Quiet agitator at CMS prepares to rattle some cages in his second year

A year ago Clayton Wilcox came to Charlotte as an enigma.

He was a registered Republican hired by a Democratic school board, a little-known applicant hired without public interviews and announced in a press conference he didn’t attend. Where his predecessors leapt into the spotlight that comes with leading one of America’s largest school districts, Wilcox was happier listening quietly than making speeches before cameras.

But when he did speak, his words packed punch. A year into the job, Wilcox has built a reputation as an advocate for the kids who need the most help — black and Latino students, children with disabilities and families living with poverty and trauma.

“Many of our kids are really suffering from the impact of poverty and racism,” Wilcox said in February. “And to step away from that would be criminal on our part.”

Few people’s work matters as much to the Charlotte region as the superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. When The Charlotte Observer and the (Raleigh) News & Observer recently polled some of North Carolina’s most influential citizens, they listed public education as their top concern, vital to the state’s economic future.

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The success or struggles of CMS shape life for everyone in Mecklenburg County — not just where kids go to school and what kind of education they get, but what homes sell for and whether businesses can find qualified workers. Wilcox, 62, hopes to prevail in a fiercely competitive atmosphere, where demographic trends hint at first-ever enrollment declines.

In his first year Wilcox has built a fan base, as well as detractors. He has logged significant victories: Voters approved a record school bond package last November, and county commissioners gave CMS money for a local teacher raise in June.

This coming year, he plans to take on bigger challenges. He wants to do more to open doors for the neediest students, even if that means moving top teachers to schools that need the most help. To do that, he’ll need to persuade “the wealthy suburban families” that this can be done without harming their children.

“You can’t just expect people to give up their comfort, to give up their power, to give up their standing without understanding that they’re not somehow diminished by letting people rise up,” Wilcox said.

That requires showing success, telling the CMS story — and doing it with the subtlety he says his first year has taught him is required in Charlotte. Ideally, he says, he’ll suggest, remind, joke and prod until people feel like the changes he wants are what they want, too. But he says he won’t hold back when children aren’t getting what they need.

“Part of my role as a superintendent is to stir things up a little bit,” he said. “I don’t want to say that I’m the agitator-in-chief, but if I don’t question practice, who will?”

Starting with a thud

When Wilcox, who had led three smaller districts and worked for an educational publishing company, interviewed for the Charlotte job, he sat down in front of the assembled school board. As he prepared to speak, the height adjustment on his chair abruptly gave way, dropping him several inches toward the floor.

After an awkward beat, Wilcox burst out laughing, then answered the question. That, says vice chair Rhonda Cheek, epitomizes what the board liked about Wilcox.

“We need someone who can roll with the punches,” she said. “His chair might collapse, but he is going to stay on point.”

Wilcox says his party registration came from his days in Florida, when it helped him get the ear of then-Gov. Jeb Bush. But he says he considers himself nonpartisan, and it has never been an issue with the majority-Democrat school board — nor an advantage with the mostly-GOP state Legislature.

“People, I don’t think, view me as being a political creature,” he says.

Although he doesn’t speak Spanish, he is proud to relate his maternal grandfather’s story of migrating from Mexico. And the board was happy to claim someone whose heritage reflects that of a growing segment of CMS students.

In an unusual transition arrangement, Wilcox shadowed then-Superintendent Ann Clark for three months before taking office. He caught criticism almost immediately after being sworn in, when he bumped up salaries for his top administrators and created an unadvertised job for the husband of his chief of staff, who had followed Wilcox from Maryland.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett calls that “the single dumbest PR move I’ve ever seen in my life,” and says he remains unimpressed even after meeting Wilcox a few times.

“I don’t think he’s up to the job of running a school system this size,” Puckett said recently. “I hope I’m wrong.”

Even after he became superintendent, Wilcox was more likely to sit quietly in public meetings while his staff did the talking — a contrast to previous superintendents who tended to take a lead role in public settings.

“The community doesn’t know how to read him because he’s not out there promoting himself,” said board member Thelma Byers-Bailey.

One of Wilcox’s first tasks was making the case for a $922 million school bond package, the largest in CMS history. Puckett and other officials from the northern suburbs opposed the bond campaign.

Ultimately 73 percent of Mecklenburg voters said yes to the bonds, including a majority in the northern precincts.

“It gave me a lot more courage to do the work,” Wilcox says now.

