Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will soon have a new Office of Compliance and Transparency — even though district officials don’t yet know the cost of the office and can’t describe exactly how it will operate.
Tuesday's unanimous vote to create the new office comes in the wake of controversy and criticism. In the past five years the board has ousted two superintendents without public explanation. And reporters have raised questions about the district's compliance with laws and policies — for instance, in signing a contract for criminal background checks of prospective employees that did not meet state and local requirements for fingerprinting.
"I think with all of the noise that we have heard from the public it is always about transparency," said board Chair Mary McCray. "I think when we have an opportunity as a board to make what we do be more transparent and show them that we are being compliant, I think all the better for it."
The policy approved Tuesday specifies that the chief compliance and transparency officer will have the power to investigate serious allegations of misconduct involving the superintendent, general counsel and cabinet-level staff. That officer will report directly to the board, like the superintendent and general counsel do.
Board member Margaret Marshall noted that the investigative powers are the last item in the policy, and "if that's all that happens then this is a failure." Instead, she said, the office should be "a way for us to make sure that we're not making costly mistakes."
McCray agreed: "It is sometimes stupid of us when we pay for a contract, don’t get the services that we need and then we gotta double back and pay out more money to get that part of the services done that we should have been getting done when that contract was put in place."
McCray did not cite specific instances.
The policy calls for the chief officer to work with an unspecified number of staff to monitor the maze of state, federal and local rules that govern public education.
Marshall warned that CMS already has staff charged with monitoring compliance and there's potential for duplication.
Board member Rhonda Cheek asked the cost of the office and where the money would come from.
Superintendent Earnest Winston, who took office in August after Clayton Wilcox was forced to resign, gave her no specifics.
"It is not a foregone conclusion that additional staff would initially need to be hired," he said. "There are existing staff who could potentially serve in the capacity of this new office."
Board member Carol Sawyer asked the board to take more time.
"We need to not rush into this," she said. "I think listening to the questions that board members have raised tells me that there isn’t a clear vision of what exactly this office does."
But McCray urged speedy action. She and member Ericka Ellis-Stewart did not run for reelection and will step aside at the board's next regular meeting. The board will elect a new chair after seven years of McCray's leadership.
"So I’m not asking you to just jump in and take the plunge," McCray said. "I’m urging you to jump in and take the plunge."
When the vote came all hands went up. Decisions about hiring the new compliance chief and setting up the office will come after two new board members are sworn in Dec. 10.