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CMS superintendent (non)search takes on racial overtones

CMS closings in 2010 sparked protests from the majority black neighborhoods that lost schools. Some blame Ann Clark, who was in a leadership role at the time.
CMS closings in 2010 sparked protests from the majority black neighborhoods that lost schools. Some blame Ann Clark, who was in a leadership role at the time. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

Colette Forrest, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools parent who’s active in local politics, emailed thousands of people this week urging them to resist a “quiet push” to extend Ann Clark’s contract as superintendent.

“School Board member Eric Davis & School Board candidate Jeremy Stephenson and other members of the wealthy, privileged establishment have commenced a campaign to install Ann Clark as the permanent superintendent without so much as seeking the input of the other communities that make up Charlotte, including the African American community whose children make up the largest racial group in CMS,” wrote Forrest, who is black.

It’s not exactly breaking news that some board members and community leaders would like Clark to stay past the expiration of her current contract, which ends in summer 2016. I wrote about that a month ago.

But Forrest’s e-blast went very public – she says she has about 70,000 people on her mailing list – with something folks have been buzzing about in the background: Support for Clark seems to split partly along racial lines.

There is a trust issue that’s broken between the African-American community and CMS.

Parent activist Colette Forrest

Forrest traces the racial rift back to 2010, when CMS leaders closed about a dozen schools, most of them in predominantly black neighborhoods. It was a messy process that sparked bitter protests and left scars, including a lingering legacy of failure at majority-black schools that were supposed to be improved by the changes.

Peter Gorman was superintendent at the time, but Clark was one of his top lieutenants.

“I just don’t feel that she has African-American children’s interest at heart,” Forrest said in an interview. “There is a trust issue that’s broken between the African-American community and CMS.”

Clark hasn’t responded to an Observer request for comment on Forrest’s remarks and whether she’s interested in staying longer.

Clark, a 32-year veteran of CMS, was a finalist for the superintendent’s job in 2012, when the board hired Heath Morrison. As deputy superintendent she stepped into the role when Morrison resigned abruptly and under pressure from the board last fall. The board made her superintendent in January. Although she wasn’t called an interim, she said she wasn’t interested in the long-term job and would retire after the board completed a search.

That search still hasn’t started. The last time the board discussed it publicly was July. The silence has fueled speculation about what’s going on behind the scenes.

The three board members who returned my calls this week wouldn’t comment directly on whether some members are lobbying to extend Clark’s contract. Personnel matters are legally exempt from public disclosure, and it’s normal for the board to emerge with a unanimous vote after intense private wrangling.

Ann Clark, in the time she’s been the superintendent, has done an outstanding job. She’s steady, clear, direct and unbelievably effective.

CMS board member Eric Davis

Davis, a white board member who was singled out in Forrest’s email, noted that Clark already is the permanent superintendent. He said she has been “unbelievably effective” and noted that after hiring a leader, the board’s most important job is supporting that leader.

“We don’t have a hard time recruiting people to be our superintendent,” Davis said. “We have a hard time keeping them.”

Stephenson, a white school board candidate, has been vocal in his support for extending Clark’s contract.

“We’ve tried two national superstars in a row already,” he posted on Facebook. “Anyone opposing, on BoE or candidate (or both), must articulate how and why a national search, costing us Ann, could be in our best interest. This is a litmus test.”

Stephenson is among nine candidates, including board Chair Mary McCray and member Ericka Ellis-Stewart, seeking three at-large seats in the Nov. 3 election. Ellis-Stewart said she hasn’t heard anything lately about next steps on launching a search: “That will be a question for Mary.”

McCray didn’t return a call and text message seeking comment on Forrest’s email and an update on the search. Forrest has volunteered with McCray’s campaign, but Forrest said her email was her personal opinion.

Forrest said her message was prompted by an encounter with Clark last week in which Clark indicated that staying longer was a possibility. (When I spoke with Clark about that issue in late August, she left the door open as well.) Forrest is urging people to sign up to speak against extending Clark’s contract at the Oct. 13 board meeting.

I’m not sure that the black community is too keen on the services that Ann has rendered.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake

The obvious question is how deep the distrust voiced by Forrest goes. It’s safe to say that Clark has black supporters and white detractors. But I’ve talked to a lot of people who are involved with CMS, black and white, and the notion that Clark faces opposition from the African-American community is widespread.

County Commissioner Vilma Leake, a powerful force in the majority-black west Charlotte community she represents, agrees that Clark’s role in the school closings eroded confidence in her.

“The mastermind behind that process was Ann Clark,” Leake said Thursday. “I’m not sure that the black community – and I can’t speak for everybody – is too keen on the services that Ann has rendered.”

At this point, one thing seems clear: If the board extends Clark’s contract, they’ll make one group angry. If they launch a search, which signals they’re not going that route, they’ll make another group angry. Both groups are highly motivated to vote in the school board election.

So my forecast is for continuing silence on the search until after Nov. 3.

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

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