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What Wilcox Suspension Means For CMS

CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox has been suspended by the board of education. After a meeting Monday morning between Wilcox and some school board leaders, CMS officials announced his suspension in an email. Wilcox, the district’s fifth superintendent in 10 years, has only been on the job two years.

WFAE education reporters Gwendolyn Glenn and Ann Doss Helms join "All Things Considered" host Mark Rumsey with an update on Wilcox's suspension. 

RUMSEY: Gwen, let’s start with the reason for the suspension. What do we know at this point?

GLENN: Not a lot. CMS officials confirmed the suspension in an email after we made numerous calls but they would not say why he’s being suspended. The email said that this is a personnel matter and that they cannot provide further details at this time.

They did say that the suspension is effective immediately, today, and that Wilcox will continue to receive his salary during the suspension. And by the way, Wilcox’s salary was raised to $307,000 from $280,000 in January and his contract was extended by two years.

RUMSEY: Ann, did this come as a surprise to people who pay attention to the district or to Wilcox?

HELMS: I think so. I talked to Wilcox briefly this morning and he said he wasn’t expecting today’s action, though he declined to say anything more about it.

The board voted in January to extend his contract for two years. And everyone who watched the last search play out knows the board was desperate to find the right leader, make it work and shed its reputation for losing superintendents quickly.

Ross Danis, who heads the education advocacy group MeckEd, remembers leading community discussions during the 2016 search that led to Wilcox's hiring. He heard over and over that people wanted a leader who supports teachers, children and learning, who was skillful at managing change and who is "a good and decent person."

Danis told me this afternoon that as far as he could tell, Clayton Wilcox met those standards. He said he had no inkling something like this was coming.

"You talk about a person who is what he is morning noon and night. He listens, he does care, he does support teachers," Danis said.             

RUMSEY: How big of a deal is this, not just to CMS and parents, but to the Charlotte community?

GLENN: Mark, CMS is one of Mecklenburg County’s largest employers with more than 19,000 employees. And, of course, whether you have children in public school or not, your tax dollars pay for the system. CMS is the biggest local recipient of taxpayer money.

When there is uncertainty about the district’s leadership, hiring and promotions can be put on hold, potentially affecting a lot of people, and right now CMS is in the middle of implementing equity and student assignment policies and those could be affected, in addition to setting a long-term vision for the school system as well if there’s a vacuum at the top. 

RUMSEY:  What is the district's track record in retaining superintendents?

HELMS: Ten years ago Peter Gorman was superintendent. He resigned abruptly in 2011 after five years in the job to take a job in private industry. Since then CMS has had four superintendents and done two national searches. The search firm that helped the board hire Clayton Wilcox guaranteed its work for two years, promising to conduct a new search at no charge if he left within that time. Wilcox has been in the job two years and two weeks.

RUMSEY: OK, so we don't have details on what's behind the suspension, but are there issues that have gotten the superintendent into hot water?

HELMS: Most recently Wilcox has been under fire for dropping the fingerprinting for employee background checks, which is required by state law and spelled out in CMS policy. WBTV has reported on his changing explanations for why he did that.

In the past, parents have also been upset when there weren't told that tests had found unsafe levels of lead in water at some schools. And he faced criticism for the way he and the district communicated about the fatal shooting at Butler High in October.

When he arrived in Charlotte he came under fire for bringing in former colleagues from Maryland at high salaries, and for hiring the husband of his chief of staff, Laura Francisco, in a newly created, unadvertised position for $85,000 dollars a year.

But, ultimately, we don't know yet whether some or all of these issues were related to his suspension.

RUMSEY: What about his supporters?

GLENN:  There are many teachers who support him and I’m sure are concerned by the suspension. Wilcox supported pay increases for teachers from state and county officials and often called for them to get the resources they needed in the classroom. He did not call for them to hold their rally in Raleigh on a non-school day as state Superintendent Mark Johnson did this year.

And many parents also like the way he’s pushed for equity in schools, making advanced classes more available to students of color and for high-income and low-income schools to have at least 10 advanced classes. Some low-income schools have only a handful now. He’s also received praise for calling for a more diverse curriculum overall, where students of color can learn about their culture and see people who look like them included in instruction.

RUMSEY: What do you know about Earnest Winston, who has been named acting superintendent?

GLENN: Winston is the district’s chief of community engagement and ombudsman. He 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 in July 2017, Winston was named to his current position.

There was some criticism around his appointment because the position was not posted and his salary was bumped up to $175,000. Also, in his ombudsman role, Winston reports to Wilcox. Most school district ombudsman positions as set up to report to the board of education and not the superintendent to ensure their neutrality in the issues they handle.

RUMSEY: Do we know if and when Wilcox will return to the job?

HELMS: We don't know, but we know suspending a superintendent is not something the board would do lightly. If they've taken this action, they're having serious conversations about his future.

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.
Mark Rumsey grew up in Kansas and got his first radio job at age 17 in the town of Abilene, where he announced easy-listening music played from vinyl record albums.