CMS board ponders trips to Reno, Memphis

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CMS board ponders trips to Reno, Memphis


by ANN DOSS HELMS / Charlotte Observer

Posted on April 13, 2012 at 12:33 AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As three finalists for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent finished their public audition Thursday, board members faced a question: Should they visit Reno, Nev., and Memphis before deciding whether to hire the leaders of those districts?

That was a hot topic at a lunch gathering of about 30 current and former school board members and other elected officials, who heard brief statements from Ann Clark, Heath Morrison and Kriner Cash.

Clark, the chief academic officer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, was well known to most in the audience. Morrison, superintendent of the Washoe County School District in Nevada, and Cash, superintendent of Memphis City Schools, were relatively unknown.

“The most important thing you can do is visit the places where they work,” former school board member Louise Woods told current members Tom Tate and Rhonda Lennon. Woods served during a 1996 search, when members made visits to the finalists’ districts.

Lennon, who is doing her first search, disagreed: “Things have changed so much with technology. You don’t have to go someplace to communicate with somebody.”

The trio of finalists, picked from 89 applicants, finished their public appearances at midday Thursday with a lunch at UNC Charlotte’s Center City Building. As they sat down to eat, a fire alarm caused by a faulty sprinkler forced everyone to go down eight flights of stairs and stand outside.

“This wouldn’t be a true superintendent search if there were not an event,” LaTarzja Henry, CMS’ communications head, quipped.

Final remarks from finalists

When they were allowed back a few minutes later, finalists made brief speeches.

Cash, whose urban district is in the midst of merging with the suburban Shelby County Schools, said he reports to a 23-member school board and a 21-member merger planning commission. That has taught him to build strong partnerships with elected officials, he said: “It wouldn’t be effective unless you’re working effectively.”

Cash has voiced interest in leading the merged district in Tennessee, though he told a panel Wednesday that he’s not a formal candidate because applications haven’t opened.

Morrison said he loves his job in Reno and has rejected several offers to move.

“Charlotte-Mecklenburg is very special to me,” he said. “Charlotte-Mecklenburg is a very, very good school district. I think Charlotte-Mecklenburg can be a very, very great school district. It can be great for all students, whether you live in south Mecklenburg or west Charlotte.”

Ann Clark emphasized that her 29-year career has been in CMS. She talked about handing out diplomas as principal of Vance High to students she had worked with as kindergarteners at Shamrock Gardens Elementary. She noted that the others talked about doing “listen and learn” tours if hired.

“I’ve been on a listening and learning tour in the district for 29 1/2 years,” she said. “I will continue on a listen-and-learn tour, because I know I have blind spots.”

Known or unknown?

Experience versus fresh eyes is a crucial question for many who have weighed in.

“The question to me comes down to do you go outside or go with someone who knows the system internally?” said Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor, who declined to say which option he prefers.

“If you are part of the problem, we don’t need you,” said County Commissioner Vilma Leake. “I just don’t know between the two guys.”

After the lunch, the school board met in closed session, interviewing each finalist separately. Vice Chairman Mary McCray said the question of district visits is one they’ll need to take up soon.

“I hope we get a chance to visit and talk to people on the ground,” she said.

The lunch included several former board members, including former chairs Arthur Griffin, Wilhelmenia Rembert and Joe White. Past members said they did visit districts in 1996, when Eric Smith was hired from Virginia, and did not in 2006, when Peter Gorman was hired from California.

Kaye McGarry, who left the board in December, said it’s vital to make the trip: “We cannot afford another Peter Gorman,” she said. She said her support for Gorman, who resigned to take a private-sector job in June, faded after his first two years.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner George Dunlap, who took part in two searches as a school board member, agreed they should visit. The board will be accused of wasting money, he said, but “that is a big investment on behalf of this community.”

“When you don’t do that, you don’t get to hear what people in the district think,” he said. “Anybody can come here and put on a song and dance.”