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CMS Board expected to remove Superintendent Earnest Winston in an emergency meeting

  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Earnest Winston.
Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Earnest Winston.

In just a few hours, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board will hold an emergency meeting on the fate of Superintendent Earnest Winston. They named him to the top job not quite three years ago and voted last year to extend his contract. Now multiple media outlets are reporting that he’s been asked to resign or be fired. WFAE education reporter Ann Doss Helms joins "Morning Edition" host Marshall Terry to talk about what to expect.

Marshall Terry: Ann, is there any chance that Winston won’t be leaving?

Ann Doss Helms: I guess you can never be sure until the hands are raised, but I think we’re all hearing that the only real question is how he leaves: Will he agree to resign, or will the board fire him? And that question has big implications for the taxpayers because unless he’s done something egregious to violate his contract, like breaking the law or neglecting his job, the board could have to pay him almost $577,000 to do what’s called termination for convenience. That means basically that last year they said they wanted him to stay through 2025 … and now they don’t.

Terry: So why would they be willing to pay that kind of money if he hasn’t done anything outrageous?

Helms: That’s what everyone will be waiting to see. It’s certainly no secret that Winston has drawn criticism about a range of matters: Decisions to keep schools virtual during the pandemic, low test scores for students of color, problems with school responses to sexual assault reports … that’s just a few of them.

The board gave him the job knowing he lacked the experience that most people bring to leading a large district, and they took a chance that he’d grow into a job that’s really difficult in the best of circumstances.

Most board members aren’t talking. But Ruby Jones told me that board Chair Elyse Dashew said unspecified community members say they’ve lost confidence in Winston. She says Dashew wouldn’t name the people who are asking that he be replaced, but she says five board members agree.

I’ve tried repeatedly to get Elyse Dashew to talk about this and she won’t … which is probably to be expected before the vote. But afterward, she’s going to be pushed to talk honestly about any outside pressure to replace the superintendent.

Terry: Are we expecting the board to go into detail this afternoon about what’s going on?

Helms: They’ve got an interesting track record with that. In 2012 and again in 2017, they conducted national searches, hired someone from out of state and ended up asking those superintendents to leave. In both of those cases, the board and the departing superintendents agreed not to talk about the cause of the separation.

If board once again approves some kind of non-disparagement, non-disclosure agreement, all the people who care about CMS … and who pay for it … will just be told once again “Hey, trust us; we’re making the best move.”

Terry: What about finding the next superintendent? Do we know how they’ll approach that?

Helms: They’re kind of in a dilemma. They hired Winston because national searches weren’t working and they wanted stability. Now, if they’re saying the “promote from within” approach failed too, where does that leave them?

CMS has some strong people in upper management, so I’m sure they can tap someone to step in short term. But this is going to be a tough gig, especially if some board members aren’t happy about the situation. Plus six of the nine seats are up for election in November, so no one can really be sure who the new superintendent will answer to.

Terry: How does this compare with other large school districts? Do most of them have this kind of churn?

Helms: I haven’t found any numbers that reflect the pandemic years, which have kind of turned everything upside down. A group called The Broad at the Yale School of Management studied the 100 largest districts from 2003 to 2017. They found an overall average of six years’ tenure. But that number shrunk for districts with more than 100,000 students and those serving mostly students of color, which describes CMS. So CMS is running shorter than average, but this is a national challenge.

Terry: You reported that Ruby Jones said the board’s three Black members oppose replacing Winston, who is the board’s second Black superintendent. Is this shaping up to be a racial issue?

Helms: Race is part of almost everything, but I think it’s fair to say Winston has supporters and detractors in all racial groups.

Some people are critical of Winston and the board for keeping students out of classrooms so long last school year, and those critics tend to be white. But remember that last year about this time county commissioners’ Chairman George Dunlap, who’s a Black Democrat, made some strong public criticisms of Winston. He was frustrated by how little seemed to be happening to remedy racial disparities in academic success for kids of color.

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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.
Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.