Jan 24, 2023 - News

Hiring a new school superintendent is more expensive than you’d think

cms school board building charlotte

Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

Editor’s note: On Feb. 10, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education held an emergency meeting to approve a contract with Illinois-based search firm BWP & Associates. The district will pay the consultants $48,500, not including thousands in potential travel and advertising expenses.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, one of the largest school districts in the U.S. with about 141,000 students, has good reason for wanting its next superintendent to be someone who will last.

Why it matters: CMS is looking for stable leadership as the entire district struggles with student achievement. The next superintendent will be CMS’s fifth since 2011.

What’s more, hiring a search firm is a major decision, considering CMS could find someone in-house — someone who knows the ins and outs of the system.

  • The district is contracting with a search firm because staff and current board members lack experience with past superintendent searches, says school board member Summer Nunn, chair of the superintendent search committee.

What’s happening: CMS is seeking a permanent replacement for interim superintendent Crystal Hill, the chief of staff who assumed the temporary role in December after former interim superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh stepped down to attend to family affairs in Florida.

Flashback: In 2011 and in 2016, CMS spent $34,500 — both times — to hire search firms to find superintendent candidates, according to CMS documents that Axios obtained through a public records request.

  • In 2011 PROACT Search, based in Illinois, helped CMS find Heath Morrison. PROACT’s nine-month contract with CMS also included up to $15,000 for incurring expenses and more than $7,000 for advertising. Morrison left in 2014.
  • In 2016 CMS partnered for a year with Nebraska-based McPherson & Jacobson to hire Clayton Wilcox. The contract included up to $17,300 for expenses. Wilcox also resigned before reaching a third year with the district, after he was accused of making offensive remarks to staff.

What they’re saying: CMS would not say how much it will spend on the latest search.

  • “Certainly [cost] is a component of everything we do at CMS as we have to be good stewards of the taxpayer’s money,” Charles Jeter, executive director of government affairs at CMS, tells Axios. “[W]e are unable to predict what type of pricing will be a part of the RFP process.”

The latest: The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education expects to finalize a contract during its April 25 meeting, less than 100 days away, per its schedule.

  • Nunn said the board wants the new superintendent to have a transition period over the summer to prepare for next school year.
  • The district recently put out a call for search consultant firms interested in working with CMS. The request for proposals is open until Feb. 2. The board will pick a contract on Feb. 6.
  • CMS expects to close applications by March 17 and narrow down finalists by the week of March 20.

By the numbers: Nunn said part of the reason for the fast turnaround is because school systems are competing for superintendents. “There are quite a few top 100 school districts that started [searching] at the end of 2022 and more launching searches now,” she said. “The timeline is focused to make sure candidates know our process has started and we don’t lose out on them to another school system.”

  • Superintendent turnover in large districts is at its highest rate since 2018, jumping from about 15% to 25% in 2022, according to Education Resource Strategies.

What they’re looking for: Charlotte Executive Leadership Council, which is made up of business leaders, covered the cost of engaging consultants Civility Localized to collect feedback on what the community wants to see in a superintendent. Nunn says studying the community engagement is a time saver for an incoming firm’s process.

The request for proposals for search firms lists some qualities the board is looking for, including:

  • “An unrelenting pursuit” in closing the achievement gap as well as experience in improving outcomes — an issue CMS has faced gigantic pressure to tackle and almost caused it to lose millions in county funding;
  • Bringing families into decision-making;
  • Prioritizing access to physical and mental health services.

Could the district hire in house? Upon her appointment, Hill was recognized as an administrator who can keep the “trains on the tracks” and has worked with the previous interim superintendent on CMS’ most important student outcome goals, which the board and county commissioners agree they want to continue focusing on.

  • There is a possibility that CMS could hire Hill. Hill hasn’t said whether she’d vie for the opportunity given the chance, but she’s told reporters more than once that she is focused on the district’s day-to-day operations for now.

Context: When ex-superintendent Winston was hired in 2019, CMS did not conduct a national search. A former journalist, Winston worked his way up from an English teacher position to chief of staff. But Winston’s critics remained skeptical given his lack of experience as a school principal, as well as his lack of relevant higher education.

  • CMS is paying Winston $24,000 a month for two years due to a clause in his contract.

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