How CMS can get out of its bind on superintendent, student assignment

CMS could use superintendent Ann Clark’s steady hand during the upcoming debate over student assignment.
CMS could use superintendent Ann Clark’s steady hand during the upcoming debate over student assignment. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education is in a bind, one that a lot of people saw coming. That includes members of the Board of Education.

Two items are staring down the board in the next 12 months. Members need to pick a permanent superintendent, and they’ve committed to taking a new look at student assignment and diversity issues in our schools.

These are not the kind of tasks you stack atop each other. First, doing so could result in a new superintendent – if that superintendent isn’t the interim, Ann Clark – accepting a job without knowing exactly what he or she faces with student assignment. That could create buy-in issues up front or commitment issues down the road.

Plus, finding a new leader and reworking student assignment are perhaps the two most critical things the board will do in the next decade. That’s a lot to accomplish simultaneously, and a lot that can get tangled together. It’s also a lot of turmoil for a community to absorb.

All of which might explain why some CMS board members aren’t exactly pursuing the superintendent search with all their hearts and souls. As the Observer’s Ann Helms reported Wednesday, most didn’t even bother to respond to board chair Mary McCray’s simple request to let her know what kind of search they wanted to do.

For some, that’s because the solution is already here. Why not give Clark the job permanently? She’s a veteran who knows the district. She’s capable and cares deeply about the children she serves, regardless of what you might hear from those who want to scapegoat her for the closing of 10 African-American schools in 2010.

One more thing: If the board conducts a search, Clark might not raise her hand and put herself in the position of being rejected once again.

But as we’ve said in this space already, the board needs to do a search anyway. The district needs to make sure there’s not a better leader out there, and a search would force Clark and any candidate to articulate a vision and plan for schools.

Just as important is legitimacy. The school board was less than honest about the departure of superintendent Heath Morrison, then it was less than transparent in explaining much of what led up to it. After promising a search for a new leader, the board will have a hard time selling that it just now realized what a gem it has in Clark. With student assignment looming, CMS doesn’t need more doubts about the integrity of how decisions are made.

So here’s an alternative, a blend of suggestions smart people floated to me this week:

The school board should reaffirm that it will conduct a national superintendent search as soon as a new student assignment policy is approved. The target for that policy decision is November 2016, so that it can be implemented for the 2017-18 school year. Clark will remain in charge until a new leader is picked, but as always, she can be a candidate if she wants.

The benefits: The board gets Clark’s steady hand during the school assignment debate. Clark gets another year of incumbency, which might convince her she loves the job enough to raise her hand for it in a search. If she can emerge intact from the inevitable student assignment uproar, she could show skeptics that she’s the best person for the job after all.

The public, meanwhile, gets an assurance that Clark wasn’t Plan A all along. The superintendent search benefits, too, from candidates knowing what they’re getting into with student assignment.

At the least, postponing a search separates one monumental school board task from another monumental school board task. It’s a way out of a bind the board created for itself. It’s the rare case in which kicking the can down the road is a good idea.