Conflicting images emerge of former CMS superintendent

Just a week ago, most people in Charlotte saw Superintendent Heath Morrison as a cheerful dynamo who had spent the last two years building public confidence in a battered school district.

That unraveled in four days of bizarre events last week, as the once-rising star resigned under pressure from the school board, with the district’s lawyer alleging Morrison had bullied his staff and lied to the board about spending.

The twist left many stunned and confused, trying to reconcile conflicting images of the man hired two years ago with a freshly-minted National Superintendent of the Year title and promises of putting down roots in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Could the Morrison who struck many teachers, students, parents and community leaders as a passionate and empathetic advocate really be the same Morrison described in the attorney’s report as unleashing daily tirades on his administrative assistant, calling her stupid and incompetent?

Could the leader who came from Nevada promising to make careful decisions with full public disclosure be reconciled with staffers’ reports that he ignored their advice to disclose the cost of building a small school at UNC Charlotte?

The community remains divided over who’s to blame for the meltdown of a once-celebrated relationship. Some say the board failed to look closely enough when they hired Morrison after a national search. Others say members overreacted and drove off a good leader. Some see Morrison as a villain, others as a victim of a misguided board and/or the attorney who led the investigation and recommended his firing.

The confidentiality agreement approved as part of Morrison’s separation Thursday means the community may never learn what sparked a hurried October investigation into incidents that happened months earlier, or why Morrison says he was not shown the report that led to his departure.

“Something’s not right,” Tricia Cotham, a state legislator and former CMS educator, said after the 6-3 board vote. “Something’s just not right.”

Craig Chappelow, a Greensboro-based leadership consultant, says he has no firsthand knowledge of Morrison’s situation. But the pattern described in news articles is “kind of classic” in the Center for Creative Leadership’s research into how and why rising stars may suddenly find their career in shambles, he said.

The very traits that put a leader on the fast track can eventually derail him, especially when promotions come fast and demands grow rapidly, according to the center’s research. For instance, Chappelow said, leaders who view themselves as passionate and demanding, as Morrison has described himself, can come across to others as arrogant and demeaning.

“Sometimes it takes years, and the behavior finally catches up with them,” he said.

Tough times

On June 8, 2011, a visibly weary Superintendent Peter Gorman shocked the school board and the community by quitting, effective immediately, to take a job in the private sector.

His five-year tenure had been grueling for all who cared about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

The recession brought massive teacher layoffs. Gorman’s efforts to launch teacher performance pay and a barrage of new testing alienated some teachers and parents.

In the depths of the budget crunch, CMS closed and consolidated schools. Low-income, mostly black neighborhoods bore the brunt. Street protests, public accusations of racism and arrests at school board meetings rocked a city known for public politeness.

Despite it all, CMS had a national reputation for doing better than most cities with the challenges of urban education.

That was the atmosphere when the board hired PROACT, a Chicago-based search firm, to find a new leader. The quest, including the national search and local polling on community needs, cost $76,500 and took most of a year.

In April 2012, the board brought three finalists to meet the public: Morrison, who was leading the school district in Reno, Nev.; Kriner Cash, the superintendent in Memphis, Tenn.; and Ann Clark, a CMS veteran who had risen to the top ranks of administration.

Morrison, then 46, was the least experienced. Reno was his first superintendent’s job, and after only two years, most of his initiatives hadn’t had a chance to play out. But he was viewed as a rising star. In February 2012, his peers across the country named him national Superintendent of the Year.

After two days in Charlotte packed with public and private meetings, he got the job. Board members had talked about going to Reno but decided there was no need. Morrison’s energy, charisma and surprisingly deep knowledge of local issues had wowed not only the board but many who met him.

At that time, personal and political differences had created rifts among the nine members. But they united to hire Morrison.

Missed signs?

In the wake of the latest allegations, some have wondered whether the board botched the hiring.

The search firm had backgrounded Morrison. Members were aware of online comments, mostly anonymous, posted in Charlotte and Reno accusing him of a dictatorial style. But it’s a rare leader who doesn’t have critics, especially those who are trying to push new programs and shake up a system.

