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Emergency vote on Illinois search firm moves CMS toward having a superintendent by spring

Vice Chair Thelma Byers-Bailey votes with a thumbs-up at Friday's online emergency meeting to approve a search consultant contract.
Screenshot from @CMSboe Facebook page
Vice Chair Thelma Byers-Bailey votes with a thumbs-up at Friday's online emergency meeting to approve a search consultant contract.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board unanimously approved a contract with an Illinois search firm in an emergency meeting Friday morning, part of a push to meet what board Chair Elyse Dashew called “an aggressive timeline” for hiring a superintendent.

She said the board didn’t wait for its regular meeting on Tuesday because “we don’t want to waste three more days. We want to be able to get going today and work through the weekend and stay on track to have a superintendent named by late spring.”

The contract with BWP & Associates calls for CMS to spend up to $57,000 in fees, travel expenses and advertising costs. The Illinois-based education search firm has designated three former superintendents — Kevin Castner, Debra Hill and Percy Mack — to work with CMS as consultants. The firm will conduct a national search, work with the board and the new superintendent on the transition and provide mentoring to the superintendent for the first year. And if the match falls apart within two years, BWP will conduct a new search at no charge.

CMS has a history of churn in the top office, with no superintendent making it to the three-year mark in the past 12 years. The board hired Earnest Winston, a CMS administrator who had never led a school or a district, without a search in August 2019, then fired him in April 2022.

The board waited to form a search committee until after the November election, which brought five newcomers to the nine-member board. In January, the board released a timeline for hiring a new superintendent in about four months — by the end of April. Experts say that’s faster than usual, but not impossible.

Was it an emergency?

Summer Nunn, who chairs the board’s search committee, said CMS got 10 proposals from search firms. The committee narrowed that to four, then two, before settling on BWP on Wednesday.

Dashew says CMS and BWP agreed on a contract Thursday night. She then scheduled the online emergency meeting for 9 a.m. Friday, posting it to the public with less than 24 hours’ notice.

North Carolina’s open meetings law requires 48 hours’ notice of a special meeting except in case of emergency, which is defined as “generally unexpected circumstances that require immediate consideration.”

Brooks Fuller, director of North Carolina’s Open Government Coalition, said hurrying to meet a timetable for hiring falls into a legal gray area. “ ‘Urgency’ and ‘emergency’ are not the same thing within the spirit of the open meetings law,” he said.

He said there’s room to disagree on whether this decision required immediate consideration, but “it’s moments like this that call for elected officials and public bodies to practice some introspection and really think hard about whether an emergency meeting is required.”

Next steps in search

The board’s timeline calls for the search to begin in a little over a week, with a March 17 deadline for applications. If all goes according to plan, the board would work with the firm to select and interview finalists by the end of March, choose a superintendent by early April and have a contract ready to approve at the April 25 board meeting. The schedule does not call for finalists to meet the public, as they did in some previous national searches. In recent years, consultants have told CMS that practice deters good candidates who are already in leadership jobs and don’t want to go public with plans to leave unless they’re hired.

The market for big-district superintendents is always competitive, and it got even more so on Thursday, when Wake County Superintendent Catty Moore announced that she’ll retire on July 1 after five years on the job. Wake is the state’s largest district, and both Wake and CMS are among the country’s 20 biggest districts.


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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.