Teacher pay, public-school options and school hours drew questions and debate at a Thursday forum for Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board candidates.
The role of state legislators in shaping local schools drew some of the sharpest exchanges, especially among candidates for the south suburban District 6 seat.
Paul Bailey, a longtime Matthews Town Council member who has been endorsed by four state lawmakers, touted his ability to work with that body. He said he disagrees with state decisions to freeze teacher pay and allow handguns on school grounds, but he also noted that “these folks in Raleigh have had a struggle” to craft a budget.
The other two contenders for that seat, Bolyn McClung and Doug Wrona, said they’ll work to replace state legislators who made decisions that harm teachers and public schools.
“We need new General Assembly members in this district,” said McClung, a Pineville printer and IT manager. “Our teachers need more resources. They need more respect from the people in Raleigh.”
Wrona, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher, said he wants to resist the testing and performance-pay mandates from Raleigh. “I’m here to represent progressive, research-based ideas,” he said.
But in a season where many have noted low public interest in the school board race, it appeared that few undecided voters showed up. About 50 people were scattered through an auditorium at Central Piedmont Community College, most of them volunteers, journalists, elected officials, people accompanying candidates and students with GenerationNation, a youth civics group.
“Maybe adults are apathetic (about) local elections (including) school board, but … STUDENTS CARE!” a tweet from GenerationNation said.
The six district seats on the nine-member school board are up for election Nov. 5, with winners serving four-year terms (the three at-large seats are up in 2015). Five of the races are contested; incumbent Joyce Waddell has no opposition in District 3.
The board oversees the education of more than 144,000 students, a workforce of more than 18,000 and a budget that tops $1 billion. CMS is one of the region’s largest employers, and the quality of public schools is widely viewed as a major force in job recruitment and economic health.
Several incumbents talked about the work they’ve done to hire Superintendent Heath Morrison, boost academic achievement and abate the school board’s long-standing reputation for bickering and strife.
Eric Davis, seeking re-election to the District 5 seat, noted that several years ago a judge accused CMS of “academic genocide” based on low-performing high schools, while the school board was viewed as “the very symbol of dysfunctional government.”
Now, he said, things have changed. Graduation rates are rising and the board recently won a national award for good governance. “We have embraced the concept of ‘team,’” Davis said.
Rhonda Lennon, seeking re-election for District 1, said she has represented her district while working for the entire district. “The thing that I am most proud of is that I have worked collaboratively with my fellow board members,” she said.
Their challengers took a dimmer view of the board’s accomplishments. Christine Mast, running in District 1, said the board recently approved a five-year plan with most of the data for measurement left blank. She said CMS needs better financial accountability and has failed to give schools enough power over planning.
Edward Donaldson, the District 5 challenger, said CMS needs to improve student assignment and classroom discipline.
Because there were so many candidates, each question went to only one or two districts. Incumbent Tom Tate and challenger Queen Elizabeth Thompson in District 2 were asked to talk about charter schools.
Both said charters, which are public schools authorized by the state that report to independent boards, lack sufficient oversight. Thompson, who once monitored federal compliance for CMS, said she believes charter schools are wasting public money. “I’m a critic based on what I’ve seen,” she said.
Tate said he would like to see the state give local districts authority to oversee charters. He said creating small independent schools isn’t cost-efficient, but “charter schools are here and we have to recognize that and deal with them.”
Incumbent Richard McElrath and challenger Thelma Byers-Bailey in District 2 were asked about magnets and other options within CMS.
“I don’t think we have enough choices,” Byers-Bailey said, adding that the lack of CMS options may account for the proliferation of charter schools. She called for expanding magnets and academic themes.
McElrath agreed that options are important, but she said Morrison and the board are already launching an array of new schools and magnets. The board discussed 10 new proposals on Tuesday, with a vote scheduled for December.
Davis and Donaldson were asked about the board’s 2010 decision to lengthen the elementary school day and create a new late “bell schedule,” with students dismissed at 4:15 p.m.
Davis said the board made those changes to save money on busing and avoid job cuts when the budget was shrinking.
“Do I think these bell schedules are good? Well, no,” Davis said. “I don’t think laying off teachers is good either.”
Donaldson said no child should get home after 4:30 p.m., and said there are ways to change the schedules without cutting teachers. He suggested pushing high schools, which now go from 7:15 a.m. to 2:15 p.m., to a later schedule and spending more on busing to get children home earlier.
Most candidates talked about the need for better teacher pay and other ways to improve morale, but they noted that the state controls most of the money and makes most of the rules.
The school board has no taxing authority and gets its budget from state, county and federal governments.
“There is a notion out there that the Board of Education controls anything we do,” McElrath said. “The only thing we have is a scalpel. We can cut, cut, cut, cut.”
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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