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After superintendent's firing, people say tough work remains ahead for CMS

Rose Hamid, a longtime board member of the CMS Interfaith Advisory Council, attended Tuesday's emergency meeting where Superintendent Earnest Winston was fired.
Ann Doss Helms
Rose Hamid, a longtime board member of the CMS Interfaith Advisory Council, attended Tuesday's emergency meeting where Superintendent Earnest Winston was fired.

Rose Hamid has served on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Interfaith Advisory Council for 18 years. That means she’s worked with six superintendents and two interims.

So when she heard the school board was about to fire Superintendent Earnest Winston, she drove to the midday emergency meeting Tuesday to see what was going on.

"He’s had to deal with the extraordinary circumstances of COVID and so many other issues that have come up that I can’t imagine what rational reason there would be for firing him," Hamid said before the meeting. "Earnest has been an exemplary person, really focusing on the students and his staff and the community."

After the board voted 7-2 to fire Winston "for convenience" — a term that means he did not violate his contract and entitled him to two years' severance pay — it voted unanimously to release personnel records to justify that decision.

After reviewing the 33 pages of released material, which includes Winston's last performance review and an attorney's investigative report, Hamid said she still doesn't understand why the board rushed to fire Winston after less than three years on the job.

"The bottom line is I think that we need to push and find out why they felt the need to do it now, when you’ve got only like a month and a half left of school," Hamid said Wednesday.

Board Chair Elyse Dashew and most other board members left Tuesday's meeting without taking questions or explaining the timing of the decision.

Brooke Weiss, president of the Mecklenburg County chapter of Moms for Liberty, supported the CMS board's decision to fire Superintendent Earnest Winston.
Ann Doss Helms
Brooke Weiss, president of the Mecklenburg County chapter of Moms for Liberty, supported the CMS board's decision to fire Superintendent Earnest Winston.

Not everyone is as sympathetic to Winston as Hamid. Brooke Weiss, president of the Mecklenburg chapter of Moms for Liberty, also attended Tuesday's meeting. She and other chapter members have spoken repeatedly at board meetings, often to criticize Winston's actions.

"We’ve been pushing for a leadership change since last spring," Weiss said.

Will change help students?

But if one point of agreement emerged, it's that few think the district's problems will be solved by Winston's firing. Weiss said the board shares the blame for student achievement and safety problems.

"I think that the board has failed our students, and so now Moms for Liberty is going to turn our attention to the November elections," she said. Six of the board's nine seats are up for election this year.

And some worry that another change in leadership — the fifth in the past decade — will make problems worse.

"I feel like the achievement gap is going to get even wider now, 'cause now you’ve got to have new leadership," said Dawne Cornelius, a former CMS teacher who attended the emergency meeting. "And with them having a shortage of teachers they’re trying to retain and recruit teachers, you can’t even keep a superintendent."

Rae LeGrone, vice president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, said Wednesday that Winston was well liked by teachers.

"And it feels like this will just add on to the plates of educators, not knowing what’s coming, not knowing what programs or priorities will be in the mix for the next coming years," LeGrone said. "It really is a time of anxiety."

Winston, who was hired in August of 2019 after his predecessor was forced to resign, inherited wide racial disparities in academic performance, with Black and Hispanic students averaging much lower scores than white and Asian counterparts. Within his first year, the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools, and the remote and hybrid learning that ensued brought scores down further.

In February 2021, the board praised his work in difficult circumstances, gave him a 3% raise, and revised his contract to provide more job security. But by March of this year, the board was concerned enough about his work to hire an Asheville-based education lawyer, K. Dean Shatley II, to investigate their concerns.

Shatley's report described problems with the way Winston's staff investigated reports of sexual abuse among students and contracted with an anti-racism speaker. But the biggest problem, he reported, was Winston's inability to carry out plans to improve some of the district's lowest-performing schools.

Board members, who have spent the last several months trying to focus their decisions on student outcomes, said that led to their decision to fire Winston.

At the end of Tuesday's meeting, Cornelius said she was skeptical. "Whoever takes on that role, they have a lot of work, a lot of work that they are going to have to do," she said.

Who will take Winston's place?

Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce
Bill Russell

Hugh Hattabaugh, a retired CMS administrator who served as interim superintendent from 2011 to 2012, will return to that post next week, filling the top job through June 2023. During that time the board expects to conduct a superintendent search, a process that normally takes months.

Bill Russell, president of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, says in any business, organizations that can’t hold onto executives develop a bad reputation.

"If I was a school superintendent I think I would think twice about coming to a system like this that’s had quite the turnover," Russell said Wednesday. "So I think it becomes challenging to find that person." 

Russell says that’s a challenge that has to be met.

"We need to be sure we do find the right individual because education and those schools are the absolute bedrock, the foundation of our workforce development," he said.

Stephanie Sneed, president of the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, agrees that CMS has been too slow to respond to low performance for students of color. But she also says the board shares that responsibility.

Stephanie Sneed's home precinct was removed from CMS board member Carol Sawyer's district by a map Sawyer created.
Stephanie Sneed
Stephanie Sneed

"The focus needs to be on who and what needs to be in place to change these student outcomes," she said Wednesday. "It is a state of emergency, period."

CMS saw test scores plummet in 2021 when in-person school was disrupted by the pandemic, and a mid-year report showed third-grade reading scores appear to be worse than last year. Less than 10% of Black and Hispanic third-graders had mid-year scores that show they’re on track for success.

Sneed questions whether bringing in an interim superintendent while doing a search will result in an aggressive academic improvement plan.

"So it’s almost another lost year of learning opportunity. And is there going to be another year of that?" Sneed said.

Severance and disclosure

Two previous superintendents who were asked to leave — Heath Morrison in 2014 and Clayton Wilcox in 2019 — got no severance pay and the board agreed not to disclose the reasons for their departure. Ann Clark, who left in 2017, never got a long-term contract.

In Winston's case, the board that gave him a four-year contract just a little over a year ago decided it was worth paying almost $577,000 to end that contract immediately. That will be paid out while CMS pays Hattabaugh $265,000 a year.

LeGrone, the CMAE vice president, said Wednesday that she supports Winston's decision not to resign, but the spending rankles.

"It just feels fiscally irresponsible at this point to be paying that much money for an act of convenience on the board’s part," she said. "But teachers don’t begrudge Winston for that."

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.