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Will CMS’ slow superintendent search yield a long-term fit?

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education isn’t much closer to picking a long-term superintendent—despite an informal deadline that’s now less than a year away.

Board members met for two hours recently to discuss the search, but the conversation stayed at a relatively high level. Thelma Byers-Bailey, a first-term board member who represents western portions of the county, called the pace as moving “like a herd of turtles,” The Charlotte Observer reported.

The school board still needs to decide how wide of a net to cast for candidates and whether to hire an executive search firm to help with that process. CMS could decide to focus on local, regional, or national candidates, though it’s hard to imagine anything other than a national search, given the board’s desire for CMS to be known as one of the country’s top school districts.

Superintendent Ann Clark, who took over the top job after Heath Morrison’s abrupt and controversial departure last November, has plans to retire by next summer, assuming the board can find a permanent superintendent by then.

Whomever the district hires will become CMS’ fifth superintendent in four years. Morrison was hired in 2012 and took over from interim superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh, who stepped in after Peter Gorman’s resignation in 2011.

CMS teachers I spoke with after Morrison’s departure generally didn’t seem distraught about the change. Several said that they were frustrated by the pattern of turmoil at the central office, but changes in principal leadership would have a greater impact on their day-to-day lives. In other words, they’re so focused on the schoolhouse that larger policy questions—and the people who propose those policies—don’t cross their minds frequently.

Nonetheless, the near-constant transition at the top has been frustrating for community leaders and central office staff, who look to the superintendent for CMS’ vision and message. Each of the district’s recent leaders has had a distinct style, and the pivots from one to the next were often uncomfortable.

If board members are being deliberate—and they are—this is why.

In public comments and private conversations, school board members say they want to move cautiously through the superintendent search process in hopes of finding a leader who is a long-term fit for Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Board chair Mary McCray, who’s running for reelection this fall, has said that the board plans to be more hands-on with this search process than they were three years ago when they hired Morrison. Board members didn’t fly to Reno, Nev., where Morrison was superintendent previously, to meet with his staff. McCray has said she wants to make that trip this go-round.

The superintendent selection process will play out against a backdrop of change for CMS. School board members are preparing to review, and perhaps overhaul, student assignment boundaries. The county will elect at-large school board members this fall. Current Vice Chairman Tim Morgan has decided not to run for re-election, so there will be at least one new member next year, and perhaps more. State budget negotiations, which are still ongoing in Raleigh, could have a tremendous impact on CMS.

It also comes as other large, urban school districts search for top administrators. Presumably, candidates who would be interested in the CMS job would also be interested in similar positions, making the scramble for top talent even more intense.

Moving too slowly may cause the district to miss out on elite candidates. But many board members believe they have to be deliberate—because CMS can’t afford another bumpy transition period.

Adam Rhew

Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.