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CMS board member says Superintendent Earnest Winston will be forced out

Ann Doss Helms
Superintendent Earnest Winston (left) with board Chair Elyse Dashew.

Board member Ruby Jones said Monday that Superintendent Earnest Winston will leave Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools at the request of the board’s majority.

“He’s leaving at the convenience — legal term — of the board because there is no cause,” said Jones.

Under a contract approved 8-1 in February 2021, that would require the board to pay Winston two years’ salary, or about $577,000.

The board has called a special meeting to deal with the matter at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.

Jones said she and three other board members oppose the move, which she says came at the request of board Chair Elyse Dashew. Dashew has not responded to calls and texts from WFAE.

"They called her in, people she won’t name, and said, you know, 'While he’s a good person, he’s not one for the job,' " Jones said.

Winston has not commented, but as news about the end of his tenure broke he tweeted a quote from Barack Obama: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."

@CMSSupt on Twitter

Winston would be the fourth superintendent in the past decade to leave CMS before reaching the three-year mark. He was hired in August of 2019 after Clayton Wilcox, who was hired in a national search, resigned abruptly for reasons he and the school board agreed not to disclose.

The board had to get permission from the state to hire Winston with no experience as a principal and no advanced degree in education. Winston started his career as a journalist, including time as a reporter at The Charlotte Observer, before becoming a teacher at CMS in 2004. He moved into administration and worked closely with four superintendents before moving into that job himself. He was supervising 26 employees as the district’s ombudsman when he was elevated to the top job, responsible for approximately 19,000 employees.

Jones says split is 'ugly'

Jones said she was told Monday that five of the board's nine members, all of them white, are ready to fire Winston if he won't resign. Winston is the district's second Black superintendent.

Winston's contract spells out reasons for "termination for just cause," such as such as financial wrongdoing, criminal action, neglect of duties or dishonesty. His initial contract allowed the board to ask him to leave for any reason with only 60 days' pay, but the board approved the two-year payout for "termination for convenience" in 2021.

Jones said she and the board's other two Black members, Vice Chair Thelma Byers-Bailey and member Lenora Shipp, were joined by white board member Carol Sawyer in "questioning are we ready to move that way." Byers-Bailey and Shipp didn't return calls and Sawyer declined to discuss Winston.

Jones said she's been in education 52 years and "this is the ugliest."

"All this dastardly deed was just sprung suddenly pitchwoman Elyse Dashew and she was able to get it done," Jones said.

CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston's job is in question
WFAE's Ann Doss Helms and Gwendolyn Glenn discuss the situation.

Time marked by turmoil

Winston had been superintendent less than eight months when COVID-19 closed schools. The pandemic largely defined his superintendency, as he and the board made controversial decisions about how long to keep classes remote and later to require masks. The district saw large academic setbacks when testing resumed in 2021, and he acknowledged in March that the decision to keep classes remote for safety reasons “had an academic consequence.”

Winston’s tenure also included a spike in guns at schools, which coincided with a surge in gun violence in the community. CMS has reported at least 25 guns on school grounds this academic year, topping the previous record of 23 in a full school year. Winston announced plans to require all high school students to carry clear backpacks to make it harder to get guns into schools, but slowed that plan in the face of complaints from staff and students, then the last-minute discovery of warning labels that could indicate hazardous chemicals in the bags. He also initiated body scanners at high schools and a “Say Something” program that allows students to anonymously report dangerous situations.

Controversy over how CMS handles student reports of sexual abuse has also roiled Winston’s time as superintendent. After current and former students at Myers Park High raised concerns at board meetings, Winston reassigned the principal and created a task force to look at the handling of such reports. Meanwhile, more controversial reports emerged at additional schools and Winston agreed to hire special investigators.

Consultant prods for better strategies

In recent months, the board has worked with consultant A.J. Crabill of the Council of the Great City Schools on how to push for better student outcomes. Crabill urged the board to hold Winston and his staff accountable for producing clear strategies for improvement, backed up by data.

“The decisions about staff should not be a personality contest, and conversations to date have sounded more like middle school engagement in selecting class president rather than professional leadership around ‘How do we hold senior executives accountable?’” Crabill told WFAE in December. “It should not matter whether you like the superintendent or not.”

In spring of 2021, several county commissioners criticized CMS for allowing large racial discrepancies in academic performance to persist, saying the district had not made clear plans for improvement. At the time, commission Chair George Dunlap specifically took aim at the board’s decision to hire Winston without the traditional preparation for the job. Dunlap told the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus in May that the board made Winston superintendent “when nobody else would come to CMS.”

Winston, the district’s second Black superintendent, was also known for taking a stand on racial justice and the need to directly address institutional racism. After George Floyd was killed by police in the summer of 2020, Winston sent a message to employees saying the district must "fight actively against and resist racism." He launched the 2020 school year with a video urging teachers to confront institutional racism. As controversy over how schools address institutional racism flared across the country, Winston hired antiracism author Ibram X. Kendi to speak to the CMS 2021 summer leadership institute, a move that drew criticism from Republican legislative leaders in Raleigh.

Winston currently makes $288,400 a year, plus another $28,000 in transportation allowance and supplemental retirement.

History of leadership churn

The last CMS superintendent to stay more than three years was Peter Gorman, who resigned just shy of his fifth anniversary in 2011. Gorman left to take a job in private industry.

The board named a one-year interim and did a national search that led to the hiring of Heath Morrison in 2012. Morrison came from Reno, Nevada, a much smaller district. He had been named national Superintendent of the Year there but stayed only two years before coming to CMS. In November 2014, Morrison resigned from CMS, with an agreement that neither he nor the board would talk about the circumstances.

Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark, a longtime CMS employee, stepped in to fill the gap for the next 2 ½ years. The board named her superintendent in January 2015, but never gave her the traditional four-year contract. Instead, a bitterly divided board launched a prolonged national search.

Wilcox started work with CMS in July 2017 and was gone by August 2019. Once again, the board and the departing superintendent signed an agreement not to disclose the circumstances of the resignation.

After that the board moved quickly to appoint Winston without a search. Board leaders said they were seeking stability and someone with knowledge of the district.

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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.