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On his way out, CMS Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh reflects on stress, stability and avoiding chaos

Man speaking at a press conference
Ann Doss Helms
CMS Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh talks to reporters.

In his seven months as interim superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Hugh Hattabaugh showed visible frustration with the tenor of some criticism directed at the district.

A summer meeting with African American faith leaders ended abruptly, with Hattabaugh complaining about “a confrontational tone” and unproductive discussions. When a member of the public used a profanity while addressing board chair Elyse Dashew at an October board meeting, Hattabaugh called for her to be removed from the chamber, saying “we’re not going to tolerate that kind of garbage.”

So when Hattabaugh announced recently that he was going back to Florida rather than serving out his 14-month contract, I had to wonder if he was just fed up.

We spoke last week, and Hattabaugh said “the challenge of day-to-day operations” and the demands of weekend work were factors, coupled with his need to deal with his 98-year-old father’s health needs and his desire to reunite with grandkids in Florida.

But the 71-year-old administrator, who came out of retirement to serve a second term as CMS interim superintendent, says it doesn’t surprise him when adult behavior distracts from serving students.

“I knew some of the political landscape and so forth,” he said. “And so that to me was not surprising.”

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Nor was his Nov. 9 announcement driven by the outcome of the Nov. 8 school board election. “I’d already made the decision prior, and I was giving the courtesy not to create additional chaos or concern by submitting my resignation until after the dust had cleared with the election,” Hattabaugh said.

'We don't need chaos'

Hattabaugh says his task was to get staff and procedures in place to carry out the school board’s academic goals.

The next permanent superintendent will need to communicate a vision to the larger community, he said, but whoever is tagged to fill the leadership gap for the next few months just needs to “maintain stability, maintain the work that’s going on in the district and get us to the finish line when they’re ready to hand the reins over to the new superintendent.”

“We don’t need chaos,” Hattabaugh said. “We don’t need pandemonium at this stage of the game.”

The irony, of course, is that Hattabaugh’s departure adds to the sense of leadership chaos that has marked recent years in CMS. Hattabaugh was tapped when Earnest Winston was fired with less than three years under his belt. Winston’s predecessor was forced out after a similarly short tenure.

Hattabaugh says the board offered to let him work from Florida for the next few months if he’d stay on, but “I explained that this job cannot be done remotely.”

Who's next in line?

In addition to the practical questions, a remote arrangement would have raised legal ones. State law says superintendents must live in the county where they’re employed. It’s not clear whether that applies to interim leaders … and that question may be in play in choosing the next interim as well.

When asked about who could step in, Hattabaugh suggested it needs to be someone familiar with CMS and its administration, and ideally someone with “some understanding about teaching and learning.”

Clockwise: Crystal Hill (top left), Scott McCully, Beth Thompson and Brian Schultz.
Twitter, CMS
Clockwise: Crystal Hill (top left), Scott McCully, Beth Thompson and Brian Schultz.

“I have a chief of staff who’s been a chief academic officer, a principal, a teacher. And I moved (Assistant Superintendent) Beth Thompson over into strategy management. She’s been a principal, a teacher,” he noted.

Chief of Staff Crystal Hill served as chief academic officer and assistant superintendent in Cabarrus County before taking the CMS job in May, and she still lives across the county line. So does Chief Operations Officer Brian Schultz, who was a deputy and interim superintendent in Cabarrus County before coming back to CMS in September 2021. Before going to Cabarrus County, Schultz was chief academic officer in CMS, and his name is floating as a contender to step into the top job.

In addition to Hill, Schultz and Thompson, CMS-watchers have talked about Chief Compliance Officer Scott McCully and Charles Jeter, who handles policy and intergovernmental relations for the school board, as possible interims. Neither McCully nor Jeter have worked as educators.

McCully has done two stints in CMS central offices, with a few years at Guilford County Schools in between. Jeter is a former state legislator and Huntersville commissioner. Both live in Mecklenburg County.

So are the out-of-county commuters eligible? Jeter says the board’s attorney is researching that question. Blair Rhoades, communications director for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, says the state doesn’t have a position: “I think we’ll let local leaders decide what makes the most sense for their students and communities at large.”

A set of brand new bosses will decide who fills the gap, probably at the Dec. 13 board meeting where five newly elected board members will be sworn in.

This article originally appeared in reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter.

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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.