CMS Board cites ‘serious mishaps’ for its decision to fire Superintendent Earnest Winston

CHARLOTTE — The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board of Education has voted, 7-2, to terminate Superintendent Earnest Winston’s contract.

“We have not arrived here easily. Earnest Winston cares deeply for CMS,” said board member Elyse Dashew.

The Board said their decision came following what they call “serious mishaps” during Winston’s time as superintendent.

Winston’s 2020-21 performance evaluation and an independent investigation by an outside lawyer were also released Tuesday. It showed the Board’s “concerns over his performance and responsiveness during the past year.”

The independent investigation highlights concerns, including the Title IX response at Hawthorne Academy to sexual assault allegations, and questions in judgment related to media statements about Title IX issues. Other concerns included a delay in a plan to improve student performance, Winston’s decision-making ability, and the slow implementation of safety measures.

Winston’s poor performance evaluation from board members showed his character was praised, but his leadership was questioned.

“I can hold two things in my heart and head simultaneously. I can have deep respect toward Earnest Winston and at the same time know that we need new leadership,” the evaluation said.

Snippets from the evaluation:

  • “I am not seeing a real plan to reverse the depths we have fallen to.”
  • “Members of executive staff seem to struggle to understand your vision.”
  • “We ae struggling in communication, even the simplest things to the public.”

Channel 9′s Elsa Gillis was at the emergency meeting Tuesday. She said it was clear that the board members who voted -- while they believe the change in leadership is needed -- respect Winston deeply.

“This is an unfortunate situation. I respect all he has done for the district,” said board member Lenora Shipp.

The Board said the firing is for convenience, not cause, which means Winston will be paid more than $576,000 over two years.

Winston shared a statement Tuesday, where he called serving as superintendent the honor of a lifetime. He wrote in part:

“My intention as a leader has always been to lead with integrity, compassion and gratitude ... COVID-19 has forced us to prioritize what is most important.

“Grades, test results, and academic performance is a one-dimensional view of what it means to educate children who have survived a pandemic in the 21st century. Our children’s mental health and well-being should be the priority.

“So, I end my service as superintendent the way I began it -- centering student needs.”

The CMS Board chair sent families an email saying, in part:

“We believe that a different leader is needed to shore up this district and place our students on track to achieve high goals in literacy, math, and career and college readiness. The well-being of our students is always our first priority.”

At the emergency meeting, the Board also named Hugh Hattabaugh as the interim superintendent of CMS.

“Hugh is the right person to lead CMS at this time as we conduct a thorough, nationwide search for a new superintendent,” Dashew said. “He brings extensive experience in leadership and education, and firsthand knowledge of CMS to this position. We are very fortunate to have Hugh in this interim role and we are confident he will drive significant progress. The Board thanks Earnest for his service and commitment to CMS and we wish him well.”

The Board also named current chief compliance officer Scott McCully as acting superintendent until Hattabaugh begins on April 25.

CMS sees several changes in leadership in past 8 years

The Board’s decision makes for another big change for a district that has seen four superintendents since 2014.

Winston was named superintendent in August 2019 with a three-year contract after the suspension and resignation of the previous superintendent, Dr. Clayton Wilcox.

In February 2021, the CMS school board approved a new contract for Winston that raised his salary 3%, from $280,000 to $288,400. It also extended his term through 2025.

Winston has been with CMS for 18 years, starting in 2004 as a English teacher. He moved into administration after two years in the classroom.

During that time, Winston worked in the communications department where he served as chief of staff for two superintendents and chief community relations and engagement officer. He’s also a CMS parent himself.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators said the news of Winston’s termination was concerning to them. They said the CMS Board needed to be transparent in their search for the next leader, and said the superintendent turnover rate was a troubling pattern.

CMAE’s full statement is below:

“We are troubled by the CMS Board of Education’s decision to fire Superintendent Winston without cause. Earnest Winston led us through some of this district’s greatest challenges; from keeping our kids and educators safe through the pandemic, to stepping up and leaning in when our community demanded a reckoning on systemic racism, Superintendent Winston has been a transparent, cooperative leader through it all.

“CMAE continues to advocate that all stakeholders have a seat at every decision-making table. The CMS Board must lead an open and transparent search process for our next leader that includes educators, parents, and students. This is essential to finding the candidate who will lead our district to ensure student success. This will be our 7th superintendent search in 11 years. This pattern is concerning to the membership of CMAE. Frequent changes in leadership are hindering our district’s ability to ensure success for all learners.

“We look forward to working with interim Superintendent Dr. Hugh Hattabaugh as we work together to deliver the schools our students, families, and staff deserve.”

CMS faces several challenges, issues over recent years

During Winston’s tenure, CMS has faced several challenges, including an increase in violence at schools, claims the district mishandled sexual assault allegations and transitioning to remote learning due to the pandemic.

Since the beginning of the school year, 26 guns were found on school campuses. As a result, CMS has worked on updating safety measures.

CMS has also faced a lot of questions and criticism over how the district has handled -- or mishandled -- cases where students have reported sexual assaults at schools. Last year, Winston said the district would “beef up” support to the district’s Title IX office after claims of sexual assaults on school campuses.

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic also caused a huge shift for the district. That’s when students were initially sent home, eventually leading to over a year of remote learning.

Virtual classrooms led to many challenges for teachers, students and families. End of Course test results showed an increase in the number of students deemed not proficient. That means those scores showed “inconsistent understanding of grade level content standard and will need support.”

The emergency meeting was held Tuesday at 12:30 p.m. to discuss “matters related to superintendent contracts and attendant personnel items.”

Channel 9 reached out to several board members for comment ahead of Tuesday’s meeting. Board member Sean Strain said he could not speak to current ER/HR evaluations and/or processes, saying the school board and superintendent have a contract and it will remain in effect until severed by one, the other, or mutually. He did share the following regarding current leadership:

“I would like to see a substantial change in the leadership and culture of the district - and that is true at every level.

“We value all of our employees, but we must embrace a culture aligned on our Vision, Mission, Goals and Guardrails. High expectations and accountability for results must be the cornerstone of our culture. Our decisions, our actions, our funding model, must be focused on serving the needs and growing every student, every day, in every school.”

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