The Observer sent a reporter to Reno after the vote.

Andrew Barbano, a labor activist who writes for a Reno-area alternative newspaper, was one of Morrison’s few on-the-record critics. Barbano repeatedly castigated Morrison in print as a self-promoter who manipulated data and told leaders what they wanted to hear.

“He ruled the (Reno) education apparatus with an iron fist and reacted with unreasoned anger against those who dared communicate with elected board members,” Barbano wrote in May 2012. “His underlings warned offenders never to repeat their transgression if they ever wanted anything from the school district again. With elected officials kept in the dark like mushrooms, it’s been easy for Morrison to originate or change policies without board approval.”

The Observer’s reporter met with Barbano and with members of the local NAACP branch, who had concerns with the way Morrison had dealt with Reno’s small African-American community.

David Fullenwider, president of the Washoe Schools Principals Association, praised Morrison as an impressive visionary in 2012. But he noted that Morrison’s intensity meant some good principals lived in fear of being fired. “If you mess up,” he said at the time, “man, it’s pretty harsh.”

But for the most part, Morrison seemed to be respected by employees and admired by community leaders and state lawmakers.

In interviews in Reno, Morrison talked about how serious change takes a decade or more, and insisted he’d see that through in Charlotte.

At the time, CMS was facing another public embarrassment over faulty data that had been published and never fully explained. Morrison said he couldn’t promise no mistakes under his leadership. But he pledged that when problems flared, he’d acknowledge them, fix them and learn from them.

A bright beginning

Morrison took Mecklenburg County by storm.

He visited all 159 schools in his first 100 days. He held 13 town hall meetings and seemed to be at every community gathering across the sprawling county.

At a gathering of leaders in the Beatties Ford Road area, a historically black community that had felt shut out of school closing decisions, Morrison’s speech won hearty applause. Vilma Leake, the county commissioner who represents that area, said at the time he had won their trust: “The people willingly accept him.”

Over and over, people who met him praised his genuineness and his knowledge of the county’s fault lines.

“He’s a brilliant educator, a great collaborator, a great leader,” Central Piedmont Community College President Tony Zeiss said last week.

Morrison’s quirky personality emerged. He cheerfully admitted to having the palate of a 3-year-old: No alcohol, few exotic foods and a preference for living on peanut butter sandwiches. He played peppy music at rallies, and it didn’t take much to get him dancing on stage.

Mary Nell McPherson, director of Freedom School Partners, described him as a “teacher at heart and a kid at heart in many ways” who championed community involvement in public education.

When Morrison set up his leadership team, his first move was to name Clark his deputy, praising her skills and experience in CMS.

Settling in

There were rough patches, but Morrison seemed to be honoring his promise to acknowledge them and move on. During his first year, one of his lieutenants gave the board incorrect information about a plan to spend millions boosting school safety. When the error came to light, CMS revised the plans.

Morrison brought a controversial national consultant on race and education to visit Charlotte leaders. When controversy flared over his writings about white privilege and institutional racism, Morrison backed away and crafted a lower-key approach working with local consultants.

Morrison inherited frustrations among some teachers and parents over changes Gorman had made to school hours. He had his staff keep working with the group that had concerns to study alternatives.

Susan Plaza, a leader of the parent group pushing for change, said last week that she never had anything but a positive relationship with Morrison despite their differences of opinion. She said that Morrison had a strong personality, but she viewed it as a positive.

“He’s always been very willing to listen to what I say,” she said. “He offers his opinions back, but always in a respectful way.”

Morale and fear

Teacher morale has been a long-standing challenge for CMS. Long before Morrison arrived, teachers and principals privately complained of repercussions for criticizing district decisions and questioning superiors. Teacher turnover rates perennially run well above state averages.

Many key developments during Morrison’s two years were outside his control. Teacher layoffs ended, but state pay remained stagnant and teacher assistant jobs were cut.

