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'People Are Not Always Honest' -- McCray Reflects On CMS Leadership Lessons

Board Chair Mary McCray (center) listens to comments at a recent meeting.

On Tuesday, Mary McCray, a retired teacher, will hand off the gavel after seven years as chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board.

It's been an eventful seven years.  There have been high spots -- the school board won two national awards of excellence from the Council of Urban Boards of Education, and voters approved a record-setting school bond package.

And her leadership has created an island of stability in a city marked by leadership churn. Since she was first elected in 2012, Charlotte has had six mayors and Mecklenburg County commissioners have had four chairs.

But McCray's tenure has also been marked by conflict and controversy. The school board clashed with state legislators and town officials over the district's responsiveness to suburban towns anda new option for those towns to create their own charter schools.

And the superintendency has turned over four times since McCray was first elected at large in 2011. Twice, she was at the center of national superintendent searches that went sour.

The board hired Heath Morrison in 2012 and Clayton Wilcox in 2017, using two different national search firms. Morrison met the public before he was hired; Wilcox did not. The board ended up removing both of them within three years.

With less than a week on the school board left, McCray, who didn't run for re-election, spoke with WFAE education reporter Ann Doss Helms about lessons learned and the future of  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

McCray said the common denominator in the two superintendent searches that ultimately failed was that consulting firms let the board down.

Credit CMS
Mary McCray

McCray: Lots of times people are not always honest with you. And I'm not saying there aren't any good search firms out there, but you find that you are at the mercy of what this search firm is doing and who it brings to you. I've also learned during that time that search firms have a cadre of people that they cater to and they are not going to look outside of that cadre.

Helms: So what would you do if you were advising somebody, if they have to do another search?

McCray: What I have seen is that our own state organization, our School Boards Association, does a wonderful job when it comes to looking at candidates, paying attention to what your district and what you are requesting that you need. So I would go close to home now rather than using these national search firms.

Helms: When the board realized there were serious problems with Morrison and Wilcox, you opted to accept a resignation and tell the public nothing about what went wrong, which pretty much meant that fell to reporters. Did the board consider doing a termination with a public explanation, or why did you go with the secrecy route?

McCray: Well, you know, you always have attorneys involved in this. And our general counsel has done a great job with advising the board. And we have to also weigh whatever the opposing side, their attorney is saying. Now, if either candidate had said, you know, "We're not going to resign, we're going to go through with this," then we would have told everything. But you give them the option of how they want to do this. And I think everybody does it that way in a sense, rather than just going whole hog and, you know, exposing everything.

Helms: The perennial tension between CMS and the suburbs took some interesting twists in the last couple of years, with the state authorizing municipal charter schools and the school board saying that charter authority will be a factor in future school construction. You're the board chair and I believe you're also a resident of Mint Hill, which is one of the towns that has charter authority. What do you see for the future? Does CMS have a future as a countywide district?

McCray: I really believe that we do. And I think we see now with the mayor of Cornelius and the mayor of Davidson saying that we have our resolution and we're not going to go ahead with this ... and we are truly hoping that with the election of a new mayor in Matthews, that something is going to be done there. And the way that things were rolled out in Mint Hill was sort of like, they never even brought it before their town council. It was just, you know, just something that they asked the former mayor to sign on to. So we're reaching out to those groups and we are working diligently with them to get them back on board and to show them that we are committed to all citizens here.

Helms: So race is always a subtext in public education, and sometimes it's the flat-out text. What does CMS need to do to remain attractive and effective for students of all races?

McCray: One of the things that I have constantly (done), I think for the last four years, is charged the district with trying to get a workforce that is synonymous with the children that they're serving. It is white suburban females that are going into public education. And in a lot of our schools, you know, our kids don't have anybody that looks like them. And I'm not just talking about, you know, black kids, but I'm also talking about brown kids, Asian kids. We have got to have a diverse workforce here in North Carolina, period.

But one of the factors holding us back is the low pay. And so one of the things that we have really got to look at is elevating our pay, elevating the professionalism of being a public educator and making sure that we are putting the right people in front of our children so that they can see someone that they can relate to.

Helms: When you think about the future of CMS, what's your best-case scenario and your worst-case scenario?

McCray: My worst-case is that we become a very polarized city. And when I say that I'm not just talking about black/white, but I'm talking about have and have-nots. And so one of the things I have high hopes for is that we somehow get over this hurdle of what opportunity looks like and be able to provide that for the children that we're serving in our district.

I think we're on a good stretch right now, especially with career-technical education. And we've moved away from this (idea that) every one of our graduates have to go to college. We have an opportunity to put a dent into this opportunity to gap that we have here in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.