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CMS board blows off superintendent search ‘homework’

Audience members at Tuesday’s meeting call for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board to launch a superintendent search.
Audience members at Tuesday’s meeting call for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board to launch a superintendent search. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Hiring a superintendent is arguably the most important thing a school board does.

But you wouldn’t know that from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board’s response to its most recent “homework assignment” on a superintendent search.

At the end of a special meeting in July, board Chairwoman Mary McCray asked her colleagues to let her know what kind of search they want to pursue and what they’re looking for in a long-term leader.

Two months later, with no progress visible and no follow-up meeting scheduled, I made a public-records request for board members’ replies.

When CMS sent only two brief emails, from members Thelma Byers-Bailey and Paul Bailey, I thought it must be a mistake. I’ve worked with most of the board for a long time, and they take their work seriously.

I asked McCray if she’d gotten other responses in a different format, something that might have been overlooked. Nope, she said. That’s all she got.

I called all the other members to ask what’s up.

“I didn’t give her anything,” said Rhonda Lennon.

“I thought I had said what I wanted to say. I had nothing more to add,” said Tom Tate.

“I didn’t know I had an assignment to do that,” said Ruby Jones.

Several didn’t return my calls. But CMS spokeswoman Renee McCoy, who handled the request, says she confirmed with all members that they hadn’t sent anything else.

Bailey’s email answer was, “I did my homework. Two typed pages so may have gotten carried away.” But those pages aren’t attached, and McCoy says Bailey told her he decided not to send them to McCray.

Honeymoon to divorce

It’s possible that board members think leadership of CMS is such a plum job they don’t have to sweat the search. This is, after all, one of the nation’s 20 biggest districts, with a good national reputation and strong community support. Its problems pale compared with those in many big cities, where everyone with influence and options has bailed out.

But developments in the past year have left the local community and prospective job candidates with questions about leadership.

The last national search led to the 2012 hiring of Heath Morrison, the reigning National Superintendent of the Year.

Things seemed to be going well until last fall, when Morrison abruptly announced his resignation. He and the board agreed to present it as a family matter and signed agreements not to talk.

But reporters quickly discovered that CMS Attorney George Battle III had done an investigation and told the board that Morrison had violated at least seven standards of conduct, based on findings that he had bullied staff and withheld information about the cost of creating a new high school.

Board leaders confronted Morrison with the allegations in a closed-door meeting last October and raised the possibility of dismissal. He agreed to resign.

In limited public comments after the board voted to accept his resignation, McCray said the board had tried to keep the issues quiet because “it only hurts and confuses the district when this plays out in the public space.”

But the unanswered questions leave plenty of room for confusion.

If Morrison was a bad hire, where did the board, the search firm PROACT and the hundreds of community members who met and supported Morrison go astray?

If he was a good leader who made mistakes, how did the relationship go from honeymoon to divorce so fast?

Battle is the only CMS employee other than the superintendent who reports directly to the board. Anyone considering the top job would be bound to have questions about the balance of power.

“Heath’s leaving and the conditions of his leaving would merit some research by candidates,” said Morton Sherman, associate executive director of the AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

Sherman, who has family in the Charlotte area, says the job would still be seen as “a gem,” but the board has to be clear about its plans.

“Boards get elevated in national perception when they’re really candid about their standards and their process,” he said.

Speculation fills vacuum

Board members seem aware of the issues. At the July 29 special meeting, Ericka Ellis-Stewart noted that “people who are interested in (the job) are watching us.”

Several members aired their thoughts in detail at that meeting. They said they’re wary of applicants who might see CMS as a springboard to a national career. They talked about the difference between someone who launches big turnaround plans and someone who sustains a plan over the long haul.

They discussed whether hiring national search firms has paid off for CMS, or whether they should consider such alternatives as using the district’s human resources staff or working with the N.C. School Boards Association.

The challenge is turning nine individual opinions into a plan the board can support and take to the community. The homework was supposed to move them a step closer. The only publicly available response is Byers-Bailey’s, saying she supports a regional/national search.

In any search, important work takes place in private. But if the board is making progress, members are hiding it well.

And speculation is filling the vacuum. Mass emails have been circulated saying some board members are quietly working to extend Superintendent Ann Clark’s contract past this summer, in a process that shuts out the public in general and the African-American community in particular.

“Every day that goes by that this board does not consider a fair, valid and unbiased process to select the next superintendent is a day that extreme disparity continues,” said J. Waddell Brunson, one of the speakers who turned out Tuesday to urge the board to start a search for new leadership.

Hectic schedule

When I pressed Tate and Lennon on their seeming indifference to a crucial task, both cited the challenge of weighing search discussions against a time-consuming examination of student assignment.

“We’ve been putting our attention on the guiding principles,” said Tate, who chairs the committee handling that work. “That’s about all I can handle at this moment.”

When I asked McCray about the board’s next meeting on a search, she said she hadn’t chosen a date. She and Ellis-Stewart are running for re-election, and she noted that candidates have forums to attend almost every day in October.

And what can she do when her colleagues ignore her homework assignment?

McCray shrugged. “I’m going to send it out again,” she said last week.

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