Three weeks ago, Charlotte-Mecklenburg at-large school board candidate Jeremy Stephenson told me that he made a rookie mistake in writing an inflammatory Facebook post about student assignment.
That post incorrectly said that several school board candidates were “unabashedly” calling for a CMS return to race-based busing. It also described race-based busing this way: “It matters not whether you live within walking distance of a school if you are the wrong color skin, or your W2 is too high.”
Those, of course, are code words designed to stoke anger and grab votes. It cost Stephenson the endorsement of moderate school board member Eric Davis, who had thought previously that Stephenson wanted to be part of an adult conversation about student assignment.
Stephenson told me then that he does want that. He said he was a “first-time candidate.” He said he would do better.
Instead, he’s doing it again.
In a campaign email late last week, Stephenson warned voters about “activists” pushing an “extremist pro-busing agenda.” The word “busing” itself is a stomach-knotter these days in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. By bookending it with “extremist” and “agenda,” Stephenson is blowing the dog whistle hard.
Clearly, he thinks that’s his best path to a seat on the school board. He might be right, and he’s far from the first candidate in history – or even this race – to tailor a message to maximize votes. But Stephenson’s scorched earth approach doesn’t do anything to help what will be a very delicate conversation in Mecklenburg County on student assignment.
If Stephenson does find himself a winner on Nov. 3, he’ll join a school board that’s instantly wary of him. It’s not just that Stephenson says he wants to bring people together yet uses language that divides. It’s also that in his Facebook post and email, he’s managed to slap at most every current and prospective member of the board.
First, Stephenson dismisses the possibility that you can prioritize diversity yet believe there are ways to move toward it besides mandatory busing. Several board members think that’s possible, as does the Observer editorial board, which believes CMS should aggressively pursue diversity without sending suburban parents stampeding off to private schools or to the growing number of charter schools.
Some people disagree and believe that transportation is the best way to integrate schools and help all students. Those people may include members of the next school board. Those people, according to Stephenson, are “extremist.”
Stephenson has made some progress in the past few weeks. Instead of saying “several candidates” want a mandatory busing policy for CMS, as he wrote in his Facebook post, he now says it’s a “small group of activists.”
The reason for the change? It could be that most all of the candidates he cited have said CMS should pursue options that don’t involve mandatory transportation. They’ve managed to take that position without demonizing people and oversimplifying a complex issue. It might not help them scare up votes on Election Day, but it doesn’t poison the conversation on all the important days after.
Peter St. Onge