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Talking with the CMS superintendent about what's next, and the hardest years of her career

Crystal Hill sits at a table
Ann Doss Helms
CMS Chief of Staff Crystal Hill talks to Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio at a joint meeting of the school board and county commissioners in December 2022.

This story first appeared in education reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly newsletter. Sign up here to get it straight to your inbox.

I sat down with Crystal Hill last week, 24 days into her six-month stint as interim superintendent. I was distracted by the April firing of Superintendent Earnest Winston when Hill started working for CMS in May, so I asked how she ended up here.

Hill says she loved her job as chief academic officer for Cabarrus County Schools, but the pandemic brought “probably the worst two or so years of my career … every single day, nonstop putting out fires.” She thought about leaving K-12 education, and when CMS posted the chief of staff job she decided to check it out. In the Charlotte media market, everything the largest district does is subject to public scrutiny. “I found myself just thinking, like, ‘Oh, if that happened this is how I would have advised the superintendent.’ ”

Winston offered her the job, and she signed a contract in early April to report to work in May. “Two weeks after I accepted the position it was on the news that Mr. Winston was leaving the school district.” Someone from CMS quickly contacted saying the job was still hers. Soon afterward she got a call from Hugh Hattabaugh, the retired administrator who agreed to step in as interim for about 14 months. “He was rarin’ to go … and just instantly, from hello, we were connected.”

Hattabaugh decided to return to Florida about halfway through his contract, and Hill stepped into his job.

Here’s what she said about some of the tasks in front of her:

Shingo management: Hill says one of her main jobs is to get personnel and procedures in place for whoever ends up with the permanent job (she hasn’t ruled herself out as a candidate). She says she’s working with her cabinet and the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council’s executives on loan to put the Shingo model of organization in place. “All of that work that we’re doing in the background has not been unveiled to principals and rolled fully out, but it’s a huge part of the work that we’re doing with the 150 or so executive leaders that we have here.”

One piece that leaked was her reassignment of Deputy Superintendent Matt Hayes, who had been in charge of academics. Neither his title nor his salary has changed, but she says she moved him to operations because there’s so much going on with construction plans and transportation. She says his skills and relationships with principals make him right for that role.

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Title IX and sexual assault: Hill wouldn’t directly discuss the district’s recent court victory in a lawsuit that accused CMS of violating a Myers Park High student’s federal Title IX rights when she reported sexual assault by a fellow student in 2015. But she said CMS is making sure each school has a Title IX liaison who’s a licensed administrator and has been through the latest “very strict” training. Part of that emphasizes making sure protective measures, such as no-contact orders, are put in place as soon as assault or harassment is reported.

Hill says everyone involved with such reports needs to be careful about making assumptions about who’s right or wrong. “The minute an allegation comes to you and your thought is ‘so-and-so wouldn’t do that’ or ‘that could never happen,’ then you’ve crossed into dangerous territory. Because people are people and anyone is capable of anything.”

The $2.9 billion bond plan: Hill wouldn’t say whether County Manager Dena Diorio has given her the green light to bring such a large bond proposal to county commissioners. It’s up to the commissioners to decide how much they’re willing to put on a November referendum. Instead Hill emphasized that improving schools is in line with the county’s vision for creating economic opportunity. “I believe that there is an appetite to know and understand that we’ve got the best facilities” for students and employees, she said.


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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.