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Morrison On His New Job With CMS

The Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools board announced Thursday that Heath Morrison, currently serving as superintendent of Washoe County Schools in Reno, Nevada, would be the next superintendent of CMS. Shortly after the announcement, WFAE's Lisa Miller spoke with Morrison about his plans for the Charlotte school system. Listen to the interview here. Lisa Miller: First of all, what excites you about this job? Heath Morrison: Well, I can tell you Lisa that both when I was in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and as the superintendent in Washoe County in Reno, Nevada that I've developed a great relationship with educators within the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools district. That's a school district I constantly point to as one that we've tried to benchmark against and do some of the similar things and approaches and systems and then also try to share some of the things that we're doing. So there's a great respect for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools district and to be thought of as the leader is very exciting and I can't wait to get started. Lisa Miller: After being here for a few days, what did you learn? Were there any surprises? Heath Morrison: I'm not sure there were surprises. But what I learned was that there is an incredible passion for making sure Charlotte-Mecklenburg is one of the best school districts in the country. From the people that came up to me to tell me everything was great about the school district and to make sure that if I was selected that we need to continue to do these things - to the people who felt disenfranchised or frustrated or felt like there were things that needed to improve - everybody wanted the same thing and that was for Charlotte-Mecklenburg to be great for 140,000 students and 159 schools. And what I said is that I think that Charlotte-Mecklenburg, with that kind of community support and the great work that's already been established, that you can say Charlotte-Mecklenburg can be, should be the best public education system in the country. And those words don't ring hollow. It can happen. And I'm dedicated to working with the community, the board of education, and the 18,000 plus employees to make that vision a reality. Lisa Miller: Why do you think it can happen that CMS can be the best school district in the country? Heath Morrison: I think there is so much incredible support for education that people understand both from an economic development standpoint because of the great higher education systems in North Carolina that you can't have a great workforce that's attractive for businesses, you can't have a robust higher education system, unless the pre-K through 12 system is really robust and strong. So I think the community demands a quality public education system. And great work has already been established. There have been some amazing superintendents and dedicated school boards in the past who've laid the groundwork. I think you see the national recognitions have been very deserved. So I think that foundation has been laid to allow for continuous improvement. And I think you have to bold. As I always say I think there are a lot of analogies between the education field and the medical field. I wouldn't want to go to a hospital that isn't dedicated to making every patient well. As a school district we need to be about having 140,000 students graduate, truly college-and highly-skilled-career ready. I think there's a community that expects it, that wants that, and is going to work together to see that happen. Lisa Miller: What do you think you need to focus on here? Heath Morrison: What I think I need to focus on initially is to have an entry plan. Not a game plan. I don't think it's appropriate to come into a highly successful school district and start to say 'well this is what I think we need to do and these are the changes' I think what I need to do during my first 90 or so days on the job is have an entry plan where I come and I listen. I visit every school and I meet with teachers and principals and employees and parents and students and business leaders, community leaders, faith-based leaders and really get a sense from the community on what's working and what could better - how to negotiate very tough budget times. And then really how do we dedicate ourselves to being the premier school district in the country and what' that going to take and to start really looking at current strategic plan and start trying to work with the board to make the changes that are going to allow that vision to become a reality. Lisa Miller: You said that 99 percent of this job is politics. Are you a politician? Heath Morrison: I think 99 percent of the job is probably politics. I try not to be a politician, and I don't mean that in a negative way. I'm an educator and I'm a servant leader. What I know has to happen from the superintendent work in collaboration with the board is that it's very important to build political support and public trust so that you can do bold things on behalf of students. If the public doesn't trust us to do the small things, then when we say "we're getting read to do some initiative, we're getting ready to create some new program that's going really make things better for a large number of students' - then the public doesn't trust us. And then they want to fund it or they don't want to support it. I think it's really important to constantly be reaching out to the community, political leaders, business leaders, and to the employees to make sure the work we're doing together is understood, that there's collaboration and that there's mutual support and that there's recognition when the job has been well done. I can tell you Lisa that one of the best awards I was very proud of that our school district received recently was the Nevada Taxpayers Association Award for Good Government. Now you have to understand the context of Nevada. Most taxpayers don't want to pay a lot of taxes, and that award has never gone to a school district. But there has been so much recognition of our intentional outreach, our involvement with the community, the processes we have developed to get that community input, and what we've done with the dollars to educate the 65,000 students that we serve. It was recognized by a group that traditionally has not thought very highly of public education. That's the same sort of support I want to build in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School