When a winter storm postponed the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board’s superintendent search summit, it emphasized how much time has passed without action.
It’s been 15 months since Heath Morrison resigned. A year ago the board signed Ann Clark to an 18-month contract, planning to launch a search for a successor to step in this summer.
On Saturday, the board convenes for an all-day meeting at the Carolinas Aviation Museum to figure out how to get started.
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Board members say 2015 passed with opinions divided in closed-door talks: Once Clark opened the door to staying longer, some wanted to take that path. Others hoped to hire Guilford County Superintendent Maurice “Mo” Green without a search. Some insisted a search with public involvement was essential. No consensus emerged.
One of those options is now gone: Green took another job in December. Guilford, the state’s third-largest district after Wake and CMS, is already ahead of CMS in its superintendent search.
And some say the clock has run out on a national search. The last time the district did one, in 2011-12, it took eight months from voting to hire a search firm to offering Morrison a contract. CMS has six months until Clark’s contract expires.
“I don’t think we could do the kind of search the community deserves,” said board member Rhonda Lennon, who supports extending Clark’s tenure.
But member Ruby Jones says she’s seen a five- to six-month timeline. “If we can get it kicked off,” she said, “I have been assured that it is workable.”
The one clear consensus is that Saturday is make-or-break time, when nine views must cohere into a plan. There’s no more room for delay, with uncertainty lingering as the board marches toward student assignment changes, the 2016 budget and a possible bond campaign.
Colette Forrest, a CMS parent who has demanded public engagement in a search, said Wednesday that she could live with a condensed time frame, even giving up the traditional parade of finalists who meet the public.
“They can get it done if they’re serious about getting it done,” Forrest said. “I would be OK with trusting them to make the decision.”
The superintendent shuffle
Across the country, the superintendent shuffle plays out in a spring-to-spring cycle. Those who get new jobs announce they’ll leave at the end of the school year; boards generally take a year to find a replacement.
That means CMS is several months behind other large districts in the hunt. And some of those experiences show how unpredictable the process can be.
School districts in Minneapolis and Montgomery County, Md., both started searches a year ago. Both went through the process, announced a preferred candidate and saw those arrangements fall apart.
The plan B for Minneapolis, giving the interim superintedent the permanent job, also failed this week, when the interim withdrew in the midst of controversy over his record. Both districts are still searching, and potentially competing with CMS.
Daniel Domenech, executive director of AASA/The School Superintendents Association, says the recession made a tough job tougher, forcing district leaders to make controversial decisions about school closings, layoffs and other budget cuts. That means experienced candidates may come with more baggage.
Domenech said CMS can still attract national talent but might end up making the transition during the 2016-17 school year, rather than before schools open.
The Mo factor
Turning to Clark or Green would have let CMS skip the search and the “getting to know Charlotte” phase.
Clark, a 32-year veteran of CMS, was planning her retirement when Morrison was pressured to quit amid allegations that he had bullied staff and misled the board about costs for a new school. She signed on for what is essentially an extended interim job, but later said she’s open to staying longer.
On Tuesday night, Clark said only that she’s as curious as anyone to see what direction the board takes Saturday.
Green, a lawyer, got his start in public education as general counsel to CMS in 2001. Five years later, after Green negotiated the contract to hire Peter Gorman as superintendent, Gorman made Green his deputy. Guilford County hired Green for its top job in 2008.
North Carolina law allows personnel discussions to be private, so board talks about specific candidates have been closed. But Lennon and Jones both say they were told that CMS board leaders had communicated with Green in 2015 and received indications he was interested in the Charlotte job.
“I believe that interest may have sidelined the search,” Lennon said.
Green, who will leave the Guilford job next month, did not respond to a request for comment. Nora Carr, a former CMS administrator who is Green’s chief of staff, said she doubted Green would comment on the CMS search or “private personnel matters.”
By fall, with a school board campaign in progress, the CMS board’s lack of public action had become a hot topic, raised at almost every candidate forum.
Candidate Jeremy Stephenson called on the board to extend Clark’s term. Forrest led a group that came to an October board meeting demanding a search. Board Chairwoman Mary McCray, who was running for re-election, said any decisions would happen after the November election and the holidays.
On Dec. 8, during the first CMS board meeting after the election, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and Guilford County Schools announced that Green was resigning to become the foundation’s executive director.
Alan Duncan, chairman of the Guilford school board, said he had heard rumors that CMS was trying to recruit Green but never talked with Green about it. (The same rumors floated after Gorman resigned in 2011, and came to nothing.)
The Guilford board has already solicited bids from search firms. A firm could be chosen at Thursday’s meeting, Duncan said, and public meetings to discuss what people want in the next leader are being planned for February and March. The goal is to have a new superintendent in place for 2016-17, with finalists meeting the public before a vote, Duncan said.
Tight time frame
When CMS launched its last national search, in August 2011, the district’s human resources chief urged the board to try to make a decision by March. “If you’re going to go after the best of the best, you need to be in front of the pack,” he said.
This time around, a search would start in February. While the board has almost certainly laid some groundwork in closed meetings, any meetings to let people talk about the search will fall at the same time as public forums to talk about the CMS budget and student assignment.
If the board can hire a new superintendent by this summer, the transition will happen in the thick of major decisions about a 2017-18 assignment plan.
Board members who want to extend Clark’s tenure will likely argue that such a schedule isn’t just grueling, it’s impossible. Several have said they believe the board must choose between a search and the student assignment review, putting one aside to focus on the other.
If the board pursues a search, members must decide how much time and energy to spend holding public meetings – including whether to demand that finalists go public.
Trent Merchant, a former CMS board member who worked in an executive search firm, said this week that board members have gotten plenty of feedback during the past year.
“The problem isn’t the timeline,” he said. “It’s whether the board has the will to make a decision. They seem paralyzed right now.”
Domenech agreed that the challenges are daunting for any district. But he did have one tongue-in-check suggestion for a uniquely Charlotte solution: “The board should just go out and get Cam Newton to be superintendent.”
The last CMS search
June 8, 2011: Superintendent Peter Gorman resigns.
July: CMS names an interim superintendent.
August: Board sets a timeline for March hiring and authorizes the chair and vice chair to begin negotiating with a search firm.
September: Board hires PROACT Search, selects UNC to handle public engagement sessions, approves money for an online poll about qualities desired in a superintendent.
October-November: Poll conducted.
December: CMS holds six community meetings to discuss what people want in a superintendent.
March: Board conducts private interviews with semifinalists.
April: Three finalists meet the public.
April 19, 2012: Board votes to offer the job to Heath Morrison.
Want to attend?
Saturday’s meeting on a superintendent search is open to the public, though members could vote to go into closed session to discuss personnel decisions or get legal advice. It’s from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Carolinas Aviation Museum, 4672 First Flight Drive.