Education

‘He should know better.’ Ex-CMS superintendent Wilcox accused of racist, sexist remarks

As superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Clayton Wilcox built a reputation as an advocate for African American and Latino students.

Wilcox publicly criticized the district for failing children living in poverty, lobbied for millions of dollars to boost racial equity and released a damning report showing wide disparities between outcomes for white and minority students.

But behind closed doors, Wilcox stood accused of repeatedly making comments and jokes some employees considered offensive to African Americans, Koreans, Mexicans and women.

His alleged remarks and vulgar language prompted at least two senior administrators to send whistleblower complaint letters that went to school board members, according to two current CMS officials and one former district administrator with direct knowledge about complaints against Wilcox.

Wilcox’s alleged behavior contributed to nearly a dozen African American administrators leaving the district and threatened to derail efforts to improve academic outcomes for African American, Latino and low-income students, they and other current and former CMS officials said.

They requested anonymity to speak freely about what happened, saying they feared reprisals from CMS or their current employers because they still work in public education.

In one case, an African American employee told a top administrator that prior to a staff potluck celebration in December 2018, Wilcox asked if she planned to bring “Pop Tarts and Kool Aid like you feed your kids,” according to two current CMS officials familiar with the alleged complaint.

The staffer also told the senior administrator that Wilcox once asked if she would throw away a small plastic baggy, before saying “keep it and let your kids” put drugs in it, the officials said.

The employee, Tanisha DaCosta, worked as the superintendent’s administrative assistant at the time. DaCosta refused comment for this story.

Wilcox did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment for this story.

After two years leading the district, he was suspended in July and resigned a short time later without offering any public explanation.

It remains unclear if the accusations helped lead to Wilcox’s departure, but they are similar to alleged comments detailed in a February 2018 complaint letter, obtained by the Observer.

Brian Schultz, who was the district’s chief academic officer at the time, wrote that Wilcox made multiple disparaging remarks about staff members and that his comments showed a lack of sensitivity to women and different cultures.

When a woman who led a committee determining the district’s school schedule walked into an April 2018 meeting, Wilcox said “oh, here’s my little calendar girl,” Schultz wrote.

The woman was visibly bothered by the comment and other women present were also upset, the letter says.

In another case, the letter says, Schultz was discussing the role of a female district administrator’s department. Wilcox interrupted and suggested that the woman would never have a different position in CMS as long as he was superintendent because he believed she was taking legal action over an alleged pay disparity, Schultz wrote.

“I am both embarrassed and shocked that I feel compelled to report my concerns of a veteran educator who has led multiple districts,” Schultz wrote. “To say that ‘he should know better’ is (a) huge understatement.”

Schultz left CMS in June 2018 to become chief academic officer for Guilford County Schools. He is now an assistant superintendent of auxiliary services for Cabarrus County Schools. Schultz refused comment for this story.

Three members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education said they were aware of complaints about alleged racist and sexist comments.

Superintendent Earnest Winston, who was hired to replace Wilcox, previously worked as the district’s ombudsman, which tasked him with helping staff and the public find solutions to their problems.

Winston told the Observer that some staff members came to him with complaints about Wilcox’s alleged comments. He refused to provide details, saying the conversations were confidential.

Winston said he advised the employees on their options. He said he didn’t know if any of them took their complaints to the school board or the district’s legal department.

After reviewing the complaint letter from Schultz, school board member Rhonda Cheek said she and Board Chair Mary McCray met with Wilcox to conduct a “coaching session.”

“It was a sit down to discuss professionalism,” Cheek said. “We wanted to make sure he kept things buttoned up.”

Cheek said the board did not take any disciplinary action.

McCray said the board took steps to address the issue, but refused to provide specifics about what was done.

Two former CMS officials, who had first-hand knowledge about staff departures during Wilcox’s tenure, told the Observer that Wilcox’s behavior contributed to an exodus of principals and central office administrators, including a significant number of African American women.

Among the African American women who left were Timisha Barnes-Jones, the principal at West Charlotte High School; Denise Watts, community superintendent for Project LIFT; and Nicolette Grant, who was executive director of Teaching and Learning, all of whom were considered key players in the district’s push to close the achievement gap between white students and African American and Latino students.

McCray said she was aware of a number of departures by African American women and said that she found it “alarming.” She refused to elaborate, saying she did not want to discuss personnel issues publicly.

Complaints of racism

Wilcox won widespread praise during his tenure for making racial equity one of his primary goals.

When he met with school principals in June 2018, he told them they needed to make sure everyone understood all of the cultures they would encounter among students and staff.

“Equity and culture are central to who we are in CMS,” Wilcox said, according to a July 2018 article in the Observer.

