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CMS Superintendent Puts Top Staff On Short Contracts To Spur Results

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CMS Chief Equity Officer Frank Barnes, seen presenting at an April school board meeting, received a one-year contract recently.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board recently granted Superintendent Earnest Winston four years of job security, but he isn't doing the same for his top lieutenants.

Twelve executive contracts approved recently offer one- and two-year terms to staff who play crucial roles in helping the district recover from the pandemic and address longstanding challenges related to racial equity.

"We are focused on results, outcomes for students and families, and support for staff. Contract length reflects this mindset," Winston said in response to a WFAE query about the contracts.

He said if members of his team deliver results, they can get extensions.

"I will consider modifying contracts in recognition of improvements in outcomes," Winston wrote. "There are no members of my leadership team who are currently under contract beyond June 30, 2023."

Chief Equity Officer Frank Barnes, whose work is at the center of a budget battle with Mecklenburg County commissioners, got a one-year contract at $189,000 a year that expires June 30, 2022. The only other one-year contract went to Associate Superintendent Laura Francisco, who recently took over non-academic operations. She's making $185,658 a year.

Pressure From County Commissioners

The school board is currently in closed-door mediation with Mecklenburg County commissioners over commissioners' decision to withhold $56 million from CMS until district leaders produce a plan to address racial disparities in academic outcomes and improve low-performing schools.

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Ann Doss Helms
The CMS school board and Mecklenburg County commissioners held a joint meeting June 7 to launch budget mediation.

CMS has a strategic plan that was initially created under Winston's predecessor, Clayton Wilcox. Commissioners say it lacks clear strategies for improvement and detailed data to gauge progress.

County Manager Dena Diorio, who drafted the plan to withhold the money, has publicly praised Barnes' work on compiling data. She says CMS leaders have the information they need to improve their plan and receive the full amount before schools open in August.

Winston and school board Chair Elyse Dashew say the plan needs to be updated and extended to reflect the disruption caused by the pandemic. They say that work is in progress, but they won't do it under pressure from commissioners who aren't charged with making education policy.

High-Pressure Post

Barnes has been in this position before. He’s been with CMS since 2012 and outlasted three superintendents.

When Wilcox arrived in 2017, he gave his top staff a mix of two- and four-year contracts. Barnes, however, got a one-year contract, which Wilcox declined to explain.

Six months later, Barnes was the lead staffer on the CMS “Breaking The Link” report, an analysis of data related to poverty, race, attendance, test scores and teacher quality. Wilcox was shown the door before he marked his second anniversary, while Barnes remained.

Barnes didn’t respond to a request for comment on the latest one-year contract.

Winston's Contract Extended

Winston was hired without a search to step in after Wilcox's forced resignation, which neither he nor the board has publicly explained. Winston's initial contract ran through June 2022 and allowed the board to dismiss him for any reason, as long he got 60 days' notice and pay.

Less than eight months into Winston's tenure, COVID-19 closed schools and upended education. He was halfway through his three-year contract before the board extended his term in February and gave him a 3% raise, to $288,400 a year. It now runs through June 2025 and requires the board to pay him two years' salary if he's terminated without cause.

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CMS announced the retirement of two long-serving top administrators in January 2021.

County commissioners' Chair George Dunlap, a former school board member, voiced no objections to Winston's hiring at the time. But as this year's budget conflict intensified, Dunlap criticized the board's decision to hire Winston without the usual academic credentials and school leadership experience.

Dunlap has cited recent high-level departures as signs that Winston isn’t inspiring confidence. Those include the April resignation of Chief Academic Officer Brian Kingsley, who took a superintendent’s job in Colorado, and the January retirements of Deputy Superintendent Carol Stamper and Chief School Performance Officer Kathy Elling.

It's unclear whether those departures reflect on Winston's leadership. A district the size of CMS, with more than 19,000 employees, sees steady job churn.

More Change Coming?

Winston initially tapped veteran CMS staffers for top positions. When asked about the short-term contracts, he said he had planned to reorganize during his first year.

"The pandemic hit and we had to shift our focus," he said. "That time enabled me to gain a better understanding of where we have opportunities to tighten our alignment on structures that position us to deliver on goals we’ve set."

In the past month, the school board has approved 10 two-year contracts for top executives. They include Deputy Superintendent Matt Hayes, who’s in charge of academics ($211,281 a year); Chief Financial Officer Sheila Shirley (also $211,281); Kondra Rattley, recently named chief of equity and school performance ($180,000); and seven other assistant or associate superintendents with salaries ranging from approximately $150,500 to $180,000.

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