A failed response to a surprise exit

It’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for Ann Clark.

She is a capable and respected educator, and she has long wanted to be superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She’s likely to formally get the job today, but on an interim basis and for all the wrong reasons. And her first public act as interim this week was one that was bound to fall short, thanks to the bumbling of her bosses.

Clark, along with CMS Board of Education chair Mary McCray, held a 4-minute news conference Tuesday to address the sudden resignation Monday of Superintendent Heath Morrison. Neither Clark nor McCray offered insight into what happened. They didn’t take any questions.

Clearly, Morrison’s departure is a messy situation. The Observer’s Andrew Dunn and Ann Doss Helms reported late Wednesday that a CMS investigation last month recommended that Morrison be fired for creating a “culture of fear” on his staff and misleading the school board about the cost of a new school at UNC Charlotte. So it’s understandable that McCray and Clark wanted to be careful what they said.

But by then, the school board already had made everything messier with an amateurish and less-than-honest response Monday to Morrison’s resignation. First, school board members were quiet for hours after news outlets reported that Morrison was leaving. Then they perpetuated the apparent fiction that Morrison was leaving solely to care for his ill mother.

Now that reports indicate otherwise, the public is rightfully feeling misled. CMS parents and teachers are in the dark. The school board owes us all a fuller explanation about what prompted the investigation and what followed it.

And what about Morrison? On many levels, he’s been a hugely successful superintendent. He built relationships with city and county officials that previous superintendents had neglected. He was a powerful voice for CMS and public education in Raleigh. The district’s graduation rate was improving. He had vision.

None of which excuses potential problems around cost overruns or Morrison crossing the line from being demanding to abusive of employees. It’s important to note that this school board has been largely deferential to Morrison. How much did the culture of fear include a fear of reporting problems with the star superintendent?

The district should release Morrison’s personnel record, as the Observer has requested and as N.C. law allows when it is “essential to maintaining public confidence.”

That confidence has been dented.

The public also deserves to know more about the severance agreement CMS is reportedly negotiating with Morrison. If the former superintendent did something worthy of dismissal, he should not get a big going-away check.

CMS has a sudden and critical hire to make. Ann Clark could be – and should be – one of the candidates considered. But first, school board members need to restore some trust.