district. Lisa Miller: One of the things that's been a touchy issue here are last year's school closings. They were predominantly in low-income, minority neighborhoods. Do you think that was the right decision? Heath Morrison: It's not for meand I'm not being evasive of the questionbut there are so many decision being made and I respect that superintendent and a board working in collaboration with a community do what they think is the right decision here and now. What I will say and what I've come to learn is that I think the biggest concerns and discussions about opposition to those school closings was a perceived lack of a policy and a process. And I will tell you that one of the fist things when I became superintendent of Washoe County and we were engaging our public and the public was giving us input on how to address some of the most impactful budget cuts in the country - there were discussions on whether or not we have to close schools. So I immediately asked to see the policy, only to find there was no policy in our school district about school closures. So we worked with our community and with our school board and created a policy in the event that we needed to consider school closures. Thankfully we have not had to do that here. I always say in leadership Lisa that people may disagree with the decision that you make. As long as they don't disagree with intentionality and integrity behind those decisions, then they'll stay with you. But when you give people the reasons to doubt the integrity or intentionality or if you get them to lose confidence that you can create those processes then that are when people start to second guess every decision. So it's not appropriate for me to comment on those decisions from last year other than one of the first things I want to do when I start on the job is to look at those policies and make sure they're as good as they can be. And if the processes need to improve or if there is not a policy, that's something we're going to have to put in place but hopefully it's not one we'll have to use in the near future. Lisa Miller: Now teacher morale here is certainly low. I know you heard a lot about that while you were here. What are you going to do to address that? Heath Miller: Lisa, there was a New York Times article that came out about a month and a half ago, and it spoke about a comprehensive study that showed teacher morale across the country is the lowest it's been in 20 years. So it's not a Charlotte-Mecklenburg issue. I think it's a concern all across our country. The budget has caused hard-working teachers not to get raises, the budget has caused increased class sizes, and then there has been waves of reform at the federal, state and local level that has changed almost everything our hard-working teachers across this country are having to do. I think often our teachers feel like they don't have a voice in that. I'm very sensitive to that. I'm sensitive to that in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, I'm sensitive to that here (Reno). I've established a very good relationship with our teacher leaders in my school district. We work collaboratively. Recently, I went out at there suggestion and did a series of staff symposiums, where I just went out to different schools and made myself available just to listen to what was on the list of concerns of our teachers to hear from them, to figure out how I can provide better support. I worked with our teacher leaders to create a memorandum of understanding around a culture of respect, because it's so important during these tough budget times that people feel valued and that their contributions to the organization are recognized. So I will look forward to figuring out what has to happen in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, but I can promise you some of the first meetings I want to have are with teachers all across the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district. Lisa Miller: The achievement gap between white and African American and Hispanic students is certainly an issue here as well as many other places. What would you like to do to close that gap? Heath Morrison: Well Lisa, I'm glad you're mentioning "closing it." Too often, people just want to talk about narrowing it. I'm not interested in narrowing achievement gaps. What I'm interested in is closing them so that when you look at student results, when you look at the performance of our schools, demography does not equal destiny, that race and socio-economics don't predict student performance. So what it requires is we have to have a plan that is going to reach out to 140,000 student. Again, getting back to a hospital analogy: Every person who walks into a hospital has various degrees of wellness. The goal is that when they walk out of that hospital that they're all in great health. In a public education system, we have kids who come to us and different levels of readiness. Some kids start kindergarten already reading at a 3rd-grade reading level, and other kids don't come knowing any site words. So, we have to have a differentiated approach, a different plan. We have to be like the medical community. We have to diagnose what every student needs and then give them the prescribed course of wellness that's going to result in them getting a great diploma. So, that's some of the hardest work in the country and Charlotte-Mecklenburg has been one of the boldest school districts in the country about tackling that head-on. Lisa Miller: The charters schools cap in North Carolina has been lifted and there are several groups now trying to open up school in Mecklenburg County in particular. Of course, those schools will siphon off students from CMS and as a result several million dollars in state and local money. Does this concern you? Heath Morrison: Well, what concerns me is to make sure every student has access to a great school. I'm not opposed to charter schools, but I am opposed to non-quality charter schools. When you look at the research across the country, for every five charter schools, one outperforms its locally competitive public school, but usually with a lot of private dollars. Two tend to perform at the very same level. And then two tend to bash the underperformed local schools. So I want to make sure that any schools that are opening up are quality schools that are going to serve students. But, I think what has to happen is we have to look at that as a challenge and opportunity, that we have to make sure we are making the public aware of the great opportunities within