Analysis: The case for, and against, hiring a businessperson to run CMS

Analysis: The case for, and against, hiring a businessperson to run CMS

Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

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After an emotional meeting in which the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board fired superintendent Earnest Winston on Tuesday, board member Sean Strain explained the decision in “just business” terms.

  • In a conversation with Axios that afternoon, Strain, whose background is in business and tech, called the superintendent an “executive” multiple times.
  • He said a “a saint” could occupy the superintendent’s chair, but that person would still have to show progress with the nearly $2 billion CMS spends in its operating budget each year.

Why it matters: The superintendent’s job requires a mix of skills that are sometimes at odds — knowledge of business, management, government, pedagogy and politics.

And in our city built on banks and corporate deals, people often suggest CMS should find a businessperson to be its next superintendent.

  • After all, the school system’s 19,000 employees would put it behind only Atrium Health and Wells Fargo in a list of largest employers in the city.
  • And in the past dozen years, the district’s tried everything from career educators to degreed-up administrators to an experienced “hire from within” in Winston. None lasted more than three years.

Yes, but: It’s of course more complicated than plucking an executive from the top floor of an Uptown skyscraper.

By the numbers: Consider CMS’ size.

  • Student enrollment: 140,404 in 2021-2022 (down from a peak of 147,359 in 2017-18).
  • Budget: $2 billion, 48% of which comes from the state, 28% from the county and 23% from federal and grant money, in the 2022-2023 proposed budget.
  • Superintendent salary: Winston made a base of about $288,000.

Now consider this: Atrium Health, the area’s largest employer, brings $11.3 billion in total revenue, according to the most recent CBJ examination of the largest employers.

  • And Atrium’s CEO Gene Woods hauls in almost $10 million a year, which makes Winston’s salary, while exceptional to me and many of you, less breathtaking.

Reality check: CMS is struggling in many areas, objectively. Its enrollment is down by about 7,000 students from pre-pandemic, and that directly affects how much money comes from the state each year, because the state allocates funds per pupil.

  • Mecklenburg County has seen a 100% increase in homeschooling since 2019, MeckEd president Ross Danis told me.
  • 854 teachers, about 9% of the total teaching staff, left CMS last year. About half cited personal reasons, according to the most recent State of Teaching Profession report.
  • Meanwhile, the per pupil spending in the district has actually gone up, from about $9,568 total in 2017-18 to about $14,648 in the 2022-23 proposed budget.

Strain, one of two Republicans on the school board, focuses on the per pupil spending, and says the dominant narrative that funding leads to performance and achievement is flawed. He sent a file that shows many of the schools that receive more funding aren’t showing better outcomes.

  • “From a business perspective that’s called ‘return on investment,'” Strain said.

Of note: Many struggling schools are also in less affluent neighborhoods, so there’s a question of how much per pupil spending is needed to combat issues that come along with child poverty.

The other side: School board member Jennifer De La Jara, who’s running for county commission, says he enjoys the discussion around a business-first approach to the role of superintendent. And she supports raising the salary, in general. But she says it’s not that simple.

  • The bulk of a teacher’s salary, for instance, is determined by the state government. (Local governments add supplements.)
  • “While most businesses can work with their board to approve comp plans, the superintendent has to rely on decisions made by politicians to be able to attract the best and the brightest,” De La Jara said in a statement to Axios. “The role of the local school board is to advocate with legislators and county commissioners for those pay increases.”

And that job, navigating the political winds of the moment, is as difficult as ever. Across the country, school board meetings have turned into howl-it-out sessions over issues like student achievement gaps, book banning, masking and lessons about race and history.

Superintendent turnover is up from about 15% annually to 25%, the Washington Post columnist Jay Matthews wrote in a column this week.

But Matthews believes the plug for that drain is more likely to be found inside the house.

  • “These two key words are the source of the problem: national search,” Matthews wrote. “When school board members, and the public relations professionals who write their news releases, need a new superintendent, they cannot stifle the urge to say they are launching a national search, or words to that effect.”

The bottom line: Picking a superintendent is the most critical choice a school board can make. And more than any work history bullet points on a resume, perhaps the most important skill now is the ability to rally a community around public education.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to show that the school board has two Republican members, not one.

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