The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board split 5-4 Saturday on the best approach to finding a long-term leader, with five members saying they want to extend Superintendent Ann Clark’s contract past July 31 and four urging an immediate national search.

At the end of a seven-hour retreat to discuss their long-stalled superintendent search, members agreed to vote on the issue at their Feb. 9 meeting. After Saturday’s meeting was over, board Chair Mary McCray acknowledged what the Observer has been reporting for months: Despite her initial request to leave by summer of 2016, Clark is now willing to stay a year longer.

Board concerns broke along racial lines, with white members saying CMS needs to focus on student assignment and black members saying the board should first hire a superintendent who can be an active part of developing a new plan. The leadership question has taken on racial overtones, with several African American speakers appearing at a fall board meeting to protest what some described as a closed-door push to keep Clark longer, shutting out the black community from the search.

During the retreat, some black board members said their constituents are demanding to know when the board will start a search, while some white board members said their constituents are more anxious about uncertainty over student assignment.

McCray opened the discussion by saying the suggestion that the board can’t do a student assignment review and a superintendent search in the next six months is “hogwash.”

“If we can’t do more than one thing at a time, not only should we be ashamed but the community should demand new representation,” said McCray. She joined Ericka Ellis-Stewart, Thelma Byers-Bailey and Ruby Jones in arguing that a search can be completed before Clark’s contract expires and the board must honor its promise to do so.

Elyse Dashew, Paul Bailey, Eric Davis, Rhonda Lennon and Tom Tate argued that it’s not practical to conduct an accelerated search while holding public meetings on student assignment and the 2016-17 budget – and possibly launching a school bond campaign.

“They’re so important that they deserve our undivided attention,” Davis said. “We increase the risk to the district if we change superintendents. It’s analogous to changing quarterbacks the week before the Super Bowl.”

Lennon said fear about what could happen with student assignment changes in 2017-18 will accelerate flight of “students of influence and affluence.”

Unless the board makes clear decisions about assignment soon, Lennon said, “we are going to end up with a district that doesn’t resemble our community and that fails a lot of our students.”

The retreat was led by Brian Perkins, a former school board president who is director of the urban education leadership program at Columbia University. He repeatedly urged the board to make a decision, unite behind it and do a better job of communicating what the district is doing on student assignment and leadership. “Sometimes no decision is a decision,” he said. “Don’t let it happen by default.”

Two tough tasks
The board began a student assignment review almost a year ago, and progress has been slow. The district just launched an online public survey on Friday, and plans to vote on Feb. 23 on four broad goals for the next assignment policy.

Meanwhile, time has been ticking on Clark’s 18-month contract, signed in January 2015. A 33-year veteran of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she took over after Heath Morrison resigned abruptly amid allegations that he bullied staff and misled the board about the cost of a new school. She initially told the board she did not want to stay past summer of 2016, and that was written into her contract.

Until Saturday, the board had said little in public about leadership plans.

Members say they have talked in closed session about extending Clark’s tenure or trying to hire Guilford County Superintendent Maurice “Mo” Green, a former CMS attorney and deputy superintendent. Green took that option out of play in December, when he announced he would take a job as executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

Perkins told the board their silence has hurt their cause, leaving reporters, the public and “fearmongers” to fill in the blanks.

“In the absence of your story, the story gets written,” he said. “Whatever you decide, you’re going to get backlash. Your success will be in how well you communicate.”

What happens next
Byers-Bailey urged the group to make a decision at the end of the board’s seven-hour retreat at the Carolinas Aviation Center. But McCray said General Counsel George Battle had advised that it would be better to vote in a regular meeting.

While board members often try to present a united front on key personnel decisions, even if they disagree behind closed doors, McCray said that may not happen this time.

“I think the board is going to be divided,” she said. “I can’t say whether that’s going to be along racial lines, gender lines or what.”

Board members who supported extending Clark’s contract said that decision should come with a timetable for a search. One of the first steps would be choosing a search firm.

Perkins’ firm conducts superintendent searches, and he outlined timetables Saturday that could lead to a hire this summer. McCray said afterward the board has not discussed whether Perkins would be a candidate to conduct the CMS search.