The Mesa Public Schools Governing Board has narrowed the search for the district’s next superintendent to two internal candidates and the president of an educational materials company whose last job as superintendent ended in controversy.
The board at a special meeting March 27 unanimously approved as finalists: Dr. Andi Fourlis, MPS deputy superintendent; Holly C. Williams, MPS executive director of master planning and bond projects; and Dr. Heath E. Morrison, president of McGraw-Hill Education.
The three candidates face a round of virtual interviews from tomorrow, April 6, through Tuesday as the Governing Board homes in on making a decision April 14 a replacement for former Superintendent Dr. Ember Conley.
Conley resigned in early December after the board placed her on administrative leave in November during an audit of unauthorized salary increases she gave to her senior staff.
The interviews will begin at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow with Mesa Chamber of Commerce CEO Sally Harrison asking the three candidates questions at mpsaz.org/live.
The one-hour session will focus on questions that community members said on a district survey that they’d like to ask.
On Tuesday, the board and groups of stakeholders – parents, students, administrators, teachers and members of the community at large – will interview the candidates in separate sessions.
“They’ll be pretty tired by the end of the day,” Governing Board President Elaine Miner said.
This was not how Mesa school officials had hoped to pick their next leader.
“Originally the board discussed taking the finalists and providing some tours to the finalists so they could visit some schools and get acclimated to Mesa public schools and some of the things that are going on in our district on April 6 as well,” Lesar reminded the board on March 27.
”And, of course, that was going to be in person. We tentatively had it scheduled for Brimhall Junior High auditorium where guests could come and attend and observe the live stream.”
But with social distancing restrictions in place, all that has changed.
Lesar stressed that tomorrow’s community session is not an interview per se.
“It’s not an interview with the community,” he said. “It is an opportunity to just talk virtually and get to know the candidates. The community won't have any vote or be able to give us any opinion on what they think of the candidate. It's really more for them to interface and be able to see the candidates and what is being considered.”
The stakeholder groups will be “provided the opportunity to write down positive attributes or concerns or additional thoughts about each candidate resulting from the answers to those questions,” he added.
The board would then be given those sheets prior to making a decision.
Miner stressed at the meeting that stakeholder groups “do have input and we do look, consider their input. We read it and that's important. That's why we want their feedback.”
She subsequently told the Tribune that she and the rest of the board “want the process to be complete transparent.”
Controversy in Charlotte
The board reviewed 27 applications behind closed doors before unanimously approving the three finalists on March 27. Those applications were forwarded by a search firm that vetted all the responses to the district’s outreach for interested candidates.
Morrison has been in education since 1990, when he was a middle school social studies teacher in Maryland.
He worked his way up through principal and was a superintendent of the 34-school Montgomery County Public Schools district in Maryland 2006-09 before becoming superintendent of the Washoe County School District in Reno, Nevada, from 2009-12, where he oversaw a $550-million budget for a school system that served 65,000 students, nearly half of whom were from poverty-level households, according to his resume.
Morrison’s achievements there – including a 14 percent improvement in graduation rates in two years – earned him the titles of 2011 Nevada Superintendent of the Year and 2012 National Superintendent of the Year.
In announcing his national award, the National Association of Superintendents said:
“In short order, Heath Morrison has become the go-to guy in public education circles whenever the Nevada state legislature is in session. Some elected representatives consider him as an all-star, having wowed members of both parties while on center stage.”
He then became superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina, where he abruptly resigned in 2014 – a move, according to multiple news accounts at the time, that came just before the board was scheduled to discuss firing him.
In his resignation announcement, Morrison cited family issues.
“I must now rededicate myself to my family, most especially my mother,” he told Charlotte media in a written statement. ”When I first started here in CMS, I was excited about having my professional career closer to her. However, I can't give my job the full attention it needs while making sure I address her needs at this critical time."
Questions surrounding his Nov. 3, 2014, resignation announcement surfaced quickly in multiple Charlotte news media organizations.
The Charlotte Observer got a hold of an internal report prepared by the district general counsel for board members.
The newspaper reported that the school board had begun an inquiry into Morrison in early October 2014 on several matters. One involved a project that he said would cost $35,000 – and wound up costing several million dollars.
The general counsel also reported, according to the newspaper, multiple staffers had complained that Morrison had created a “culture of fear.” His assistant said he drove her to tears on a daily basis, according to the newspaper.
The Charlotte Observer also reported that the board’s chief counsel and two assistants spent more than 200 hours interviewing staffers and other associates before meeting with the board in mid-October 2014.
The board also talked in executive session about hiring outside counsel “to finish investigating Morrison” but decided against, that, the Observer reported. Board members said Morrison would have to be suspended with pay and felt that “would have caused disruption within the district,” the newspaper said.
On Oct. 28, 2014, the board’s chair and vice chair met privately with Morrison to discuss the general counsel’s findings ahead of a time when the entire board could meet to discuss firing him.
Morrison said at that meeting he would resign and issued his resignation statement Nov. 3. Some members wanted it kept secret until after the Nov. 4, 2014, general election, when some school board seats were on the ballot.
