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As focus groups conclude, a new CMS board will hear ideas for the next superintendent

The CMS board voted unanimously Tuesday to release part of his personnel file after voting 7-2 to fire him.
Ann Doss Helms
The CMS board voted in April to fire Superintendent Earnest Winston. Now five new members will help find his successor.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools wrapped up a series of focus groups Thursday on what people want to see in the next superintendent. Those findings will be presented to a school board with five new members next week.

The school board desperately wants to get this next hire right. Three of the last four superintendents have been fired or forced out after less than three years on the job. Even Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh announced he was leaving about halfway through his 14-month contract.

A Charlotte consulting group called Civility Localized has held a series of public engagement sessions, done an online survey and held invitation-only focus groups. Thursday’s session was for the faith community.

People talked about the need to find someone who can work with a diverse population in a district facing big challenges.

“This is a person who can bring diverse sectors of our community together, who’s not afraid of the noise that’s going to happen. This is a person who understands that the system is in crisis,” said Pastor Jordan Boyd of Rockwell AME Zion Church. The crisis, he says, is the large number of Black and brown students who are failing state exams, with racial disparities exacerbated by pandemic disruption to learning.

In a previous focus group for nonprofit leaders, Linda Traum of the League of Women Voters said the superintendent needs to be “willing to hear diverse voices even when it’s a little personally painful.”

Astrid Chirinos with YMCA of Greater Charlotte added that “this superintendent definitely needs to be very visible, because it is a new era for CMS in every way.”

Moderators asked about the challenge of finding someone who will stay five or 10 years. In the faith group, retired educator Clara Witherspoon offered a warning.

“We may come up with a long list of expectations. And sometimes that list is unrealistic for any one human being,” she said.

Witherspoon, who ran for school board this year, said the next leader needs to know how to develop an effective support team. And the board needs to scrutinize resumés to weed out people hopping from one opportunity to the next.

“So we want to make sure we get the right person, and then we want to make sure we support that person in being successful,” she said. “The board has to support that superintendent.”

Some newly elected board members, who will be sworn in Tuesday, have been attending or streaming the discussions.

“I think we’re getting a lot of good feedback. I think it’s a lot to take into account because everybody wants something different,” said Melissa Easley, the new District 1 representative. She says she plans to go out in her north Mecklenburg district to collect even more suggestions.

Stephanie Sneed, the new representative for the eastern District 4, said she’s hearing common threads.

“The theme is one, everybody’s looking for a transformative superintendent that is really going to move us, propel us forward in a big way,” she said. “And that will stick around.”

Thelma Byers-Bailey, the only incumbent who was reelected, says she has not been listening to the focus groups. The west Charlotte District 2 member says she didn't want her presence to influence what people say. She’s waiting to see a synopsis.

“Mix them all together and tell me what cream rises to the top. What one, two, three things that all of them are looking for,” Byers-Bailey said.

The consultants say they plan to present their report to the new board on Tuesday.

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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.