In 2013, the state legislature approved a series of unpopular changes to tenure, pay and evaluations. Morrison, who made frequent trips to Raleigh to lobby for education, walked a fine line, trying to advocate for teachers without incurring the wrath of lawmakers who write the checks.

His impact is hard to gauge. State leaders praised CMS’ work with private donors to create high-paying “opportunity culture” jobs for star teachers willing to take on added classroom work. Yet teacher turnover hit a 10-year high in CMS in 2013. Principal switches and departures were frequent under Morrison, as they had been before.

But many teachers said they viewed Morrison as part of the solution, not the cause of most problems.

“The culture of fear was there before Morrison. It got better,” said Beth Janie Frueh, a former teacher and CMS parent. “We felt like he heard us. We really felt hope with him.”

Ironically, Morrison had brought in a local consultant to work with his top staff to dismantle a culture of fear and encourage trust. That work was continuing when he resigned.

Another view

A report compiled by CMS attorney George Battle III casts Morrison in a different light.

In the report to the school board dated Oct. 30, Battle describes Morrison constantly berating his former administrative assistant, Debi Baker. In a statement Battle took from Baker, she says he berated her in front of others, blaming her for such things as traffic jams and failing to find him a high-quality gym when he traveled.

Other people in central offices confirmed the behavior, Battle wrote, quoting Clark as saying Morrison created a “culture of fear,” was “very hard” on staff and used “intimidating non-verbals.” Another employee is quoted as calling Morrison “a bully.”

Most people interviewed after the report emerged, both inside and outside CMS, said that description came as a shock.

“I have never seen him be anything other than honorable and respectful of any staff member,” said Valerie Truesdale, whom Morrison hired as his technology chief in 2012. She was not interviewed in Battle’s investigation. She said Morrison keeps “an amazingly tight calendar” and has seen him get frustrated by snarls, but has not seen him be abusive or belittling.

“He can be a tough guy when he needs to be,” said Charles Smith, an Independence High teacher who advocates for other teachers as president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators. But Smith said he respects Morrison as a true advocate for teachers.

Some say they glimpsed a different side.

Rita Griffin, a retired counselor at South Charlotte Middle School, said she accompanied a friend who worked for CMS to a personnel hearing before Morrison.

“He was arrogant and condescending,” she said. “He left her with no dignity whatsoever. It was like being a piece of gum on the bottom of his shoe.”

Morrison said last week that he makes tough decisions and is passionate about his work but doesn’t believe he has mistreated employees. “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.’ ”

Costs questioned

Battle’s report focuses on two issues: Morrison’s behavior and disclosure of construction costs for creating a small early-college high school at UNC Charlotte.

The school, which opened in August, is part of Morrison’s push to serve students and compete with charter schools by offering new academic options. While there were significant cost overruns installing the prefabricated classroom building, the report indicates that the real problem came in disclosing the initial budget.

Morrison presented plans for about a dozen new and revamped schools at a board meeting in October 2013, with no costs attached. Partial price tags for the UNCC school were revealed at subsequent meetings: $35,000 for facility maintenance in December and an $845,000 purchase order for a prefabricated classroom building in January.

But Battle’s report says Morrison and several of his top lieutenants knew in October that the full budget was $2.2 million (the final tally was $3.2 million, according to County Manager Dena Diorio). It says Clark and Chief Financial Officer Sheila Shirley advised Morrison before the December meeting to “share the cost information with board members,” but he did not.

It also says that before an opening-of-school report at the Aug. 12 board meeting, Morrison told Clark to “move quickly through the UNCC matter to try to avoid questions from (board member Ericka) Ellis-Stewart re: cost.”

Morrison said he informed the board about the budgeted costs, and about the overruns when he learned of them. He said when he learned there were problems, he “held some folks accountable and informed the board of that.”

October surprise

A crucial mystery remains: What happened in October to turn these episodes into a crisis that led to Morrison’s departure?

Baker, a longtime CMS staffer who had assisted two other superintendents before Morrison, said the mistreatment ended when she was transferred to work for other administrators in May 2013. She said she did nothing to revive the issue.

