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CMS District 4 | Senior board member faces a challenge

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Tom Tate, the school board’s senior member, faces a challenge from Queen Elizabeth Thompson to represent District 4 for the next four years.

Tate, a Presbyterian minister, was first elected in 2005 and had no opposition when he ran again in 2009. He said he wants a third term to continue working with a successful superintendent and a newly cohesive board.

“I like what (Heath Morrison) is doing and I want to be there to support him,” Tate said of the superintendent hired in 2012.

Thompson, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools dropout prevention counselor who ran for school board a decade ago, says she’s trying again because she thinks she can do a better job representing struggling schools and failing students.

“I bring direct experience. I don’t hear that from any of the board members,” she said.

The east Charlotte district is home to immigrants and ethnic communities from around the globe. Many of its schools have high poverty levels. Tate and Thompson agree that one of the biggest challenges is stopping flight and persuading affluent families to give their public schools a chance.

Tate sees hope in Morrison’s plan to help each school to create themes and tactics to compete with charter and private schools. McClintock Middle in District 4 is held up as an early success; the historic school moved into a new building in August and will launch a robotics magnet in 2014.

“I believe you can get a good education,” Tate said, even in schools that may not have a good reputation.

But Thompson says no one is paying enough attention to the students who continue to fall behind.

“I want the community to do something about these children,” she said. “We can’t put them all in jail.”

Career ends in conflict

Thompson worked for CMS from 1985 to 2001, when she was fired. While working at Butler High as a special populations coordinator, she encountered problems that led her to file two federal lawsuits against the principal and CMS.

Thompson claimed she and black students faced racial discrimination. According to court documents, she reported that she was passed over for a new job in favor of a less-qualified white male, wrongfully suspended, punished for filing a discrimination complaint and subjected to racial harassment that led to emotional distress and chronic depression.

CMS countered in court filings that Thompson was defiant, insubordinate, falsified absence reports and did “totally inadequate” work during her last two years.

Thompson’s first suit was dropped at her request in 2002, when her lawyer withdrew and Thompson could not afford to hire legal counsel to pursue the case, according to documents. In 2003 she sued again, based on the same incidents, and represented herself. That suit was settled in 2004 when CMS agreed not to oppose Thompson’s application for disability benefits.

“I prevailed,” Thompson said.

She said her work with at-risk students taught her about the need for better support for such students and their teachers. Too often, she said, teachers aren’t prepared to deal with students’ disabilities and other special needs. Overly rigid grading policies and “zero tolerance” discipline can create dropouts instead of encouraging students to keep trying, she said.

Thompson also worked as a federal compliance monitor in CMS, which she says showed her the need for better financial accountability. She wants to set up systems that would reward employees for reporting waste and suggesting cost-cutting measures.

Working through turmoil

Tate was elected at a time when board members were known for sniping at each other; national consultants used video of one particularly contentious meeting as a bad example for other districts.

Tate says he always valued team work, but “I didn’t know how hard, at times, it could be.”

His eight years have included two superintendent searches, teacher layoffs, school closings, boundary battles, mass meetings to promote suburban secession and street protests that accused the board of racism.

Tate says the board made advances about a year ago, when members united to hire Morrison, then elected Mary McCray and Tim Morgan as chair and vice chair.

“I think we do work really well together,” Tate said. “We know each other well and respect each other.”

For his own part, Tate says, “I had to learn that I don’t have any individual power at all.” Only as a board, he said, can members accomplish anything.

Tate says District 4 stands to see more gains in the coming years. In addition to Morrison’s plans to invigorate efforts to attract families, the bonds on the Nov. 5 ballot would reopen Oakhurst Elementary and build a new K-8 school in east Charlotte, which would combine neighborhood seats to relieve crowding with a language immersion magnet.

Ultimately, Tate says, the goal is educating every student. “We’re still a ways from there,” he said. “We’re doing better.”

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