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CMS elections: Voters face a choice in school board races

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Voters in the Nov. 5 Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board election face a choice: Stick with the members who are charting a course with the superintendent they hired, or bring in fresh views.

The five incumbents say they’ve weathered tough times to emerge as a team that hired Superintendent Heath Morrison, built public confidence and kept the focus on learning.

But challengers say there’s room for improvement. They’re running on platforms that include better accountability, stronger programs for failing students, new approaches to student assignment and even a call to split Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools into smaller districts.

Four years ago, district elections for the school board swept a new majority into office. Their tenure brought both outrage and acclaim as they steered the district through the worst financial times in recent memory.

Now the six district seats are on the ballot again. Four have challengers who say they can do a better job, one has an unopposed incumbent and one has three newcomers vying for the post.

The election gives the public a chance to weigh in on the direction of a district that educates more than 144,000 students, controls an annual budget of more than a billion dollars and drives the region’s economic health.

Some outsiders say the current team has restored the board’s tarnished reputation.

“The school board was one of the most dysfunctional boards in Mecklenburg County for two decades,” said state Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican. Now, he says, “people are starting to take them seriously.”

Others say voters won’t forget the tumultuous times that brought teacher layoffs, changes in school hours and an unpopular local testing program. A 2010 vote to close about a dozen schools and restructure many others brought prolonged and intense debate, with protesters claiming the board protected affluent areas while shuttering schools in fragile, low-income neighborhoods.

“I’m holding the board accountable,” said county commissioner Vilma Leake, who says current members handled the closings badly. “They didn’t talk to the community.”

One thing most observers agree on: A month before the election, awareness of the school board race remains low.

Yet the stakes are high. CMS is one of the region’s largest employers, with more than 18,000 on its payroll. Its success at educating children shapes not only individual futures but neighborhood stability and regional job recruitment.

The members elected this year must work with state legislators who have grown increasingly active in education policy and deal with a growing sense of frustration over low teacher pay.

They must figure out how to deal with competition from charter schools and vouchers that will help send students to private schools. They will help schools adjust to new “common core” education standards, a controversial state testing system and the debut of letter grades for schools. They’ll make big-money decisions about paying for technology and ensuring that schools use it wisely.

Designed for diversity

The school board’s blend of three at-large and six district seats was created in 1995 to ensure that the most affluent, populous and influential parts of Mecklenburg County couldn’t control decision-making. Before that all nine members were elected countywide.

District representatives reflect the diverse voices of a sprawling county that blends urban and rural areas, newcomers and longtime residents. Those differences played out in public, and the school board developed a reputation for bickering. One national consultant used video from an acrimonious meeting several years ago as a bad example for other boards.

In 2009, all but one incumbent stepped aside, clearing the way for the new majority. That group brought a balance of Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters that forced cooperation across party lines. And those members say they also arrived with a desire to behave better than predecessors.

“We are working really, really hard to bring back trust,” said Tim Morgan, one of five new district members elected in 2009. He won an at-large seat in 2011, and his District 6 seat is the only one that’s guaranteed to have a new member. Amelia Stinson-Wesley, appointed to serve the remaining two years, isn’t running.

Rocked by controversy

But the board couldn’t duck controversy. They were sworn in and immediately plunged into an emotionally charged decision about scaling back Myers Park High’s International Baccalaureate magnet. Audience members shouted “Shame! Resign!” at newlyelected Chairman Eric Davis when they didn’t like his vote.

As the recession deepened, CMS laid off hundreds of teachers and other employees. Then-Superintendent Peter Gorman launched dozens of new tests designed to rate teachers, fueling backlash from parents and educators. In fall of 2010, after a series of tense community meetings, the board approved school closings and mergers.

In summer 2011, Gorman abruptly resigned to take a private-sector job. While the board was searching for a replacement, the interim leadership issued a report on school data that had to be withdrawn when the Observer found inflated numbers that no one could explain.

Those rough spots are playing into this year’s campaign.

Edward Donaldson, a first-time candidate seeking Davis’ District 5 seat, says there’s enough public frustration with student assignment and CMS bureaucracy to give him a shot against a better-funded incumbent. He supports splitting CMS into smaller districts to make it more responsive.

Thelma Byers-Bailey, also making her first run for office, says she was motivated by the board’s decision to close Lincoln Heights Elementary, her neighborhood school. She’s trying to oust Richard McElrath in District 2, which bore the brunt of closings.

Christine Mast, challenging Rhonda Lennon for the District 1 seat, has been a frequent critic of CMS data errors and public responsiveness. She says her background as an accountant will help her do a better job of getting answers.

Cause for celebration

But the incumbents say that even during the most tumultuous times they stayed focused on students, who kept making progress.

In fall 2011, CMS was awarded the Broad Prize for Urban Education. The national award recognized gains made by low-income and minority students.

The district’s black, Hispanic and low-income students, who had long trailed their counterparts in Wake County, began to outperform them. Graduation rates rose steadily across the district.

Partisan strife on the CMS board flared in the wake of the 2011 at-large election, when a new Democratic majority exercised its clout. But members pulled together to finish the national search for a superintendent, voting unanimously to hire Morrison, the reigning National Superintendent of the Year.

A little over a year into Morrison’s tenure, his name comes up often when people talk about rising confidence in CMS. He has made the rounds of schools, civic clubs, churches and community gatherings asking for people’s ideas about public education.

Morrison “deserves all the support we can possibly give him,” says Davidson Mayor John Woods.

Last December, the board elected Mary McCray, a Democrat, as chairwoman and Morgan, a Republican, as vice chairman. Several credit that combination for putting the board on a more cooperative track and helping build relationships with elected officials of both parties.

Changing landscape

This summer, the school board found itself overshadowed by a barrage of education reform measures coming out of Raleigh. Teacher frustration focused on the Republican-dominated legislature that froze pay, eliminated tenure and cut pay for advanced degrees.

In all the races, rebuilding teacher morale and improving pay is a top issue. And the incumbents and challengers agree that working with state and county officials is an essential part of that work.

But they have different views about the experience, ideas and personal style that will work best. Queen Elizabeth Thompson, a former dropout intervention counselor challenging Tom Tate for the District 4 seat, and Doug Wrona, a former teacher seeking the open District 6 seat, both say their experience gives them insight that outsiders lack. McElrath and Joyce Waddell, the incumbent with no opposition in District 3, are also retired educators.

Bolyn McClung and Paul Bailey, the other two District 6 candidates, clash over the best approach to working with legislators. Bailey cites the strong relationship he has with state lawmakers from his area, four of whom endorsed him. McClung calls two of those legislators enemies of public education, and says his knowledge of education policy and local politics will be more effective.

Meanwhile, current board members say they’ve forged an ability to work effectively despite their different personalities and philosophies. And they point to Morrison as an effective liaison who has emerged in his first year as a leader in getting urban superintendents around the state to lobby for their districts’ needs.

Whoever is sworn in after the November election will be responsible for guiding CMS through a fast-changing educational landscape. And if there’s one clear lesson from the last four years, it’s that no one can anticipate all the twists ahead.

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