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Clock is ticking for CMS superintendent search

Later this month, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Ann Clark will deliver what is supposed to be her final “State of Our Schools” address. But it’s possible that won’t be her final word on the state of CMS.

Clark became superintendent more than a year ago, after the sudden departure of her predecessor, Heath Morrison. Both sides intended it to be a short-term solution. When the school board hired Clark for the top job, it was under the agreement that she would retire when the contract expires July 1.

But six months before that deadline, the school board has made little progress toward hiring a long-term superintendent, and some board members say it is possible they will keep Clark on longer, in order to find the right long-term fit.

The school board is planning a meeting for early January to talk about the status of the superintendent search. Members are balancing the job hunt with work on a new student assignment plan. Both efforts come with high stakes and hours of meetings. In private conversations and public comments, board members acknowledge they have felt torn between the two enormous projects.

“We have got to get moving,” board member Ruby Jones told The Charlotte Observer last month. “There’s no reason now why we can’t get to steppin.’”

One potential solution is to extend Clark’s contract by another year, allowing the board to focus most of its energy on crafting a student assignment plan before hiring a superintendent who would execute the board’s vision.

In addition to timing, board members still need to decide what kind of superintendent they want to hire. “What I know for sure is the Charlotte community values input and engagement, so no matter what we do, we have to make sure there is a strong amount of community input and engagement around the superintendent process,” board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart said in a December interview with WBTV. “Whoever sits in that seat really needs to be a unifying figure for our community, not something that’s going to divide us.”

Board Chair Mary McCray has said she is in favor of hiring a superintendent with North Carolina ties, who is familiar with the way public education is funded in this state, in order to reduce the new superintendent’s learning curve.

If the board decides to move ahead with hiring a superintendent before Clark’s contract expires in July, a search would need to start almost immediately and move on a very fast schedule.

Beyond the obvious significance — CMS needs a long-term leader to set the district’s vision during what’s expected to be a period of dramatic change for the school system — there are other reasons the board feels pressure to make a smart superintendent hire.

CMS is the state’s second-largest school district, behind Wake County, and other systems look to Charlotte for leadership on statewide policy issues. Morrison played a major role in legislative negotiations that impacted public schools. With elections this fall that could impact the way the General Assembly deals with education issues, the CMS superintendent’s bully pulpit may matter even more during next year’s legislative session.

Additionally, Mecklenburg County voters are likely to consider a school bond referendum in November to fund CMS capital projects. The superintendent typically plays a key role in those ballot initiatives, often canvassing the county to drum up support for the referendum.

But, after a protracted period of transition in CMS’ top job, board members feel strongly that this hire is even more important than usual. That means they’re likely to be deliberate — even if others are frustrated by the slow pace.

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.