Education

Commitment and controversy: New CMS chief’s past offers fodder for fans and critics

Washington County Superintendent Clayton Wilcox addresses new teachers at South Hagerstown High School.
Washington County Superintendent Clayton Wilcox addresses new teachers at South Hagerstown High School.

Clayton Wilcox will arrive as superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools next year bringing a reputation as an innovator with a passion for helping students read, for making sure students of poverty aren’t neglected and for creating “boutique schools” that help teens explore their passions.

He also comes with a history of controversy, having left two superintendencies with boards split over his performance. In his current job with Washington County Public Schools, a small, rural district in western Maryland, he works for a sometimes dysfunctional board – it has asked the state to remove one member for misconduct in office – where his supporters lost their slim majority in the November election.

The editorial board at the local newspaper, the Herald-Mail, concluded that Charlotte got the better deal by taking Wilcox and leaving the school board for Hagerstown: “Unfortunately, it has been a pattern here that intelligence and innovation are not always appreciated.”

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education announced that Dr. Clayton Wilcox will become the next superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools effective July 1, 2017. Dr. Wilcox comes from Washington County Public Schools in Hagerstown, Mary

CMS board members say they knew about his controversies when they chose the 61-year-old Wilcox, who has also led districts in Pinellas County, Fla., and East Baton Rouge, La. They say it’s just the price of experience. “The only way not to make mistakes is to not do anything,” said member Paul Bailey.

I experienced him as a really good listener and a really thoughtful responder.

CMS board member Tom Tate

Wilcox has experience in most of the challenges CMS is facing, though there’s room to debate whether that experience is good preparation or a red flag for Charlotte.

For instance: His tenures in East Baton Rouge and Pinellas County were defined partly by struggles over student assignment. In both districts he led transitions to neighborhood school plans – and in Pinellas County, the results were the focus of the Tampa Bay Times’ 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Failure Factories,” which highlighted dismal academic results, safety problems and low teacher quality in five high-poverty, mostly black elementary schools.

Wilcox says the 2007 vote to create neighborhood schools in the Tampa Bay district came as a response to community demand. Four months later, he resigned to take a job with Scholastic publishing company – and he says now that may have contributed to the problems that developed after he left.

“They didn’t keep their eye on it long enough to make sure that the changes were sustainable and sustained,” Wilcox said Friday. “As a superintendent going down that path, I should have stayed longer. I let opportunity get in my eye, and I probably shouldn’t have.”

I hope Dr. Wilcox will understand how Mecklenburg in 2017 differs from Pinellas in 2007, and that he will wholeheartedly embrace CMS’ efforts to decrease the number of high poverty schools.

UNCC Professor Roslyn Mickelson

In Charlotte, he’ll inherit the challenge of carrying out a still-evolving plan to use socioeconomic diversity measures to break up the racial and economic isolation that mark the district’s lowest-performing schools. He says he understands and embraces that mission, while realizing it won’t be easy.

Roslyn Mickelson, a UNC Charlotte professor and longtime advocate for desegregating schools, says she was surprised that the CMS board chose a superintendent with such a history.

“I hope Dr. Wilcox will understand how Mecklenburg in 2017 differs from Pinellas in 2007, and that he will wholeheartedly embrace CMS’ efforts to decrease the number of high poverty schools,” Mickelson said. “Because he is a seasoned educator and we have many wise people on our school board, I remain cautiously optimistic for CMS’ future.”

Board member Ruby Jones, an outspoken advocate for students of color, says she’s confident the board made the right choice.

“He is a person that can communicate, relate and win the mind and spirit and heart of diverse groups,” she said. “That is a skill set, but it is also a gift, an art.”

Wilcox says the CMS community will get a first chance to meet him Jan. 10 and 11, when he comes to Charlotte for the board’s vote on his contract. He officially starts work on July 1, but plans to spend extensive time here starting in mid-March.

The family business

Wilcox’s maternal grandparents left Mexico in the 1960s and settled in Iowa. He didn’t grow up speaking Spanish, but he was influenced by that branch of the family, where all the men had become educators.

Wilcox originally went to Drake University in Des Moines, majoring in political science and planning to become a lawyer. He says the uncles admonished him, saying “that’s not our business,” and he switched to studying education at University of Northern Iowa.

His career as a teacher, and later an administrator, took him to schools in Illinois and Iowa and to district headquarters in St. Johns County, Fla. He was hired for an administrative job in East Baton Rouge in 1999 and became superintendent in 2001.

It was a majority black district with about 52,000 students, most living in poverty. The district had been under court-ordered desegregation for 45 years. Wilcox and the board petitioned the courts to declare the district “unitary,” or in compliance with the plan, and lift the race-based mandates. The district and the plaintiffs worked out an agreement in 2003 that included expanding the district’s magnet offerings, and Wilcox was credited with ending the longstanding legal battle.

In an Associated Press story in 2001, Wilcox was quoted as saying equitable resources were more important than demographics: “This case was filed on behalf of black children because they didn’t have the resources to get the right education. I think if you asked them, they did not file for the right to sit next to white children.”

Bringing in an outsider

In 2004, Pinellas County conducted a national search for someone to replace a superintendent who was retiring after 14 years. It had been decades since the district had chosen a leader from outside.

Wilcox applied and emerged as the favorite of three candidates, with news accounts at the time saying board members liked his communication skills and passion for children. There was public debate, followed by a road trip in which all seven board members went to East Baton Rouge to check out his work. Finally he was hired to lead the district, which had 112,000 students.

Wilcox and his wife, Julie, who is also an educator, arrived with their two children and struggled to figure out a complex choice-based student assignment plan Pinellas was using at the time. The student assignment talks that would lead to the 2007 vote for neighborhood schools was a defining part of Wilcox’s legacy, and one that he discussed with the CMS board.

“Families really did want neighborhood schools. I don’t think there’s any doubt,” he said Friday. “We gave the community what it wanted.”

But it was hardly the whole of his legacy. He helped raise graduation rates, expanded vocational programs and revised middle school programs, according to news accounts. He also had public disagreements with some board members and the board’s attorney, and in 2006 won a contract extension on a 4-3 vote, the Tampa Tribune reported.

An abrupt departure

In spring of 2008, with the neighborhood schools plan ready to take effect and the district in the midst of a budget crisis, Wilcox asked the board to release him from the three years left on his contract. He had accepted a job with Scholastic, an educational publishing company the district did business with, and wanted to leave without serving the five months’ notice the contract required.

Both Scholastic and Wilcox touted the move as a chance for him to help build literacy on a national level, acting as vice president of education and corporate relations. It was also a significant pay hike over his $204,509 public salary, Wilcox acknowledged, though he never disclosed his private pay.

The candid and often controversial superintendent who pushed the Pinellas County school system into a new era ...

Tampa Bay Times description of Clayton Wilcox

Wilcox told The Tampa Tribune he left partly in frustration over legislators cutting education budgets: “Every year I’d end up having to cut budgets and cut people that were caring and passionate. And at some point that wears on you to the point where I wasn’t the kind of dad or I wasn’t the kind of husband that I need to be because I was going home angry.”

In May 2008, the Tampa Bay Times raised questions about his relationship with Scholastic before his departure, citing job discussions that started in 2007, paid speaking engagements with an arm of Scholastic and Wilcox’s use of a Scholastic staffer to help him get Broadway tickets.

In 2009, more than a year after Wilcox left the district, the Times reported that the Pinellas board had just learned that Wilcox had committed to give the Pinellas Education Foundation $1.5 million in public money for a culinary arts academy. Board members voiced frustration that they hadn’t been informed about the arrangement.

More career changes

Wilcox worked for Scholastic from 2008 to 2011, rising to the rank of senior vice president. But he says life in the private sector wasn’t the boon to his family that he had hoped. When both kids were in high school and Wilcox was traveling extensively, he says he realized “I was missing my kids’ high school experience.”

He and his wife agreed he’d return to district leadership, even at a reduction in pay.

In 2011 Wilcox was hired as superintendent in Washington County after he and two other finalists met with community, employee and student groups. The district has about 22,000 students, 70 percent of them white and almost half from low-income homes.

“He’s been one of the best things to happen to Washington County,” says Donna Brightman, who was on the board when Wilcox was tapped. But she says a rift opened between members like her, who came from the business community and wanted change, and retired educators who often questioned his initiatives.

Wilcox pushed for up-to-date technology and what he called “boutique schools” – small high schools with specialized themes, often created in partnership with businesses and higher education. During his tenure the district built a new administrative complex and has worked to develop an education campus in downtown Hagerstown that encompasses an arts school and a public service academy. He’s a proponent of the middle college model that CMS also uses, which allows students to earn free college credits while attending small schools on community college campuses.

Wilcox has also piloted a pay-for-performance system at a handful of schools.

But he has faced criticism from the teacher’s union (Maryland, unlike North Carolina, has collective bargaining) and some board members who wanted to see more money spent for across-the-board raises. Annual board votes to extend his contract have split 4-3.

In 2015, reflecting on his first four years, Wilcox acknowledged frustration with board communication but told the Herald-Mail he expected to stay in Hagerstown until the end of his career.

Next step: Charlotte

But 2016 saw further complications.

One board member came under fire for doing business with the school system while denying it on disclosure forms. Another posted Facebook messages accusing the district of failing to take action against sexual predators in schools. Wilcox said investigations found no evidence to substantiate her claims, and in October the board voted 7-0 to ask the state to remove her from office.

And in November’s election, the balance tilted when one of Wilcox’s supporters didn’t seek re-election and Brightman lost her seat. By that point, Wilcox had quietly applied for the Charlotte job, a move he said he made after a colleague told him he’d be a good fit.

He was one of six invited to Charlotte for a first round of interviews in November, and two who spent a full day in private interviews with the board earlier this month. McPherson & Jacobson, the board’s search firm, did extensive background checks, and three board members said they were aware of the challenges and controversies he had faced in other districts.

The nine-member CMS board was split between the two finalists initially, but agreed on Wilcox. Four board members who talked about him last week said they liked his mix of experience and ability to look at CMS with fresh eyes – along with a personal style that the public will soon see for themselves.

“I experienced him as a really good listener and a really thoughtful responder,” said member Tom Tate. “I found that really inspiring.”

Wilcox says he can be seen as uncompromising if he believes someone is putting adults ahead of students or accepting that “kids from the wrong side of the track” can’t succeed. But he says he’s not coming in with a target list of things that need to change in CMS.

Instead, he said, he’s eager to get to know his new district – and for Mecklenburg County to get to know him.

Researcher Maria David contributed.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

Clayton Wilcox

Family

Wife, Julie, is a reading interventionist with Washington County schools. Son Tanner, 23, is a recent graduate of West Virginia University; daughter Morgann, 20, is a student at Virginia Tech.

Career

▪ Superintendent of Washington County Public Schools (Hagerstown, Md.), 2011 to present.

▪ Senior vice president of education and corporate relations, Scholastic Inc., 2008 to 2011.

▪ Superintendent of Pinellas County Schools (Largo, Fla.), 2004 to 2008.

▪ Superintendent of East Baton Rouge Parish School System (Baton Rouge, La.), 2001 to 2004.

▪ Held other administrative jobs in East Baton Rouge and St. Johns County (Fla.) School District. Taught school and served as a principal and assistant principal in Illinois and Iowa.

Education

▪ Doctorate in educational leadership, Nova Southeastern University (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

▪ Bachelor’s degree and master’s in education, University of Northern Iowa (Cedar Falls, Ia.)

Awards

▪ Excellence in Education Leadership Award from the Education Research & Development Institute, 2014.

▪ Outstanding Leader Award from the International Society for Technology in Education, 2014.

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