The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board has hired a global public relations firm for $30,000 that specializes in crisis management to deal with the aftermath of the suspension of Superintendent Clayton Wilcox. The board suspended Wilcox Monday with pay.
CMS officials hired the Ketchum PR firm, whose clients have included Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal and Malaysia Airlines after a plane disappeared five years ago.
Citing state personnel law, board members are not budging from their decision to keep the reasons for the abrupt suspension of Superintendent Wilcox confidential. Sharika Comfort, an organizing director a group primarily made up of CMS graduates, Students for Education Reform, called the action disheartening. She says school officials are obligated to be more open about Wilcox’s suspension.
“With the board being elected officials, they're public officials," Comfort said. "I think there is a level of trust that you put into your elected officials, and in return I do think that the public deserves that transparency. Hopefully before final decisions are made there will be a level of transparency with the general public.”
Wilcox has been criticized for hiring a company to do background checks on new employees without including fingerprinting, for not disclosing lead testing results in some schools’ water, for hiring former Maryland colleagues at high salaries, and for a disorganized emergency plan when a student was fatally shot at Butler High. But Comfort thinks Wilcox’s successes during his two-year tenure far outweigh shortcomings.
“Definitely the equity policy and getting it on the books, as well as our acts around transparency with credit recovery and ensuring that consent forms are issued for every student before enrolling them into credit recovery as well as the effort to ensure that that AP courses are offered at every school — that was one of his big pushes and initiatives,” Comfort said.
Some teachers contacted say the superintendent’s suspension took them by surprise, but they would not go on record because they say CMS officials told them to refer all questions to the communications office. One teacher, who often testifies at school board meetings, Justin Parmenter, did comment. The Waddell Language Academy teacher says Wilcox was supportive of teachers and he was saddened and confused when he leaned of the suspension. He wants answers although he says he understands board members can’t say too much because it’s a personnel issue.
“We have to respect the legal process that goes along with this and we have to respect the fact that there are statutory confines that are put into place that are there for the good of employees,” Parmenter said. “I just hope that at some point we can be assured as a community that this was the right thing.”
Either way, Parmenter says the leadership turmoil won’t keep educators from doing their jobs.
“The first day of school is going to approach at the same pace that it always does regardless of what’s going on in the offices at the top," Parmenter said. "Teachers are going to have to be ready to put on their game face for their students on the first day.”
In the meantime, with schools set to open in about six weeks, Earnest Winston, CMS’s chief of community engagement and ombudsman, is now acting superintendent.