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CMS District 5: Incumbent Davis faces school board critic

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District 5 voters face a sharp contrast as they choose a school board member for the next four years.

There’s Eric Davis, the incumbent who swept to a strong victory four years ago, chaired the board for two years and takes pride in the district’s academic achievements and hiring of a superintendent.

And there’s Edward Donaldson, a first-time candidate who’d like to see Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools split into smaller districts. He said his first encounter with CMS was so frustrating it spurred him to run for the school board – and to move his son into a private school.

Donaldson, a home inspector and father of three young children, knows the odds are against him. Davis has raised more than $16,000 and lined up prominent backers. Donaldson signed a statement saying he won’t raise or spend more than $1,000.

But Donaldson says enough people are dismayed with student assignment confusion, bell schedule changes and Davis’ role in closing schools that a challenger stands a chance. He says the push for southern suburbs to break off into their own district comes from parent demand for “more accountability and responsiveness.”

“I’m going to think like a common parent,” Donaldson said. “Plain and simple: What does this mean and how does this impact me?”

Davis, who works for Wells Fargo and has two children in CMS, says it was difficult to deal with layoffs, school closings and other cuts forced by the recession. But he contends CMS has emerged from that with a more efficient organization, a board that works well together and a community that united during those hard times.

“I guess it’s a clear choice,” Davis said. “Do we want to separate and divide, or do we want to continue to work together and make our community better?”

Frustration with assignment

District 5, in south central Charlotte, encompasses some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods and desirable schools. Superintendent Heath Morrison and former superintendent Peter Gorman chose that district when they bought homes and enrolled their children in CMS.

It’s also home to a booming immigrant population, which means some schools have high poverty levels, and large numbers of students who don’t speak English at home.

That’s what Donaldson and his wife, a former CMS teacher, encountered as their oldest child reached kindergarten age. Their home is zoned for Rama Road Elementary, where more than 80 percent of students come from low-income homes. He says he and his wife saw school signs in Spanish. Student works posted on the walls indicated that their writing and art skills weren’t on par with students at higher-performing public and private schools nearby, he said.

Concerned that Rama couldn’t challenge their son, the Donaldsons entered the magnet lottery. He says they were caught up in confusing rules that were interpreted differently by different principals. The family went to Davis for help, he says, and didn’t get the response they wanted. Their son started the year at Rama Road, but the parents moved him to Covenant Day School.

Donaldson says that’s only a one-year solution. He intends for his children to attend public schools, he said, and he wants to help make schools like Rama better academically and more acceptable to families.

He’s vague about how to make that happen but says he’d work with “mommy groups” to build support for high-poverty schools. He also wants to improve the student assignment process, including the magnet lottery.

As a newcomer, Donaldson says he’s still learning about a complex system. He said he sympathizes with parents who are raising questions about school hours, adding that he’d be willing to spend more on busing if it means young children wouldn’t get home later than 4:30 p.m. He also questions why CMS spent $18,000 on an outside study of the issue but still hasn’t released results.

CMS officials originally said the report, based on visits in early August, would be released in September. But in late September, Chief of Staff Earnest Winston said it would come out “in the next few weeks.”

Into the fray

Davis made a splash with his first political campaign in 2009. He announced early for the District 5 seat, with a show of support from community leaders. He raised just over $58,000 and was elected with 17,819 votes, far more than any of the other district winners.

He was immediately elected chairman, a post traditionally held by members elected countywide. His experience as a combat engineer with the Army Rangers was cited as a sign of leadership.

And Davis quickly got a chance to test his skill under fire. Davis and four other new board members took office as the recession deepened and public outrage built over teacher layoffs. Tension rose in 2010 when then-Superintendent Gorman proposed school closings and mergers. Davis and Gorman were front and center at angry community meetings, where they were grilled on facts and called racists for closing schools in low-income black neighborhoods.

In June 2011, Gorman resigned to take a private-sector job in August, catching the board by surprise.

Davis says “having to dismantle the school system” in the face of budget cuts has been the hardest part of the job. Because the school board has no taxing authority, state lawmakers and county commissioners handed down the cuts and CMS was forced to “pick the lesser of two evils,” he says.

When asked if he regrets any of his own actions, Davis says he wishes he’d been more successful at averting the cuts. But he’s proud to point to what followed: The board united in a yearlong search that led to a unanimous vote to hire Heath Morrison, the nation’s reigning superintendent of the year. The board has learned to work across party lines and personal differences in order to function well as a team, Davis says. And most importantly, graduation rates and other measures of student success rose.

Split on bonds

A referendum on $290 million in bonds for CMS, the first bond vote since 2007, is also on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Davis is an ardent supporter. One of the challenges, he says, is helping the public understand how much of CMS spending, from the slowdown in work on the 2007 bond projects to the limited scope of this year’s plan, is controlled by the county, not the school board.

Donaldson agreed that the public doesn’t understand. Until he filed for office and began studying the issues, he says he didn’t realize the level of control held by county commissioners.

But Donaldson says he still opposes this year’s bonds because CMS hasn’t finished the projects promised in 2007. “I would be on board if they would follow through,” he said.

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