This week’s decision to hire Clayton Wilcox as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ next superintendent came after a big-district leader the board had hoped to consider withdrew, leaving the nine-member board divided over two finalists, two board members said Thursday.
Wilcox is superintendent of Washington County Public Schools, a small, rural district in western Maryland. The board interviewed two finalists; the other has not been named.
“We really had a struggle trying to choose between the two,” said board member Thelma Byers-Bailey. “The vote kept flying back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. It was almost comical.”
This year the board adopted a new search strategy, dropping the traditional public interviews with finalists after the board’s consultants said confidentiality was crucial to attracting the best candidates.
The vote kept flying back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. It was almost comical.
CMS board member Thelma Byers-Bailey
In past national searches, CMS has kept names confidential until narrowing the field to three or four, at which point contenders had to agree to public interviews if they wanted to be considered.
Wilcox has gone public as a finalist in the past: When he was hired in Washington County in 2011 he was one of three who met the public. When Pinellas County, Fla., did its search in 2004, Wilcox was one of three candidates identified publicly. Wilcox was named the sole finalist, but hired only after the board publicly debated the decision and made a two-day group trip to the district he was leading at the time.
In the Charlotte search, McPherson & Jacobson got 52 applications in September. In an October meeting with the CMS board, a representative of the Omaha-based search firm stressed the importance of confidentiality moving forward: “I think we have some qualified candidates,” Steve Joel said, “but I think every one of them is a little bit nervous about confidentiality.”
The CMS board privately interviewed six semifinalists in November, then narrowed the field to two. The choice of a superintendent from a rural district with about 22,000 students – less than one-sixth the size of CMS – raised questions about whether the search had drawn applications from superintendents of large urban districts.
Byers-Bailey said one of the semifinalists came from a large district and that members wanted him as a finalist. But despite the confidentiality he withdrew, saying his wife decided she didn’t want to move to Charlotte, Byers-Bailey said. “We were mystified,” she said.
Board member Ruby Jones said at least one of the semifinalists withdrew. She said other “pretty plum districts” are also seeking superintendents, and she suspects that could have swayed decisions not to pursue the Charlotte job.
“While we are interviewing candidates, candidates are interviewing us,” she said.
Jones and Byers-Bailey said the split came because both finalists had strengths and supporters among the nine board members.
He is a person that can communicate, relate and even win the mind and spirit and heart of diverse groups.
CMS board member Ruby Jones
Eventually the group agreed on Wilcox. His experience in Pinellas County, a district of more than 100,000 students in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, gave CMS members confidence that he’s ready for a district of more than 147,000 here, Board Chair Mary McCray said in announcing the decision.
Jones said his experience and communication skills also boosted him to the job: “He is a person that can communicate, relate and even win the mind and spirit and heart of diverse groups.”
The board timed its Wednesday afternoon announcement to coincide with Wilcox breaking the news to the Washington County school board. The goal was that no one in either area would learn about it second-hand.
But someone nearly preempted the Charlotte announcement. Almost three hours before the scheduled news conference, someone using the Facebook name Shawn Hannibal posted a comment on an Observer story about the pending decision: “A guy name last name wilcox. Havent heard too many good things about him.”
The Facebook page identifies Hannibal as someone who works at Carowinds and attended UNC and Independence High. Hannibal later told the Observer he got Wilcox’s name from a CMS administrator who is a friend. But CMS spokeswoman Renee McCoy said employees weren’t told the name before the announcement.
The announcement itself, carried live by CMS and media outlets, left some people perplexed. Wilcox wasn’t there, and board members said no visit has been scheduled. McCray, General Counsel George Battle III and Vice Chair Elyse Dashew spent a total of 10 minutes talking about the process, outlining Wilcox’s resume and fielding a few questions, with little said about why the board had chosen him.
MeckEd President Ross Danis, who is relatively new to Charlotte and attended the announcement, said it struck him as just a first step: Announce the choice before it leaks, with Wilcox’s public debut to follow.
“I think what they did was be as transparent as possible,” Danis said Thursday. “We’ll spend time introducing him to the community later.”