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CMS Superintendent Wilcox Suspended

CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox
Gwendolyn Glenn

Updated at 12:45 p.m.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox was suspended after meeting with school board leaders this morning.

In a statement just after 11 a.m., CMS said Wilcox was suspended with pay, effective immediately. During Wilcox's suspension, Earnest Winston will serve as acting superintendent.   

Reached by phone, Wilcox declined to say what was discussed during the meeting. He referred all comments to school board leadership and said that he had been told not to discuss his status. He also said  the result of this morning’s meeting was unexpected.

Earlier Monday, CMS Chief Communitations Officer Tracy Russ would not confirm or deny disciplinary action had occurred against Wilcox.

"We will provide job status when we have (it) from HR," Russ said in a text. He also emailed that "board leadership will provide an update as further information is available."

Russ later confirmed the suspension in a prepared statement, adding that CMS "remains focused on the priorities that matter most -- our students, teaching and learning in every school as we look forward to the start of the 2019-2020 school year." 

[What Wilcox Suspension Means For CMS]

Wilcox received a two-year contract extension and a $27,000 salary increase in January, but his decision to stop fingerprinting new hires last summer has upset some board members.

WBTV recently revealed that CMS stopped fingerprinting new employees from July 2018 to June 2019, a violation of CMS policy. At first, CMS officials said a change in fingerprinting companies was to blame, but then Wilcox told WBTV last week that it was his decision.

"We dropped the ball because we didn’t change the policy before we changed the practice," he told the station. Wilcox said CMS "paused" fingerprinting because surrounding districts that contract with the same fingerprinting company had also ended the practice.

"This is not something that the superintendent or his staff can choose not to comply with. This is the board’s policy… and it is my regulation quite frankly," Wilcox said.

Wilcox started at CMS July 1, 2017, at a salary of $280,000 seven months after his hiring was announced. Before arriving at CMS, Wilcox was superintendent in Hagerstown, Maryland, the Tampa Bay area (Pinellas County Schools) and in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Wilcox had a rocky relationship with some board members in Florida who found his style arrogant. He explained it away as inexperience and not being as good of a listener as he needed to be. He left Pinellas County with three years left on his contract.

As CMS superintendent, Wilcox pledged to close achievement gaps between white students and students of color and get more parents involved in their children’s education. He pushed hard for more diverse instruction in the classroom and an equity policy that the board approved in May after several months of lengthy discussions.

Credit Facebook
Superintend Clayton Wilcox's Facebook post from Saturday, July 13.

On Saturday, Wilcox posted on Facebook a lengthy list of what he says he's accomplished at CMS.

"Today I spent some time doing just that - I turned off my cell phone and thought about the last two years that I have served as superintendent of schools in Charlotte," he wrote before listing accomplishments such as improving teacher pay and passing a billion-dollar bond package.

He also spearheaded the district’s "Breaking the Link" report that shows how poverty and race are affecting students’ ability to succeed academically. Wilcox strongly pushed for district officials to find ways to enroll more students of color in advanced classes. On Saturday, he posted on Facebook what he said 

Wilcox has also been scrutinized for bringing in top staff from Maryland at high salaries. He promised not to create any new administrative positions when he came on board, but he soon hired his Chief of Staff Laura Francisco’s husband, Jody Francisco, in a newly created, unadvertised position as culinary development manager at $85,000 a year. Both are also from Maryland.

The issue of lead in the water at many CMS schools also did not help Wilcox. Many parents were furious that they did not hear about the lead testing or the results until it appeared in the media, months after it was discovered. Wilcox also came under fire for poor communications and response strategy after a student was fatally shot on the campus of Butler High School in Matthews.

This is a developing story.

Education reporter Gwendolyn Glenn joined WFAE's Sarafina Wright to talk about what we know.

WRIGHT: Gwen what do we know about the suspension?

GLENN: Not a lot. After numerous calls where we weren’t able to find out a lot about Wilcox’s status, CMS officials sent out an email confirming that Wilcox has been suspended and that it is effective today. He will continue to receive his salary, which was raised in January to $307,000. No reason was given for the suspension. CMS officials have simply said that this is a personnel matter and that they cannot provide further details at this time.

Wright: Did the email have any information on who will take over his position?

Credit WFAE

GLENN: Yes, Earnest Winston will be the acting superintendent. He is the district’s chief of community engagement and ombudsman. Winston came to the district in 2004 as a teacher and quickly moved to administration. In 2012 he became the superintendent’s chief of staff, but when Wilcox was hired and began work, Winston was named to his current position.

WRIGHT: And there was controversy around Winston’s appointment as ombudsman?

GLENN: Yes. First, the position was not posted and some questioned his salary of $175,000. Also, as ombudsman, Winston reports to Wilcox. Most school district ombudsmen do not report to the superintendent but the board of education to maintain neutrality in the issues they handle.

WRIGHT: Have we heard from Wilcox?

GLENN: Ann Doss Helms, who will be joining the WFAE news team, talked to him briefly this morning and he said he was told to refer all questions about his job status to the board.

WRIGHT: Does he have a lot of supporters in the district who may be upset by his suspension?

GLENN: I’m sure some teachers will be concerned. Wilcox supported pay increases for them. And also many parents also like the way he’s pushed for equity in schools, a more diverse curriculum and making advanced classes more available to students of color.

WRIGHT: He’s also been criticized on some fronts as well, correct?

GLENN: Yes, some were upset that they were not made aware of the tests and positive results of lead in water in many schools and also that new employees were not fingerprinted and many criticized the district’s communications during the (fatal student shooting at Butler High last October.)

Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.
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.