Board members split
Morrison’s announcement the day before the election stunned people, according to various news organizations in Charlotte at the time.
The Observer said it had asked Morrison to comment on its findings but that he declined, citing only his official explanation for resigning.
In the wake of the Charlotte Observer’s report, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board chairwoman initially called for an investigation into the leak of the internal report itself.
But some of her colleagues noted that the internal report was not only leaked to the newspaper but also to Morrison’s lawyers, enabling him to resign before the board could discuss firing him, according to multiple Charlotte news accounts.
Morrison, who was earning $288,000 a year and had been with the district only about two years, also was the subject of a story in an alternative newspaper in Charlotte called “Creative Loafing Charlotte.”
On Nov. 4, 2014, that publication reported there had been a “confrontation” between Morrison and the board the previous week that led to his resignation.
It said he had negotiated a separation agreement that included no severance pay but did include a confidentiality clause in which both sides agreed not to say anything critical of each other.
Charlotte’s public broadcasting station, WFAE, then published several stories and broadcast several podcasts about the resignation, quoting one school board member by name as stating, “He resigned with zero compensation, and I think that should tell the public a lot.”
That board member also complained the internal investigation hadn’t yet been completed and that it should have been – “to leave no stone unturned.” She declined to elaborate.
During a subsequent broadcast, the radio station interviewed three school board members. They essentially confirmed that the Charlotte Observer’s reporting was accurate and defended the way the entire inquiry was handled.
The board subsequently came under fire in Charlotte media in 2019 after it suspended the superintendent who replaced Morrison.
That superintendent resigned and the reasons for his suspension were never disclosed, according to WFEA, which also reported that the board decided to create an “Office of Compliance and Transparency” to investigate future complaints about misconduct by a superintendent or other top district official.
According to his resume, Morrison joined McGraw-Hill as senior vice president for educational policy and government affairs the same year he resigned from Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
He became chief sales officer and president three years later of the McGraw-Hill School Group. The company has 1,400 employees and generates sales of educational materials totaling more than $650 million, according to his resume.
In his cover letter, Morrison told the Mesa Governing Board, “While I have learned a tremendous amount and grown my skills as a leader, I have an intense desire to return to more mission-driven work and continue my commitment as a public school leader.”
Mesa board aware of controversy
He said he has been “following the progress of MPS” ever since he became a school superintendent in Maryland and details his achievements in all his superintendent positions without commenting on why he left any of them.
In discussing his achievements in Charlotte, he said he helped drive the graduation rate in two years from 74 percent to 85.2 percent, with the greatest increases “with our students of color, impacted by poverty, with special needs, and with language diversity.”
That accomplishment mirrored some of his achievements in Nevada as well.
Miner told the Tribune that the board was aware of what happened in Charlotte, but declined to say how much the board had been told as of yet.
“We were made aware of that from the beginning and we have been working very hard to make sure that that was not a result of wrongdoing by Keith Morrison because we clearly are very concerned about bringing somebody to the district who has a colored background,” she said. “We would not want to do that.”
She also stressed that the board has been doing additional vetting of all three candidates’ backgrounds and that it also has given them written questions.
“We are doing intensive background checking,” Miner said, adding that she did not want to taint the selection process by discussing any of the candidates at this time.
Of the two other competitors for the MPS top job, Williams has the longer association with the district.
A 1992 graduate of Arizona State University who is currently working on her doctorate at Northern Arizona University, Williams joined the district in 2000 as assistant principal of Mountain View High School and became Skyline High’s principal in 2006.
She has held various assistant superintendent positions with MPS since 2009 and also served as chief of staff from 2015 until 2019, when she was put in charge of the district’s master facility planning.
In her cover letter, she touts a “wealth of experience successfully leading teams” and her involvement in the community.
“I am particularly proud of my work on the Master Facility Plan, Equal Opportunity Schools, the Grading Practices Committee and the Assessment Task Force,” she wrote. “These projects resulted in clear guidance to move our district forward.”
Fourlis joined Mesa Public Schools in 2017 as assistant superintendent of teaching and learning after serving for two years as chief learning officer for the Arizona Science Center.
Prior to that, she held teaching and other positions in the Scottsdale Unified School District from 1996 to 2015.
Her last position in Scottsdale was assistant superintendent of teaching and learning and executive director of instructional services.
A 1992 graduate of Arizona State University – from which she earned her doctorate in 2011 – Fourlis in her cover letter wrote, “Throughout my career I have had the privilege of gaining the knowledge, skills and experiences required to lead Mesa Public Schools into the future.”
She noted her work “on behalf of the superintendent with day to day operations, seeking innovative strategies and partnerships to improve learning outcomes, developing and implementing a strategic plan, participating in the development and administration of budgets, supervising principal supervisors, department leaders of special education and teaching and learning, participating in the selection of school administrators and other personnel, and representing Mesa Public Schools in community, state and national platforms.
“I have spent my entire career developing relationships and refining my skills so that I can be the next superintendent of Mesa Public Schools,” Fourlis wrote. γ