The last time the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education fired a superintendent, it lied about firing the superintendent. It happened just five years ago, when the board said then-superintendent Heath Morrison was resigning to tend to his ill mother. The board later acknowledged that Morrison actually had been fired for several performance issues.
It was an egregious lie, but it was far from the only time the board has been less than forthcoming with the public. So last Friday, when CMS board chair Mary McCray announced the resignation of superintendent Clayton Wilcox, no one could be blamed for raising an eyebrow at McCray’s claim that state privacy laws prevented her from revealing why Wilcox, too, was gone.
Once again, McCray isn’t telling the whole story. As the Observer’s Annie Ma, Bruce Henderson and Fred Clasen-Kelly report, state law grants school districts and other government bodies the authority to release personnel information typically kept private under the law to protect public confidence in government. The school board could take a vote to authorize the release of the information, said Jonathan Jones, an attorney and former director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition. Such action is not limited to when an employee spreads false information that the board must correct, as school board member Elyse Dashew said Monday to WFAE.
Instead, this school board decided to hide what’s behind the superintendent’s departure. It’s part of a disturbing pattern of secrecy, and every school board member who was silent Friday as McCray spoke is complicit.
Why does it matter? Time and again, this board not only has eroded trust by deliberately discussing and making big decisions in secret; it also has made poor decisions that might have been avoided with public input. That includes holding months of secret meetings to craft a reckless resolution last year threatening four suburban towns if they opted to pursue town charter schools. That resolution was met with severe backlash that stunned board members.
Most critically, the board’s disdain of transparency also might have come back to bite it with Wilcox, who was hired just as he was fired, with the public in the dark. The school board kept secret most of its search process in 2016, and it didn’t make Wilcox available to the public during the search. Had the public been allowed to join in the vetting, it might have learned earlier that Wilcox had a history of controversy, having left two superintendent positions with boards split over his performance.
The CMS school board likely knew that history, but board members were likely unaware of another red flag. While superintendent at the Washington County school district in Maryland, Wilcox allowed high school athletes to participate in a discredited chocolate milk study without getting permission from district officials — or even the students’ parents. When the Observer editorial board presented him with our investigation of that study, Wilcox offered explanations that appeared to be contradicted by evidence. He also said no one associated with CMS had asked him about it.
Was a similar disregard for protocol or ethics behind Wilcox’s sudden departure from CMS? The school board won’t tell us. It’s yet another indication that the board sees the public as a foe, not a partner. It’s yet another lesson not learned.