Clayton Wilcox, the Maryland superintendent named last week as the next superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, visited two schools on Tuesday, his first visit since the announcement.
But instead of the media mob that generally accompanies the arrival of a new district leader, the school board chose one television station to cover the visits. It’s one more sign that the current school board is revamping the public process that has traditionally accompanied a national superintendent search.
Dedrick Russell, education reporter at the Observer’s news partner WBTV, accompanied Wilcox on visits to Garinger High and Eastover Elementary on Tuesday. Russell noted that Wilcox paid for his own trip.
Board member Rhonda Lennon said Wednesday that the board’s “transition team” scheduled Wilcox’s appearances when they learned he was coming at his own expense. The goal was for Wilcox “to get to know staff, board members and our community on a small scale.”
“Staff and the board facilitated his visit,” she said. “And while it was not intended to be a ‘media tour,’ we did want to make sure the public could see and hear more about him and the WBTV story afforded us that opportunity because of their broad audience both on air and social media.”
That’s a departure from the culmination of other recent superintendent searches, in which the selection and introduction of a new leader have been choreographed public events with intense media coverage. Superintendents Heath Morrison, Peter Gorman and Eric Smith were hired after finalists met the public, and their transition visits were announced to all media.
This time, the board kept finalist interviews private, saying the public exposure could deter strong candidates who are already leading districts. Wilcox, superintendent of the Washington County school district in Hagerstown, Md., was one of two finalists brought back for interviews with the board. Board Chair Mary McCray and Vice Chair Elyse Dashew announced his selection in a 10-minute news conference last Wednesday.
Wilcox, who was informing his own board about his departure, didn’t attend the Charlotte announcement, and Dashew said his first visit had not been scheduled. CMS officials say they’ve agreed on a $280,000 salary; total compensation is likely to be higher once all the benefits are negotiated.
I called Wilcox’s office in Hagerstown shortly after the briefing ended. He replied promptly, did a short interview and provided his cell number. We followed up with a 15-minute interview on Friday, and Wilcox said he planned to be in town Jan. 10 and 11 for the board’s vote on his contract. He spoke with other Charlotte news media last week as well.
This week, Wilcox hasn’t returned my call and text asking about this week’s visit and future availability. Nor have McCray and Dashew.
And the Observer’s editorial board wrote two pieces last week that were sharply critical of the board’s private selection process and Wilcox’s background.
No experienced reporter is shocked at the idea that sources may turn chilly when they perceive coverage to be negative or unfair. What would be unusual would be to see this dynamic play out so sharply and quickly, before there’s even ink on a contract.
When I asked Lennon, who had voiced her displeasure at the first Observer editorial the night it was posted, whether the decision not to notify the Observer about Wilcox’s visit was related to news coverage and/or editorials, she answered indirectly: “It was a decision about having TV coverage,” she said, adding that Wilcox “just wanted to be under the radar and meet kids and staff.”
Later Wednesday, she added Wilcox hadn’t asked that the Observer be shut out. She added that the board team also scheduled him for two interviews with other TV stations that weren’t invited on the school visits. She said he also attended a Mallard Creek vs. Garinger basketball game without coverage.
I’ve noted publicly that the traditional pageantry surrounding an outsider’s arrival as superintendent can create unrealistic expectations about one person’s ability to save public education.
Still, the way a new leader approaches the community is real and valuable news. For instance, people and groups that weren’t included in the first round of “under the radar” meetings may well wonder who was.
It’s a delicate balance for the new leader of CMS to signal openness and attention to the myriad voices that make up this community. Wilcox’s success or failure in that effort will shape the civic and economic health of our region.
He’ll be the sixth CMS superintendent I’ve covered in 15 years (not counting interims), and I’ll do my best to keep you all fully and fairly informed, regardless of how he and the board approach PR. I’ve filed requests for his weekly schedules with CMS and with Washington County. Lennon called the request premature, saying that “as the transition moves forward we will get more of your questions answered and ... Mr. Wilcox will be more active and engaged in the community.”
So stay tuned.