CMS superintendent out: Clayton Wilcox will resign after two years on job

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In a bombshell announcement Friday morning, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board said suspended CMS Superintendent Dr. Clayton Wilcox will resign, just two years after being brought to Charlotte to lead the district.

The CMS board met Friday morning to decide the future of Wilcox, agreeing unanimously that he will resign. A separation agreement was approved by a 9-0 vote, saying Wilcox will resign Aug. 2, just weeks before the new school year begins.

He will not be paid in exchange for his resignation.

It's been a chaotic week for the school system after the board voted to suspend Wilcox over several reported violations of state law and board policies.

The school board meeting, which focused on Wilcox's contract, began at 9:30 a.m. with CMS board chair Mary McCray reading a lengthy statement before the meeting went into closed session to discuss the separation agreement.

"We are not naïve to the desire to know details about what happened when," McCray said. "But we are a government body and we must follow the laws of North Carolina and those laws make it crystal clear what information about employees the board can and cannot disclose."

[READ: CMS Board Chair's opening statement]

>> Channel 9 education reporter Elsa Gillis was at the meeting and will break down what's next for CMS, a school district that has now seen six superintendents in the past decade.

"Number one, Dr. Wilcox will resign effective August 2, 2019. In the interim, he does remain on paid suspension," said CMS Board Vice Chair Elyse Dashew. "Number two, the board is not paying Dr. Wilcox any money in exchange for his resignation, and further, Dr. Wilcox will not receive any compensation, including benefits upon his departure from CMS that any other employee leaving CMS would not be entitled to receive."

The agreement has not yet been signed, and the board was still in closed session as of noon.

The resignation means more changeover for students who have already dealt with a lot of it. The role oversees 19,000 employees, 147,000 students, and about a $1.4 billion budget.

We've also learned that the school board has hired a global public relations firm, Ketchum, to provide communications counsel.

Hours after the announcement, the district released a video with a message from Acting Superintendent Earnest Winston, who pledged stability and steady leadership.

"We are in a time of leadership transition, but our focus on students remains clear because they are what matters most," Winston said. "I have served our school district for 15 years as teacher, admin, but my most important job in CMS is being a parent. My expectations are the same as yours."

What went wrong?

Several violations led to Wilcox's suspension, sources confirmed with Channel 9.

In an email to Channel 9, CMS Chief Communications Officer Tracy Russ said:

“CMS can confirm that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education has suspended Superintendent Clayton Wilcox. The suspension goes into effect today and Dr. Wilcox will continue to receive his salary while suspended. During this time, Earnest Winston will serve as Acting Superintendent. CMS remains focused on the priorities that matter most – our students, teaching and learning in every school as we look forward to the start of the 2019-2020 school year. Because this is a personnel matter, we cannot provide further details at this time.”

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Though details about why Wilcox was suspended have not been released, members of the CMS board held a five-hour meeting last Friday in a special session, calling it a “superintendent evaluation.”

[READ MORE: Superintendent in spotlight as CMS board meets in closed session]

Evaluations are part of Wilcox’s contract, but the latest one was held just last month. It is unusual that another would be held so close to the previous one.

Board Chair Mary McCray told Channel 9 the meeting was a continuation of the June evaluation.

"This was just the second part of what we had done in the June meeting, and it was a good meeting, so therefore, if there was anything pertaining to any kind of personnel issue, we’re not at liberty to discuss that," said McCray.

Violations led to suspension

Sources confirmed that there have been quite a few violations of state law and board policies, all of which require compliance.

The violations include issues with pre-K through Grade 2 suspension policies and how those suspensions are reported, as well as miscalculating the number of days the district can miss.

That miscalculation resulted in students from Butler High School going to school an extra day at the end of the year, to make up the day missed following a deadly shooting.

We’re told there were other issues, as well.

“I’m just concerned about the stability for the teachers, the morale, morale for the teachers -- ability to recruit the best teachers the best principles. I’m concerned,” parent Colette Forrest said.

What happens next?

Now, of course, the big question is who will be the next CMS superintendent?

CMS ombudsman Earnest Winston has stepped in as the interim superintendent but it’s still unclear if he’ll get the job permanently -- or if he even wants it.

Just filling the role is a huge job -- and an expensive one for taxpayers.

This early on in the process, we don't know how CMS will fill the position or whether they'll be looking for outside talent or somebody already inside CMS.

But we can look at past searches to get a good idea.

The last resignation like this was 2014 when Heath Morrison left CMS and, similar to this case, an acting superintendent stepped in. That was Ann Clark.

She didn’t want to be the permanent superintendent and the school board decided to perform a nationwide search for a new leader.

