CMS board to meet Friday morning to consider superintendent’s contract

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board will hold a closed session meeting on Friday to discuss the superintendent’s contract.

The board plans to meet in the Government Center at 9:30 a.m., a week after it held a five-hour closed meeting session to evaluate Superintendent Clayton Wilcox.

Wilcox has been suspended with pay by the board since Monday. The board has said it cannot disclose further details of the suspension as it is a personnel matter.

If the board were to fire Wilcox, it would have to move into open session before it could do so. Frayda Bluestein, a professor of public law and government at UNC’s School of Government, said because personnel matters are allowed to be confidential, local boards may suspend superintendents in closed session, the Observer reported Monday. Only votes to hire or fire must be taken in open session, she said.

Since Wilcox’s suspension, CMS ombudsman Earnest Winston has been serving as acting superintendent. The board has hired Ketchum PR, a global public relations firm that specializes in crisis communications for $30,000, WFAE reported Tuesday.

The board met twice in closed session in recent weeks to discuss Wilcox’s performance, just months after unanimously voting to give him a raise in January. They granted a pay and benefits increase totally $37,000 annually, on top of a two-year contract extension to 2023, at a salary of $307,000.

In his first two years on the job, Wilcox has put a focus on equity, including presenting a report on the links between poverty, race and academic achievement in the district. In May, the board approved an equity policy, which calls for ways to monitor and measure equity in schools. It also creates a committee of up to 40 members to act as a watchdog to the district’s progress.

But some of his decisions have been sharply criticized, including early on when he brought two top administrators from his past district for jobs that weren’t open to other applicants. He later faced criticism for his delay in disclosing lead testing results in schools, and for his handling of a fatal shooting at Butler High School.

Nationally, estimates of superintendent tenure range from three to six years, on average. Wilcox has been on the job for two years.

The suspension of Wilcox puts CMS in into the second leadership crisis in five years, after former Superintendent Heath Morrison was forced to resign in November 2014. He had been on the job two years when the board announced he 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. The board voted to allow him to resign and signed a confidentiality agreement that prevented officials from publicly revealing the reason for his departure.

The shakeup in the top job comes just over a month before the start of school. At a community meeting Monday, board chair Mary McCray reassured those in the audience that the priority remained on the upcoming year.

“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.”

Wilcox’s contract dictates that the board can suspend or place him on temporary leave with pay. If the district fires him for a specific reason, under termination “for cause,” it would not be required to pay him a severance.

If he is fired without a specific reason, or terminated “for convenience,” the district would be required to pay his base salary for two years and he would be required to abide by confidentiality after leaving. He could not sue the school district, the board members or any CMS employee, according to his contract.


An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of public relations firm Ketchum PR.
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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.