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With rifts revealed, where does CMS board go now?

Board Chair Mary McCray (left) and Vice Chair Elyse Dashew at a Tuesday night meeting that left both dismayed.
Board Chair Mary McCray (left) and Vice Chair Elyse Dashew at a Tuesday night meeting that left both dismayed. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

Thursday’s gathering of Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members may feel a lot like the breakfast table the morning after a couple fights.

Tuesday night, the board went public with rifts that members have spent more than a year trying to mend or gloss over.

At a time when they’re trying to rally public support for a student assignment review, some board members acknowledged that they don’t trust each other.

As they work to unite a diverse community, black board Chair Mary McCray talked about a racially divided board and white member Paul Bailey told everyone to “get over it – it’s done, it’s over, it was 200 years ago.”

And before they voted to give Superintendent Ann Clark another year to run Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, some members were vocal about how little they wanted to do that.

The one thing all nine members seemed to agree on was that the discussion leading up to a 6-3 vote to extend Clark’s contract was not their finest hour.

The members I caught up with Wednesday morning seemed shell-shocked. Before they can tackle the public’s business, they said, they need to have tough conversations with each other. And no one seemed sure how to start.

“We’ve got a lot of healing to do internally with ourselves,” McCray said.

At 10:30 a.m. Thursday, the board’s policy committee will regroup to talk about the student assignment review. It’s a task that many say will transform Mecklenburg County, for better or worse.

But first, more about what happened Tuesday.

The history

McCray says the anger that flared Tuesday dates back to the meltdown of Heath Morrison’s superintendency in fall 2014.

Morrison resigned after CMS lawyer George Battle III privately presented board leaders with a report saying Morrison had bullied staff and lied to the board about costs of a new school. McCray initially told the public he was quitting to care for his ailing mother. After reporters revealed that he was under threat of dismissal, Morrison and the board agreed on a severance plan that included a confidentiality clause.

Board member Eric Davis, a Morrison supporter, went public at the time with his dismay over the way McCray handled the matter.

The board asked Clark, who was deputy superintendent at the time, to step into the top job. Her contract, signed in January 2015, runs through July 2016 and says that at Clark’s request, the board will not consider her for the long-term position.

But behind closed doors, some members pushed to keep Clark longer. Others had hoped to recruit Guilford County Superintendent Maurice “Mo” Green, a former CMS deputy superintendent. But that hope died in December, when Green took a job with the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

As 2015 ticked by with no visible progress, some community members demanded a search, saying the power elite were working on a deal to change the rules and shut out the black community.

At a Jan. 30 retreat to discuss the search, the board was split 5-4 along racial lines. But many hoped to find a compromise before Tuesday.

The flip-flops

Vice Chair Elyse Dashew, elected to the board in November, opened Tuesday’s discussion with a motion to extend Clark’s contract by three months, giving the board until the end of October to find a long-term successor.

Then, citing CMS principals who had just told the board that a hire in the middle of a school year would be disruptive, Dashew said she no longer supported that motion.

On Wednesday morning, Dashew said she and McCray had worked out the three-month compromise plan “at the last minute.”

“Even further last minute, I realized in my heart the midyear thing was not the way to go,” she said.

Davis then introduced a substitute motion to extend Clark’s contract by 11 months, through June 2017, while starting a national search promptly.

Thelma Byers-Bailey was the first to speak against that plan, saying “it is time to turn the page and make a bold step into the future with new leadership.”

A preliminary vote on the one-year proposal was 5-4 along racial lines. But on the final vote, Byers-Bailey, who is black, switched her vote, making it 6-3.

“I surprised myself,” Byers-Bailey said Wednesday, laughing. She said she decided that the agreement to start a search immediately was the crucial point, even if it takes longer than she had hoped.

The accusations

As it became clear Tuesday that Davis’ motion would prevail, McCray voiced her dismay at the way things had played out, leaving the board openly and racially divided on leadership as it takes on the sensitive task of student assignment.

In an apparent reference to Green, she said the board had been talking with a candidate for superintendent but “due to the dishonesty and deceitfulness of some board members, that candidate had to just go.” She said the board needs to honor confidentiality in closed sessions: “We can’t be sitting in a board meeting texting a candidate for any kind of position here.”

On Wednesday, McCray declined to elaborate on those points or say who she was talking about.

The race card

McCray’s remarks about a racially divided board drew objections from white member Bailey, who said that he was not brought up to look at the color of people’s skin. He talked about his black son-in-law and having “two of the most precious mixed-race grandchildren in the world.”

“We need to get over this, folks. All of us do,” he said. “We need to get over it. It’s done, it’s over, it was 200 years ago. We made mistakes. We’ve done stupid things.”

The number was a bit perplexing – slavery ended 150 years ago – and Bailey didn’t return a call for comment Wednesday.

Some of his colleagues were aghast.

“He’s going to probably regret saying that,” Byers-Bailey said. “He’s stuck his foot in his mouth before and I think he did it again.”

McCray said Wednesday that she held her tongue at the meeting but took offense at Bailey’s denial that race matters.

“For a white man that is easy to say. For someone of color who sees it, lives it, breathes it, eats it, that is not the reality,” she said. “For someone to say that in good old Charlotte racism is not prevalent, that is an outright lie.”

The leader

Wrangling over leadership often takes place in closed-door meetings, with personnel discussions protected by state law. Members who argued against a candidate in private unite behind that person in public.

Tuesday, with the four black members frustrated by the process, some aired reservations about Clark. Ericka Ellis-Stewart said Clark was chosen for the short-term job because “our bench was shallow,” and said the board wouldn’t have united for a long-term contract. McCray said Clark “has done a wonderful job” but added that “you have to consider the people who would say the exact opposite.”

Early Wednesday afternoon, Clark said she hadn’t talked to any board members since the meeting and didn’t expect to until she returns from a national conference next week. She had yet to see or sign an extended contract.

But Clark said she understands politics and doesn’t take any of the comments personally.

“I have no hesitation about my ability to work with each of the board members,” she said.

Student assignment meeting

The CMS board’s policy committee meets to discuss student assignment from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Thursday in Room 527 of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St. It is open to the public, and video will be posted soon afterward at www.cms.k12.nc.us/boe/Pages/SchoolBoardMeetings.aspx

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