Breaking the link

Previous CMS superintendents have introduced themselves with elaborately staged speeches to community leaders. Wilcox seemed puzzled when a reporter asked three months into his tenure if he had one planned.

Instead, he and his staff were crunching numbers for a report he’d release in February, titled “Breaking the Link.” It painted a grim picture of the academic prospects for black, Latino and low-income students in CMS, especially those in high-poverty resegregated schools.

Wilcox presented the report at a news conference, and again at a school board meeting. At the end of that session, Wilcox choked up when he spoke about the children harmed by racism and poverty.

“We have to own this today,” he said. “We have to create a sense of urgency and a sense of passion.”

In June, Wilcox made the closest thing to his “state of the schools” speech when he met with principals to recap his first year and outline his vision for the coming ones. He spoke passionately about a range of potentially touchy topics. He told principals he expects them to crack down on any staff who write off difficult students, make sure everyone understands all the cultures they encounter among students and colleagues and reduce the suspensions that land disproportionately on black males. And he said “magnetic principals” who can attract top teachers to schools where students are thriving can expect to give some up to schools where students need more help.

“Equity and culture are central to who we are in CMS,” Wilcox told the principals.

Wooing the suburbs

Wilcox says his biggest setback so far has been the district’s failure to fend off House Bill 514, which authorizes four suburban towns in Mecklenburg County to create their own charter schools. Town leaders cast the move as a defense against a district they described as unstable and unresponsive.

Despite months of talks with leaders in the town of Matthews and vocal support from some suburban parents, “we were not able to break through on some of the key issues,” Wilcox says.

While a war of words flared between town commissioners and school board members, some suburban leaders say they still have high hopes for Wilcox.

“I like Clayton Wilcox. I think he’s a smart guy,” said state Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican who introduced HB 514. “I’m hoping we will eventually be able to work together to get good things done for the kids of Mecklenburg County.”

Ray Eschert, founder of the influential Ballantyne Breakfast Club, said Wilcox has been a strong speaker and a good listener when he attended meetings. “I’d give him a plus.”

Mixed reviews

Community gatherings like that are where Wilcox has made his reputation. He has attended countless club, neighborhood and church gatherings across the county. Many who have met him in person describe him as accessible, down-to-earth and attentive.

Some of those sessions involved student assignment changes approved before Wilcox took office. He and the board were wrangling with the details even after classes dismissed for the summer.

Venita Hood, president of the University Park Creative Arts School PTA, spent months contesting the plan Wilcox inherited to add neighborhood students to the north Charlotte magnet school in 2018-19. His willingness to listen and revise the plan won her over, she says.

April Whitlock, a Dilworth Elementary parent, had a similar reaction. Parents were alarmed when they learned about changes to their transportation options. They complained, and within 12 hours there was an email from Wilcox pulling it off the table. She knows it’s a small thing in the scheme of a 150,000-student district, but “to the 1 percent that it mattered, it really mattered.”

Wilcox’s advocacy for disadvantaged students has also won some praise. “I’m impressed,” says Dee Rankin, education chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus. “I think he’s done a pretty good job, but we’ll see from here.”

On the other hand, Corine Mack, president of the local NAACP branch, says she has gone to Wilcox with specific complaints about “racism, bigotry and bias” but nothing has happened. “There’s too much talking and not enough changes,” she says.

Focus on the future

Wilcox and the board will hold a retreat later this month to talk about the next six years, a cycle he says will carry this year’s kindergartners through to middle school.

He told the principals that he plans to zero in on classrooms: Celebrating teachers who excel, cracking down on those who take shortcuts with even the most difficult students, setting uniform standards for what all CMS students should learn in each grade and demanding that all educators understand other cultures.

He also joked that he was letting them in on a secret: “I don’t really care about test scores.”

That’s not entirely true. Later this summer the state will release official data, and Wilcox’s evaluation and performance bonus will be based partly on those scores. He’s already seen the unofficial version and knows it will be underwhelming: mostly flat with some slumps.

Wilcox knows that will bring cries of “Why are we wasting money on ...?” But he hopes to persuade skeptics that CMS is laying the groundwork for changes that really matter, from stronger arts programs to more high-school courses that teach lucrative job skills.

If students and teachers can find their passion for the work, higher scores will follow, he told the principals.

“What we do does not have to be mind-numbing,” he said. “What we do does not have to be the stuff that sucks the joy out of one’s soul.”

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