to have some way of quelling this churning rumor mill.” Staff writer Elizabeth Leland contributed.