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Former CMS Superintendent John Murphy Dies

John Murphy, who guided the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools through the end of crosstown busing in the early 1990s and launched efforts to hold principals and teachers accountable for academic goals, died in his sleep Tuesday at his Florida home. He was 76. Murphy, who also led systems in Raleigh, Maryland and Massachusetts, was a polarizing, larger-than-life figure. He served as CMS chief from 1991 to 1995. While here, he changed how students were taught and the method of measuring what they learned. Under his leadership, CMS grew its magnet-school program, including the introduction of the widely acclaimed International Baccalaureate curriculum. Murphy also offered a $5 million incentive program to principals and staff member at schools that met academic goals. John Lassiter, who was elected to the school board in 1992, said Murphy's focus on objective performance measures was a relatively new concept at the time. But he said it was critical to help keep CMS and Charlotte competitive with other areas. "We took the mystery out of what should be happening in the classroom, and teachers got a pretty clear picture of what was expected," Murphy said in 1995. The changes were not without controversy. In his first three years, Murphy replaced half of the district's principals and fired hundreds of teachers. Those who worked with him said he was unapologetic at holding employees accountable for their work. "He was the guy who told me early on in my public service ... 'Education is about children learning, not employing adults,' " recalls former school board member John Tate, who currently serves on the state Board of Education. "At the time, I brushed it off. But it's probably the most pithy statement that I can recall in my 20 years of being engaged in this work." Lasting initiatives Fifteen years before he came to Charlotte, Murphy was responsible for major changes in Raleigh. He became superintendent there in 1976 and oversaw the merger of the Raleigh and Wake County systems. He guided that school system until 1981. The CMS board hired Murphy to replace Peter Relic. In 1992, with pressure building to end the district's 22-year-old practice of paired schools and crosstown busing to achieve racial integration, Murphy launched his magnet school program. A number of schools, many of them in the inner city, began offering specialized academic programs. Seats in those schools were assigned on a racial quota, with 60 percent going to white students and 40 percent to African-Americans. Supporters say the magnets became a way to facilitate voluntary desegregation, while giving parents more of a choice in where to send their children. The program still exists, although the number of magnet schools has been trimmed in recent years. Perhaps Murphy's most important contribution was starting a system of measuring student and staff performance. CMS set goals for student achievement and graded teachers and administrators on how well students did - a concept that remains a cornerstone of the education process across the nation. Murphy also is remembered by colleagues for his efforts to reach out into the community, particularly area businesses. For example, he worked with First Union to establish the Principal Academy training program and helped set up a foundation to test new programs and ideas. Supporters say he was not afraid to take risks, or to encourage employees to move into bigger roles in the district. Vicki Hamilton had been a CMS principal when Murphy called her into his office in 1994 and offered to make her the first female districtwide athletic director in the state. "He said, 'I've got your back,' " said Hamilton, who retired this spring after 17 years as AD. " 'We're opening up new territory together, and I've got your back.' " Murphy admitted to being angry upon leaving CMS in 1995. A school construction bond failed that May, and Murphy accused Republican county commissioners of misleading voters. He also said his resignation was tied to the election of several candidates who had criticized him. One of them was the late Susan Burgess, who ridiculed the school board decision to spend $14,000 on Murphy's jaw surgery in a New York Times article. Burgess later apologized. But in an interview with the Observer before he left CMS, Murphy said Burgess' comments - and other criticism in the community - rankled him. "That was mean. That was cruel," he said. "To have to end what I consider to be a distinguished career on that note, it was kind of a heartbreaking experience." Still, Murphy said he wouldn't have done anything differently as superintendent. "I think I've given leadership to the system that was needed and brought it to the highest level it's ever been," he said. After leaving CMS, he became president of Education Partners Inc., a Florida-based consulting firm. In that position, he advised education departments in several states. He was a part-time faculty member in recent years at UNC Wilmington. Murphy was a Massachusetts native, and earned his bachelor's degree from North Adams (Mass.) State College and his master's and doctorate degrees from the University of Massachusetts. In 1989, he received the Leadership for Learning Award, a top honor presented by the American Association of Superintendents. Three of his six children still live in North Carolina - sons Robert and Sean in Charlotte, and daughter Martha in Asheville. He also is survived by his wife, Katherine, of Miami, and by seven grandchildren. Funeral services will be Friday in North Andover, Mass.