But about four months earlier, some school board members received the complaint letter from Schultz, the former CMS administrator, detailing allegations of inappropriate remarks by Wilcox.

During a retreat attended by school board members and district staff in February 2018, according to Schultz’s complaint letter, Wilcox took part in a conversation about the ongoing Winter Olympics and apparently noticed that Vice President Mike Pence and Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un, were sitting near each other.

Wilcox told some staff members in attendance that he had heard that Kim had performed a sex act on Pence, according to the letter and another CMS official who was present.

CMS policy prohibits jokes, slurs and negative stereotyping on the basis of race, sex, religion and national origin.

Wilcox, whose grandparents immigrated from Mexico, frequently referred to himself as a “stealthy Mexican,” according to Schultz’s letter and CMS officials.

At one staff meeting, the complaint letter says, Wilcox provided information he said he wanted those in the room to keep confidential.

“He told the group he would ‘kill them’ if he found out anyone shared the information,” the letter says. “He continued by saying ‘No, I won’t kill you, but I will go Korean on you. No, not Korean, North Korean.”

Staff members sat silently, unsure if he was serious or joking, Schultz wrote.

“I am only thankful that one of our executive staff members, who is from South Korea, was not in the room,” his letter says.

Asked if she was aware of complaints about Wilcox’s alleged inappropriate comments, McCray said that she and other board members did not receive complaints from people directly affected by the remarks.

McCray said that Schultz’s letter describes incidents that happened to others, but not to him personally.

But Schultz wrote in his letter that he listed only incidents that he witnessed first-hand.

McCray said she did not seek out employees to learn more about the accusations in the letter.

Board member Thelma Byers-Bailey said that while she could not recall specific complaints, she remembers hearing about Wilcox’s alleged comments toward women and minorities.

Board member Carol Sawyer refused to answer questions, saying that she had no interest in discussing personnel issues.

Five other school board members did not return phone calls.

Exodus of black women

When a new superintendent comes to a district, some turnover among administrators typically follows.

Current and former CMS officials say that an unusually high number of African American women left the district after Wilcox took the helm in 2017.

At least 11 African American women who were central administrators or school principals departed. Some were considered top leaders and rising stars in the district, current and former CMS officials said.

Some in the district became concerned when Nicolette Grant, an administrator with more than 25 years experience in CMS, left the district in January 2019 for a job with Guilford County Schools, they said.

Worries grew this summer when two prominent leaders of Project LIFT — Denise Watts and Timisha Barnes-Jones — departed for new jobs. Project LIFT, a public-private partnership focused on West Charlotte High School and its feeder schools, recently ended after seven years.

Former CMS officials said that Barnes-Jones, Watts and others wanted to remain with CMS, but felt that Wilcox did not fully support Project LIFT and other racial equity efforts.

Barnes-Jones refused comment for this story. Watts could not be reached for comment.

Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte chapter of the NAACP, said she was aware that some community organizers and African Americans working in CMS were frustrated with Wilcox.

“There was a feeling that he did not respect African American women,” Mack said.

Schultz said in the letter that Wilcox’s behavior and lack of cultural awareness threatened to derail the district’s racial equity goals by driving away school administrators, lowering staff morale and negatively impacting community support.

“I cannot shake the pit in my stomach and the weight on my conscience that the most (recent) comments Dr. Wilcox made that are insensitive and degrading to both females and to people from other cultures,” the letter says.

Breaking The Link

Wilcox received praise after the release of a report called Breaking The Link, which detailed how African American and Hispanic students in high-poverty schools lagged white students in low-poverty schools, where access to veteran teachers and advanced courses was often concentrated.

“Many of our kids are really suffering from the impact of poverty and racism,” Wilcox said when the report was released in February 2018. “And to step away from that would be criminal on our part.”

Some advocates and community organizers have expressed frustration with touting Breaking the Link as an example of concrete progress on equity. Others have said that the report’s findings should not be news to anyone who closely follows education policy issues in the country.

Within CMS, some officials were concerned that Wilcox’s alleged comments and jokes about women and minorities were out of touch with the district’s explicit goals to improve outcomes for African American, Latino and low-income students.

In his complaint letter, Schultz wrote that he was disappointed in Wilcox’s “lack of interest in understanding our learners, our leaders and our communities.” He and other senior staff members, according to the letter, were growing increasingly concerned by Wilcox’s comments that showed a lack of sensitivity toward women and minorities at a time when CMS had made equity one of its top priorities.

“As you well know, this is a critical time for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools as we lead towards the goal of equity for all students,” Schultz wrote. “There is no doubt the negative impacts this type of leadership will have on retaining respected teachers and school leaders, staff morale, community support, and most importantly, student outcomes.”

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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.
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.
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