Guy Chamberlain, a now-retired associate superintendent who was in charge of construction, says the school board learned of the cost overruns, as well as the full budget for new schools, this spring. At that time, he said, staff told the board they had discovered that CMS employees who weren’t authorized had signed off on hundreds of thousands in additional spending.

Morrison’s most recent board evaluation, conducted in February, rated his overall performance at a 4.4 on a 5-point scale and included numerous glowing remarks.

“Keep doing what you are doing!” board Vice Chairman Tim Morgan wrote.

The evaluation, which Morrison provided to the Observer, makes no mention of any concerns over how he treats his staff, beyond board member Tom Tate’s concerns that the pace of change had the potential to lead to burnout. He earned the highest marks for his effectiveness in relationships with key members of the corporate and civic community.

Until last week, most people believed all was well.

Bolyn McClung, a one-time board candidate who attends most meetings, recalls a recent committee meeting in which members seemed eager for Morrison’s guidance: “The trust just a month ago was so strong.”

Battle and board members have declined to say what launched the probe. Battle’s report, described as “a compilation of documentary and testimonial evidence obtained during an intensive investigation into misconduct allegations against Superintendent Heath Morrison,” lists the first interview as occurring Oct. 10, when Battle apparently questioned Kevin Bringewatt, an outside real estate lawyer who was involved in the UNCC project.

In an attached email, Bringewatt advises several CMS officials, including Battle, Chamberlain, Clark and Shirley, on dealing with the legal implications of the unauthorized overruns. His advice centered on keeping the issue out of the public eye.

Bringewatt did not respond to a call for comment.

The report indicates Battle, Bringewatt and another CMS lawyer interviewed 13 current and former CMS employees, including Clark, Chamberlain and Baker, over the next 18 days.

On Oct. 28, after a public meeting at Garinger High, the school board went into a long closed session to discuss personnel. Battle’s report says he was asked at that time to summarize his investigation.

Three days later, Morrison’s top staff showed up for a Friday planning retreat with the school board. Morrison wasn’t there, and the board was behind closed doors. After about an hour, Chairperson Mary McCray sent them back to work, saying the board would need the rest of the day for closed personnel meetings.

By Monday morning, reporters had gotten wind that Morrison’s departure was imminent. By Wednesday, the Observer had obtained a copy of Battle’s report, which was classified as confidential.

Battle’s recommendation: Fire the superintendent. “Dr. Morrison’s conduct has left the board at risk of being named in lawsuits stemming from his dishonesty and mistreatment of employees,” he wrote.

He said Morrison had violated at least seven of the 47 standards of conduct spelled out for all CMS employees in school board policy. The standards include prohibitions on harassment of fellow employees, dishonesty regarding any work-related matter and interference with another employee’s job performance.

By 2 p.m. Thursday, the board had accepted Morrison’s resignation, voting 6-3 with no public discussion.

In brief remarks after the vote, McCray noted that both sides had signed agreements to keep the matter confidential and not to disparage each other. She said airing the issue publicly only harms CMS.

“It pains me that this has tainted the reputation of this district and this community,” she said.

Now a shocked community is trying to regroup and understand.

Troubling questions

It is unclear whether the board is doing any further investigation or audits, given the questions raised about Morrison’s honesty.

Also unclear is whether the board reacted properly to the reports. Members Eric Davis, Paul Bailey and Tate voted against accepting the resignation. Only Davis gave an explanation.

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

Clark has been tapped to lead CMS while board members decide whether to do a search. Many are urging the board to give her the permanent job quickly.

But the report indicates Clark was aware of the alleged misleading cost reports and bullying. It is not clear what, if anything, she did to address those issues.

State Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg, notes that this turmoil lands after the contentious public firing of longtime County Manager Harry Jones and the arrest and conviction of Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon on charges of taking bribes.

Only CMS had seemed exempt from leadership turmoil.

“We really are on the verge of a leadership crisis in this city,” Graham said Thursday. “At this point, we’re left with more questions than answers.”

Staff writers Andrew Dunn and Elizabeth Leland contributed.

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