Education

George Battle defends handling of Heath Morrison investigation

One week, Heath Morrison was a popular school superintendent, lauded for his work advocating for teacher pay and closing achievement gaps. The next, he had hastily resigned.

His undoing? Actions highlighted in a secret investigative report compiled by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools general counsel George Battle III.

Battle rarely speaks at school board meetings. But Morrison’s sudden departure has shoved Battle into the public spotlight more than ever before.

Last year was an extraordinary one for Battle. He made a bid for Congress, which he ultimately lost. He became a flashpoint for Morrison’s defenders who say the superintendent was pushed out unjustly. Battle has since feuded with a board member and vigorously defended himself against accusations that his investigation was motivated by a personal agenda.

Here’s what happened: Battle says he received complaints about Morrison’s behavior and about how he fast-tracked a new school on the UNC Charlotte campus without telling the board how costly it would be. Within days, Battle launched an investigation that included interviews with a dozen CMS staff and administrators. He met individually with board members to tell them. And he authored the nine-page report that outlined the allegations.

Battle’s report said Morrison “lied” to the board and regularly acted like a “bully.” It quoted then-Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark as saying there was a “culture of fear” under Morrison. Ultimately, Battle recommended that the board fire Morrison because of the “legal and reputational risk” to the district his behavior created. He never told Morrison of the accusations made against him.

Six days later, Morrison resigned, ending the two-year tenure of the 2012 national superintendent of the year who aggressively lobbied state legislators to raise teacher pay. His energy, drive and public salesmanship for the schools made him popular among the city’s leaders.

Morrison declined to comment for this story.

Battle’s peers in Charlotte’s legal community have suggested that Battle, 41, should have brought in an outside attorney to handle the investigation because of how closely a general counsel and superintendent work together.

Board member Eric Davis, who backed Battle in 2010 when he got the job with the school board, has questioned Battle’s actions. Online commenters and letter writers have accused Battle of leading a personality-motivated coup d’etat. Though Battle says he and Morrison had a productive relationship, they did disagree over how Battle compensated his staff.

Battle told the Observer he has no regrets about how he has handled the situation – despite what others say.

“I would be lying to you if I didn’t say it was hurtful,” Battle said. “I have pride in my work. I have pride in my professionalism. The people who know me know the type of person I am.”

Role of the general counsel

The year Battle entered kindergarten, his father was elected to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board. Bishop George Battle Jr. served on the board for 17 years, leading it as chairman for four of them.

Battle’s mother, too, worked for CMS, spending 25 years as a guidance counselor, principal and administrator. George Battle III attended Newell Elementary, Hawthorne Traditional Junior High and West Charlotte High schools.

“I grew up with a deep reverence for CMS,” Battle said. “Really, that’s all I knew growing up.”

In part, that’s why Battle left a promising career as a staff attorney with Carolinas HealthCare System to lead the school district’s legal division.

In the role, Battle manages five staff attorneys and outside lawyers who billed more than $400,000 in the last school year. He is one of two CMS employees who report directly to the school board, the other being the superintendent. Battle’s salary is $173,000.

Guy Chamberlain, who recently retired as the CMS associate superintendent in charge of construction, said Battle has a reputation for being professional and a strong advocate for his staff.

“I viewed him as an intelligent, gracious individual,” Chamberlain said. “I enjoyed being in his company.”

Despite repeated questions, Battle has avoided saying exactly why he felt compelled to investigate Morrison immediately. Instead, he has described how he views his role.

“You’re the board’s counsel,” Battle said. “You’re here to protect the district, protect the resources of the district, so we can be focused on teaching and learning and not tied up in litigation or sitting on a bunch of ticking time bombs.”

He said his true value is in preventing lawsuits.

“Once you get into any litigation, whether you ultimately prevail or not, you’re spending money on lawyer fees, you’re taking people out of the classroom,” Battle said.

Behind the scenes

Typically, that work is done in private.

“You are most normally behind the scenes, and sometimes something happens that kind of thrusts you in the forefront,” said Leslie Winner, who served as the first in-house counsel for CMS, starting in 1998, after leaving a prominent role in the N.C. Senate. She now leads the Winston-Salem-based Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

For her, that something was the lawsuit and subsequent judge’s ruling that prevented CMS from using race as a factor in student assignment plans. She repeatedly spoke in public to explain what was going on.

“That was A: not what I was looking for, and B: not typical,” she said.

Winner, too, described the value of having an in-house general counsel as being able to steer the district clear of problems.

“Outside people, you go to them after you’re in trouble,” she said. “With in-house counsel, you can say, ‘You might not want to go down that path.’ ”

She declined to comment specifically on how Battle handled the Morrison situation. But she described the relationship between a superintendent and general counsel as a close one.

“It’s an unhappy day in the life of a general counsel when there’s controversy between the CEO and the board,” Winner said. “You basically have a duty of loyalty to both of them.”

Legal questions

School board attorneys and superintendents generally need to have a collaborative partnership. Battle said that was the case in Charlotte.

“I thought we had a really good relationship,” Battle said. “We never, to my knowledge, had a point of disagreement.”

