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School Board Switches Sides 

Gorman beats expected superintendent choice Frances Haithcock

The 8-0 vote by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board for Superintendent Peter Gorman was a rare kumbaya moment that didn't come easily and didn't happen by accident. Two weekends ago, a frantic phone campaign was launched by the elite uptown crowd that coalesces around the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce.

The word on the street by Saturday was that the internals from a poll by the School Building Solutions committee had caused a flip-out among the Chamber folks and various schools-oriented hangers-on. Among other things, the poll showed that almost three-quarters of voters lacked confidence in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administrators. Sources say county leaders knew the poll results would be bad, but they didn't realize the results would be this bad. If the county officials didn't quickly toss to the side heir apparent Frances Haithcock -- the uptown-backed interim school system superintendent since May and the preordained winner of the superintendent search -- they might not pass another bond package for years.

By Wednesday, Gorman had begun to pick up momentum after he dazzled folks at a public forum and in interviews. With Haithcock losing steam quickly, school board chairman Joe White called for a vote the following Tuesday, rather than in May, as had originally been planned. At that point, Haithcock still had the edge, insiders say. Then on Friday, the poll results hit and general panic set in.

No stone was left unturned. Even school board member Larry "just say no" Gauvreau got an e-mail from Pat Riley, chairman of the Chamber's Partners in Education Group, and a phone call from former Mecklenburg County Commission Chairwoman Carla DuPuy.

Gauvreau said DuPuy asked him to back Gorman. Gauvreau was the only school board member who abstained from the vote in protest of what he called a "fixed" process that excluded more qualified candidates.

By Sunday, Matthews Mayor Lee Myers -- who insisted that his own phone campaign on behalf of Gorman was independent -- told Creative Loafing that Gorman was the only one of the two candidates who could get a 9-0 vote. He wouldn't fully specify how he knew that, but sure enough, by Tuesday, the board, excluding Gauvreau, had united behind Gorman.

At-large school board member Kaye McGarry acknowledged a certain level of business community interest in the outcome of the superintendent search as the process came down to the wire, but she gave the public a lot of the credit. "Some people felt it must be the Charlotte Chamber or the banks or whatever," McGarry said. "When Gorman came to town, all of a sudden the public realized it had a choice."

That added to the pressure on other school board members, whom McGarry said had hoped the superintendent search would stay "under the radar."

Others said that once school board member Kit Cramer, who is employed as the group vice president of education at the Charlotte Chamber, switched her allegiance from Haithcock to Gorman, other Haithcock supporters on the board quickly followed suit.

Others on the school board say that by the time the board went into closed session Tuesday night, Gorman had racked up enough votes to win and no one wanted to be left on the losing side. Despite some concern in the African-American community over Gorman's statements about elementary students benefiting from neighborhood schools, the board's two African-American members quickly lined up behind Gorman, which was surprising since the neighborhood schools issue is among the most racially charged the board has handled.

Whatever the case, school board chairman Joe White emerged from the meeting Monday night asking the public and the media for a grace period for Gorman before fireworks over the school system start again.

Gorman may not get it. Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett told CL last week that he and others are already planning their school bond opposition campaign for this fall, even though an official funding package hasn't been announced yet. Puckett acknowledges that defeating the school bonds with Gorman in the superintendent's chair won't be as easy as it was last year, or as easy as it would have been had the school board given Haithcock the job.

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