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A new CMS superintendent by April? Experts say that’s tight but not impossible

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CMS board Facebook screen shot
Summer Nunn, who chairs the CMS board's search committee, introduces the schedule for hiring Tuesday.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board Tuesday unanimously approved a plan to hire a new superintendent by the end of April, a timeline two national experts called tough but not impossible to meet.

The board will request proposals from search firms and expects to choose one early in February. After that, the plan calls for launching the search later that month, starting to screen the candidates in early March and interviewing finalists in late March. If all goes as planned, CMS will have a new superintendent under contract by the end of April, ready to start the new school year.

Board member Summer Nunn, who chairs the board’s search committee, said CMS intends to move fast, knowing other large districts are also seeking superintendents.

“The accelerated timeline is meant to make sure that the search firm or consultants that we work with are going to get to work immediately,” she said.

Searches often take longer

The last time CMS conducted a national search, in 2016, it took almost eight months between choosing a search firm and signing Clayton Wilcox as superintendent. The start was delayed because some board members were working behind the scenes to recruit Maurice “Mo” Green, then superintendent of Guilford County Schools, without a search.

But Green eventually took a different job. By the time CMS hired McPherson & Jacobsen in April 2016, the consultants said it was too late to hire someone for the start of the 2016 school year.


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Wilcox signed a contract in December 2016 to start work in summer of 2017. Two years later, the board negotiated his resignation without disclosing the reasons. The board then promoted longtime CMS administrator Earnest Winston without a search after just three weeks. Winston was fired last April after less than three years.

“That’s a problem, because there’s little that you can accomplish in three years,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the national school superintendents association. “So every time you let somebody go and bring somebody else in, you’re starting all over again.”

He says it’s essential for the CMS board to get this one right and lock in some stability. Doing that by April is challenging, he says, but there are a lot of variables. For instance, the board has already done some of the public engagement work that normally starts after the selection of a search firm.

And Domenech says there’s another possibility that would make a difference: “There’s an internal candidate and they’re going through the process of doing this worldwide search to ensure that when they hire the internal candidate they can say, ‘Well, we looked everywhere else and we didn’t find anyone as good as the person we had here already.’ ”

Last month, the CMS board named Chief of Staff Crystal Hill as interim superintendent for the next six months. Her contract doesn’t preclude her from applying for the permanent job.

Competitive market

The last couple of years have seen a lot of churn among superintendents nationwide. They faced controversy about mask mandates and school closings during the pandemic, as well as a national furor over how schools deal with racism and LGBTQ issues.

Ray Hart is executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 78 large urban districts, including CMS. He says several of those districts have either just finished a superintendent search or are doing one now.

“For example, Guilford County just hired a new superintendent last year. Dallas, Miami, a number of different districts just finished search processes,” he said. “And we’ve got Columbus, Ohio, Cleveland, Ohio, and others who are currently in the search process.”

Hart and Domenech both said six months is a more typical time frame for a national search than the three-and-a-half month CMS projection. But, Hart noted, “there have been others that have been faster. Much faster, actually. So April is doable.”

One factor that could shape the timeline — and the field of candidates — is whether the CMS board will expect finalists to meet the public. The district did that in searches prior to 2016, but hired Wilcox without disclosing anyone else in the running.

Hart and Domenech said some districts still require finalists to go public. But Domenech said that would eliminate some current superintendents who don’t want to reveal that they’re looking unless they already have a new job.

“If the search process is going to be a public one, meaning that candidates are going to be named and are going to be brought in for interviews, a lot of the top choices are going to say nope, not interested,” he said.

Domenech and Hart both say the search will provide an important test of the new CMS board, which saw a new majority sworn in last month.

“You’ve got five new board members there in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area. And they were really elected for this purpose,” Hart said. “It’s their primary function, to hire the superintendent.”

Board Chair Elyse Dashew said she believes CMS is “well-positioned to land one of the best superintendents in the nation.”

But she said that CMS needs to do more than that, with the community’s help. The board’s real task? “Retain a superintendent over a long period of years.”

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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.