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CMS Names Earnest Winston As Superintendent

Ann Doss Helms
New CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston talks to reporters Friday after he was awarded a three-year contract.

Updated 4 p.m. 8/2/2019

Smarting from the fallout of two superintendent searches that ended in failure, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board voted Friday to name Earnest Winston superintendent with no plans to conduct a search.

The board unanimously approved a three-year contract making Winston superintendent, at a salary of $280,000.

The move is striking for its speed - coming less than three weeks after Superintendent Clayton Wilcox was abruptly suspended with no public explanation - and for the board’s decision to tap an administrator with little schoolhouse experience and no advanced degrees.

"It happened very quickly," Winston acknowledged with a chuckle when he met reporters after the board's vote. But he said he's ready to move ahead: "Our board has spoken loudly and clearly with the unanimous vote. What I would say is I bring 15 years of experience in our school district ... Also I bring the experience as a parent. That lens is also extremely important."

Winston has two daughters enrolled in CMS.

Until July 15, when the board suspended Wilcox and asked Winston to step in, Winston supervised 26 people as chief engagement officer and ombudsman. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism, started his professional life as a newspaper reporter and spent two years as an English teacher at Vance High.

He’s never been a principal or earned an advanced degree in school administration, the normal state requirements for leading a district. But he has worked in central offices since 2008 and served as a top aide to four superintendents, including Wilcox. Although Wilcox never named a deputy, he had told the board that Winston was among three top staffers whom they could consider as a direct line to his office.

Now Winston takes charge of a staff of 19,000, a $1.5 billion budget and the responsibility for educating roughly 150,000 students. The state Board of Education authorized the board to hire Winston, using an alternative path to superintendency based on five years of relevant “leadership or managerial experience.”

Board Chair Mary McCray said the board wants to avoid the distraction of another search, allowing Winston and his staff to focus on academic strategies and opening schools. Classes start Aug. 26 for most of the district’s 175 schools.

McCray said Friday that as the board considered whether they had a strong contender in-house, the answer became clear.

"Believe it or not, everybody centered around Earnest Winston, because of the work that he's done behind the scenes and in the forefront," McCray said.

In the larger community Winston remains a relative unknown, said Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla, a frequent critic of CMS.

"So I think (Winston) has to really demonstrate that one, he’s qualified for the job, and two, what is his vision?" Aneralla said. "What would he change? What does he think we need to do differently to work with not only the town of Huntersville but everyone?"

Aneralla said his biggest concern is making sure municipal education advisory panel that has been talking about school construction and other challenges makes progress under Winston's leadership.

Leadership churn has been a dominating theme in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for much of the past eight years, since Peter Gorman resigned to take a job in private business in 2011. The board named an interim superintendent and conducted a national search.

After three finalists met the public, the board hired Heath Morrison from Reno, Nev., in 2012. Morrison, who had been named national Superintendent of the Year in Reno, arrived to high acclaim. But in late 2014 he resigned. He and the board initially reported that he was quitting to care for his ailing mother, but The Charlotte Observer soon obtained a copy of a report detailing what was described as misconduct that would merit termination, including bullying his staff and misleading the board about costs of a new school. The board never publicly discussed the investigation or the reasons behind his departure.

In 2015 the board gave Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark a one-year contract as superintendent and said it would do a national search. Instead, some board members argued behind the scenes for giving Clark a long-term contract and others sought to recruit Mo Green, a former CMS attorney who was leading Guilford County Schools. After Green took a job with the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the board extended Clark’s contract for a second year and launched a national search.

For the 2016 search, CMS chose a new search firm, McPherson Jacobson, and agreed to drop the tradition of having finalists meet the public. Board members said confidentiality would boost the likelihood of getting top-tier applicants. Wilcox, a veteran administrator who was leading a district in Maryland less than one-fifth the size of CMS, got the nod in December 2016, spent three months in 2017 shadowing Clark to learn the job and took the helm in July 2017.

Wilcox hit a number of rough spots, starting with criticism of the pay and process for some of his first administrative hires. He stumbled over communicating the results of tests that found lead in school water coolers and handling the aftermath of a fatal school shooting at Butler High in October. Most recently, he came under fire for changing the company used to do background checks for CMS hires, contracting with a firm that didn’t do the fingerprinting required by CMS policy and state law.

But in January of this year, the board unanimously voted to give Wilcox a raise and a two-year contract extension. While the board did not comment at that meeting, Wilcox said he hoped that the vote would send “a clear signal to our community that we are on a path together as a leadership team.”

Board members have not disclosed what led to his July 15 suspension. On July 19 the board voted to accept his resignation, saying state law prohibits them from disclosing personnel information.

Winston steps into the job with few public critics and relatively little experience in the type of high-profile leadership the top job demands. But in his first public appearance as superintendent just after Friday's board vote, Winston assured reporters he's confident he can work with this board.

He declined to offer specifics on how he might address whatever problems led to his predecessor's ouster.

"I think it's incumbent on me to first listen and find out where there are areas for improvement and where we can grow," he said, "so I don't want to make any predetermined solutions."

The decision to skip a search is unusual for CMS, but not unprecedented. In 2002 the board promoted Deputy Superintendent James Pughsley after his predecessor, Eric Smith, resigned to lead another district. Pughsley oversaw the transition to a complex new student assignment "choice plan" that followed a court battle over desegregation. He led CMS for three years before resigning.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.