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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Superintendent Heath Morrison is asking the public, consultants and his workforce of more than 18,000 people for advice on improving Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

The first of six employee meetings will be Monday at North Mecklenburg High, and the first of seven town hall sessions for the public is set for Thursday at Rocky River High. The meetings will run through Nov. 15. They re designed to let people meet Morrison, who started July 1, and offer suggestions for the strategic plan he ll release after his first 100 days.

Employee meetings won t be open to outsiders, including media. Employees are asked to wear their ID cards, though no one will be taking names, said spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte.

The others will be open to anyone. In both venues, CMS staff will lead facilitated discussions and small-group talks.

Also, public relations consultant Terry Abbott will be in Charlotte doing a study of the CMS communications department.

Morrison says he tagged communications and the human resources department for immediate audits because they are hugely important to what we are trying to do to improve public trust and employee morale.

Although many think of audits as a financial review, these consultant studies will be more about how effective the departments are.

Abbott is a former press secretary for the Houston Independent School District and chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Rod Paige. He now chairs his own consulting firm, Drive West Communications, and is a consultant for the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems.

Abbott did a communications audit for the Washoe County School District in Reno, Nev., in 2009, shortly after Morrison became superintendent there, and for Wake County Schools in 2011 after Tony Tata became superintendent. In both cases, he urged the districts to get more aggressive about defining their own news and presenting it in news style, rather than educational jargon.

Abbott summarized his philosophy in a 2009 opinion piece for District Administration magazine urging district leaders to use the slow death of great American newspapers to take greater control of education coverage.

He laid out a vision for a Permanent Campaign for public support that includes producing full-blown news releases in news story style, pushing those stories immediately to TV and blasting out news stories about upcoming items on school board agendas.

School districts must create their own supercharged newsrooms to find and deliver compelling, dramatic stories about success and failure too, Abbott wrote. As an example, he noted,

Administrators should never let the local news media decide how test score information will be announced. They should announce their districts own test scores at news events featuring successful schools with great stories of achievement to tell, and then also face head-on any bad news.

The CMS board just passed a $1.2 billion budget that includes $215,000 to add two multimedia specialists and buy new software licenses for the communications department. Morrison told the board he ll hold off on making any hires until seeing the results of Abbott s audit.

Morrison said CMS will pay $20,000 for the communications audit and less than $10,000 for the human resources study, which will be done by Betsy Arons of the Council of Great City Schools.

Also on tap is an overall effectiveness and efficiency review of CMS administration, with comparisons to similar-sized districts, Morrison said. Details of that review have not been worked out yet. In all three studies, Morrison said, the goal is identifying ways to make systems work better.

For instance, he said, an audit in his former district in Reno found ways to save time and money by streamlining the processing of personnel forms.

The cost of the audits could come out of the $818,000 the board set aside for Morrison s new initiatives, though he said he d like to find private funding.

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