Filling Top CMS Post Could Be Lengthy, Difficult Process

Jun 10, 2011

The chance to lead Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will draw strong national interest, but that doesn't mean the school board has an easy task ahead, experts say. "There's going to be great interest in Charlotte," said Gary Solomon of the Chicago-based PROACT educational search firm. Superintendent Peter Gorman, who announced his resignation Wednesday after five years with CMS, helped burnish the district's reputation as one of the best big cities for education. He leaves Aug. 15 to take an executive job with the new education division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. "The reputation of the district is just phenomenal nationally," Solomon said, a sentiment echoed by others on the national scene. But Charlotte faces stiff competition for people with the rare blend of skills, stamina and thick skin needed to run one of the nation's largest districts. There's already a huge shuffle going on, with cities such as Atlanta, Detroit, Dallas, Forth Worth and Louisville seeking new leaders. Superintendents last an average of three years in large urban districts, says Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "The superintendency has always been tough, but the last couple of years the economic downturn has made it even tougher," he said. The first decision facing the CMS board is who will lead the transition. Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark and Chief Operating Officer Hugh Hattabaugh are viewed as the most likely candidates for interim superintendent. Clark, a longtime CMS employee and former national principal of the year, is a graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy, a 10-month program designed to prepare administrators for the top job. Hattabaugh was deputy superintendent in Little Rock, Ark., when he came to CMS in 2007. Early speculation Board chair Eric Davis said Wednesday the search could take up to a year, with plenty of chances for employees, parents and the public to weigh in on what they want. But that didn't stop early speculation on who might replace Gorman. Clark's name has been circulating, along with that of Maurice "Mo" Green, who left the No. 2 CMS post in 2008 to head Guilford County Schools. Green was highly respected as CMS' attorney, then Gorman's right-hand man. Many of his programs in Guilford County have been similar to Gorman's. Green is also African-American - a rarity among the pool of people with experience leading a school system and a potential plus in a city where school closings have prompted civil rights complaints and charges of racism. Only 2 percent of all superintendents are black, said Domenech. Board member Joe White said throwing Green's name in prematurely "would be unfair to him," but when asked what he thought of him, White called Green "a very dear friend" and said: "I'd be very happy to have Mo Green back here." Neither Green nor Clark returned calls for comment Thursday. The Broad connection Domenech said the candidate pool for Gorman's job is likely to be dominated by superintendents of districts significantly smaller than CMS, which is among the nation's 20 largest with about 138,000 students and more than 18,000 employees. The Broad academy was created in 2002 to prepare such administrators, as well as leaders from business and the military, to lead urban school systems. Gorman went through it in 2004, when he was superintendent in Tustin, Calif. When CMS hired him in 2006, the academy wasn't on the public radar. Since then, Broad has placed more graduates in high-profile posts, increasing its visibility and spurring controversy. Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad (rhymes with "road") has pumped billions into his vision of a data-driven, businesslike approach to education, creating a backlash among people who believe it short-shrifts teachers and squelches creativity. In CMS, people upset by Gorman's push for testing and teacher performance pay tend to be wary of what's become known as "the Broad virus." That would make any links to Broad a likely point of debate during the hiring process. A related question that could arise: Should CMS seek a leader with classroom experience, or assume a business or military background brings fresh eyes and a more innovative mindset? Secret search? Eventually, the school board must decide whether to let the public screen finalists for the job. In recent CMS searches, a handful of finalists toured the district and fielded public questions. Gorman's strong showing was a key to his hiring. But school boards are increasingly avoiding such forums, fearing they discourage candidates who don't want their current employer to know they're job-hunting. "A lot of head-hunters and systems have found it's worth doing it behind the scenes and just announcing the person," Domenech said. Wake County took the secret-search route when it hired Anthony Tata, a retired general trained by Broad, last year. Wake board member Carolyn Morrison said she was wary of both the secret approach and the choice of someone lacking experience as an educator. "I was scared to death, to tell you the truth," she said. But she said she's been pleased with Tata in his first six months. Krista Tillman, a Queens University of Charlotte administrator who has led efforts to build public confidence in CMS, said public engagement is essential, though there's room to negotiate how that works. "I think this is the most important job in our community," she said.