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On second day at work, CMS interim superintendent says he's ready to break gridlock

CMS Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh talks to reporters after Tuesday's school board meeting.
Ann Doss Helms
CMS Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh talks to reporters after Tuesday's school board meeting.

At the end of his second day on the job, Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh told the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board Tuesday he’s ready to reorganize staff and move quickly to get his team out of gridlock.

Hattabaugh's report came just one week after the board fired Superintendent Earnest Winston. One of the board’s biggest criticisms of Winston was that he wasn’t moving fast enough to make changes for students.

Hattabaugh, who was a CMS administrator from 2007 to 2012, never referred to Winston. But he made it clear he’s not going to spend time doing what he called a listening and learning tour.

"We’ve got to get into the weeds here and working in the right direction," he said.

Hattabaugh said the board has laid out a plan for focusing on urgent needs, and his job is to work with staff to put it into action.

"The intent of the model is to ensure essential resources are driven rapidly to the students and schools in greatest need, to decrease the achievement gap for our minority students and students in poverty," he said.

Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh fist-bumps General Counsel André Mayes before the start of Tuesday's CMS board meeting.
Ann Doss Helms
Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh fist-bumps General Counsel André Mayes before the start of Tuesday's CMS board meeting.

Hattabaugh said his first step will be reorganizing top staff to focus support for schools. He said he'll create more learning communities — groups of administrators and support staff that work with clusters of schools. That plan will be presented by the end of next month, he said.

"One of the first questions I asked the board chair and general counsel when they called regarding the interim superintendent position was, ‘Will I have authority to recommend changes in key personnel that affect student outcomes?’ The answer was yes," he said.

Ready to make decisions

Hattabaugh, who did a previous stint as interim superintendent that ended in 2012, held a news conference immediately after the board meeting. There, he said he was pleased to learn Monday that his cabinet already had plans in place to improve schools.

"I think they were sort of in gridlock," he said, suggesting that may have been because of the pandemic.

"You’ve got some bright people there. They just needed somebody to say let’s move forward, make the decision," he said. "And that’s what I’m here for."

Hattabaugh also told reporters he recognizes that communication has been a problem. He said he's advertising for a communications chief with experience in a large urban district like CMS "so that they know what we're dealing with a high Hispanic population, high minority population."

Hattabaugh can't give anyone a contract longer than his own, which ends in June of 2023. He said he'll tell applicants, "Put your name in. You do a good job, whatever the situation is, nobody's going to get rid of the chief of communications if they've done a great job."

Board members have not yet talked about their plans for finding a long-term leader.

Budget and safety

Hattabaugh said he hopes to quickly rally the community to support CMS, starting with a budget request that would boost teacher pay.

"We’re going to be battling all urban districts across this nation to bring in teachers to this district," he said. "If you open the school year up with 500 to 600 vacant teacher positions we’re in trouble. None of this is going to work."

In addition to diving into pandemic recovery plans, Hattabaugh acknowledged CMS is trying to figure out safety strategies after a record-breaking number of guns on campus during the first semester.

He said the most important thing is having trusted adults at each school visible during "critical times of the day:" Arrival, class changes, lunch and departure.

"More cameras only tell what happens after the fact," he said.

He said he thinks the random wand searches CMS has been doing can be effective. He said he hasn't decided how to deal with the 46,000 clear backpacks Winston ordered. They've been sitting in a CMS warehouse since February, delayed by student and staff skepticism and the last-minute discovery of warning tags required in California that could indicate hazardous chemicals were used.

"They're on hold and we're having serious discussions how we're going to take care of that," he said.

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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.