The only known potential conflict came a month before the investigation. Battle had won school board approval for a plan to use money from an open position in the legal department to raise the salaries of the staff attorneys.

The raises increased the lawyers’ pay by between 8 percent and 15 percent, in general significantly larger than raises teachers and other staff received. Morrison privately questioned the plan with some school board members. Battle said Morrison never told him about his concerns, and Morrison backed it in a September school board meeting.

It’s not common for the general counsel to be called upon to investigate the superintendent, but it’s not unheard of, said Kenneth Murray, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida who has studied the relationship between superintendents and school attorneys.

“The lawyers know what the rules are. The general counsel works for the school board, not the superintendent,” Murray said. “It doesn’t happen hardly at all. Except when it does. And then it gets to be messy.”

But lawyers with some public policy experience question Battle’s actions.

William Rikard, an attorney with Parker Poe and a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board chairman, told the Observer in November that the board should have brought in attorneys for the investigation.

“I think it’s always better to have totally independent counsel do something that sensitive,” he said.

John Gresham, an attorney with Tin Fulton Walker & Owens said on WTVI’s “Carolina Business Review” that Charlotte has plenty of lawyers who could have helped.

“If it ever reaches this again, I would suggest you get someone from outside the system to review all that has happened,” he said.

In neighboring Union County, the school district general counsel sought outside help when accusations were raised that school board vice chairwoman Marce Savage had inappropriately spoken with a high school administrator.

“I would much prefer it be somebody who is independent, who does not know any of the parties,” general counsel Michele Morris told the Union County school board. “It’s uncomfortable for me, it would be uncomfortable for board members that I’d have to talk to, it would be uncomfortable for staff members that I’d have to talk to.”

Dispute with Davis

Battle has been unusually high-profile in other ways.

He launched a bid for U.S. Congress in late 2013 for the seat vacated by longtime Rep. Mel Watt, who now leads the Federal Housing Finance Agency. That was his first candidacy since winning the student body presidency at UNC Chapel Hill.

He told the Observer he doesn’t plan to seek political office again, but “you never say never.” He declined to speculate on where he would be in five years, but said he would be happy with the school system.

James “Smuggie” Mitchell, a former City Council member, ran for the U.S. House seat against Battle. When Mitchell withdrew, he supported Battle in the Democratic primary. Mitchell told the Observer he was drawn to Battle because of how well he communicates.

“He could take a policy and put it in layman’s terms and show them the impact it would have,” Mitchell said. “That’s not really a politician, that’s just a good public servant.”

The two meet monthly for breakfast to talk about how they can make an impact on Charlotte. He said critics of Battle are looking for a scapegoat.

“Some people say he had a personal agenda, but they don’t know George Battle,” Mitchell said. “It wasn’t a witch hunt. He was just doing his job.”

Battle also took the unusual step of publicly criticizing one of his bosses and questioning the acting superintendent amid Morrison’s controversial departure.

He clashed with school board member Eric Davis in mid-November in a dispute over whether the legal staff raises gave Battle a personal reason to investigate Morrison. Battle accused Davis of telling people Battle had a personal vendetta against Morrison.

“I will not be intimidated or bullied by you or any other person for doing my job,” Battle wrote in an email to board members in November.

Battle also rebutted Ann Clark when, during an interview on WFAE-FM (90.7), she seemed to temper her statement from Battle’s report that there was a “culture of fear” under Morrison.

Clark said on the radio that she was referring to a culture created over the past several superintendents and the resulting disruption caused by principal turnover. Battle’s report was specifically about Morrison.

“I did not embellish, I did not fabricate, I did not add,” Battle said in response. “Neither did the other attorneys working with me on this matter. Any assertion to the contrary is a lie.”

Clark later clarified that the culture under Morrison was distinct from past superintendents.

No regrets

Davis has been the most vocal critic of Battle’s investigation. For weeks, he has called for an independent legal review of the process so the board can learn from it.

He also said he questions whether the general counsel should be empowered to launch an investigation of the superintendent without the approval of the full school board. He has asked his board colleagues to discuss enacting a policy that would outline a process when there’s an issue with the superintendent.

Battle says there’s nothing he would do differently. But he did once reconsider.

In late November, Battle emailed the school board saying he had asked the Asheville-based law firm Campbell Shatley to review his work.

“I do this neither because I need another attorney’s opinion to practice law nor because somehow an outside attorney is in some magical way superior to in-house counsel,” he wrote. “I am doing this because I think the investigation itself has become a red herring used by some to distract from the true issues.”

Within hours, Battle wrote another email saying he changed his mind. Battle told the Observer he decided it wasn’t necessary.

Board chairwoman Mary McCray has consistently backed him. She said in the future, the board would have to better explain to the public the general counsel’s role.

“I wholeheartedly think he did what his job duties entail,” McCray said. “He is the one that would lead an investigation of anything that is going on in the district.”

Battle said he only wants to advise board members well.

“I want them to know that I’ve done things in an above-board, professional manner,” Battle said. “I do wish that we didn’t have the circus.”

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