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CMS District 1: School construction pace drew incumbent, challenger

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/01/11/36/1gQHQ7.Em.138.jpeg|474
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    Rhonda Lennon was one of five new school board members elected in 2009 and says she has become part of an “amazing” team that has produced academic gains, hired a strong superintendent and reduced urban-suburban tension.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/01/11/36/1ll54q.Em.138.jpeg|415
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    Christine Mast is a CMS mom who’s frustrated by the slow pace of school construction and thinks she could do a better job representing the northern part of Mecklenburg County on the school board.

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Ten years ago, Rhonda Lennon was a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools mom frustrated with the slow pace of school construction in the northern suburbs.

She organized other parents to push for change, and four years ago she was elected to represent District 1 on the school board.

Now she’s being challenged by Christine Mast, a CMS mom who’s frustrated by the slow pace of school construction and thinks she could do a better job representing the northern part of Mecklenburg County.

“Obviously there’s a lot of room for improvement,” said Mast, a first-time candidate who says her work as an accountant would help CMS with budgeting and accountability.

Lennon, who was one of five new members elected in 2009, says she has become part of an “amazing” team that has produced academic gains, hired a strong superintendent and reduced urban-suburban tension.

“I don’t feel the sense of animosity about suburban kids that I did when I came on the board,” Lennon said.

The two Republicans from Huntersville are vying to represent an area that includes three northern towns – Huntersville, Davidson and Cornelius – and parts of northeast and northwest Charlotte.

It’s an area that has long had a love-hate relationship with CMS.

Residents take pride in their public schools, but some complain about control by CMS administrators who work in uptown Charlotte and don’t know the suburbs that well, which has led to talk of splitting into smaller districts. CMS enrollment is growing even as charter schools spring up to offer alternatives.

Differences of style

District 1 school board elections sometimes hinge on where candidates fall on the cooperation versus confrontation scale. Lennon lost her first race, in 2005, to Larry Gauvreau, a leader of the first push to split CMS into smaller districts and a vigorous critic of CMS and his board colleagues.

Even as a parent organizer, Lennon styled herself as a constructive alternative who could speak for north suburban interests without shutting down other views.

During her four years on the board, district members with different regional, political and racial perspectives have clashed at times.

But they came together with unanimous votes to hire Heath Morrison as superintendent in 2012, to approve a 2013-14 budget and to choose projects for November’s bond referendum.

Lennon realizes she’s sometimes criticized as a CMS booster who is too cozy with her colleagues: “You’re never going to please everybody. That’s one of the lessons you learn pretty early on. … I’m a relationship-builder because that’s how you succeed.”

Mast got involved in districtwide issues two years ago, as the at-large school board campaign geared up. She was part of a group called SPARK that argued for splitting north and south suburban districts away from CMS.

She filed requests for CMS budget details and other data – and complained at board meetings when the district’s responses were slow or incomplete.

Mast says even with her accounting skills, she’s working to understand a complex budget and refine her positions. While Morrison has talked about increasing trust and transparency, she doesn’t think CMS is responsive enough to public requests: “It doesn’t make it look good for the district when people can’t get answers from them.”

Who makes decisions?

Local control is central to Mast’s campaign, but she says she’s willing to give Morrison’s new geographic administrative offices a chance.

If central offices are willing to cede real decision-making power – and if schools are given the power over budgeting and academic decisions that state law allows – a countywide district could work, she said.

“If we let our schools tell us what they need, we can be a better district,” Mast said.

Mast and Lennon agree that working with other elected officials, especially state legislators, is a crucial part of the job. Both say they’re capable of making the case for better teacher pay and more flexibility for local districts to make decisions.

Lennon says the best part of her term on the board has been seeing steady academic gains at urban and suburban schools. Districtwide, the graduation rate has gone from 70 percent in 2009 to 81 percent in 2013. At the four high schools in District 1, 2013 rates ranged from 86.5 percent at Hopewell to 95 percent at Mallard Creek.

Lennon’s focus for the future is on tailoring education options for students while easing the testing burden that is tied to state and federal mandates.

Bonds and growth

School crowding is a perpetual issue in the growing northern area. So is distrust of CMS planning. Lennon’s activism dates back to a CMS construction plan issued in the early 2000s that severely underestimated northern growth. The last four years have seen new schools built, but also some delays as the recession slowed construction spending.

The 2013 bond package includes three projects in District 1: Replacement of the J.M. Alexander Middle School building, addition of space to turn Davidson Elementary into a K-8 school and expanded career-technical classrooms for North Mecklenburg High.

Mast says that’s too little happening too slowly. The Davidson project, for instance, is scheduled for completion in January 2019. She is opposing the bonds as well, saying the county can use other types of borrowing to pay for urgent projects.

Lennon says she’d like to see more construction in the district as well, but she supports the package. County commissioners only allowed CMS to put forward $300 million in projects for the next four years. “We had to be prudent with our money,” she said.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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