With alarming new CMS allegations, school board has one clear path forward

It’s become a familiar refrain from this editorial board that the CMS Board of Education is unnecessarily secretive about its decision making, and that the board’s reflexive disdain for transparency is more than a disservice to the public. It also brings damaging consequences for the district.

Such is the case once again this week as new details emerge about the tenure of former CMS superintendent Clayton Wilcox. A subscriber-only report from the Observer’s Annie Ma and Fred Clasen-Kelly revealed Tuesday that Wilcox, who was suspended in July and resigned a short time later, was the subject of at least two whistleblower complaints from senior CMS administrators. The complaints allege that Wilcox repeatedly made comments and jokes that employees considered offensive to women, blacks and some ethnic minorities.

The details of those complaints are alarming. Also troubling is that at least one of the complaints didn’t result in Wilcox’s suspension. What did lead to the superintendent and CMS eventually parting ways? The school board won’t say — and worse, has been deceptive about its silence. In July, when announcing Wilcox’s resignation, board chair Mary McCray said that state privacy laws prevented her from revealing why the superintendent was leaving. That wasn’t true. As the Observer reported then, state law grants school districts and other government bodies the authority to release personnel information when that information helps protect public confidence in government.

That confidence was and is relevant in Wilcox’s case, and it’s become exponentially so in light of the whistleblower complaint revelations. By continuing to hide what’s behind the superintendent’s departure, the board has left unanswered important questions about CMS policy and practice regarding the misbehavior of employees and administrators. Instead of being a district that can assure families it doesn’t tolerate behavior that’s offensive to women, blacks and ethnic minorities, CMS has instead given people reason to wonder exactly what the former superintendent got away with and why.

Also relevant now is this important question: Do higher level CMS employees get treated differently when they violate policy?

The school board could take a vote to authorize releasing information surrounding the departure of Wilcox, as Jonathan Jones, an attorney and former director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition, told the Observer in July. Instead, the board has declined to provide details that could help answer those questions — a continuation of a pattern that has eroded the public’s trust and resulted in decisions that might have been avoided with public input. That includes keeping secret in 2016 the superintendent search that resulted in Wilcox’s hiring. Had the board allowed the public to participate in the vetting of candidates then, it might have learned that Wilcox had a checkered and troubling pattern of behavior in previous jobs.

We’ve long wished that board members would learn this lesson, but we have some hope that with the departure of McCray, board veteran Ericka Ellis-Stewart and CMS attorney George Battle, a new board will adopt a different posture on being accountable to the public. Current board members don’t have to wait, including Elyse Dashew, who told the Observer editorial board last week that if she were to be reelected and named school board chair (as is likely) she would work to be collaborative and inclusive. That inclusivity, she said, would include the public.

Dashew and other board members should start down that path now. Hiding their decisions — especially the questionable ones — isn’t working.