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CMS compliance office is about educating, not investigating

Scott McCully.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
Scott McCully has been Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' chief compliance officer since November 2020.

In 2019, three months after Superintendent Clayton Wilcox negotiated a resignation, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board voted to hire an independent compliance officer with the power to investigate superintendents and top officials.

But this spring, when the board decided to investigate Superintendent Earnest Winston, board Chair Elyse Dashew says they didn't even consult with the person they hired for that job.

"We did not go to his office. Honestly, I don’t know that we considered that," she said.

Scott McCully, a former CMS administrator who returned in 2020 to take the new compliance officer job, now heads a two-person department with a $366,000 budget.

McCully and Dashew agree his role is more about education and prevention than taking on high-profile investigations.

"It is a very behind-the-scenes kind of office and department," said McCully, who spent his share of time in the spotlight handling several controversial student assignment reviews in CMS, then serving as Guilford County's chief operations officer.

Hashing out a new role

Wilcox's departure was fresh on everyone’s mind when the school board created the Office of Compliance and Transparency. Three months earlier Wilcox and the board had agreed not to disclose what led to the separation, but news media documented concerns about his purchases and treatment of staff.

The new policy said the chief compliance officer would make sure everyone follows state and federal law, as well school board policies. And that officer would report directly to the school board, not the superintendent, because part of that role would be investigating “credible allegations of serious misconduct alleged against the Superintendent, General Counsel, or any Associate Superintendent.”

Dashew says such arrangements are common in highly regulated businesses, such as banking and health care, but not in K-12 education. At a February 2020 board retreat, while members were still trying to figure out how the new position should work, they heard a presentation from an Atrium official about how the health care company's compliance office functions.

It was November 2020 before McCully was hired, at $170,000 a year. He has since added Robin Green, who brings experience as a teacher and school administrator, as a compliance analyst.

Working as a team

Dashew said it seemed more logical to turn to an outside attorney when the board had concerns about Winston's performance. The board paid $12,000 to Asheville education lawyer K. Dean Shatley to investigate concerns about how Winston’s staff handled sexual abuse reports, which are governed by the federal Title IX law, and about whether they failed to comply with the state’s public records law. He also interviewed board members and staff about academic performance and other leadership issues.

Scott McCully 1.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
Chief Compliance Officer Scott McCully speaks to reporters after Superintendent Earnest Winston was fired in April. For a few days between Winston's firing and the interim superintendent's start date, McCully was acting superintendent.

Dashew says the compliance officer may be independent of the superintendent, but "it's all one team. We all work together."

In the months leading up to Winston's firing in April, CMS had faced repeated media investigations and protest from current and former students about principals' handling of reports that students had been sexually abused by classmates. Winston hired additional staff for the district's Title IX department, which led those investigations.

McCully said he has talked with the CMS Title IX administrator about follow-up training. His role is more focused on districtwide education than on situations at individual schools, he said.

Tackling social media rules

McCully says he has helped monitor whether schools are meeting the CMS policy for getting parents involved with School Improvement Teams and worked with schools to recruit more parents as needed.

He’s also been involved with executing a social media policy the board approved last fall. It spells out how district accounts must be handled and created guidelines for personal accounts.

"On the district side that’s pretty easy," McCully said. "On the personal side that does become more complicated."

For instance, the policy says employees can be disciplined and even fired for personal posts that are hateful, racist, obscene or vulgar, or that disrupt a school or workplace. McCully says he’s been to schools to talk about what that means.

"The way that I approach it is not so much with a heavy hand and a sharp ax, so to speak. It’s more from an educational standpoint," he said.

This summer McCully’s office is introducing a “Speak Up” line that gives employees a way to report concerns and possible violations of law or policy, with an option to remain anonymous. McCully says it will start in non-academic departments, then expand to all schools and offices this fall.

Culture of compliance

McCully says his long-term goal is to create a culture of compliance, though he worries that some may associate that with a heavy-handed top-down approach, "somebody in probably a starched white shirt and a narrow tie walking around with a check-off list, checking off whether we are doing all the right things or maybe demanding a series of reports."

McCully said his vision is based more on training and open discussion. He changed the name of his office from Compliance and Transparency to Compliance and Ethics to emphasize the atmosphere he’s striving for: "They feel confident that they can do the right thing. They feel good about the work that they’re doing and they feel safe in the place that they go to work each and every day."

Dashew has her own definition of success:

"We’ll know it’s a successful department," she said, "if there are no big mistakes or snafus to report on."

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.