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New CMS Superintendent Crystal Hill already has fans among community leaders

Crystal Hill sits at a table
Ann Doss Helms
Crystal Hill talks to Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio at a joint meeting of the school board and county commissioners in December 2022, shortly before Hill was named interim superintendent.

Crystal Hill was only named superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools three days ago — technically she’s still interim superintendent until July 1. But on Monday several community leaders said they’re excited about working with her, based on relationships she built during her first year working for CMS.

“The urgency is just something I could see every time I talked with her. And you know, an eye for talent, getting the organization centered on outcomes,” said Mike Lamach, president of the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council. “She’s really a good choice.”

Lamach became a fan of Hill’s several months ago when the council started sending private-industry executives to work temporarily for CMS.

Lamach says that will pay off in support from the business community. “Whatever they need, they’re going to certainly get our help,” he said.

Hill worked in Guilford County, Mooresville and Cabarrus County schools before coming to work for CMS in May 2022. She became interim superintendent in January, and the board hired her as superintendent on Friday.

Well-prepared on the budget pitch

County Commissioner Mark Jerrell was won over recently when Hill presented a budget proposal that won the full support of County Manager Dena Diorio — something that hasn’t happened in recent years.

“(Hill) answered questions. I felt like her staff was well prepared. For my time being on the board, that was probably, in my opinion, the most prepared I’ve seen CMS staff coming before us,” Jerrell said.

Commissioners and the school board often clash over the amount of money available for the district. Two years ago the two bodies went into formal mediation after commissioners tried to withhold $56 million until CMS came up with a better plan to improve low-performing schools.

Jerrell said the school board’s work zeroing in on academic goals has made a difference, along with Hill’s interim leadership. Commissioners still have to vote on whether to provide the 7% funding bump for CMS that Diorio agreed to, but Jerrell predicts approval.

“I suspect there are at least five that are supporting the manager’s recommendation, or that will support the manager’s recommendation with additional information,” he said.

Willing to talk about book challenges

Brooke Weiss, president of the Mecklenburg County Moms for Liberty chapter, met with Hill three days after Hill got the four-year superintendent contract. But they’d already started talking about how to handle books that people in the parental rights group identified as inappropriate for schools.

In February Hill acted quickly to remove asexually explicit book that Moms for Liberty found in a bundle that had been delivered to two new schools. Hill is now working on new regulations regarding how books are approved and challenged.

“I’m pleased because she’s the first person that has not dismissed my concerns. And she’s paid attention and responded,” Weiss said Monday.

Weiss says she has some reservations about the board’s selection process, but she won’t argue with the decision.

“Obviously I think we all need to give her a chance. It’ll take a while to see how things shake out,” Weiss said.

Relating to educators

As president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, Amanda Thompson Rice says she’s heard questions about the process too — specifically the fact that the board set aside up to $57,000 to conduct a national search, only to hire the person who already had the job. The actual payment will depend partly on travel expenses, which have not yet been tallied.

“Our school board has spent so much money to do a national search and we already had some homegrown talent here in North Carolina,” Rice said.

Rice says Hill has impressed many educators with her own long history as an educator, the work she’s done to raise achievement in other districts and the way she treats teachers.

“I think she’s done a phenomenal job as our interim superintendent. I really appreciate that she’s taken time to listen as well as get involved,” Rice said.

A clean report and a tough choice

On Friday, the school board split 6-3 on the decision to award Hill the contract, which provides her $328,000 a year in total compensation.

Melissa Easley, one of five new members elected in November, says the debate was never whether Hill could do the job, but whether the board should hire a finalist with experience as a superintendent — or take a chance on Hill, whose only experience in the top job was not quite five months as interim superintendent.

“There is something to be said for experience. And there’s something to be said for new thoughts and new ideas,” said Easley, a former teacher.

Easley voted “yes” with the majority, but she says she wavered until the end. On the Monday before the contract vote, the board met in closed session to hear a report from an opposition research firm. Easley says Hill was the finalist they’d agreed to vet, and nothing in that report was a problem: “Honestly, it was squeaky clean.”

But members debated for almost five hours, until 1 a.m., over the merits of other strong finalists, Easley says. She says she ultimately decided to take a chance on Hill because she has held high-level jobs in two nearby districts that saw impressive academic gains.

Talking about results and plans

Two days after getting the contract, Hill held a video meeting with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus.

“When I started in Mooresville Graded School District, we were not top performing. But when I was leading elementary education we were No. 1 in the state for third-grade reading, eliminating achievement gaps for Black and Brown students within 2 percentage points of their white counterparts,” she told the group.

And she held top administrative jobs in Cabarrus County, which she says ranked 42nd in the state for overall performance on state exams when she arrived. When she left five years later, the district was 17th.

Now Hill will have to prove she can help students in CMS make similar gains. Among her first steps, she told the caucus, will be making changes in her top staff and school leadership.

“We cannot have people in roles leading schools if they are not moving the needle in terms of academic achievement for the students that they are serving,” Hill said. “If you are not delivering on what you are there to deliver on, then we have to find somebody else that’s able to do that.”

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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.