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Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board fires Superintendent Earnest Winston

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Earnest Winston is seen in an undated photo.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board has voted 7-2 to terminate Superintendent Earnest Winston’s contract immediately with two years' pay. Board Chair Elyse Dashew called it a termination for convenience, which means the district will have to pay Winston nearly $577,000, as his contract calls for. The board approved that contract in February of 2021.

Dashew said it was a difficult decision to fire someone the board holds in such high regard.

“We believe that a different leader is needed to shore up this district and place our students on track to achieve high goals in literacy, math, and college and career readiness. Student outcomes are what matters most,” said Dashew.

Rhonda Cheek also voted to end the contract.

“We hired a good man and have supported his leadership journey in many ways for the past two and half years, but now we must move forward on a different path,” Cheek said.

Ruby Jones and Thelma Byers-Bailey voted against removing Winston.

“We as a board have no right to require anything other than the best a person has to offer. If that is insufficient then that is a decision that we have to make. But Earnest gave us his best,” said Byers-Bailey.

Someone who knows the district well will take over as interim superintendent. Hugh Hattabaugh was chief operating officer at CMS for several years. When Superintendent Peter Gorman left to take a job in the private sector in 2011, he served as interim superintendent. During that time, he was generally highly regarded.

Under his contract, Hattabaugh will serve through June of 2023, until the board conducts a search for a new superintendent. He starts next week.

[READ: Documents released by the CMS board after firing Superintendent Earnest Winston]

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

In a statement, Winston said serving as superintendent was the honor of a lifetime. He praised teachers for their work during the coronavirus pandemic and said the best leadership lessons he got were from the students.

"COVID-19 has forced us to prioritize what is most important," Winston said. "Grades, test results, and academic performance is a one-dimensional view of what it means to educate children who have survived a pandemic in the 21st century. Our children’s mental health and well-being should be the priority."

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.

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 thelast-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.

This is a developing story that will be updated.

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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.
Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.
Sarah Delia is a Senior Producer for Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.