Three big questions as CMS board decides Morrison’s future

Three big issues face the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board at Thursday’s special meeting to discuss Superintendent Heath Morrison’s departure: Succession, separation terms and how much the board will tell the public about the break.

All are crucial to rebuilding confidence in a school district that, until this week, was widely viewed as having overcome a reputation for controversy and conflict. Now it faces the kind of tumultuous shakeup that hasn’t been seen in Charlotte since 1976, when the board fired a superintendent on live television.

“It’s going to be an important time as we go forward,” said Bill Anderson of MeckEd, a nonprofit advocacy group that works closely with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He said the board needs to be candid about the reasons for Morrison’s departure after two years: “Being able to answer questions is important.”

Personnel matters are mostly protected from disclosure under N.C. Public Records Law, but the law allows exceptions if the board determines that disclosure is “essential to maintaining the integrity of the board.”

On Monday, Morrison and board Chairperson Mary McCray released statements saying he would resign Thursday to spend more time with his ailing mother. However, the Observer has since learned that the district’s general counsel, George Battle III, recommended that Morrison be fired for misleading the board about the cost of a new high school and engaging in persistent “harassment and bullying” of staff.

The state’s Open Meetings Law allows personnel matters to be discussed in private, so members are likely to close the meeting shortly after it convenes at noon Thursday at the Government Center. They will return to open session for discussion and a vote.

Money for Morrison?

The terms of Morrison’s separation will be the big question. The Monday statement indicates the board has agreed, at least informally, to accept his resignation.

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.

He is also eligible for a 2013-14 performance bonus of up to 10 percent of his annual salary, which is $288,000. Even with the latest allegations, Morrison and his attorney could argue that he is due a bonus based on such accomplishments as rising graduation rates and signs that he has rallied community confidence. For instance, Mecklenburg voters approved $290 million in bonds for school construction by record margins last November.

The board could also decide to pursue termination. The question would then become whether the board has just cause as defined by Morrison’s contract, which includes illegal activity and insubordination. If so, he would not be due any payment.

However, if the board were to fire him without meeting those terms, 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.

Filling the job

Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark, a CMS veteran who was a finalist for superintendent in 2012, has already been tapped to lead the district in Morrison’s absence.

The board must decide whether to give Clark the permanent job or launch another search, though that decision won’t necessarily be made Thursday.

Either approach has merits and drawbacks. Those who support tapping Clark say she has already emerged as a strong second after a recent national search, which took months and cost more than $76,000. Skipping a search would bring stability; Clark has repeatedly voiced her dedication to CMS, where she has worked since 1983.

Search proponents will say it’s the best way to ensure that CMS reviews all its options and gets a top leader. And while Clark is highly regarded by many colleagues, she has critics who say she plays favorites and who blame her for some of the district’s controversial decisions. Staff writer Andrew Dunn contributed.