Disagreements between CMS leaders and black faith group widen as talks end abruptly | WFAE 90.7
Acting Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh met with the African American Faith Alliance last week in hopes of enlisting their support for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. But a public clash over how Hattabaugh left that private meeting deepened existing divisions.
County Commissioner Vilma Leake said Hattabaugh’s departure from a June 3 meeting with the African American Religious Alliance was inexplicable and disrespectful.
Hattabaugh, whose one-year term began in April, came to Faith Memorial Baptist Church to talk about his plans for CMS.
“It was a nice chat. He was discussing what his direction was going to be,” Leake said Thursday. “He came to say, ‘I’m not taking this anymore. And we didn’t know what he meant by that… He picked up his papers and threw them on the desk and got up, put his chair under the table and started walking out the gate. I didn’t know what caused it.”
That evening, Hattabaugh released a statement giving a different view. He says he agreed to a one hour meeting with the alliance and walked out after 90 minutes.
“Unfortunately, the meeting started out in a confrontational tone and was less than productive from the start,” Hattabaugh said. “After an hour and a half of trying to get back to the agenda, it became clear that the meeting was not going to lead to collaborative solutions for the students we serve, and I left.”
The roots go back
The roots of the tension between the alliance and CMS run much deeper than a meeting. They focus on how CMS educates black children and who should lead the district.
The small gathering on June 3 was something of a Who’s Who of the management of the SMC.
Dr Dennis Williams, who chairs the alliance, was a CMS trustee who served as acting superintendent from 1995 to 1996.
Soon after, Williams felt the call to ministry, according to his church biography. He is now the pastor of Faith Memorial, where the meeting took place.
Leake, a retired teacher, former school board member and current county commissioner, was there. So did James Pughsley, who served as CMS’s first black superintendent, serving from 2002 to 2005. And Arthur Griffin, who served on the school board from 1985 to 2003, including five years as president. He is expected to join county commissioners after the November election, having won the Democratic nomination for an at-large seat in May.
The African-American Faith Alliance sided with county commissioners who wanted to withhold money from CMS last year to force the board to adopt a better plan to help more black and brown students succeed at school.
The group also called for the replacement of Superintendent Earnest Winston, the district’s second black superintendent.
Black school board member Ruby Jones said the covenant offers “nothing, nothing, nothing positive in terms of learning for our children.
“They were the negative force behind, or the force behind Earnest’s withdrawal. They disrespected him,” Jones said.
Winston also did not respond to requests for comment. The board fired him on April 19. At that time, the council personnel files published showing that they had been working with Winston for months in hopes of improving his performance, but ultimately concluded that he was not up to the task.
Weeks before Winston was fired, the Democratic-leaning African-American Religious Alliance held a press conference demanding a change in CMS leadership. The alliance was joined by members of Moms for Liberty, a group formed during the pandemic to lobby for parental rights. It is a predominantly white conservative group.
After that press conference — but before the school board spoke publicly about its intention to fire Winston — CMS board members began receiving emails talking about a replacement for Winston. Board member Jennifer De La Jara says about two dozen arrived around the same time.
“In fact, a week before Superintendent Winston’s contract was terminated, we began receiving emails the previous Tuesday from members of the community asking, suggesting that Dr. Dennis Williams would be an excellent replacement,” he said. she declared. “And we hadn’t even made a public announcement yet, which I found very bizarre.”
One of those emails was from Brooke Weiss, who chairs the Mecklenburg Moms for Liberty chapter.
“A few weeks ago, Moms for Liberty – Mecklenburg joined the African-American Faith Alliance in solidarity at their press conference demanding a change in CMS leadership,” Weiss wrote on April 12. “I now urge you to consider Dr Dennis Williams as a replacement for Earnest Winston. We simply cannot wait for capable leadership any longer.
Instead, the board chose Hugh Hattabaugh. Like Williams, Hattabaugh is a former CMS administrator who served as acting superintendent. Hattabaugh had left CMS after his previous acting year ended in 2012.
Go out with a bang?
Both Hattabaugh and commissioner Vilma Leake said June 3 was the second time Hattabaugh had met with the group since starting his new acting job.
Several days after Hattabaugh, who is white, walked out of the meeting, Leake and alliance vice president Jordan Boyd aired their version on WSOC. The report says Hattabaugh stormed out and slammed some papers on the desk. Leake told Joe Bruno Hattabaugh of the WSOC that Joe Bruno Hattabaugh’s departure reminded him of the 1960s, “disrespecting black people when it came to making sure our kids got an education.”
Bruno says Hattabaugh did not respond to requests for comment. On Thursday, the day after Bruno’s story aired, a CMS spokeswoman told WFAE that Hattabaugh “is not commenting on this matter.” But several hours later, CMS sent a statement to reporters who had inquired.
Leake said Thursday that no one from CMS accompanied Hattabaugh to the meeting. She said she believed school board president Elyse Dashew owed the group an explanation.
Thelma Byers-Bailey, vice chair of the school board, said Thursday that she still hadn’t heard Hattabaugh’s version, but was skeptical of the covenant’s account.
“‘Storming out,’ that seems like an over-dramatization to me,” she said. “And there are a lot of members, or there are members, on this committee who tend to go for the drama.”
Byers-Bailey, who is black, said what she heard raised no concerns about Hattabaugh’s suitability for the job.
“If what happened made him lose his temper, it’s unfortunate,” she said. “But, I mean, there were no punches. There was no blood on the floor. You know, he folded his papers and left.”
What is the research plan?
The school board has yet to outline its plans for choosing a permanent superintendent. Speaker Elyse Dashew said those decisions will likely be made after the November election determines who will fill the six district seats.
Boyd, the pastor of Rockwell AME Zion Church, says Williams would be a good fit for the job. But he says the religious alliance is not pushing for it. Instead, he says, the alliance wants the board to be clear about its research plans.
Boyd says Hattabaugh’s statement doesn’t accurately describe what happened, and he says it doesn’t bode well for Hattabaugh’s year of leadership.
“If he’s going to do this to us, what tone is he going to take with principals, teachers and other families?” Boyd said Friday. “We represent those who couldn’t make it to the meeting, who can’t sit down and get an audience with the superintendent. And so, if that’s how he’s going to treat us, why should we expect something to be different in the future?”
Boyd says the alliance hopes to bring a large group to Tuesday’s school board meeting, which includes a public comment session, to voice their concerns.
“We ask everyone who cares about the quality of education, well-being and academic success of their child, regardless of color,” Boyd said, “but especially those who fail the most and who have failed the most in recent decades.”