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Rifts between CMS leaders and Black faith group widen as talks end abruptly

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 in April, just after being named to the job.

Last week, Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh met with the African American Faith Alliance in hopes of enlisting their support for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. But a public clash over how Hattabaugh left that private meeting has deepened existing rifts.

County Commissioner Vilma Leake says Hattabaugh's departure from a June 3 meeting with the African American Faith Alliance was inexplicable and disrespectful.

Hattabaugh, whose one-year term began in April, came to Faith Memorial Baptist Church to talk about his plans for CMS.

"It was a pleasant discussion. He was discussing what his direction was going to be," Leake said Thursday. "He reached a point of saying, 'I’m not taking this anymore.' And we didn’t know what he meant by that. … He picked up his papers and threw them down on the desk and got up, put his chair under the table and proceeded to walk out the door. We were all in disarray because we didn’t know what had brought that on."

That evening Hattabaugh issued a statement giving a different take. He says he had agreed to a one-hour meeting with the alliance and walked out after 90 minutes.

"Unfortunately, the meeting began with a confrontational tone and was less-than-productive from the start," Hattabaugh said. "After an hour-and-a-half of attempting to redirect back to the agenda, it became clear that the meeting was not going to lead to collaborative solutions for the students we serve, and I left."

Roots go back

The roots of the tension between the alliance and CMS go much deeper than one meeting. They center on how CMS is educating Black children and who should lead the district.

The small gathering on June 3 was something of a Who's Who of CMS leadership.

Dennis Williams speaking at a Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners meeting in March.
Gov Channel
Dennis Williams speaking at a Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners meeting in March.

Dr. Dennis Williams, who chairs the alliance, was a CMS administrator who served as interim superintendent from 1995-1996.

Shortly after that, Williams felt the call to ministry, according to his church biography. He’s now pastor of Faith Memorial, where the meeting took place.

Leake, a retired teacher, former school board member and current county commissioner, was there. So was James Pughsley, who was the first Black superintendent of CMS, serving from 2002 to 2005. And Arthur Griffin, who served on the school board from 1985 to 2003, including five years as chairman. He's expected to join the county commissioners after the November election, having won the Democratic nomination for an at-large seat in May.

The African-American Faith Alliance sided with county commissioners who wanted to withhold money from CMS last year to force the board to adopt a better plan for helping more Black and brown students succeed in school.

The group also called for replacing Superintendent Earnest Winston, the district’s second Black superintendent.

Ruby Jones, a Black school board member, said the alliance offers "nothing, nothing, nothing positive in terms of our children learning.

"They were the negative force behind, or the force behind the removal of Earnest. They were very disrespectful to him," said Jones.

Winston also has not responded to requests for comment. The board fired him on April 19. At that time the board released personnel records showing they’d been working with Winston for months in hopes of improving his performance, but ultimately concluded he wasn’t up to the task.

Strange bedfellows

Weeks before Winston’s firing, the Democratic-leaning African-American Faith Alliance held a news conference demanding a change in CMS leadership. The alliance was joined by members of Moms for Liberty, a group formed during the pandemic to lobby for parental rights. It’s a predominantly white conservative group.

After that news conference — but before the school board had spoken publicly about plans to fire Winston — CMS board members started getting emails talking up a replacement for Winston. Board member Jennifer De La Jara says about two dozen arrived at about the same time.

Brooke Weiss, president of the Mecklenburg County chapter of Moms for Liberty, supported the CMS board's decision to fire Superintendent Earnest Winston.
Ann Doss Helms
Brooke Weiss, president of the Mecklenburg County chapter of Moms for Liberty, attended the April 19 meeting where Superintendent Earnest Winston was fired.

"Actually a week before we terminated Superintendent Winston’s contract, we started receiving, on the Tuesday before, emails from community members asking, suggesting that Dr. Dennis Williams would be a great replacement," she said. "And we had not even made a public announcement yet, which I found very bizarre."

One of those emails was from Brooke Weiss, who chairs the Mecklenburg Moms for Liberty chapter.

"A few weeks ago Moms for Liberty — Mecklenburg joined the African-American Faith Alliance in solidarity at their press conference demanding change in the leadership of CMS," Weiss wrote on April 12. "I now urge you to consider Dr. Dennis Williams as a replacement for Earnest Winston. We simply cannot wait any longer for competent leadership."

Instead, the board chose Hugh Hattabaugh. Like Williams, Hattabaugh is a former CMS administrator who has been interim superintendent. Hattabaugh had left CMS after his previous interim year ended in 2012.

Storming out?

Hattabaugh and Commissioner Vilma Leake both say June 3 was the second time Hattabaugh met with the group since his new interim job began.

Vilma Leake
Mecklenburg County
Vilma Leake

Several days after Hattabaugh, who is white, walked out of the meeting, Leake and alliance Vice Chair Jordan Boyd aired their version on WSOC. The report said Hattabaugh had stormed out and slammed papers on the desk. Leake told WSOC’s Joe Bruno Hattabaugh’s departure reminded her of the 1960s, "disrespecting Black people when it comes to talking about making sure that our children get an education."

Bruno says Hattabaugh did not respond to requests for comment. On Thursday, the day after Bruno's account aired, a CMS spokeswoman told WFAE Hattabaugh "is not commenting on this matter." But several hours later CMS sent a statement to reporters who had inquired.

Leake said Thursday that no one from CMS accompanied Hattabaugh to the meeting. She said she thought school board Chair Elyse Dashew owed the group an explanation.

Thelma Byers-Bailey, vice chair of the school board, said Thursday she still hadn’t heard Hattabaugh’s version but she was skeptical of the alliance’s account.

" 'Storming out,' that sounds to me like an overdramatization," she said. "And there are a lot of members, or there are some members, on that committee who tend to go for drama."

Byers-Bailey, who is Black, said what she heard did not raise concerns about Hattabaugh’s fitness for the job.

"If what happened caused him to lose his temper that’s regrettable," she said. "But, I mean, there were no fisticuffs. There was no blood on the floor. You know, he folded up his papers and left."

What's the search plan?

The school board still hasn’t outlined its plans for choosing a permanent superintendent. Chair Elyse Dashew has said those decisions will likely be made after the November election determines who will fill the six district seats.

Boyd, the pastor of Rockwell AME Zion Church, says Williams would be a good choice for the job. But he says the faith alliance isn’t lobbying for that. Instead, he says, the alliance wants the board to be clear about its search plans.

Boyd says Hattabaugh’s statement does not accurately depict what happened, and he says it doesn’t bode well for Hattabaugh’s year of leadership.

"If he’s going to do this to us, what’s the tone that he’s going to take with principals and teachers and other families?" Boyd said Friday. "We represent those who could not be at the meeting, who cannot sit down and get an audience with the superintendent. And so, if this is the way he’s going to treat us, why should we expect anything to be different going forward?"

Boyd says the alliance hopes to bring a large group to Tuesday’s school board meeting, which includes a public comment session, to voice their concerns.

"We’re asking everyone to be there who care about the quality of education, well-being and student achievement of their child, regardless of color," Boyd said, "but in particular those who are failing the most and who have been failing the most over these past decades."

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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.