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MeckEd: Anger over Morrison’s ouster colors CMS search

Superintendent Heath Morrison (left) spoke with parents at a school board meeting in October 2014, just before he was forced out.
Superintendent Heath Morrison (left) spoke with parents at a school board meeting in October 2014, just before he was forced out. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Lingering frustration over the way the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board pushed out Superintendent Heath Morrison is eroding trust in the current superintendent search, the nonprofit group MeckEd reports after conducting 14 public meetings on the search.

“To many community members, the person they put their faith in was ousted under mysterious circumstances,” the MeckEd search report says. “A consequence is that trust in the School Board and trust in an authentic process experienced a steep decline, particularly in the African American community.”

In an odd twist of the current search, there were two separate sets of meetings this fall to gauge public views on the next superintendent. That led to two reports to the school board and the community.

McPherson & Jacobson, the Nebraska-based firm that’s conducting the search for CMS, held 45 invitation-only small group interviews and three public meetings. Its 26-page report was presented at a Wednesday school board meeting and is posted on the CMS website.

MeckEd, a Charlotte-based research and advocacy group that focuses on CMS, held 14 public forums in September. While the school board supported those meetings, distribution of the 27-page MeckEd report has been left to that group. The full report will go up on the MeckEd site Friday.

The need for more and for improved communication was prevalent among all stakeholder groups.

McPherson & Jacobson report

There’s common ground. Both reports cite a need for better communication from central offices. Both recorded a long list of desired characteristics that reflect the board’s priorities: Integrity, leadership, educational expertise, political acumen and cultural competence.

Mistakes of the past

But there are stark differences in substance and style, with the MeckEd report providing more narrative about the circumstances leading up to the current search.

Morrison was hired after a national search in 2012. Energetic and charismatic, the former National Superintendent of the Year spent two years building community bonds and outlining his plans for CMS. Then, in November 2014, board Chair Mary McCray announced Morrison was resigning to care for his ailing mother.

The Observer obtained a report from CMS attorney George Battle III recommending that the board fire Morrison, saying he had bullied staff and lied about spending. Instead, the board voted to accept his resignation and signed a confidentiality agreement that blocked either side from revealing the circumstances surrounding his ouster.

Ann Clark, Morrison’s former deputy, has held the top post ever since. Her contract expires next year, and the board hopes to name a successor early in 2017.

Heath Morrison, as recounted by participants, was the community’s choice and many still feel great affection for a man who seemed to say and do all of the right things.

MeckEd report

MeckEd President Ross Danis, who was hired from New Jersey a year after Morrison’s departure, said people at the forums kept bringing up Morrison, quoting things he had told them and asking what really happened to end his career with CMS. Those who believe that the 2012 search was “an excellent and inclusive process” are wary of participating this time around, the MeckEd report says.

McCray said Wednesday that the board learned lessons from the 2012 search. She says the board made extra efforts to ensure that this year’s firm has no conflicts of interest – the lead consultant in 2012 later faced criminal charges in connection with a superintendent training academy he ran – and will do more to research candidates’ background. She also said the board may end its tradition of bringing finalists to meet the public, a process that highlights candidates’ public persona.

Meanwhile, McPherson & Jacobson reported a different area of concern: People they interviewed voiced weariness of superintendents “trained by Broad, Gates or any national academy with a corporate focus.” Clark and former Superintendent Peter Gorman were trained at the Broad Academy, part of a group of education reform projects funded by billionaires and criticized locally and nationally for taking a corporate approach to public education.

“They know they need a CEO, but they really want an educational leader,” consultant Steve Joel told the board Wednesday.

Community strengths

The search firm asked all groups to start by listing what they like about CMS and the community. Consultants reported finding a strong sense of civic commitment in general, and high engagement with public education. Business and community leaders invest money and time in CMS, they reported.

“We found this to be an extremely generous community, one that we haven’t seen in any other community,” consultant Candis Finan told the board.

They also reported high regard for “caring, passionate faculty, administrators and support personnel” and the wide range of academic offerings in CMS. They said Project LIFT, a public-private partnership striving for improvement in nine west Charlotte schools, was repeatedly cited as a success.

Employee concerns

Both groups reported that CMS employees are concerned about pay, communication and frequent changes in leadership.

“Stakeholders indicate a concern over poor morale among all employees fueled by a perceived lack of leadership, fairness and transparency regarding decisions that impact them, including salary, benefits and salary caps,” the McPherson & Jacobson report says.

MeckEd held a focus group made up of teachers the group has honored as “Teachers of Excellence.”

“Whether or not things at CMS are going well was a point of respectful disagreement,” the MeckEd report says. About 75 percent want a superintendent who won’t try to “turn things upside down,” the report says, while the rest “strongly believe that the system is, in fact, badly broken and that bold, courageous leadership is needed.”

Neighborhood schools

The board’s ongoing student assignment review came up in both reports.

MeckEd said neighborhood schools consistently emerged as a high priority: “Whether from a struggling, largely African American community, or a high performing, well resourced, predominantly white community, the consensus is that everyone deserves a good school reasonably close to where they live and that bus rides of an hour or longer are not an effective way to address issues related to diversity, equity, and access to a quality education (unless it is a parent/student choice).”

The consensus is that everyone deserves a good school reasonably close to where they live.

MeckEd report

McPherson & Jacobson reported that its participants want a leader who understands the history and culture of CMS, as well as the effects of rapid growth and demographic change.

“Student assignment must be implemented properly, equitably, and effectively,” that report says. “Changing demographics reflect an increasing diversity of students and illustrate the need to build bridges to various communities with neighborhood schools and to build trust with the African American community.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

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