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Winston’s personnel files show his CMS leadership ending amid blunders and omissions

The CMS board voted unanimously Tuesday to release part of his personnel file after voting 7-2 to fire him.
Ann Doss Helms
The CMS board voted unanimously Tuesday to release part of his personnel file after voting 7-2 to fire him.

The personnel files released this week as part of Earnest Winston’s firing paint a picture of a superintendency that was launched with high hopes, tested by epic challenges and ultimately dissolved by a series of blunders and omissions.

Winston, a former journalist who spent 18 years working for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, had served as a top aide to four superintendents before he was tapped for the top job in August of 2019.

Two of his predecessors left amid controversy about their ethics and treatment of employees. Winston had built a reputation as a hard worker and a trustworthy, caring person. Board members decided that was what CMS needed, and gambled that he could grow into a job that’s grinding under the best of circumstances.

“If looking for the heart rather than the skillset was a mistake, then that mistake was ours as a board — not yours — and personally I would make that mistake again,” a board member wrote in an evaluation done last fall. “What you bring to the table cannot be learned — what you lack can be learned.”

Comments in the evaluation come from individual board members who are not identified. That comment, done as the board was beginning to question Winston’s ability to rise to the challenge, concludes: “I truly believe that had COVID not thrown you a curve ball, we all would have been in a much different place.”

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

Changing terms of employment

When Winston was hired, the board recognized the risk they were taking by granting him a three-year contract with the option to fire him for any reason with 60 days’ pay, a little less than $50,000.

Winston’s first job review came in the midst of the pandemic, when responding to spikes in the virus and changes in state and national directives dominated his work. “Mr. Winston received good performance ratings at (sic) part of his 2019-2020 evaluation,” the board’s memo directing release of his records says.

WFAE's Ann Doss Helms and Sarah Delia discuss CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston's firing
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Earnest Winston.

In February 2021 the board voted 8-1 to give Winston a 3% raise and a contract that called for up to two years’ severance pay if they fired him before June of 2025. That’s what led to his payout of almost $577,000 over the next 24 months, as seven board members voted that his failures were serious enough to fire him but did not rise to the level of “termination for cause” spelled out in that contract.

Here’s what the documents say about how things began to fall apart shortly after that vote of confidence. They include his second job review, done last fall, and a six-page report from K. Dean Shatley II, an Asheville-based attorney who specializes in education law.

Antiracism speaker hired

Along with the pandemic, racial upheaval in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police roiled Winston's first year on the job. Winston, the district’s second Black superintendent, made anti-racism a keynote of his leadership — something that appears to have raised concerns with one board member.

“The only consistent message has been one associated with the ‘anti-racism’ initiative, the strategic objectives, goals and key performance indicators for which have never been defined … and the linkage to our actual Mission and student academic performance is tenuous at best,” the unidentified board member wrote in Winston’s second evaluation.

In March 2021, Shatley writes, Chief of Staff LaTarzja Henry signed a contract with a speaker’s bureau to pay anti-racism author Ibram X. Kendi $25,000 to speak at the CMS summer leadership conference, which took place online. She did not consult with the CMS general counsel’s office, and the contract barred public release of the video of his speech — something that ran afoul of North Carolina’s public records law.

Amid national furor over how racism is discussed in schools, Senate leader Phil Berger and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson publicly denounced CMS for hiring Kendi. Requests for the video poured in.

“(T)here is evidence to support that executive staff members obstructed the General Counsel’s office in responding to the public record requests and the Superintendent was aware of the obstruction and instructed his staff not to turn over the video until the Board chair became involved,” Shatley wrote.

Eventually, he writes, Winston’s staff released the video to the general counsel’s office. CMS made it available on request. Shatley concluded that Winston was apparently aware of his staff’s efforts to obstruct release of the video, but that “the video was produced in a reasonable amount of time to members of the public.”

In December Winston reassigned Henry to a role overseeing CMS safety efforts.

Sexual assault investigation impeded

In summer of 2021, current and former students from Myers Park High School made heart-wrenching statements at school board meetings calling for an investigation into the way Principal Mark Bosco had handled reports of sexual assault by male students on or near campus. Those problems predated Winston’s tenure, but some questioned his response to the concerns. Bosco was reassigned in October.

In November,WBTV raised questions about the handling of a sexual assault complaint at Hawthorne High. Shatley reports that in response to media coverage of that complaint, board members asked Winston to summarize what had happened. He says a member of Winston’s staff interfered with investigations by the CMS Title IX office and employee relations. Ultimately the principal and assistant principal at Hawthorne were also reassigned.

“Despite the interference with these investigations, there is no evidence to suggest Mr. Winston directed his staff member to interfere,” Shatley concluded.

Little action on academic emergency

Academic achievement is at the core of any superintendent’s job. Winston inherited the racial disparities that prevail across the country, and saw students lose ground during the pandemic.

Shatley reports that by fall of 2020 “certain members of senior staff” began to work on something called “The Transformation Plan” for the district’s lowest-performing schools.

“These staff members presented a draft plan to Mr. Winston initially in November 2020,” he wrote. “The implementation of the plan, however, has been significantly delayed.”

