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CMS Gives Itself An Out With Superintendent Contract

Superintendent Earnest Winston, far left, stands with members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board Aug. 13 after being sworn in for the district's top job.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members talked about stability when they gave Earnest Winston a three-year contract as superintendent earlier this month. But it turns out fine print in that contract means he doesn’t have much job security. 

CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston stopped by WFAE's studios on Aug. 5.

Winston was sworn in as superintendent Tuesday. The former CMS ombudsman was being tapped to take over when Clayton Wilcox was forced out of office in July for reasons the board has not revealed.

When the board approved his three-year contract Aug. 2, Vice Chair Elyse Dashew talked about “no immediate plans to do a search.” But it turns out Winston’s contract has one important difference from that of his predecessor: The board can fire Winston with 60 days' notice without giving a reason. The board would only owe him his salary for those 60 days – a little less than $50,000.

In contrast, unless Wilcox had been terminated for a cause such as dishonesty or violating board policy, his contract said CMS would have had to pay him two years’ salary if the board let him go. That’s more than $600,000. Wilcox chose to resign after being suspended and was not given severance pay.

Asked about the lack of job security for Winston, board Chair Mary McCray offered this explanation: "If the board decides that they want to do a search and they find someone, then they can notify him that they have found someone and he can work those 60 days. That’s what that means."

McCray, who is not running for re-election, said Winston’s three-year contract doesn’t guarantee CMS can count on three years of leadership stability.

"Not necessarily," she said, "but I think the board is going to honor that. I’m not sure, since I won’t be sitting here, but that was the intent. We want to have some continuity."

Winston wasn’t a traditional candidate to lead America’s 18th largest school district. He started his work life as a newspaper reporter, became a high school English teacher and has spent the last 15 years in central offices, working closely with four superintendents. Some employees and community members have applauded the board for skipping a national search and promoting an insider, while others have questioned Winston’s credentials.

Tuesday’s meeting included some intense moments when McCray read aloud two emails she had received saying Winston got the job only because he was black. One of them used a racial slur toward board members and said that “you folks are making CMS a sewer.”

McCray gave an impassioned response:

"It’s past time for us to start speaking out against people who taunt and name-call behind a computer screen and a keyboard," McCray said from the dais. "Never before, with the hiring of several superintendents while being on this board, have I received such racist criticism from people as I have now. This is not about the capability of Earnest Winston to lead this district, but it is all about the fact that he’s a black man."

McCray repeatedly called out those writers by name and suggested that they look into a mirror and ask “Am I a racist?”

Winston is the second black superintendent of CMS, a district where black and Hispanic students account for almost 60% of enrollment. Winston, whose wife and two school-age daughters were present for his swearing-in, kept his remarks focused on his plan to concentrate his energy on all of the district’s 148,000 students.

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.