That led the board to hire search firm McPherson and Jacobson at a cost of $34,500, plus expenses.

If history repeats itself, the district will want to hear from parents.

Last time, nonprofit Meck-Ed was tasked with holding a series of community meetings to talk about the search. After 14 meetings in 2016, Meck-Ed said parents wanted a superintendent who could rebuild trust.

Something, perhaps, the district will have to work on once again.

Inconsistent CMS leadership

Inconsistent leadership is something former CMS board member Jim Puckett said can turn off voters.

“Why would anybody support a bond package moving forward when you can’t trust whether you’re going to have a superintendent by the time they get around to spending the bond money,” Puckett said.

It could also drive parents away.

“This is what passes for governance on the island of misfit toys,” Puckett said. “It’s one of the reasons one of the small towns (is) looking to get out of the system because CMS just can’t seem to get their act together.”

['It's a huge challenge': CMS announces new safety and security measures]

In January, Wilcox's contract was extended two more years and he received a $27,000 raise, bumping his annual salary to $307,000.

Wilcox took over as CMS superintendent on July 1, 2017, seven months after his hiring was announced, at a salary of $280,000.

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Some parents said with the inconsistent leadership, they are not feeling as confident heading into the year.

"Very concerned because I have grandkids that are coming through the system," a grandparent said. "My kids came through, now my grandkids are coming through so I'm very concerned."

Two years as superintendent

In those two years, he has overseen the introduction of some major student assignment changes, serious work on classroom equity and big security upgrades.

Student assignment changes led to moving students in 75 different schools.

The board approved its equity policy a couple of months ago, which is a lot of work to ensure all students get the education they need and deserve.

Many parents want some of the changes to remain in place.

"Whatever comes out of this, that equity will still be at the top of the list throughout CMS and student achievement," said Dee Rankin, education chair for the Black Political Caucus.

Parent Brandi Williams is wondering what happens next.

"Definitely the equity policy, one of the things I did appreciate is him looking at adding vocation into CMS,” Williams said. “He was not able to fully implement that so what will that look like with new leadership.

Employee morale is another possible concern after Wilcox resigns.

"I think the good news is there's a really good team in place at CMS,” said Ross Danis, who is the president of the nonprofit MeckEd. “I think one of the best teams ever. So, we can hope that some of the decisions that have been made around the superintendent will continue to keep things on the straight and narrow."

Controversial tenure as superintendent

While many were surprised by the decision, Wilcox’s tenure hasn't been without controversy.

He has had to deal with the fallout -- and new security screenings -- after the deadly shooting at Butler High School, and in recent weeks, security concerns have been raised over the screenings of new district employees.

[CMS: District 'paused' fingerprinting new employees during background checks]

Channel 9 first reported that when CMS hired a new background check contractor last summer, the contractor brought deeper screening procedures but stopped fingerprinting for nearly a year.

Channel 9 has learned that was a contributing factor in Wilcox's suspension. Fingerprinting is required by board policy and has since resumed.

[READ MORE: Report on lead in water at CMS Schools 'eye-opening,' group says]

Former CMS teacher and head of the Classroom Teachers Association of North Carolina, Judy Kidd, told Channel 9 she believes the fingerprinting investigation is just one safety issue that may have led to this suspension.

"When you violate state law and are very anti-safety to the community that is trying to bring safety to our schools, I think it is an appropriate course of action for the board of education to take," she said.

Before coming to Charlotte, Wilcox was superintendent in Hagerstown, Maryland; Pinellas County, Florida; and East Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

His contract gives the school board authority to suspend him with pay.

Wilcox's suspension marks another significant bump for a district that has dealt with inconsistent leadership for years.

Acting superintendent speaks with parents

If you’re a student going into ninth grade who had been with CMS since kindergarten, you’ll have seen five different superintendents. And now with Earnest Winston stepping in as acting superintendent, that makes six.

Some of those have been interim positions.

Winston was at a charter school Monday and listened to parents' concerns about west Charlotte.

“West Charlotte High School is without a permanent superintendent,” Forrest said. “We are without a permanent area superintendent or principal and an assistant principal.”

Winston also discussed cities that want to separate from CMS.

“We’re going to continue to work with Matthews and all these surrounding towns to make sure we continue to have a strong partnership,” Winston said.

(Earnest Winston)

Winston said he was asked within the last 48 hours to take on the interim role.

“I thought long and hard about it but, ultimately, I said, ‘Yes,’ because I care tremendously about this school system,” Winston said. “I have two children of my own in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.”

Winston started work as a newspaper reporter before becoming an English teacher in 2004.

He moved into administration after two years in the classroom.