The community got a better idea yesterday of the three people who could lead Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. The finalists told teachers, parents and students that CMS is going in the right direction, but has plenty to work on.
It was a grueling schedule. School visits in the morning and more than five hours of quizzing by community members. The three candidates' visions for CMS didn't differ radically. They all spoke about the need to boost morale and raise achievement for all students.
What did set them apart was their experience.
Ann Clark, CMS's Chief Academic Officer, has been with the district nearly 30 years. She's been a teacher and a principal at schools in several different neighborhoods. Yesterday was her chance to differentiate herself from her former bosses.
"I am Ann Clark. I'm not Pete Gorman any more than I'm Jay Robinson. I've learned from each of the leaders that've come to this district," said Clark. "One of the things I'd say is, 'You can't be until you've become.' And so when I become a superintendent, I'll be a superintendent. I feel well-prepared and I believe this district and community has invested me and I'm the return on investment."
Clark says she has deep relationships in the community and, she says, that's important to rebuild trust and get non-profits, businesses and other agencies to help students.
Another candidate, Kriner Cash, has been credited with landing private and federal grants to help spur improvements in his Memphis district. He's tried new things there like a teacher evaluation system centered on classroom observations that factors in test scores. That's been met with some controversy. He said CMS has made some bold changes.
"You've done a lot and I don't bring innovation or reform just for reform's sake," said Kriner. "I think you have to look at what's working and what's being done well and keep that. If it's not broken don't fix it. But if it is, take a good look at it and figure out how you can repair or improve it and often those answers come from the folks that are vested here."
The third candidate, Heath Morrison, is the Superintendent of Washoe County Schools, which includes Reno. The American Association of School Administrators named him Superintendent of the Year for his work boosting the graduation rate. He says even though his current district is just under half the size of CMS, it has many of the same challenges. Morrison touted a system that would give schools more independence.
"I don't think all of the big ideas originate in the central office. I don't think that you hoard all of these resources at the central office and we deploy them where we think they're necessary," said Morrison. "I think you try to put the resources at the most locally centralized place possible. You give our great teachers and our great principals access to more of those resources. And autonomy gets earned."
All of the candidates approached the expansion of standardized tests with caution. Clark said CMS was wrong to get ahead of the state by rolling out dozens of new standardized tests last year. She says the district lost the trust of teachers and parents that way. Morrison said the accountability standardized tests provide is important. But he said school districts have become too focused on end of year tests. He said teacher evaluations should also include other factors and teachers need to be part of the decisions. Cash was the most negative about standardized tests, even though his district uses them in teacher evaluations.
"Principals get booted for it. Teachers lose for it. Schools get graded for it and parents say, 'This is a bad school. I want to go across town,'" said Cash. The Broad Foundation also came up several times throughout the day and not in a glowing light. It's the project of businessman and education philanthropist Eli Broad.
Critics say the group is trying to take local control away from public schools by influencing education leaders. Both Clark and Morrison went through training courses there. Morrison said it was a positive experience, but his years as a teacher and principal taught him more.
"The Broad superintendency doesn't direct me. It doesn't define me and I think most people would look at my record in Washoe County and be surprised I'm a Broad superintendent," said Morrison. The candidates all agreed that boosting teacher morale would be a priority. Clark said it wouldn't take a lot of money. "We've got to think about ways with some of the community partners in this room that we affirm the work our best teachers do, we affirm the work our best principals do, and we acknowledge all of our employees," said Clark.
At the end of the day, the three candidates appeared together before an audience of a couple hundred people, many of them teachers. The subject of school closings came up and several people liked Cash's answer, that a district should only close schools as a last resort. The candidates continue their rounds of schools today and will speak further with school board members. The board expects to name a superintendent in early May.