Emails highlight tension in CMS over legal department reorganization

Newly released emails from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools highlight the tension between general counsel George Battle III and Heath Morrison’s administration in the month before Battle launched an investigation into the former superintendent.

The emails, most of them from October, shed light on Morrison’s work habits. They also raise questions about whether a quote about a “culture of fear” in the district mentioned in Battle’s report was a specific criticism of Morrison.

The documents were obtained by the Observer through a public records request made in November.

One chain in mid-September ends with a note from Battle to school board Chairwoman Mary McCray and Vice Chairman Tim Morgan. Battle vents his frustration about the speed with which a legal department reorganization was progressing.

Battle had first outlined the plan to the school board in August. Five attorneys for the school district received raises ranging from $8,500 to $16,000 – between 8 and 15 percent – with expanded duties. Battle, who makes $173,000 per year, did not receive a raise under the plan. The money came from a vacant position in the legal department.

The general counsel and superintendent are the only two CMS positions that report directly to the school board.

The reorganization didn’t require any formal approvals, and Battle thought he had the go-ahead from the school board in August. Instead, Battle and a top deputy received notes from the human resources office saying the plan was being reviewed. Then-Chief Human Resources Officer Terri Cockerham also tried to set up a meeting with Battle and Chief Financial Officer Sheila Shirley to discuss the plan.

Battle emailed McCray and Morgan that he did not want to meet with them.

“Meeting with them to get their approval for the reorganization makes as much sense as requiring the superintendent to get approval from the legal department for any of his initiatives,” he wrote.

Battle also wrote that he’s had similar problems throughout his tenure with CMS. He came to the district in 2010.

“I have generally encountered nothing but opposition and delay from staff, with issues (small and large) remaining unresolved until an ultimatum is delivered,” Battle wrote. “I have never in my professional life been in a situation where I have had to fight ‘colleagues’ just to do the job I have been assigned.”

Within three days, Morrison and Battle met to discuss the situation. It’s unclear what was said. But afterward, Battle wrote a Sept. 22 email to Morrison clarifying that the reorganization “neither violates any board policy or law or is it outside the board’s scope of authority to approve.”

Battle presented the reorganization again in a September closed-session meeting. This time he got explicit approval, with board member Eric Davis dissenting. Morrison supported the reorganization in the meeting.

The emails provide the clearest evidence yet that the legal reorganization was a bone of contention between Battle and Morrison’s administration. Neither Battle nor Morrison responded to requests for comment.

The issue has already been the source of friction between board members in the aftermath of Morrison’s sudden resignation in early November.

Battle in early October launched an investigation into allegations that Morrison bullied staff members and misled the board on the costs of a project at UNC Charlotte. He presented the findings in a report to board members Oct. 28. By the next week, Morrison had resigned. Eight board members have said they felt Morrison needed to leave.

In mid-November, Battle wrote a scathing email to board members accusing Davis of spreading the “lie” that Battle had a “vendetta” against Morrison.

Davis has questioned whether an outside attorney should have been brought in to conduct the investigation.

McCray and Morgan did not respond to requests for comment.

Management style

Morrison’s October emails also shed light on how he operated as a manager.

He sent emails to subordinates as early as early as 5:20 a.m. and as late as 9:37 p.m. in that span.

In one, he praises his staff for their work on a student reassignment plan and encourages the team to help them practice their presentation. He also sets tight deadlines for information and reports.

In one instance, Morrison sent Clark an email at 6:39 a.m. asking for an answer to what was happening with an old school campus by 8:30 a.m. Clark says she will “do my best to meet this deadline.” She emailed him a response at 8:20 a.m. that day.

Battle’s report quotes Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark as saying there was a “culture of fear” under Morrison. The emails released by CMS also bolster Clark’s statement in an interview broadcast on WFAE that Clark was referring to an environment over several superintendents.

In a September email from Morrison to CMS executive staff, Morrison summarizes a retreat they recently had. He wrote that Clark “challenged the idea that ‘fear’ is no longer part of our culture.”

Clark told WFAE that a culture of fear “has been a concern over several superintendents.”

Battle took issue with the implication that Clark wasn’t referring to Morrison in his report.

“Any issues or allegations discussed with me were things brought to my attention. I relayed the facts,” Battle told the Observer last month. “I did not embellish, I did not fabricate, I did not add. Neither did the other attorneys working with me on this matter. ... Any assertion to the contrary is a lie.”

After Battle’s response, Clark sent an email to the Observer: “What I can tell you is that a culture of fear existed in the district office for the last two years separate and distinct from previous years.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer