That’s the new boss mowing the lawn. Why Clayton Wilcox’s quirky debut matters to CMS.

Bright and early on the Friday when school ended, Clayton Wilcox reported to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ Reid Park Academy in jeans, a T-shirt and work boots, hopped on a mower and started cutting grass.

Wilcox isn’t a groundskeeper. He’s the new superintendent of one of America’s biggest school districts. And if his hiring in December broke with Charlotte tradition, his extended transition into one of the region’s most important public jobs has shredded it. He’ll be sworn in on Monday, but he’s been in Charlotte learning the job since March.

A 61-year-old native Midwesterner, Wilcox didn’t bring an entourage when he joined the CMS grounds crew. He thought about snapping a selfie but decided that was too vain. He just wanted to know what it would take to get the 170 schools he’s about to oversee looking better.

“It’s one thing to review it on paper,” he said. “It’s another to spend time with the guys who are doing the work.”

The district and the community have a history of treating superintendents like celebrities: A national search culminates in a public parade of finalists, who compete to dazzle audiences with their grasp of CMS. The winner arrives to a beehive of public appearances and media coverage.

But the last such arrival ended two years later in turmoil and accusations of mismanagement. When then-Deputy Ann Clark was promoted in 2015 she became the fourth superintendent in five years. As board members began another national search, they said they wanted to emphasize stability and expertise over flash and ambition. They scrapped the public interviews and announced Wilcox’s hiring at a brief news conference that he didn’t attend.

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A long, odd transition

Wilcox’s contract called for him to spend up to 80 days before his official start “familiarizing himself with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg community” and preparing for the job. He’s paid a daily rate of $1,077, a pro-rated share of his $280,000 base salary.

Board Chair Mary McCray said other new superintendents have spent their first 100 days on “listen and learn” tours. But with urgent challenges looming, from making new student assignment changes work in August to gearing up for a November school bond vote, the board wanted Wilcox to be prepared so he won’t be “slapped in the face with it come July.”

That preparation started when Wilcox left his old job as superintendent of a much smaller district in Hagerstown, Md. He’s been working from a Government Center conference room next to the superintendent’s office. Clark, who was capping a 34-year career in CMS, kept the corner office until late June, though he says she offered it to him earlier.

Clark continued to lead board meetings, with Wilcox and his new chief of staff sitting quietly at a side table. Wilcox had cards printed, listing his title as “incoming superintendent,” but even as the hand-off neared the CMS website offered no information about how to reach Wilcox.

Wilcox, who led three districts before coming to CMS, says he and Clark agreed that employees would report to her until her last day June 30, though she began making introductions to key staff during the last two weeks. This has been an unusually long entry, he says, and sometimes awkward: “I wish there would have been someone who really organized the transition.”

But Wilcox says he had no interest in elbowing aside an educator he respects. Nor is he trying to compete with such predecessors as Peter Gorman, a friend with “a persona that really filled up a room.”

“Maybe,” Wilcox said, “it’s time for that guy who just comes in and rolls up his sleeves and just does the work and lets the board shine.”

Wilcox doesn’t underestimate the importance of the work CMS does. He just downplays his own role. He talks about building on existing strengths, such as Clark’s push to improve literacy, and celebrating what’s already working here.

“At the end of the day it isn’t about the one person who sits here,” he said. “It’s about the collective will. I think all I can do is help create the conditions for improvement. I can’t make the improvement.”

Laura Francisco, who worked for Wilcox in Hagerstown before coming to Charlotte as his chief of staff, says her boss is more of a listener and partnership-builder than a politician who revels in the spotlight.

“It’s not about Clayton whatsoever. It’s about the people in the district,” she said. “He can be self-deprecating, which can be a purposeful skill.”

McCray says she’s not worried that people won’t see Wilcox as the boss when the time comes. “He’s his own person,” she said. “I think he’ll be OK.”

Why maintenance matters

Wilcox’s assumption of the top job coincides with the start of a campaign for voters to approve $937 million in school bonds in November. He knows it will be an early and important test of his leadership. He has done some of the traditional schmoozing with community leaders – Wilcox joined the Charlotte Chamber’s June trip to Dallas, for instance – but he also considers his time on the mower an important prelude to bond approval.

Not long after he arrived, Wilcox encountered criticism of CMS maintenance from county commissioners, who said voters wouldn’t approve money to renovate schools the district isn’t caring for. He looked at schools and decided the critics had a point. He believes his predecessors, trying to protect money for classrooms during tight times, may have cut too deeply on the staff who keep schools looking good and the tools they have to do the work.

“I’ve met with our facilities teams and I’ve said you know what, we have to do a better job of taking care of the outside of our schools,” Wilcox said in May. “We’re not getting them mowed and trimmed and edged. Some of the schools just look like we don’t take care of them.”

Then he asked Chief Operating Officer Carol Stamper to line him up with a crew. At Reid Park, he mowed the back half of the campus, then grabbed a blower to clear clippings from the sidewalk and bus lot. He discovered that his crew lacks some of the tools they need to create “a park-like manicure,” such as edgers and push mowers.

“I asked Carol if she’ll let me go out a few more times this summer and she said she would,” Wilcox said.

Francisco says Wilcox was known in Maryland for liking to spend time on the job with employees. “If he had a (commercial driver’s license) I’m sure he’d be driving a bus,” she quipped.

A new voice

Wilcox’s transition time was dominated by the final stretch of a two-year student assignment review.

Despite some public calls to delay and let him shape the decision, Wilcox said he has always understood his task to be executing the changes, such as new magnet programs and an assignment lottery driven partly by socioeconomic diversity.

“At the end of the day I’m absolutely supportive of the plan,” he said. “I’m going to work to the best of my capacity to implement a plan that exceeds the community’s expectation.”

But he wasn’t as enthusiastic about the process. He watched from the sidelines as members of the public struggled to find details of the district’s plans for assignment changes, even as Clark and her staff were holding numerous public meetings. Among his challenges: Because no one could find his contact information, he didn’t get citizen emails unless someone thought to forward them.

“I think we have a lot of room for improvement” in communication, he said in May.

Soon after Wilcox arrived, Chief Communications Officer Kathryn Block resigned. His chief of staff, Laura Francisco, is leading the search for a replacement.

Wilcox says he wants to work with independent news media while building a stronger direct communication system, using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and “emergent technologies.”

Wilcox himself is hardly a traditional corporate communicator. Even with three months in Charlotte under his belt, he struggles to recall the names of people he meets and schools he visits. In a district often marked by formality and caution, he sends emails peppered with emojis and signed “Clayt” (his childhood nickname is pronounced Clay-tee, though Francisco says only his family actually uses that).

And on a recent Sunday he posted a photo of his computer, a can of ginger ale and the view from his uptown apartment on Instagram, captioned “Mobile office on a Sunday. Sometimes you just work when the inspiration hits you.” Visible on his computer screen was the organization chart for his top staff. Although it didn’t include names, it created a buzz among senior staff who hadn’t seen the chart and wondered where they might land.

“I probably speak more from my hip than some leaders do,” Wilcox noted, “probably to the chagrin of the handlers.”

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

About Clayton Wilcox

▪ Has been superintendent of three other school districts: East Baton Rouge, La. (about 52,000 students); Pinellas County, Fla. (about 112,000 students) and Washington County, Md. (about 22,000 students).

▪ Spent three years as an executive with Scholastic educational publishing company, a job he says he left because it required too much travel.

▪ Started his career as a sixth-grade teacher in Illinois. Educated at University of Northern Iowa (bachelor’s and master’s) and Nova Southeastern University (doctorate in educational leadership).

▪ Wife Julie is an educator (not working for CMS); they have two children in their 20s.

▪ Renting an apartment in uptown Charlotte while buying a house in the Chapel Cove/Steele Creek area of southwest Charlotte.

▪ Follow him on Twitter (@Claytwilcox1), Instagram (@claytwilcox) and Facebook (@Clayton.M.Wilcox).

About CMS

▪ 18th largest school district in America.

▪ Educates about 147,000 K-12 students and 3,000 prekindergarteners.

▪ Employs more than 19,000 people.

▪ Has an annual operating budget of $1.4 billion.