Editorials

The new CMS superintendent has never been a superintendent. How much of a problem is that?

Earnest Winston, who was hired last week as superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, has no experience leading a school system, let alone one as large and complex as CMS. That’s prompted some grumbling around Charlotte, enough so that CMS official Charles Jeter offered an impassioned defense last week of Winston’s qualifications for the job.

“We have full trust in him,” Jeter said, speaking for a school board that declined to conduct a search before hiring Winston. Board members voted unanimously this month, with member Sean Strain absent, to hire Winston to lead the nation’s 18th-largest school district with 148,000 students and 19,000 employees.

There’s good reason for their faith. Winston is a 15-year veteran of CMS and has served in a variety of administrative roles, including chief of staff. He brings an intimate knowledge of the district and its challenges. He knows the academic, cultural and political landscape here. He knows teachers, principals and learning community leadership, and they know him.

That familiarity matters — if you’re equipped to take advantage of it. We believe Winston is. As most good bosses know, smart people can be smart in whatever they do, and thoughtfulness is a powerful antidote to inexperience. Winston may not have a line that says “superintendent” on his resume, but he does boast a long line of bosses and colleagues — including some from a stint at the Charlotte Observer — who have come away impressed with his intelligence and leadership potential.

And let’s face it: conducting a national search hasn’t exactly yielded the best results for CMS. Former superintendent Clayton Wilcox, whom Winston replaces, was a flawed candidate who ran into recent difficulty, although the school board refuses to let the public know why he was shown the door. It’s possible that a new search wouldn’t have provided someone better than Winston, especially given the reputation of a CMS school board that has gone through too many superintendents in too short a stretch.

We do, however, believe the board would have been better served at least trying a search. There’s only one way to truly know if the next administrative star is somewhere out there, or if the best superintendent option was indeed right here all along. A search also gives the public both comfort and confidence in the hiring process, something that’s especially important given the school board’s many recent bouts with transparency. That public confidence also would have been good for Winston as the inevitable bumps of his job arrive.

Make no mistake — those challenges will be plentiful, as they are with most public school district superintendents. We believe Winston is wholly equipped to tackle the complex issues facing the district, and we hope his thoughtfulness is accompanied by an independence and willingness to challenge the board when appropriate. CMS needs a leader, one who has the confidence of not only his bosses, but teachers and families. We hope — and think — we’re getting the right one this time.

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