North Carolina

CMS board suspends Superintendent Clayton Wilcox with pay, but doesn’t say why

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools said Monday that Superintendent Clayton Wilcox has been suspended with pay after two years on the job, but gave no further details.

“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,” Chief Communications Officer Tracy Russ said in a statement.

CMS ombudsman Earnest Winston will serve as acting superintendent during Wilcox’s suspension, the district said.

“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,” the statement said.

Wilcox confirmed in a brief interview with The Charlotte Observer that he had met with CMS board members Monday morning, following a five-hour closed session on Friday, but said he couldn’t comment further. WFAE first reported that Wilcox was apparently no longer on the job.

Frayda Bluestein, a professor of public law and government at UNC’s School of Government, said local boards may suspend superintendents in closed session, such as at Friday’s meeting, because personnel matters are allowed to be confidential. Only votes to hire or fire must be taken in open session, she said.

The CMS board hired Wilcox in late 2016, when he was the then-61-year-old superintendent of a small, rural school district in Washington County, Md. He had also led districts in Pinellas County, Fla., and East Baton Rouge, La.

“I’m relentless,” he told the Observer at the time. “I get up in the morning thinking about how to serve kids and I go to bed thinking about it.”

Wilcox replaced former Superintendent Ann Clark, a longtime CMS educator, who had been promoted after the CMS board forced the resignation of Superintendent Heath Morrison in November 2014.

Wilcox arrived with a reputation as an innovator but with a history of having left his two previous superintendencies with boards split over his performance. He signed a four-year contract and started the CMS job in March 2017.

In January, the school board gave Wilcox a unanimous vote of confidence. The board granted pay and benefits increases totaling $37,000 annually and approved a two-year contract extension, to 2023, at a salary of $307,000.

Six months later, the board held a special, closed “superintendent evaluation” meeting on June 5. That was followed by Friday’s closed session.

During Wilcox’s tenure, voters approved a record $922 million school bond issue, the superintendent won fans among teachers and he fought for higher pay for teachers and staff. For more than a year he made ending inequities linking academic performance to race and poverty a focus of his administration.

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 schools.

Wilcox’s handling of changes to employee background checks has also drawn scrutiny. 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, and 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. So I’m going to take responsibility and say that it was me,” Wilcox told the station. “Where we dropped the ball in the process of continued (fingerprinting)… I can’t really pinpoint that.”

Unsettling progress

Ross Danis, president of MeckED, a nonprofit that promotes education, said he was stunned when he heard Wilcox had been suspended. Wilcox has broad support among CMS teachers, Danis said.

The news likely will stall progress on any of the district’s new initiatives and could hinder CMS’ ability to attract top talent to key positions, Danis said.

“Just as you’re starting to make progress, it unsettles everything,” he said.

Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte chapter of the NAACP, said the school board has a responsibility to explain why Wilcox has been suspended.

“Why is everything done in secret?” Mack said. “The board chair needs give a public statement explaining what’s going on.”

Mack said the CMS board includes dedicated members, but noted that the district’s issues reach back to prior superintendents.

Morrison had been superintendent for two years when, in November 2014, board Chair Mary McCray announced he was resigning to care for his ailing mother.

The Observer later obtained a report from a CMS attorney that recommended leaders fire Morrison for allegations he bullied staff and lied about spending. Board members voted to allow him to resign and signed a confidentiality agreement that prevented officials from publicly revealing what led to Morrison’s departure.

Contract terms

Under the terms of Wilcox’s employment agreement, the CMS board can suspend or place the superintendent on temporary leave with pay. The board removed a provision in his original contract that made him eligible for annual performance bonuses of up to 10%.

Wilcox’s contract requires that the district pay his base salary for two years if he is fired without the board listing a specific reason, called “termination for convenience” in the employment agreement signed in 2017. Under the conditions of “termination for convenience,” Wilcox would continue to be paid but would be required to abide by confidentiality after leaving the job. His contract stipulates he could not sue the school district, the board members or any CMS employee.

The contract also requires the school district to give Wilcox warning and a written notice if board members intend to fire him “for cause,” in which members believe Wilcox has broken the terms of his employment agreement or violated any laws. Conditions to fire the superintendent “for cause,” under the 2017 contract, include: dishonesty, neglect of job duties, fraud, theft or violation of board policies and decisions.

In terminations for cause, Wilcox’s contract does not guarantee continued compensation. But the contract he signed with CMS allows him the opportunity for a private hearing in front of the school board to respond to concerns or allegations. The employment agreement states CMS’ superintendent has a right to hire an attorney and respond to board concerns for up to one hour, followed by private deliberations among board members and the school district’s attorney.

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Bruce Henderson writes about transportation, emerging issues and interesting people for The Charlotte Observer. His reporting background is in covering energy, environment and state news.
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.