How often do you get a second chance at an ideal match?
Ann Clark, deputy superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, has spent the last several years preparing herself to be a superintendent. She doesn't want to leave North Carolina, the state where she has lived for all but three years of her life.
When Peter Gorman resigned as CMS superintendent in 2011, Clark went for the top spot in the district where she has worked for 30 years. She was a finalist, but Heath Morrison got the job.
Now she's a finalist in Wake County, the only N.C. district larger than CMS. She and two other candidates will meet employees, community leaders, the media and the public today, with a final school board interview on Wednesday. (Follow the News & Observer's coverage of the search here.)
Clark will make the pitch that she and Wake County are "an extraordinary match."
Clark wants to lead a large N.C. district with strong achievement, high aspirations and a community that cares about education. Check.
Wake wants a career educator with expertise in curriculum and urban education. Check.
Wake is going through student assignment turmoil. Clark has been there, done that with CMS. Both districts struggle to balance urban and suburban interests (Wake has 12 municipalities, Mecklenburg seven).
Clark said as she pored through background material, including 133 pages of survey data about what the Wake community wants, she felt a growing sense that this was the right place. For instance, the community put a strong value on educating students with disabilities, she said. Clark, whose older brother has special needs, started her career teaching students with behavioral and emotional disabilities.
"I have a goal not just to be a superintendent but to be superintendent in the right district," Clark said Friday. Wake, she says, is just that.
Few who know Clark doubt that she has the expertise, intelligence and dedication to run a major school system. But the one role she hasn't filled is that of politician-in-chief.
And boy, is Wake County political. This is a district that has flipped leadership and direction with the last two school board elections, hiring its last superintendent on a 4-2 split, then firing him two years later when Republicans lost their board majority.
Clark, who is registered as a Republican, says she's not naive about partisan politics in Raleigh, but she believes she can surmount the rifts by focusing on the needs of students. The district needs to "put the face of a kid, a teacher and a principal on each and every decision we make," and bipartisan support will follow.
"I'm a collaborative leader," she said. "I don't do it from district headquarters. I do it in the community."
During the 11 years that I've been covering CMS, Clark has been in high-level administrative posts with lots of responsibility. But an unwritten rule of such jobs is that you don't grab the spotlight from the boss. Perhaps because of that, Clark has tended to come across as cautious, even a bit wooden. It was intriguing to watch her loosen up and speak with a new flair during the CMS superintendent interviews.
Clark says she remembers those two days as one of the most invigorating times of her life. For once, she said, "I could be me," giving her own views without stopping to parse how she's representing someone else.
She'll be doing the same in Raleigh today. And we'll find out whether the community there sees Clark as an extraordinary match.