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CMS board splits on vote to keep Crystal Hill as permanent superintendent after national search

Search committee chair Summer Nunn, CMS board Vice Chair Stephanie Sneed and Superintendent Crystal Hill (l-r) spoke at a news conference a couple of hours after the vote to hire Hill.
Ann Doss Helms
Search committee chair Summer Nunn, CMS board Vice Chair Stephanie Sneed and Superintendent Crystal Hill (l-r) spoke at a news conference a couple of hours after the vote to hire Hill.

Less than six months after she stepped in to lead Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on an interim basis, Crystal Hill was named superintendent of the 17th-largest school district in the U.S.

Board members voted 6-3 Friday to give her a four-year contract. Board members Jennifer De La Jara, Lisa Cline and search chair Summer Nunn voted no. Her base pay will be $300,000 a year, with additional retirement pay and a car allowance worth about $28,800 a year.

CMS board members said Hill rose to the top of a national search that attracted what consultants called an exceptionally strong batch of candidates, including 19 superintendents.

At a news conference a couple of hours after the vote, Nunn said the split merely reflects different opinions about a strong group of finalists, all of whom met the requirements the board had spelled out after getting public input.

"I think that this board is 100% behind Dr. Hill," she said. "The nine individual board members were evaluating candidates based on that leadership profile and they were all strong, they all met that leadership profile. So really it’s just a difference of opinion, to be perfectly honest And she wouldn't have even made it to where she had if she wasn't qualified to do the job."

Only Nunn, Vice Chair Stephanie Sneed and board member Lenora Shipp attended the news conference. Chair Elyse Dashew said she has tested positive for COVID-19 so attended the meeting remotely.

Hill will now be responsible for approximately 141,000 students, more than 18,000 employees and an annual budget that tops $2 billion — with a divided board that didn't unanimously back her.

"It doesn't bother me," she said. "You know, would I have loved a 9-0 vote? Who wouldn't, right? (But) I know that I was at the top and in order to get to the top, that means that they all nine had a level of, of confidence."

She'll face immediate challenges, from a sweeping student assignment overhaul to new south county school boundaries that's riled up parents. And she'll be tasked with steering a multibillion-dollar plan to renovate and replace aging school buildings over the next few years — not to mention improving the student achievement gap and navigating the lingering fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Hill said this week brought an important victory when Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio recommended approving the district's full budget request, which hasn't happened in years, and putting a record-smashing $2.5 billion in school bonds on the November ballot. She cited that as an example of building partnerships to benefit kids.

"That is huge. It's huge for our district. It's huge for our students," she said. "And I think it's a vote of confidence, not necessarily in me but in our entire team."

A rocky start

Hill spent five years as an assistant superintendent and chief academic officer for Cabarrus County schools before coming to CMS a year ago. She was hired as chief of staff by Superintendent Earnest Winston, who was fired shortly before Hill reported to work. She became interim superintendent in January, after Hugh Hattabaugh announced he would not fulfill his 14-month interim contract.

Hill told WFAE in January that she had planned to stay with Cabarrus County Schools but was rattled by the pandemic, which was “probably the worst two or so years of my career … every single day, 24-7, nonstop putting out fires.” She said she thought about leaving K-12 education but instead applied for the CMS job.

“And then two weeks after I accepted the job, it was on the news that Mr. Winston was leaving the school district. So that’s how I landed here,” she said.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have gone through almost a half-dozen superintendents since 2011, and they'll have a new one soon after interim superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh announced his resignation.

Board members say they hope she’ll bring stability to a district that has seen its last three superintendents ousted in less than three years. The last person to make it past the three-year mark was Peter Gorman, who resigned after five years to take a job in private industry in 2011.

However, Hill's contract provides only 90 days of severance pay if the board opts to terminate her contract "for convenience," or without cause. Winston got two years' pay, or about $577,000, under the terms of his contract.

A challenging job

The board has also talked about the importance of hiring a superintendent with experience in a large urban district, particularly in improving academic outcomes for students of color and poverty. Cabarrus County’s Black, Hispanic and low-income students had higher proficiency levels on state reading and math exams than CMS counterparts last year, but their performance remains well below white, Asian and non-disadvantaged students, as is the case in virtually all districts. Cabarrus County is about one-fourth the size of CMS, with lower poverty levels.

As interim superintendent, Hill has been working with the board on efforts to zero in on academic outcomes. She has fielded questions on strategies to boost reading and math scores, and started highlighting successful students even as CMS looks at bleak data. A.J. Crabill, a consultant who has worked with the CMS board for two years on academic outcomes, recently described Hill as “unusually competent at this line of work.”

Her challenges will start right away with Tuesday’s upcoming board meeting, where parents unhappy with her recommendations for south county school boundaries are expected to speak at a public hearing. She will also lead a comprehensive review of student assignment, which always generates controversy. The current legislative session is likely to bring changes in funding for public education, and the influx of federal COVID-19 aid will run out after the coming year.

Hill is the first woman of color to lead CMS, and the first woman of any race to get a long-term contract. The district has had two Black male superintendents: James Pughsley and Earnest Winston. Ann Clark, a white woman, served as superintendent for a year and a half, starting in January 2015, but she had only a one-year contract with the understanding that the board was seeking a different long-term leader.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.