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CMS board chair describes months of ebbing confidence before firing the superintendent

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 April 19 to release part of Earnest Winston's personnel file after voting 7-2 to fire him.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board chair Elyse Dashew was silent on specifics when the board fired former Superintendent Earnest Winston two weeks ago. But Tuesday she offered reflections on how the board grappled with declining faith in his leadership over the last few months.

She acknowledged that the school board shares blame for the shortcomings of Winston’s superintendency. The board hired him in August of 2019 knowing he lacked background and skills that most superintendents bring to the job.

Elyse Dashew align=left
Elyse Dashew

She said CMS needed the qualities Winston had demonstrated in his previous 15 years as a teacher and central-office staffer: "Integrity. Compassion. Commitment to the district. A true love for the kids and the employees of CMS."

She said Winston and the board agreed he’d need coaching and support to grow into the job.

"And I trusted and believed that he would develop those skills that were needed," she said. "And I think there were folks in the community who were watching us who weren’t trusting that. And they were right. I was wrong."

Winston embraced the chance to learn on the job, Dashew said. For instance, he was coached by Robert Avossa, a former CMS administrator who had led districts in Georgia and Florida. She said the Belk Foundation paid for that support.

Support during COVID-19

The governor closed schools because of COVID-19 just eight months into Winston's tenure.

"(Winston) was valiant in how he guided us through the pandemic and getting our kids and employees through that safely," Dashew said.

In February of 2021, the board voted 8 -1 to give Winston a 3% raise, extend his contract by three years and add an agreement to pay him up to two years’ salary if the board forced him to leave early.

"We wanted to show, 'Yeah, he’s our guy. This is our long-term superintendent. We’re committed,' " Dashew said. "We didn’t want him to burn out and run off, either, like a lot of superintendents were burning out and quitting."

Concerns emerge

Sean Strain was the only board member to vote against that contract. But Dashew says as the district began moving past the pandemic, other members started "seeing some mistakes, some judgment errors."

"That’s when I, for one at least, started to see a lot of issues with how the district was being run that were really troubling," she said.

Earnest Winston

Those issues were detailed in sections of Winston's personnel record that the board released as part of his firing.

For instance: After getting his own long-term contract, Winston put members of his cabinet on shorter contracts, saying it was a move toward accountability.

"And that caused a lot of consternation," Dashew recalled. "So you had this team that was really a tight unit, shoulder to shoulder fighting through the pandemic, and then suddenly feeling like, 'Well, geez. What’s this?' "

In the summer of 2021, Winston hired anti-racism author Ibram X. Kendi to give an online speech to the CMS summer leadership institute. Dashew says she was proud of that decision but dismayed when members of Winston’s staff tried to block the public release of the video, based on a contract with Kendi that had not been vetted by the CMS legal department.

"There was some stonewalling on that. That was really concerning," she said.

And there were a series of controversies over how the district and its principals handled reports of sexual abuse among high school students.

"There’s some good work that’s been happening but there’s also been a lot of communication errors that have made things worse," Dashew said.

Meanwhile, Dashew says she and other board members were hearing concerns in the community: "When asked questions about the district he couldn’t speak clearly and compellingly, like, 'Here’s what we’re doing and here’s why we’re doing it.' It was kind of more in platitudes." 

Focusing on student data

During all this, the board was working with a consultant to refocus its own work on data related to student outcomes. That meant monthly meetings when some of the bleakest data was reviewed and board members asked Winston to explain strategies for improvement.

A.J. Crabill, the board's consultant, often told them their job was to figure out whether the superintendent was making progress — and if not, to decide whether he had a future in that job.

Dashew said Tuesday that work didn't directly play a role in the decision to fire Winston. But, she said, "I do think it became evident that there weren’t systems in place that he could articulate to get us back on track." And the focus on student data reinforced the urgency of getting the right person in that job, she said.

Weighing the options

For months, Dashew said, board members wrangled over whether it was time to replace Winston or just provide him more support and guidance. In March, they hired an outside lawyer to look into their concerns. Even then, she said, Winston’s ouster wasn’t a done deal.

When attorney K. Dean Shatley II filed his report on March 23, he did not find that Winston had clearly breached his contract, which would have allowed the board to fire him without severance. But he outlined six pages of concerns.

Dashew says one of the most disturbing was that members of Winston’s top staff said his indecisiveness was delaying action to improve schools.

"Once the board came to consensus, we knew that we had to act swiftly," she said.

Winston could not be reached for comment this week. He has not spoken publicly, other than an emailed statement, since his firing.

Dashew would not discuss whether the board offered Winston alternatives to being fired. She called an emergency meeting on April 19, the day CMS schools reopened after spring break. The board voted 7-2 to terminate Winston "for convenience," which means he'll get almost $577,000 in salary over the next two years.

Dashew left that meeting without talking to reporters. She said she’s been reluctant to talk about the decision because it was so hard, not only for her and the board but for Winston and his family.

Dashew said board members still admire and respect Winston. But when they asked themselves if he had the right skills to lead CMS out of the pandemic, "that was where most of us realized, 'No. It’s time for a change.' "

Dashew shared with WFAE this email response she sends constituents.

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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.