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CMS interim superintendent stepping down at the end of next month

A man at a dais
Ann Doss Helms
Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh speaks at a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting.

Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh announced Tuesday night he will leave Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools after eight months on the job, rather than finishing his 14-month contract. He cited the health challenges of his 98-year-old father.

Hattabaugh says he will work through the end of December, then return to Florida. He had retired there after working for CMS previously, and agreed to return to Charlotte when the board fired Superintendent Earnest Winston in April.

"I had earlier made a decision that I might resign. I held off. But at this juncture I will be leaving the district effective December 31," he said at the board meeting.

His announcement comes the day after an election that will bring historic upheaval to the board he works for. Three incumbents lost their races, and five of the nine members will be newcomers when the new board is sworn in Dec. 13.

Hattabaugh said he'll talk with all of the newly elected members before they take office.

Superintendent carousel

His abrupt departure is the latest twist for a district that hasn't been able to attract and keep the right leader. Hattabaugh did his first stint as interim after Peter Gorman left in 2011.

[Timeline: The five CMS superintendents since Gorman]

The board hired Heath Morrison in 2012 — and announced less than three years later that Morrison was resigning to care for his aging mother. Morrison and the board soon acknowledged that he had been asked to leave.

Charles Jeter, the school board's policy director, said after the meeting that's not the case this time.

"The board desperately did not want (Hattabaugh) to go," Jeter said. "They really wanted him to stay through June of next year, but certainly understand he’s got other things he needs to do right now."

After Morrison was forced out, Ann Clark led CMS for less than three years. The longtime CMS administrator couldn't get a long-term contract from the board. She was followed by Clayton Wilcox, who was hired in a national search, then forced to resign after about two years.

In August 2019, the board hired Winston without a search — and with no experience as a principal or superintendent. He was fired in April of this year, with board members saying he wasn't up to the job. That's when Hattabaugh agreed to come out of retirement and return to Charlotte.

Confusing remarks

Jeter acknowledged that Hattabaugh's announcement could cause confusion and raise questions. He said Hattabaugh had been discussing the possibility of his resignation with the board for "a couple of weeks now ... it hasn't been months, it's been weeks."

He said Hattabaugh and the board planned to hold off, but the departure was leaked to WBT reporter Brett Jensen on Tuesday.

At the end of his report to the board, Chair Elyse Dashew looked pointedly at Hattabaugh, who started to talk about his father's health.

"At one juncture he wasn't doing well," Hattabaugh said. "But he is doing much better. He has his faculties about him."

Hattabaugh then announced his plan to resign, without directly stating how that related to his father. And he said he and his wife will move back to Florida, putting him farther away from his dad, who lives in Indiana.

He said he would not take questions from reporters Tuesday but would do so later. After a meeting that lasted more than four hours, the board issued a statement thanking Hattabaugh for his work and saying the board wished he could stay (read the full statement below).

Jeter said the board will almost certainly have to find another interim leader.

Hattabaugh's contract ran through June 2023, with an annual salary of $265,000.

He took the reins at CMS in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, as school systems around the country sought to dig out from an avalanche of widening student achievement gaps, staffing shortages and pandemic learning loss.

Rather than set up a listening tour or convene task forces to study challenges, Hattabaugh tried to set a tone of moving quickly. He said he would prefer immediately "getting into the weeds and working in the right direction."

"I think they were sort of in gridlock," Hattabaugh said of top CMS administrators during his second day on the job, suggesting that was possibly due to the COVID-19 crisis.

"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."

Full CMS board statement

Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh has decided to end his tenure with us sooner than planned. Hugh made this decision based on what was best for him and his family, and will leave at the end of December. We wish he could stay through the school year but we understand and accept his reasons for departure. Family must always come first.

We are so very grateful for all that he has done in his time with us. Coming out of the pandemic, CMS has regained its footing. Hugh has brought a renewed sense of urgency to the district around the work of educating children. Under his leadership, the district has strengthened and streamlined critical processes and safeguards. We are therefore well positioned to continue the positive path he has charted for us, and we thank him for his skill and expertise in leading us forward.

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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.