Shatley wrote that in April 2021, “Mr. Winston finally indicated he was ready to move forward with the plan,” but said the personnel changes required meant the plan would have to wait for the 2022-23 school year. “The relevant staff interviewed solely blame Mr. Winston regarding the failure to implement the plan for the current school year,” Shatley reported.

Winston’s evaluation reflects concern among board members.

“There is a growing sense that you are in over your head — and rather than finding your footing, the overwhelm seems to be increasing,” one member wrote in the section on instructional leadership. “What can we do as a board to help you find the support you need?”

“Little evidence that instructional leadership has developed in the time the Superintendent has been in his role,” another member wrote. “Discussions about key concepts … demonstrate little advanced thinking.”

Losing confidence of staff

The personnel file indicates that Winston was losing the support of key staff he needed to rely on.

Shortly after receiving his raise and his new four-year contract in February of 2021, Winston put members of his top staff on one- and two-year contracts, calling it a move toward accountability. Shatley reports that “one interviewee” had asked why two of those administrators got the shortest contracts and “Mr. Winston could only provide arbitrary reasons.” Shatley also reported that “Mr. Winston has alienated many of his senior level officials and has delayed the implementation of key decisions.”

The performance evaluation reflects concerns about staff confidence in Winston.

“Members of executive staff seem to struggle to understand your vision,” one board member wrote. “...Too many decisions that come from panicking and overcorrecting, intensifying rather than anticipating or resolving a crisis.”

Board members also questioned Winston’s relationship with the office of General Counsel André Mayes.

“Sometimes it seems as though you’re pressured to resist — or, even, engage in some kind of turf battle with legal,” one member wrote. “This leads to mistakes that we can’t afford. I say ‘pressured’ because this doesn’t seem to be your innate approach. This is not the Earnest I know. It’s really puzzling and confounding.”

Another also cited Winston’s avoidance of seeking legal counsel: “Continuing to fight that battle is hurting us and is going to cost us money we need to spend elsewhere. This is doing nothing but causing us to shoot ourselves in the foot and making you look bad.”

Failure to communicate

Winston got his lowest marks from the board in communication — ironic, one member noted, given that he had started his administrative career in the CMS communications office.

“You seem to struggle with speaking clearly and concisely with passion and specifics, and sometimes it seems as though you are not reading the room,” one member wrote. “Lots of fluff, lots of filler words. It signals a lack of confidence or a lack of knowledge of the work. We’ve heard this feedback from many audiences.”

“This has been a troubling year for many missteps in communication that impedes the core business of educating students,” another wrote.

“Our entire communication platform is failing,” wrote a third. “We have terrible relationships with most local media outlets.”

Winston’s first communications chief, Tracy Russ, resigned shortly after Winston took office. It took Winston nine months to name a replacement, and Patrick Smith resigned that position last month after a little less than two years.

The road to termination

After Winston’s evaluation was completed last fall, Shatley reports that the board wrote a letter directing him to “take certain actions” that were “more tasks than goals and were easy for the Superintendent to complete.” That letter was not part of the released file. Shatley reports that Winston responded but board members had mixed opinions on whether his responses were sufficient.

Shatley also reports that Winston was working with a “professional coach,” Robert Avossa. Avossa is a consultant who spent almost five years in CMS before serving as superintendent in Fulton County, Georiga, and Palm Beach County, Florida.

During the fall evaluation process, Shatley reports, Avossa commissioned a survey of senior administrators and principals. Few responded, “probably because no administrator knew the survey was coming.” It was, Shatley wrote, another indicator of the failure of trust and communication between Winston and his executive team.

In March the board hired Shatley to investigate their concerns about Winston. His six-page report, dated March 23, concludes that the problems fell short of violating the “termination for cause” conditions laid out in Winston’s contract. Some questionable judgments were not forbidden by policy, he wrote. He said some board members saw Winston’s failure to improve academic outcomes as neglect of duties, but “there is no evidence to support the Superintendent intentionally delayed key decisions and programs for an improper purpose. These are all decisions which Mr. Winston, as Superintendent, is entitled to make.”

On Monday the board announced Tuesday’s emergency meeting to consider Winston’s contract. The haste to call that meeting, and to hold it in the middle of a school and work day, has raised questions with some people.

Board member Ruby Jones, one of two members who voted against firing Winston, said in a WFAE interview and from the dais that board Chair Elyse Dashew pushed for the firing after pressure from “the shiny shoe people.” Dashew did not explain the timing at the meeting, and left afterward without taking questions. In response to a question about Jones’ comments the next day, Dashew texted that “All board members get all kinds of feedback from various stakeholders on many different issues. Beyond that, I’m not sure what Dr. Jones has been referring to.”

Dashew did not respond to a follow-up question about the timing of the meeting.

Winston did not attend the meeting, and attempts to reach him for comment have been unsuccessful. After the meeting he sent a farewell email, calling his time as superintendent “the ultimate challenge.”

“My intention as a leader has always been to lead with integrity, compassion and gratitude,” he wrote. “As I reflect on my time as superintendent, my best leadership lessons have come from students. They have demonstrated extreme resilience during uncertain times, the power of honest feedback and courage to ask for the help they need.”

But the pithiest summary of Winston’s tenure comes from his final evaluation.

“High ethics,” a board member wrote, “but lacking execution.”

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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.