Thursday, November 20, 2014

Ann Clark goes 'full Hillary' on question about CMS' top job

Will she or won't she? That's the question of the moment when it comes to acting Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent Ann Clark, the veteran administrator who assumed the duties of the school system's top job early this month after the school board voted to accept Heath Morrison's resignation.

Clark has been around the school system some 32 years, and was a finalist for the superintendent's job in 2012 when the board instead picked Morrison. She was the steady, reliable insider who rose through the ranks. He was charismatic outsider, a national Superintendent of the Year winner. But he flamed out here under the weight of a report from the school district's general counsel that said his fiery temperament had stoked a "culture of fear" among employees.

The board asked Clark to lead the district on an interim basis, but hasn't decided whether to pursue a national search for a permanent replacement. The board didn't even officially name her the interim superintendent. At a press briefing Thursday, reporters asked her the inevitable question: Do you want the job permanently?

She went into full Hillary Clinton mode.

"Everyone's clear that I applied for the superintendent's position two and a half years ago, but I'll be honest, I've really not had the opportunity to hit pause on the day to day operations of the district in the last three weeks to really be thoughtful about what the next step is in my leadership journey. Nor have I had the chance to talk with the board. I'm hoping I'll have that time over Thanksgiving break to really be thoughtful. But I'm just clear my task right now is to move us forward. And that's what I'm doing."

Ann Clark is "being thoughtful" about applying for the top CMS job in the same way Hillary Clinton is "being thoughtful" about deciding whether to run for president in 2016. Which is to say Clark clearly wants it and has likely already decided to pursue it -- she's just not ready to spell it out publicly yet.

Ann Clark addresses the media Thursday
A couple of points are already clear, however. One is that the school board can't afford to take a breather right now. They must surely be tempted, after these tumultuous few weeks, to step back and collect their thoughts while Clark steers the ship. But they need to decide, sooner rather than later, whether they will launch another national superintendent's search, or if they're inclined to give the job permanently to the always-reliable, if not flashy, Clark.

Comforting though her presence must be, Clark cannot fill the gaping leadership void left by Morrison's departure without the full weight of the office behind her. Every directive she gives the staff comes with an asterisk, subject to change by the next permanent superintendent.

And speaking of asterisks, there's a second point that must be made. Morrison's departure has left a cloud of questions around Clark. General counsel George Battle's report quoted Clark as saying Morrison created the "culture of fear" among the staff.  Asked about that by the Observer's Andrew Dunn, Clark declined to say whether that quote was accurate or whether she brought any concerns about Morrison to the board or to Morrison himself.

She cited Morrison's separation agreement, approved by the board, which includes confidentiality and nondisparagement clauses.  We understand there are legal issues involved here. But public confidence in CMS and the board has been badly dented. If Clark decides to announce for the job, and if the board wants to give it to her, those questions must be addressed somehow.

But for now, board members seem desirous of a break from the problem. At their meeting Wednesday, they didn't take up the issue of next steps in the search for a new superintendent. Chairwoman Mary McCray said the board already knows its next steps -- teaching and learning, as outlined in CMS' overall strategic plan.

That's fine. But you need a CEO to implement that plan -- one who isn't distracted by questions about whether the job is his or hers to keep. The board would be wise not to let another meeting pass without addressing the issue.

-- Eric Frazier

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Snitch? Charlotte Disturber? George, that hurts...

A good rule of thumb: When politicians start lashing out at colleagues and others, they're usually feeling defensive about something. When it's Mecklenburg commissioner George Dunlap, it's also a reminder that good manners aren't a requirement for public office.

Dunlap had another one of his outbursts Monday. In a post on his Facebook page, he called fellow Democratic commissioner Pat Cotham a "snitch on the board."  He also questioned her ethics and leadership and said that she "can't be trusted."

Cotham, of course, is an at-large commissioner who was the leading vote-getter in November's election. In every election in the last quarter century, the leading vote-getter is named commission chair for at least a year. But current chair Trevor Fuller is lobbying to keep the job, despite finishing in third place, 22,000 votes behind Cotham. Dunlap and four other board Democrats don't want Cotham to have the gavel, and they're feeling some heat.

Dunlap also is apparently still upset that former Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones was dismissed by the Cotham-led board last year. In his Facebook post, he said that Cotham was doing the bidding of the "Charlotte Disturber," which wanted Jones fired.

He got part of it right. The Observer's editorial board had long believed that Jones should be replaced, as did many others, including six of Dunlap's fellow commissioners. Dunlap might be disappointed to learn, however, that Cotham didn't call the Observer for approval or permission. (He also might be disappointed to learn that we kind of like "Disturber." It's part of what we do.)

If Dunlap were an editorial page reader, he'd know that although we endorsed Cotham - and Fuller - we've also been sharply critical of her for shutting fellow Democrats out of Jones' dismissal and other board discussions. Dunlap complained mightily about that, too, but he didn't seem so bothered this summer when he and four Democrats forgot to tell board Republicans and Cotham about the quarter-cent sales tax referendum they had crafted for a vote.

Normally, Dunlap being Dunlap is not news, but this time it's part of a larger tension on the board regarding who should be chair. Dunlap and the other Democrats know well the precedent of the leading vote-getter receiving the chair's gavel - in 2010, Dunlap actually asked the rhetorical question "Under what circumstances does the third highest vote-getter become the chair?"

Now, Dunlap and the Democrats have a laughable answer - that they adopted a policy last year stating that board members can elect the chair. Translated: We're ignoring the will of the people because we adopted a policy that said we can ignore the will of the people.

That policy was unnecessary. Commissioners were never bound by the people's vote when determining the board chair. They were just smart enough to acknowledge it and abide by it.

They should again. We don't expect that of Dunlap and some others, but we do of Fuller. He could put an end to the silliness by declining the chair and throwing his support behind Cotham.

Fuller didn't do that last year and looked opportunistic because of it. That probably contributed to his finishing ahead of only Republicans this month in a predominantly Democratic county. The people have a way of reminding you that they count. The commissioners - all of them - should listen.

Peter St. Onge

(This post has been updated to reflect that in every election for the past quarter century, the leading at-large vote getter is named commission chair for at least a year.)