‘It’s dysfunctional.’ CMS superintendent suspension leaves district in limbo again

When the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board gave Superintendent Clayton Wilcox a $37,000 pay raise in January, he said it would send a clear message to the public.

“We are on a path together as a leadership team,” Wilcox said at the time.

But six months later, the board has suspended Wilcox with pay and the district has been plunged into a leadership crisis for the second time in less than five years.

CMS has refused to say why Wilcox was suspended. Officials announced the suspension Monday, but have not indicated if Wilcox will return. The school board is expected to meet Friday morning to consider the superintendent’s contract, a source told the Observer.

With the start of school about a month away, some teachers, parents and public officials are wondering whether CMS will seek its third new superintendent since 2014.

“If the school board has lost confidence in the superintendent, they need to terminate his contract with cause, because we do not need to be in academic administration purgatory,” said Colette Forrest, former chair of the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg and a CMS parent.

School board members did not return multiple calls for comment from The Charlotte Observer.

At a community meeting Monday night, board Chair Mary McCray told the crowd that the district would continue to operate smoothly.

McCray did not say what led to the suspension or provide other details. She said privacy laws and provisions in Wilcox’s contract prevented her from saying more.

“We know that this news can cause concern, and that is why I want to reassure our students, their families, our staff members and the community that our work together for our students is continuing uninterrupted,” McCray said. “We are preparing for the start of the 2019-2020 school year everyday. The district has leadership in place, and I might add, great leadership.”

District ombudsman Earnest Winston will serve as acting superintendent during Wilcox’s suspension, the district said.

‘Back to square one’

For years, CMS has struggled with racial disparities in student outcomes, low teacher pay and unhappy parents in suburban parts of the county.

But public officials and others say repeated management shakeups in recent years have hindered the district’s ability to solve its problems.

A 2018 study by the Broad Center found an average tenure of six years for superintendents in the 100 largest school districts in the country, with big-city leaders lasting about 5 1/2 years.

Wilcox has been in his job for two years.

He replaced former Superintendent Ann Clark, a longtime CMS educator, who had been promoted after the CMS board forced the resignation of Superintendent Heath Morrison in November 2014.

Morrison — widely considered one of the top superintendents in the nation before he arrived in Charlotte — had been in the job for two years when McCray announced Morrison was resigning to care for his ailing mother.

The Observer later obtained a report by a CMS attorney that recommended leaders fire Morrison for allegations that he bullied staff and lied about spending. Board members voted to allow him to resigned and signed a confidentiality agreement that prevented officials from publicly revealing what led to Morrison’s departure.

Justin Parmenter, a seventh-grade teacher at Waddell Language Academy who has been with the district since 2002, said turnover in CMS’s top post usually means changes to classroom instruction and other policies that can impact how kids are taught.

Among the issues CMS has mulled, Parmenter said, is how to get more highly-effective teachers to take assignments at low-performing schools.

“It feels like every two or three years, we are going back to square one,” Parmenter said. “By the time changes start to reach the classroom level, it seems like a new superintendent comes in. ... I would like to see our results if we had stable leadership for five years.”

Lawrence Brinson, head of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, said Wilcox’s suspension has “blindsided” teachers who felt Wilcox has been supportive.

But Brinson said most teachers will focus on classroom instruction and try to ignore what’s happening between Wilcox and the school board.

“Our teachers are focused on the upcoming school year and what they can control,” he said. “They can control what happens in the classroom.”

Is CMS tarnished?

Little research has been conducted on the links between student performance and the longevity of superintendents.

A 2014 study by the Brookings Institute of districts in Florida and North Carolina found only a small connection, and noted that other system components had much larger effects.

But the forced ouster of Morrison in 2014 and Wilcox’s suspension have likely tarnished CMS’ reputation in the education world, said Jim Puckett, a former county commissioner and school board member.

The turmoil likely undercuts the school board’s ability to attract quality candidates if Wilcox is fired because the CMS school board has given the appearance that “it’s dysfunctional,” Puckett said.

“People will assume the board is not easy to work with or if the superintendent is irresponsible, that the board doesn’t know how to pick the right people,” Puckett said.

Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said CMS, like other districts that suddenly lose a leader, is in limbo.

“You have got a relationship with the person in the leading role and now you have to recalibrate,” Jewell said. “You feel kind of lost.”


An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the explanation school board Chair Mary McCray gave for former Superintendent Heath Morrison's resignation. It was to care for his ailing mother, not grandmother.
Annie Ma covers education for the Charlotte Observer. She previously worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Chalkbeat New York, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Oregonian. She grew up in Florida and graduated from Dartmouth College.
Fred Clasen-Kelly covers government accountability for The Charlotte Observer, with a focus on social justice. He has worked in Charlotte more than a decade reporting on affordable housing, criminal justice and other issues. He previously worked at the Indianapolis Star.