Education

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board votes to accept Heath Morrison’s resignation

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board formally ended Superintendent Heath Morrison’s tenure with the district Thursday with a split vote to accept his resignation.

The 6-3 vote ended four days of uncertainty about how the board would handle Morrison’s abrupt departure, announced Monday.

But it leaves unsettled who will lead Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in the long term and what led board members to launch an investigation into allegations that Morrison misled them about the costs of a construction project at UNC Charlotte and created a “culture of fear” among his staff.

Days before Morrison offered his resignation, the CMS general counsel had compiled a report outlining those complaints.

CMS did not provide a copy Thursday of the separation agreement hammered out between the attorneys for Morrison and the school board. Spokeswoman Renee McCoy said the district would distribute the agreement as soon as possible. But board members described the agreement’s main components.

Morrison won’t get any severance beyond what’s in his employment contract.

Per that contract, Morrison is due only his base salary through his final day of employment, which was Thursday, and “accrued benefits” through the last day. That includes things such as retirement contributions and vacation time.

He won’t receive any performance bonus for the past year. The school board generally decides on incentive pay at this time of year.

The separation agreement also includes provisions that both sides will honor confidentiality and that neither side will disparage the other.

“It pains me that this has tainted the reputation of this district and this community,” said school board Chairwoman Mary McCray.

Morrison said by phone Thursday that the deal was what he asked for and was fair. He said he has requested to see a copy of the report that included the allegations against him but has not seen it yet. He said he could not comment specifically on it, but he said “the biggest issue with it is it didn’t have my perspective.”

Morrison thanked the school board for giving him the opportunity to lead the district. “We made a lot of great improvements,” he said.

School board members Tom Tate, Paul Bailey and Eric Davis voted against the motion approving the separation agreement. There was no discussion at the meeting.

In a statement, Davis said he voted against it because he disagreed with how the situation was handled.

“This entire affair could have been resolved before we reached this point by the board talking to the employees involved, including Dr. Morrison, and ensuring that any necessary improvements were achieved,” Davis said.

“Instead, the board never presented to Dr. Morrison any accusations against him or discussed those issues with him.

“Overall, I regret the pain that our employees, including Dr. Morrison, have experienced.”

Requests for comment from Tate and Bailey were not returned.

What comes next?

Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark will take over the duties of the superintendent in the interim.

McCray said the board has no plans to launch a search at this time. She appeared to leave the option open.

The board did not set any plans Thursday for how it would proceed on naming a permanent superintendent.

“We wanted to get today’s meeting out of the way and make sure we had a very capable leader, a deputy superintendent, in place to manage things while the board is making decisions on how to move forward,” Vice Chairman Tim Morgan said.

Neither Morgan nor board member Rhonda Lennon would say whether they favored a national search for a new superintendent or a more limited one.

Both praised Clark’s competence in leading the district.

“We’re in good hands right now, and we need to meet as a board and discuss next steps,” Lennon said.

Clark was a finalist for the superintendent job in 2012, when it was ultimately offered to Morrison.

In the general counsel’s report, Clark is quoted as saying there was a “culture of fear” among Morrison’s staff. The report also says Morrison directed Clark to speed through a presentation on the UNCC project to avoid questions on its cost from board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart.

Clark declined to answer questions Thursday.

CMS investigation

Morrison resigned abruptly Monday, saying he needed to take care of his ailing mother. At the time, the school board put out a statement saying they respected his decision to “put family first.”

But the Observer later learned that his departure came just days after the district’s general counsel compiled a report that outlines allegations that Morrison lied to and misled the board about the building project at UNC Charlotte and frequently belittled subordinates in public.

The report recommended that the school board terminate Morrison’s contract.

“When the board was made aware of these allegations, we took immediate action and looked into them,” McCray said. She did not give further details, saying she was limited by her duties as an employer.

If Morrison were fired without cause, he would be owed his base salary through the end of his contract, which runs through 2017. That would have added up to about $750,000.

Firing Morrison with cause, as the report recommended, would not have required a payment to Morrison. The employment agreement lists specific criteria for him to be fired with cause, including illegal activity and insubordination.

The decision Thursday came after the board met in closed session for an hour and 40 minutes.

After the vote, McCray apologized to the public for the “distraction” the issue has caused.

“It was our intent to move through this transition with as little disruption as possible,” she said.

Accomplishments

Thursday’s vote ends a brief but eventful chapter in CMS history.

Morrison took over the job in 2012 from Peter Gorman, who resigned the year before to work for News Corp.’s Education Division.

Morrison soon launched a 100-day tour through all of the district’s schools, taking time to talk with district employees and the community at large. He earned high marks for being a fast learner and quickly became an authority on district issues.

He created 22 task forces to get ideas from the public and employees on topics such as early childhood education, gifted students and magnet schools, and he secured grants to expand “opportunity culture” jobs that provide big raises for top teachers who take on additional duties.

Morrison also crafted a $290 million school construction and renovation program that won approval in a 2013 bond referendum by record voting margins.

He initially brought Glenn Singleton, a national consultant on race and culture in education, to Charlotte in hopes of launching a districtwide program.

But concerns emerged that forcing educators to talk about racism and privilege could antagonize some teachers, voters and taxpayers. Morrison ended up dropping that plan, worked with local groups involved with cultural competency issues and launched a focus on reducing suspension of minority students.

In his farewell letter to CMS staff Monday, Morrison described the district’s increasing graduation rate – it outpaced the state at 85.2 percent this year – and improving test scores as highlights of his time in the district.

Official reaction

Several elected officials said Thursday they disagreed with how the school board handled the issue.

“The way this has been presented to the community leaves more questions than answers,” said state Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg. “As a taxpayer and a public official I’m wondering what happened.”

The school board needs to display far more transparency than it has so far, said Graham, a member of the Senate education committee.

But state Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Mecklenburg Republican who also serves on the education committee, said Thursday he doesn’t believe the situation will hurt CMS’ relationship with state lawmakers.

“I have complete confidence in the school board,” he said. “Ann (Clark) will be a great choice to step in. She knows the system very well.”

County commissioner Bill James, a Republican and frequent critic of CMS spending, says his colleagues discussed reports that Morrison was angry and disrespectful with staff members. They agreed none of them has seen such behavior.

“I am very curious whether the CMS board was having issues with the (superintendent) or whether the (superintendent) was having issues with them,” he said in an email. He has repeatedly called for the school board to release more information about the situation and how it was handled.

Mecklenburg County commissioners’ Chairman Trevor Fuller, a Democrat, said he’s willing to “allow the Board of Education to work its process through.” He said the county eventually needs to understand more about the public money that was spent on the UNCC high school project that has been called into question.

But Fuller said he’s reluctant to second-guess, given that the county recently went through a tumultuous firing of its own executive, County Manager Harry Jones. “We are hardly in the business of throwing stones at someone else’s glass house.”

Staff writers Ann Doss Helms and Bruce Henderson contributed.

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