CMS school board names Earnest Winston superintendent, saying it wants stability

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board moved swiftly Friday to name acting superintendent Earnest Winston to the job long-term under a three-year contract. He becomes the district’s fifth superintendent in little more than eight years.

The board voted unanimously in a two-minute meeting, with member Sean Strain absent, to hire Winston to replace Clayton Wilcox. Winston will lead the nation’s 18th-largest school district with 148,000 students and 19,000 employees.

Friday’s meeting came two weeks after the board voted to accept Wilcox’s resignation, which took effect Friday. Wilcox had been suspended with pay since July 15 for reasons the board still has not publicly divulged.

Winston, 44, will be paid a base salary of $280,000 and $900 a month in lieu of a car allowance, bringing his salary total to $290,800. Wilcox had earned $307,000.

Ahead of the meeting, CMS sought approval from the State Board of Education to clear the way for Winston’s elevation. Unlike most superintendents of large school districts, he does not have advanced degrees in education.

Board Chair Mary McCray, in brief remarks to reporters after the vote, said the board sought stability and continuity in hiring the 15-year CMS veteran, but didn’t consider other internal candidates.

“The reason we are looking internally is that lots of times when you go outside and look externally, superintendents have a tendency to bring something in differently,” she said. “And we feel like we’re on a great course and we want to stay that course.

“We’re all on board with this, and that’s why right now, externally, we’re putting the brakes on and looking at how we can move forward with the initiatives we already have in place.”

Winston, whose has two children in CMS schools, and board members have said they remain committed to following through on the district’s 2024 strategic plan as well as its commitment to equity that Wilcox had championed.

McCray noted that CMS is looking to fill other key vacancies and that a short-term superintendency would limit the appeal of the district to job candidates.

Other board members quickly departed after the vote, avoiding reporters.

A statement from the board cited Winston’s “strong experience, steady dependability, constant commitment to all children, deep belief in collaboration and a leadership style that puts listening first.” It added: “We believe this decision reflects the community’s desire for stability, for calm guidance and clear focus on what matters most – our students and their teaching and learning.”

Community reaction ranged from support to flummoxed outrage.

Amanda Thompson, a 17-year CMS teacher who has served on the superintendent’s advisory council, said she’s found Winston to be helpful and supportive in her interactions with him.

His service through several other superintendents, she said, has shown him what works and what doesn’t. His experience as ombudsman, giving him direct interaction with “irate and frustrated” parents, she added, should yield valuable insights into the community at large. And Thompson’s not put off by Winston’s lack of professional degrees.

“It just goes to show that anybody can be anything, because he didn’t go the traditional superintendent route,” she said. “His experience and perspective will make up for that.”

Charlotte resident Tom Blomquist, who’s a past board member of Mountain Island Charter School, believes the CMS board is making a bad and inexplicable mistake.

“The school board doesn’t know what it’s doing to give a guy a raise and then you fire them,” he said, referring to Wilcox. Of Winston he added: “If you don’t have the experience or knowledge of (being superintendent), you’re walking into this ... naked. He’s never even been principal of a grade school. Nothing against him, but the school board is showing it doesn’t know what the heck it’s doing.”

The board’s trust

The American Association of School Administrators says that 75% of superintendents in districts with 25,000 or more students have PhD or EdD degrees, according to a 2015 study. CMS has about 150,000 students.

The State Board of Education authorized Winston to serve as superintendent even though he doesn’t meet those typical qualifications, said Todd Silberman, a spokesman for the Department of Public Instruction.

Winston met criteria from another path that allows someone to become a superintendent if they have “at least a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university and have five years’ leadership or managerial experience considered relevant by the employing local board of education.”

Winston told reporters “I wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t think (I)” was qualified to lead CMS.

“I feel that our State Board of Education as well as our CMS Board of Education have spoken to that particular issue.”

School board member Ruby Jones has described Winston 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.”

Ross Danis, president of MeckEd, a nonprofit group that advocates for equal educational opportunity, noted that non-traditional superintendents elsewhere have included a retired Army general in Washington state and a former governor in Los Angeles. Each time CMS hires a new superintendent from outside, he said, the district loses months of momentum while they get acclimated.

“CMS needs stability and continuity, and we think this decision makes that possible,” Danis said. “(Winston) might not have a traditional background, but he’s been in the district long enough to see through a strategic plan that’s already been developed.”

‘Vote of confidence’

Winston began his CMS career in 2004 as a teacher before moving into the central office, where he was promoted to chief of staff in 2012 and, until Wilcox’s suspension, had been the district’s ombudsman since 2017.

Winston, who has a bachelor’s degree, had worked as a reporter for The Charlotte Observer and the Cincinnati Enquirer before switching to teaching.

His elevation to superintendent evolved in conversations with board members during the two weeks that he temporarily led the district. “It happened very quickly, absolutely,” he told reporters Friday.

“Our board has spoken loudly and clearly with the unanimous vote. That vote of confidence means the world to me, and what I would say is that I bring 15 years of experience in our school district beginning as a classroom teacher, which I am extremely proud of, and have the experience of being a (CMS) parent.

“I’ve had the opportunity to build tremendous partnerships outside our district with some of our key partners. I believe that having stability during this key time of leadership transition is extremely important, someone who has the experience in the inner workings of this school district.”

Winston becomes CMS’ second African American superintendent, according to CMS’ history of the district, after James Pughsley, who served from 2002 to 2005. The CMS student body is 38% African American, 28% white and 24% Hispanic, and the school board has been focused for more than a year on breaking down barriers to academic achievement for students of all races and economic strata.

Dee Rankin, an African American CMS parent who is active in education issues, said he thinks Winston will benefit from the experience he’s gained in the central office for more than a decade. Having an African American superintendent as the district grapples with equity issues is also important, he said.

“It does play a part, because equity’s a big piece,” Rankin said. “When you have (black) leadership roles with the system being made up of majority-minority students, it gives them a good perspective to have leadership like that, that looks like students do.”

Former county commissioner and school board member Jim Puckett, who represented northern Mecklenburg, said the “incomprehensible action” of the school board in apparently forcing Wilcox’s resignation and hiring Winston should prompt Charlotte’s action to break up CMS into smaller districts.

Fast-growing suburban towns have long chafed at the perceived inaction of CMS to respond to overcrowded schools. Legislation approved last year lets municipalities form charter schools as a step toward more autonomy.

“With the removal of the most recent superintendent with NO indication as to why almost immediately after giving him a raise and contract extension, then the hiring of his replacement two weeks later with the admission from the board chair there is no need for ‘new ideas’ proves this board’s blind, and I would suggest insane, commitment to a failed course for education,” Puckett wrote in an email. “The failure of this board to reverse course places a target on this community and it is in my humble opinion your responsibility to remove yourself from the line of fire.”

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Bruce Henderson writes about transportation, emerging issues and interesting people for The Charlotte Observer. His reporting background is in covering energy, environment and state news.