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Morrison Shares Thoughts On Challenges Facing CMS


Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools has had a new superintendent for a month now. Heath Morrison has been praised by parents, teachers, and even state lawmakers as superintendent of Washoe County Schools in Reno, Nevada. And so far, he hasn't had any naysayers in Charlotte. But most of what he's doing is listening at this point.

WFAE's Lisa Miller sat down with Morrison to discuss his impressions about CMS so far.

Heath Morrison is a wiry, energetic guy. He makes do on four hours of sleep a night and is a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, the man who wrote The Tipping Point and Blink. He's come to Charlotte with his wife and two kids after a three year stint in Reno.

MILLER: What do you think is a realistic time for a superintendent to stay with a district?

MORRISON: I will tell you, my wife thinks it's a good 10 to 15 to 20 years and I would support her on that. The reason I came to CMS is I was having lots of nice opportunities. I was getting offered a number of jobs, larger school districts than this one, more money than this one was offering. But I really wanted to go to some place where I felt like I could put deep roots down, where I could take a good foundation and help make it a great foundation for children.

Morrison faces his share of challenges. The past couple years have been difficult ones for the district. The school board decided to close ten schools to save money. Dozens of new standardized tests upset many parents. And teachers felt like a pay plan was sprung on them without their input.

MILLER: The district halted its merit pay plans and said, "We're just going to keep our pace up with the state." How do you envision starting that process over again?

MORRISON: You have to start off with the question, 'Are you going to start it over again?' That may not be within our control. There are a lot of reforms happening in Washington and Raleigh and so it's not inconceivable at some that we're going to get told that we have to have a pay for performance plan. So I'm always of the mindset that you have to be prepared and ready. It starts off with separating the issue. There is changes to performance. There are changes to how we look at talent effectiveness. And then there's a separate topic around pay for performance. We've got to get our evaluation instruments, we have to get our performance metrics, such that we can with certainty say, "This is a highly effective teacher. This is an effective teacher. This is a minimally effective teacher and this is not an ineffective teacher," before we even start muddying the waters with the pay for performance issue.

MILLER: CMS has been criticized for shuffling principals too much. Part of former superintendent Peter Gorman's plan for school reform was switching principals. Getting a good, strong leader in there and, if it works, keeping him or her there and, if not, switching it around. Do you agree with that approach?

MORRISON: I think that's probably a simplistic way to say what his approach was. I think there's a strategic staffing initiative, there were some other things that they've done. So, philosophically, let me say what I believe. That is it's about a match. So I'm completely comfortable with a principal that's been at a school five, 10, 15 years if they're continuing to make progress, if the kids are continuing to learn, if the school is improving in every kind of way we measure. I'm also a fan of removing a principal in short order if those things aren't occurring, if the student achievement continues to flounder or flatline or get worse, as well as the morale going in the opposite direction. Then those are things that you provide support, you try to provide assistance. You do everything that you can to help that person be successful. We want that person to be successful. We put them in that school, but you can't be overly patient in terms of letting that go on for year after year after year, watching that school chronically underperform.

MILLER: Are you going ahead with the report on the impact of the school closures and cost savings?

MORRISON: Yes, absolutely. That's getting back to public transparency. A lot of people have asked me, "Well, CMS said closing those schools was going to get these results, have these kinds of cost savings." I don't want to hide from it, so good or bad or neutral, we owe it to the public to go back out and say this is what happened as a result of the decision we made as a school district.

MILLER: The Charlotte area is going to get about eight new charters over the next year, two years. With charter schools, the funding follows the student. So do you have a concerns about how that would affect the CMS budget?

MORRISON: I don't look at the charter initiatives as a budget issue. To me, it's got to be, first of all, why are families accessing charter schools. Is it because they really believe that they're better options? And it's encumbent upon us not to bemoan the fact that more charters are arising. It's encumbant upon us to change either the perception or change what we're doing to have people want to stay in our schools.

As far as any changes Morrison plans for the district, he's staying quiet on that until a series of town hall meetings wraps up in mid-November.