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Opinion
Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

Another CMS superintendent is gone, and another school board fails to fully explain itself

At least this time the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board made a halfhearted effort to explain why they got rid of their superintendent.

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Around here, that counts for progress.

Almost three years after hiring him, and a little more than a year after giving him a contract with a big buyout clause, the school board voted last week to fire Earnest Winston. That puts taxpayers on the hook for the full buyout—almost $577,000 over the next two years.

After the vote, the school board released a batch of personnel files intended to explain why they fired Winston. According to the files, Winston was slow to act on key issues and bad at communicating. A staffer botched an investigation into a sexual assault at Hawthorne High. Another staffer hired an anti-racism speaker for $25,000 and then tried to keep a video of the talk from going public, which violates state law.

He also failed to improve racial gaps in academic achievement, which puts him in the company of most every other superintendent in the country.

The bottom line is that the school board decided Winston wasn’t up to the job. Which is exactly what a lot of people said when the board decided to hire him in the first place, even though he had never even run a school, much less an entire school system.

Winston’s main selling point was that he was not Heath Morrison and Clayton Wilcox —two CMS superintendents, brought in after national searches, who left their jobs for reasons that were apparently too sensitive to talk about.

Morrison suddenly resigned in 2014 after two and a half years on the job. Wilcox resigned in 2020 after two years. Local reporters, including WFAE’s Ann Doss Helms, rooted out reasons why both men were under pressure to leave. But to this day, CMS has never officially explained why either one left.

This time around, the school board called a special midday, midweek meeting when many parents were likely to be at work. And instead of fully explaining their reasons in the public forum, they did a document dump after the meeting was over.

I know, like and respect individual members of the school board. They have hard jobs — not as hard as the superintendent’s job, but hard enough. But as a collective, the only word I can think of for how they handled all this is cowardly.

And that extends back to the school boards that never explained why Heath Morrison and Clayton Wilcox had to go.

Our school superintendent’s job is one of the hardest local government jobs in America. Whoever takes the job has to deal with one of the country’s biggest school districts. There are kids trying to get to the Ivy League and other kids just trying not to starve. They come from all races, places, backgrounds and cultures, and they speak a multitude of languages. And some of their parents live their days fuming every time a dollar is spent on someone else’s child and not on theirs.

I don’t fault our school boards so much for picking the wrong people — I’m not sure the right person for the job even exists. What I do fault them for is creating such a fog of confusion, deflection and distrust. It’s as if the public worked for them instead of the other way around.

And now we’re left with a job that I’m afraid only someone with a serious savior complex is even going to want. If you really did have a gift for running a school system, and you looked at our history over the last 10 years: Why would you come?

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.