the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools - all 159. That all 159 schools are looked upon as preferable destinations for students, and to take that competition head-on. That's really what the charter school movement is about. It's about creating some competition within the public education realm so that everybody improves. So I don't mind competition. I just want to make sure the competition is on a level playing field. I'm more interested in having students wanting to stay in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district because we want students to feel great, we want parents to feel great about being in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district. Lisa Miller: Will you speak out on charter applications that concern you? Heath Morrison: I'll speak out about any school that is being offered that I think is not going to present quality. Again, if it's a quality charter school and it meets the needs of the community - we have eight public charter schools here in the Washoe County school district. There still continues to be eight. There is one charter school I recommended to our school board that we not reauthorize their charter until the make substantive improvements. We've assisted them. It's about having great schools, and I want every school in Charlotte-Mecklenburg to be a great school that parents feel good about having their children attend. So I'm not opposed. I won't speak out about a charter school unless I believe that the charter school is not having the best interest of its students in terms of educating them at a high level. Lisa Miller: Will your kids be enrolled at CMS? Heath Morrison: My children will be proud students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. We haven't picked out where we're going to live, so I don't know where. But they're looking forward to being not only students but also graduates of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. I have a sixth grader and a ninth grader and their excited about this opportunity. Lisa Miller: You're a graduate of the Broad's Superintendent's Academy, as was Peter Gorman. You see the Broad's logo every in CMS, on letterheads, email signatures, on the website. I'm sure you've heard it: there's some concern that private groups like this and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have too much of an influence on public education, pushing things like testing and pay-for-performance. How much influence has the Broad Foundation had on your style.? Heath Morrison: What I will say Lisa is when I was first approached about being a candidate for the Broad superintendent program is that it didn't have the stigma or any of the negative connotations that it does in some areas of the country that it does today. I looked at it as an opportunity to look at education and changes that were happening across the country, oftentimes being done with people outside of the educational realm. I had been a traditional educator. I've been a teacher, a principal, an area superintendent, and now a superintendent. So I thought the ability to do a deep dive in terms of educational change with people who are outside of the field would help better me understand that thinking so that I could help be part of a movement to make that the educator's voice is always heard. Since I've become the superintendent of the Washoe County School District, the Broad Foundation has had very little influence here. I get the same support you get as a Broad superintendent. I got some audits that were made available and an executive coach. But I have gotten no money from the Broad Foundation. [A lot of people have criticized us for closing schools.] We haven't closed any schools. [They say you're about charter schools.] We haven't created any charter schools. 'That you're anti teachers or teacher unions.' I have a great relationship with our teachers association. We do all of our big changes with our teachers association. Some of our teachers have laughed when they've seen some of those comments. I don't want to be judged as a Broad superintendent. I want to be judged as a superintendent of the Washoe County school district and as they superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools district. And I promise you there will not be anybody's agenda but the agenda of 140,000 students. Lisa Miller: What about you will surprise the public here? Heath Morrison: People often say they're amazed at the energy and the passion that I bring to this work. I know when we had the opportunity to meet the public, we had already had a very, very long day. And then after the actual interview process we were allowed to go back into a room at the school and continue to meet with the public. I had a large group of people and the Charlotte[-Mecklenburg Schools] folks were trying to pull me out because it was time to wrap it up, but I could have gone another couple of hours. I think people see the energy and the passion that I bring. You know Lisa, what I've said is that I owe everything I have in terms of a professional career to two teachers that helped get me back on the right path in terms of where I was going. No matter what I bring to public education and what positive difference I make, there's a debt there that I'll never repay. But I'm going to try hard everyday to repay that debt. So I bring a lot of passion and energy to the work. Lisa Miller: One more question. When will you start? Heath Morrison: I don't that yet, Lisa. This is happened so quickly. I've kept my board informed throughout this whole process. I can't ask for more support than they've [given me.] Last week, they said 'Heath, we hope you do poorly in the interviews.' When I got back, I called all of them. We've had conversations. When I called them today, they said they were very proud of me, they're sorry to see me go, but they're going to support me. But I have to look at what I need to do as superintendent here to finish out this academic year and how soon I need to be in Charlotte-Mecklenburg to start the important work there. So I'll work with both boards to come up with a date that works for both organizations. And I'm as excited as I can be about starting the work and the important service that needs to happen for 140,000 students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. There's some bitter sweetness to this because I love the 65,000 students that I'm servicing here in the Washoe County School District. Lisa Miller: Thanks Mr. Morrison. Heath Morrison: Thank you, Lisa. I look forward to meeting you in person when I get to Charlotte.