‘Undermining public faith’: Superintendent resignation prompts transparency concerns

When then-superintendent Heath Morrison resigned from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 2014, the school board originally told the public that he was leaving to care for his ailing mother. Shortly after, the Observer revealed an internal investigation into Morrison that raised questions about a “culture of fear” in the district.

“I know you have many questions at this time, but we’re unable to answer them,” board chair Mary McCray said at the time.

Five years later, McCray and the school board have taken a similar approach in handling questions about the resignation of Superintendent Clayton Wilcox.

Between giving Wilcox a raise and a contract extension in January and suspending him earlier this month, something happened to change the board’s opinion of his performance, but it’s not clear what that was.

“I was one of nine board members that supported (the extension) six months ago,” vice chair Elyse Dashew said on WFAE Monday. “We learned of some things that made us realize we needed to suspend him.”

Still, the public does not know what those things are. Nearly two weeks after the board suspended Wilcox, who agreed to resign on Aug. 2 with no additional severance, the question of what caused the board to lose faith in him so suddenly remains unanswered.

Since Wilcox’s suspension, some school board members have said their ability to comment on Wilcox’s resignation is limited by state laws that protect personnel privacy. Members have also said that a provision in the statute, which allows the release of information to maintain integrity in the board, does not apply in this case because an employee did not first disparage CMS or spread misinformation about the situation.

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Clayton Wilcox, the new superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, thanks the custodians for their hard work to keep the schools looking good for students at Waddell Language Academy on Tuesday, June 13. Jenna Eason

State law protects the privacy of personnel files, but makes an exception that allows the release of otherwise protected information “provided that the board has determined that the release of the information or the inspection and examination of the file or any portion is essential to maintaining the integrity of the board or to maintaining the level or quality of services provided by the board.” If the board votes to release, the superintendent then writes a memo outlining why revealing the information is necessary under the circumstances before it is disclosed.

But the law does not prevent the board from being the first to disclose information and there is no state Supreme Court case that sets a binding legal precedent, said Jonathan Vogel, an education lawyer who previously worked at the U.S. Department of Education.

“If the North Carolina Supreme Court rules one way, that’s one thing,” Vogel said. “But absent that, the statutes are open to interpretation.”

What meets the standard of maintaining the board’s integrity is for the board itself to decide, said Mike Tadych, whose work includes open records law and who serves as general counsel to the North Carolina Press Association. The Charlotte Observer is a member of the press association.

The board does not have to release everything, or any particular piece of information, he said, just what it determines is necessary to maintaining public trust. They could also decide there is no need to release anything.

“I would interpret the right to release as a qualified privilege from any sort of backlash as a result,” Tadych said. “It’s an acknowledgment (from the legislature) that we understand there are cases where this is justified.”

Boards usually work with their attorneys to determine when and what is appropriate to release, said Allison Schafer, general counsel to the North Carolina School Boards Association. CMS general counsel George Battle did not return requests for comment. McCray and Dashew also did not return requests for comment.

Schafer said that in her experience, school boards have only used that exemption when incorrect information is spreading, usually by a former employee. While the law does not prevent boards from opting for disclosure, Schafer said releasing information can often open boards to legal liability.

“The board gets to decide when it’s necessary,” Schafer said. “But you have to pull in the other laws. If that person hasn’t done anything to state incorrect facts, you have to be careful.”

Boards must also be diligent about an individual’s due process rights, Schafer said, and must also make sure what they release publicly is factually accurate.

“If there hasn’t been a hearing or if the facts haven’t been tested as accurate, you don’t just release allegations, because you could be sued for slander,” she said.

While the board’s separation agreement with Wilcox stipulates it will not disclose information from his personnel file, it makes an exception for cases “required or permitted in accordance” with state law. Tadych said that public agencies cannot enter into confidential settlement agreements.

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The CMS board voted unanimously on a separation agreement for Superintendent Clayton Wilcox at the Government Center in Charlotte on Friday, July 19, 2019. Joshua Komer The Charlotte Observer

‘Undermining public faith’

The board’s actions have prompted criticism for its lack of openness, including from the Observer’s editorial board. The lack of transparency from CMS in two consecutive superintendent resignations can look like a pattern of behavior, said Ross Danis, president of MeckEd, a nonprofit that promotes public education in Charlotte.

“The last search that led to Heath Morrison, and then his departure, raised the same issues,” Danis said. “What just happened can stir those feelings in people. Just as it died down, we’re going through this again. I think that’s what concerns people.”

Jim Puckett, a former county commissioner and school board member who has supported the creation of suburban municipal charter schools, said that the board’s decision to not pursue further disclosure only leads to rumors about the departure and gives fuel to critics who want to break away from the district.

CMS has strongly opposed any splits. Last October, the board responded to state legislation allowing municipal charters with a resolution that pushed the four towns in the charter bill to the back of the line for construction unless they renounced the charter option.

The current lack of transparency from the board can go against their interests by “undermining public faith,” Puckett said.

“This is just a continuation of the type of governance that has led to parents wanting to get out from under it,” he said.

Board members and the district have repeatedly reassured families and the community that Wilcox’s resignation will not affect CMS’s operations or goals for the upcoming school year. At the board’s Tuesday meeting, acting superintendent Earnest Winston emphasized that he was “committed to stability, to steady leadership and to making sure our work in CMS continues without interruption.”

The school board hasn’t said how long Winston will stay on as acting superintendent, or whether he will remain in the position until a new superintendent is hired. Winston could fill in for an extended period. Before Morrison was hired, then-chief operating officer Hugh Hattabaugh served as interim superintendent for a year.

The leadership shakeup comes as CMS pushes forward on ambitious plans. Under Wilcox, the district approved its first equity policy and will begin to form an equity committee of up to 40 people. This is also the year that new student assignment policies take effect, Danis said, on top of a number of school mergers.

“If people were concerned about things happening or not happening, in the absence of clarity and direction, it opens a door for things to be stalled,” Danis said.

The board hired a crisis communications firm, Ketchum PR, for $30,000, but has not said who authorized the spending. The Observer requested a copy of the contract with Ketchum last week, but the district has yet to provide it.

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Chair Mary McCray gives a statement leading up to a closed session after CMS suspended Superintendent Clayton Wilcox last week at the Government Center in Charlotte on Friday, July 19, 2019. Joshua Komer The Charlotte Observer

A new search

Wilcox’s exit puts the district in search mode yet again to find someone to step into the top job. The new superintendent will be the seventh in 10 years, including those who have held interim and acting titles. In the search that led to Wilcox’s hiring, the school board ended the district’s long practice of public meetings with finalists. Instead, the school board interviewed the two superintendent finalists in private, and it’s not clear yet how the board will handle the search for Wilcox’s successor.

McCray defended the decision at the time, saying that public meetings revealed little of substance about the candidates.

“What did you learn?” McCray asked in a 2016 story in the Observer. “You learned that they could answer questions on the fly. You saw how they smiled. You saw how they dressed.”

During the search that led to Wilcox’s hiring, MeckEd ran a series of community engagement meetings, which found that trust in CMS had not recovered from its handling of Morrison’s exit. Danis said that during the search, members of the community frequently brought up the board’s lack of transparency.

“To many community members, the person they put their faith in was ousted under mysterious circumstances,” a MeckEd report on the process said at the time. “A consequence is that trust in the School Board and trust in an authentic process experienced a steep decline.”

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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.