Understanding the latest churn in leadership at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Understanding the latest churn in leadership at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
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On Friday morning the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board unanimously confirmed Earnest Winston as the district’s new superintendent.

Winston had been acting superintendent for three weeks, thrust into the role following the board’s sudden and mysterious mid-July suspension of Clayton Wilcox — the superintendent since 2016.

Winston’s appointment comes at an important time for one of the country’s largest school systems, which faces challenges from segregation to school security to the effect of charter schools.

Winston, 44, will be CMS’s fourth superintendent in five years.

He’s an unconventional pick. Usually, the state requires superintendents to have served as a principal and earned an advanced degree. Winston was a journalist before joining the system as a teacher 15 years ago and working his way up. Still, the state board of education waived those requirements for Winston earlier this week, clearing the way for his hiring.

Earnest Winston, superintendent of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools

Earnest Winston, superintendent of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools

Winston is widely liked and respected in communities throughout the school system, where he’s earned a reputation as someone who’s responsive and willing to help solve problems. Still, his unusual route to the top drew a range of reactions Friday.

“We felt like the right leadership was already here,” District 5 Board Member Margaret Marshall told the Agenda. “There wasn’t really a need to change our course and therefore go find a new captain for our ship.”

On the other hand, former county commissioner Jim Puckett, a longtime CMS critic who announced plans to run for his old north Mecklenburg commission seat again next year, posted his thoughts on the school board’s moves on his Facebook page.

“The boat is sinking (and) we must take evasive action followed by the crew rushing the bridge throwing the captain overboard and promoting the Cruise director.”

How we got here

On July 15 the school board suspended Wilcox with pay but didn’t provide an explanation.

One reported reason is that Wilcox violated state law and board policy by ending the practice of fingerprinting new CMS employees.

Wilcox also was criticized for his communication strategy following the deadly on-campus shooting at Butler High School last October, WFAE and others reported.

Additionally, Wilcox came under fire for hiring a number of employees from Maryland, where he previously worked, at high salaries, according to WFAE.

Still, we don’t know whether those reasons were why the board pushed Wilcox out. Board members say Wilcox’s departure is “a personnel matter” and decline to provide further details.

Wilcox’s resignation came about six months after he got a two-year extension and new salary of $307,000, up from his starting pay of $280,000. Winston’s contract is for three years at that $280,000 salary.

From news reporter to school system leader

Winston is a former journalist who once worked at The Charlotte Observer. He switched careers and became an English and journalism teacher at Vance High School 15 years ago. He worked up through CMS administration to his most recent role, chief engagement officer and ombudsman, a job he’d held since 2017. 

He and his wife, Denise, have two kids enrolled in CMS.

He’s served on several community committees through the years, including the cultural competence framework task force that was part of the One Charlotte Community initiative 2013. In a video posted to CMS’s website, Winston, who is black, said his background helps bring a new perspective to his new role.

“One thing I want to emphasize is that I am the superintendent for all of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, not just one segment of schools or one segment of the community,” he said.

The Agenda couldn’t reach Winston for comment. 

Marshall, the CMS board member, said she’s confident in him because of his long history in CMS. She called him “authentic” and “a great listener.”

“He’ll staff to his weaknesses,” Marshall said. “He’s very self aware and knows where he needs help and knows where to reach out and ask for it.”

High turnover atop CMS

With 19,000 employees and 175 schools, CMS is the 18th largest in the country. It has a $1.4 billion budget. Those numbers make the churn in the superintendent’s job over the past few years unsettling.

Following allegations that he had bullied staff members, then-superintendent Heath Morrison stepped down in late 2014Ann Clark, who had been deputy superintendent, moved into the top job, but she only intended to stay until the board found a replacement. She retired when Wilcox came along in December 2016.

Given that instability, several people noted Winston’s commitment to the system as a reason to celebrate his promotion. And it’s one reason the school board isn’t fretting over his unconventional background. They approved his hiring in a matter of minutes Friday, indicative of their decisiveness, CMS spokesman Tracy Russ said.

Russ also said that moving forward without a lengthy national search saves time. The school year begins Aug. 26, and still several schools need to fill leadership vacancies — including West Charlotte High, where former Garinger principal Mike Turner is working as the interim principal while the search for a permanent replacement continues.

“The board felt that they had the right leader in the community already,” Russ said. “Earnest is experienced, he is trusted in the community and … he understands the strategic direct (the board) is moving in.”

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