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With little change, can CMS board break through inertia?
Most Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members are happy with leadership, but admit they’ve stalled on major issues
Mary McCray, back for fourth year as chair, must chart steps for superintendent search and student assignment
Chair and vice chair votes send subtle signals about race, party and alliances

Dec. 11, 2015

BY ANN DOSS HELMS
ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

A little-changed school board made as little change as possible in leadership this week, re-electing Mary McCray to her fourth term as chairperson and choosing newcomer Elyse Dashew to back her up.

It seems to be a stay-the-course signal. As veteran member Tom Tate put it, the 7-0 vote for McCray “says that many of us were comfortable enough in the way things had been that we are willing to continue at least part of it.”

In some ways that comfort makes sense. Voters returned McCray and incumbent Ericka Ellis-Stewart to office last month. The candidates who were most critical of the status quo fell short.

And McCray, a retired Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher, is popular with her colleagues. “She provides a nice, calming voice,” said Rhonda Lennon.

The trouble with staying the course is that the course is unclear. For months now the board has made little progress on its two big challenges: Finding a superintendent and creating a revised plan for student assignment.

Constituents and county commissioners are asking what’s up. Board members acknowledge they’ve bogged down.

“We have got to get moving,” said board member Ruby Jones. “There’s no reason now why we can’t get to steppin.’ ”

McCray said Thursday she plans to convene a full-day session in January for the board to make decisions, which may include putting the search or the student assignment review on hold to focus on one top priority.

“Right now we’re traveling down a double-lane highway,” she said. “At one lane, there’s going to be an exit ramp.”

More about those choices in a minute. First, a bit more about who’s in the driver’s seat.

Where things started

McCray had no opposition for the chairmanship, yet she fell short of a unanimous vote when Eric Davis and Paul Bailey abstained.

Neither would comment about that decision, but it’s worth noting that both voted against accepting Superintendent Heath Morrison’s resignation in November 2014. Davis has been publicly critical of McCray’s handling of the investigation and closed-door discussions that led to Morrison’s ouster.

The rest of us don’t know much about those talks. McCray initially announced that Morrison was leaving to care for his ailing mother. After reporters uncovered a report from CMS attorney George Battle III accusing Morrison of bullying staff and deceiving the board about costs for a new school, the board and Morrison approved a separation agreement that kept all details confidential.

In January the board promoted Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark to the top job. Her 18-month contract stipulates that at Clark’s request “the board will not consider Clark for nor offer Clark the long-term position.”

Where’s the search?

But the search for a successor has yet to materialize. The board held its last public discussion in July and made no decisions.

Since signing the contract Clark has opened the door to staying longer. Some board members see that as the perfect “exit ramp” to let them focus on student assignment for another year, then find a superintendent to execute the board’s decisions. Talk about a possible contract extension has sparked public complaints about closed-door decisions.

Tate, whose decade in office has included two national searches, says the board is in danger of running out of time for another. Yet he says there’s no consensus on Clark’s future.

McCray, who joined the board in the middle of the last search, says she thinks there’s time if the board gets moving in January.

Slow pace on assignment

The student assignment review has generated plenty of talk but no decisions.

Board members have agreed in theory to reduce concentrations of school poverty, hire a consultant and poll parents about diversity, neighborhood schools and related issues. But they haven’t settled on when or how to do any of those things.

On Thursday, Tate had planned to lead the committee that’s handling the assignment review in a push to finally define diversity. Instead, committee members insisted on a new path, using terms such as “going in circles” and “rudderless” to voice frustration.

The school board campaign sparked speculation that the board plans to bus students long distances and disrupt successful neighborhood schools in a quest for racial and economic balance. Mecklenburg County commissioners asked the school board for a joint meeting Dec. 22 to provide an update.

McCray said she asked her colleagues if they were ready. “I heard back loud and clear: No,” she said Thursday. Instead, she said she hopes the CMS board can report to the county after its January sorting-out session.

Party and race

The pressure from the county highlights one more challenge the school board faces. Members have the responsibility for running public schools. But the money comes from the state legislature, which is ruled by Republicans, and county commissioners, dominated by Democrats.

With McCray in the chairmanship and Tim Morgan as vice chair, the CMS board had a leadership team that covered all the bases. McCray is a black Democrat and an educator. Morgan, who didn’t run because he plans to campaign for the state House, is a white Republican who comes from the business community.

Democrats now hold six of the nine seats on the school board. Lennon and Bailey are Republicans and Davis is unaffiliated.

Tate said he had hoped to nominate Lennon as vice chair to preserve the political balance, but Lennon, who works full time, declined. However, McCray has named Lennon chairman of the board’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee, where her connections in Raleigh are considered a plus.

Ellis-Stewart, who led the countywide voting in 2011 and again this year, sought the vice chairmanship. “The board chair and others wanted a black-white leadership team,” she said this week, after getting three votes to Dashew’s six.

Jones, who nominated Ellis-Stewart, said she thought Ellis-Stewart’s experience and skills could have helped nudge the board out of its stall. She said she likes and respects Dashew, who has experience as a volunteer and advocate for CMS.

But Dashew is a first-time elected official taking on leadership at a complicated time. “It’s going to be a heavy, heavy bucket for her to carry,” Jones said.