North Carolina

Clayton Wilcox to resign as CMS superintendent after two years on job

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox is out of the top job at CMS, the second-largest school system in North Carolina, after two years on the job.

Wilcox will resign effective Aug. 2, CMS officials said at a special Friday morning meeting. The school board had suspended Wilcox for unspecified reasons on Monday.

The announcement came after the board emerged from closed session to discuss a separation agreement.

A draft of the agreement, released by CMS, said Wilcox would get no compensation in exchange for his resignation and that CMS would not publicly release information in his personnel file.

Chair Mary McCray acknowledged in opening the meeting that the board will face criticism, but said it will honor every employee’s right to privacy.

“We are going to do this even if it means bad PR for the nine of us,” her statement said.

The CMS board has hired Ketchum PR, a global public relations firm that specializes in crisis communications, for $30,000.

Under North Carolina law, dismissals, demotions or suspensions of government employees are considered public information.

State law also grants school districts and other government bodies the authority to release personnel information typically kept private under the law in order to protect public confidence in the government, said Jonathan Jones, an attorney and the former director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition, which advocates for public access to government records. A school board could take a vote to authorize the release of the information, Jones said.

Wilcox’s departure leaves CMS searching for its sixth superintendent in the past 10 years, and plunges the district into yet another leadership crisis just five years after the board forced the resignation of Heath Morrison.

Earnest Winston, the district’s ombudsman, took over as acting superintendent after the board suspended Wilcox on Monday. Winston has worked in CMS since 2004, first as a teacher at Vance High School before rising up through the central office.

Wilcox took over CMS in July 2017, after a three-month orientation period in which he shadowed former Superintendent Ann Clark. Before joining the district, he had been the superintendent of the Washington County Public Schools, a smaller, rural district in Maryland. Wilcox has also led districts in Pinellas County, Fla., and East Baton Rouge, La., and worked for Scholastic, the educational publishing company.

Wilcox took the Charlotte job with a reputation as an innovator, but came with a history of leaving his two previous roles as superintendent with split reviews. The board originally gave him a four-year contract, with a salary of $280,000.

Until his suspension Monday, Wilcox and the CMS board appeared to be moving forward together with ambitious plans for the district, including a push for equity in student outcomes. The board gave him a unanimous vote of confidence in January, with pay and benefits increases totaling $37,000 a year. It also extended his contract for two years, to 2023, with a new salary of $307,000.

Just six months later, that camaraderie apparently has fizzled. The board twice met in closed session in recent weeks to evaluate the superintendent, first in June and again last week. After a five-hour meeting that was closed to the public due to personnel privacy reasons, the board suspended Wilcox with pay.

At times, Wilcox struggled to deal with the politics of being the superintendent of a large urban district, some officials said.

In an interview with The Charlotte Observer in July, prior to his suspension, Wilcox said that while he valued the relationships he had built with community and business leaders, he wished in hindsight that he had cultivated stronger political relationships.

“What I didn’t probably do that I look back on now is develop some deeper relationships with some of the political leaders, both in Raleigh and even here locally,” Wilcox said at the time. “I didn’t necessarily stop and think about the political implications of not meeting some of our elected (officials).”

Wilcox scored a number of wins in his tenure, but some decisions proved to be controversial.

The successes include voters approving a record $922 million school bond issue, and Wilcox’s winning over school staff as he advocated for higher pay for teachers and staff. Wilcox made equity a central focus of his work, presenting a report on the pervasive links between race, poverty and academic performance and winning adoption of a district-wide equity policy.

But he also raised eyebrows early on for his decisions to relocate two top administrators from Maryland for jobs that weren’t open to other applicants. Wilcox later faced criticism for delaying disclosure of the results of lead testing in water at schools.

Most recently, Wilcox faced scrutiny for his handling of a new background check process for employees. In June, WBTV, the Observer’s news partner, reported that employees hired in the past year were not fingerprinted as part of their background checks, a violation of the board’s policy.

CMS began using a new company to conduct background checks in June 2018. Fingerprinting was not part of the company’s screening process. Wilcox later told WBTV that it was his decision to end fingerprinting.

“All of these decisions ultimately rest with me as the superintendent,” Wilcox told the station.

County politics

Mecklenburg County commissioners provide CMS more than $500 million a year to bolster its budget. Commissioners decide each year whether to increase or decrease the amount the county gives to schools.

But commissioner Pat Cotham said that when she invited Wilcox over coffee to discuss issues with officials after he got the job, Wilcox declined.

“He said, ‘I don’t speak with commissioners. I only talk with school board members,’ ” Cotham said. “I was shocked. Anytime you have good working relationship, you can solve more problems.”

Another time, Cotham said, Wilcox called her by the wrong name as he spoke to commissioners asking for more county money.

“I told him, ‘You don’t even know my name,’ ” Cotham said. “That’s the problem when you don’t build relationships.”

Jim Puckett, a former county commissioner and a former school board member, noted that Wilcox came from a small district and said he seemed unprepared for the political infighting in CMS over race and poverty.

School board members want superintendents to solve the problems of racial disparities in student outcome and segregation, Puckett said. But those issues are decades old, he added, and resolution will take more time than the board has been willing to give top administrators.

At times, tension between Wilcox and the board members has been visible in public meetings. Wilcox bristled when board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart questioned a report on student suspensions last year, saying that requests for more details can take time away from his staff for other responsibilities, according to an Observer story at the time. He later apologized to the board, McCray said.

“He was not very good at the politics part of the job,” Puckett said. “He just seemed overwhelmed.”

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.
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.