Acting superintendent takes on latest challenge at CMS after Wilcox’s resignation

Before he became acting superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools last week, Earnest Winston’s job was to listen.

He listened to parents, to students, to staff, to anyone who felt like their voice went unheard by the vast and sprawling system that makes up the country’s 18th largest school district.

As the ombudsman for CMS, Winston was tasked with pulling on the right strings and finding the people who could solve the problems of those who came to him. Now, he takes over as the district’s leader just five weeks before schools open, balancing the needs of more than 19,000 teachers and staff and nearly 150,000 students and their families.

“I was a navigator and a troubleshooter,” Winston said. “Those are all skill sets that bode well for me as acting superintendent.”

Winston was named to take over as acting superintendent last Monday, after the board abruptly suspended Clayton Wilcox, who had been granted a raise just six months prior and had only been in the job for two years. The board unanimously approved a separation agreement with Wilcox on Friday — he will resign Aug. 2, with no severance package or additional payout.

Until his resignation date, he remains on suspension with pay. The school board has not said how long Winston will remain in the role.

Winston steps into the top job with little clarity on what led to his predecessor’s departure. The board has refused to say what exactly led to the suspension and resignation, citing personnel privacy laws.

School board member Ruby Jones said the board did not hesitate to ask Winston to take on the acting superintendent role. She described him as the person with all the answers when she first joined the board. She praised his ability to handle highly sensitive student and family issues with care.

“The stories go on and on,” Jones said. “He has the full trust of the board.”

Winston and his wife moved to Charlotte in 2002 from Ohio, where he was a reporter at the Mansfield News Journal and then the Cincinnati Enquirer. He has two children, both of whom are enrolled in CMS.

Before he joined CMS, Winston worked at The Charlotte Observer covering government, where he once wrote about his cousin Jennifer Hudson as she competed in American Idol.

While reporting a story about Leadership Charlotte’s inaugural class, he met former West Charlotte High School principal Bill McMillan, who asked Winston if he had an interest in teaching.

“He said, ‘If you’re serious about it, I can introduce you to some CMS people,’” Winston recalled. “A couple of weeks later, we were having lunch together, and that was, as they say, the rest is history.”

He left the Observer in 2004 to become an English teacher at Vance High School, teaching journalism and advising the student paper. Winston moved into district administration two years later as part of the communications department. He has moved up the central office since then, first as communications liaison for Hugh Hattabaugh, who eventually became interim superintendent in 2011.

He was promoted to chief of staff in 2012, and served in that role until 2017, when Wilcox named him the district’s first ombudsman. In the newly created role, Winston’s job was to serve as a bridge between the school district and the community, parents, staff and students at large.

At the time of his promotion, which came with a more than $40,000 pay raise for a $175,000 salary, some questioned the need for an ombudsman and whether the role would actually be an independent voice. Instead of reporting to the board, Winston worked for Wilcox, raising questions of whether he would have independence in complaints related to the superintendent’s office.

But despite the questions around the role, those who went to Winston said he personally always made them feel like they were being heard. He followed up on those meetings with concrete action, pulling the right strings to resolve the concerns brought to him.

When Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte NAACP, heard about a number of wrongful suspension cases, she went to Winston, who she said remained open to her and parents throughout the process. He investigated each case they brought to him, she recalled, looked into the evidence, and in most cases, those suspensions were expunged.

“He looked into what we said, and we were found to be correct,” Mack said. “I appreciate that. For me, it’s all about the investigation, because what the teacher says is not always true.”

But as Winston steps up from working through individual roadblocks to leading the entire district, Mack said she hopes he can take his dedication in tackling each unique case and broaden that to improving outcomes for children of color in CMS.

“I’m hoping that he’s going to be more aggressive than (the district) in the past,” Mack said. “That he’s aggressive about safeguarding our children and ensuring we don’t have resegregation, that our children are getting textbooks and not just white children.”

Winston and the board have repeatedly emphasized that the leadership turnover will not affect the district’s long-term vision and that they remain committed to following through on the 2024 strategic plan as well as its commitment to equity. Winston also said his focus remains on the start of the 2019-2020 school year.

On his first day as acting superintendent, Winston ended it at a community meeting about the future of West Charlotte High School, one of four schools that are still in search of principal. Originally, Wilcox was supposed to attend, but he was suspended that morning.

Winston told the crowd of parents, alumni, and community members that he was there to listen, to hear what they wanted in a school leader at a school he described as a “community institution” rich with history.

“I thought it was important from day one that I hit the ground running,” Winston said. “So that people understood CMS is moving forward, uninterrupted.”

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.