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Does CMS already have its next superintendent lined up?

Two women talking
Ann Doss Helms
/
WFAE
Interim Superintendent Crystal Hill (right) talks with Ardrey Kell Principal Jamie Brooks after a news conference at Ardrey Kell High on Friday.

This story appeared in Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. Sign up for our newsletters to get the latest news to your inbox first.

When I talked to experts about the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board’s ambitious timetable for finding a permanent superintendent, one of them suggested a scenario that would allow the board to meet its goal of a contract by April.

“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,’ ” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the national school superintendents association.

To be clear, Domenech was speculating, not saying he knows that to be the case. And I’d be surprised if the board already has a consensus on who they want to hire. Five of the nine members were just sworn in last month, and they’re still trying to figure out their chemistry as a board.

But people are certainly thinking about the prospect of having Interim Superintendent Crystal Hill stay on. Her six-month contract doesn’t preclude her from seeking the permanent job, and she isn’t ruling it out. A reporter asked her about that at her first news conference on Friday.

“I will not answer that question today. I will say that I’m focused on the day-to-day operations,” she said. “I will do what I’ve done for the last 25 years, and that’s showing up to be the very best that I can in the role that I’m in. And if an opportunity presents itself and that’s the direction that we need to go, then we will explore those opportunities.”

“I am committed to CMS. I’ve fallen in love with Charlotte. It’s just an amazing place to be, beautiful city, beautiful county,” said Hill, who was hired from Cabarrus County Schools in April.

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Hill gave most of the talking time Friday to her staff, but came prepared to field questions. I asked her about the district’s follow-up on the Title IX task force, created to deal with persistent complaints about how CMS handles reports of sexual assault involving students. She ticked off a list of actions the district has taken in the last few months, including expanding the Title IX office from two employees to 11.

And she said that’s only a foundation for more work ahead. The task force released its recommendations in December 2021. WBTV’s Nick Ochsner asked whether Hill thinks a year of official silence following the task force report might have discouraged students from reporting assaults.

“Hopefully the students aren’t looking to the news to find out how they need to report Title IX (incidents),” she said, referring to the federal civil rights law that requires schools to protect students against sexual harassment and assault. “That work happens here in the school building. … They know that because they are in buildings with safe and caring administrators, teachers that love and care about them, and very clear expectations on how Title IX is reported and responded to.”

How it might play out

My sense? She sounds like someone who’s interested in the job and may have the chops for it.

In the past, internal candidates haven’t fared well in national searches. Interim Superintendent Frances Haithcock was a finalist in 2006 and lost out to Peter Gorman, who was hired from California. Six years later Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark was a finalist, but the board hired Heath Morrison from Reno, Nevada.

When the board has hired from within, it’s generally been without a search. Think James Pughsley in 2002, Earnest Winston in 2019 and Clark, who was promoted to the job after Morrison was forced out in 2014. (Fun fact discovered while researching CMS superintendents: Morrison is now superintendent in Montgomery, Texas, and his biographic website contains no mention of his time in Charlotte.)

Some consultants advise school boards not to allow the interim to apply for the permanent job, on the assumption that some potential outside candidates won’t apply if they think someone already has the job locked up. Domenech noted that one of the first things people considering the job will ask the search firm is whether there’s an insider with a strong chance.


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The request for proposals from search consultants issued Friday offers only a few clues: CMS is looking for “an experienced superintendent” with a long list of talents, including “demonstrated experience improving outcomes and closing opportunity gaps for students of color, multilingual learners, students with disabilities, and students of diverse socio-economic backgrounds.” The board will expect the superintendent to demonstrate “educational leadership, administrative and leadership skills and the ability to communicate and interface effectively with the community and its institutions.”

One thing I’ve learned from covering four national searches and three no-search hires in CMS is that no two quests for a superintendent are the same. So, to quote Hill, when it comes to this one, “I’ll answer the question like I answer my children: We’ll see.”

Can Union County schools defend law-breaking in court?

For months now, those of us who follow education have been fascinated by watching a growing number of school boards decide they don’t like North Carolina’s calendar law so they’re not going to follow it. One thing that seemed to be spurring them on is the lack of consequences for other districts that have opened earlier than the law allows, a move that many district leaders say allows a better schedule for high school students.

Last month Union County Public Schools became the latest and largest district to defy the law … and last week the board was sued by parents who don’t like the early-start calendar. One of them owns a horse farm that offers summer riding lessons and camps; she contends shaving almost three weeks off this summer’s break will create financial hardship.

If the General Assembly were to eliminate the calendar restrictions, this is the kind of discussion that would play out in board meetings across the state. Educators would make the case for an earlier start, while parents, businesses and community members who disagree could spell out reasons not to change. But as the lawsuit notes, Union County’s board voted in a hastily-announced early morning virtual meeting — pretty consistent with what I’ve seen from school boards that act like kids swiping a candy bar when they vote to break the law.

Now the question is: Will the Union County board stick to its guns and argue in court that it can pick the laws it wants to follow? The board has called a special closed meeting Wednesday evening “to receive advice from counsel.” I have a sneaking suspicion I know what they’ll be talking about.

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.