After campaigning for schools, Mayor-elect Jennifer Roberts faces skeptical council


Mayor-elect Jennifer Roberts campaigned on improving schools, and she mentioned education again prominently in her victory speech Tuesday night after defeating Republican Edwin Peacock.

But will City Council follow her lead and spend time – and possibly money – on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools?

Roberts said Wednesday one of her priorities is to examine how the city funds after-school programs and whether improvements could be made. She said the review could be tied into gang prevention and could work with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police.

Another priority is increasing information on government programs to help small businesses. She also said she wants the city to conduct a pay study to ensure male and female city employees are paid equally.

“I want to do an HR audit to make sure men and woman are being paid equally,” she said. “It may be the case, but I want to make sure.”

Roberts faces challenges.

For one, she is an outsider, having never served on City Council. In fact, she is the first mayor without council experience since Eddie Knox was elected in 1983.

Everyone has something that they ran on, and everyone has something they have been working on for many years. Where are the six votes to do what the mayor wants to do?

Democratic council member John Autry

Some council members say privately they are wary of how she performed when she was county commissioners’ chairwoman. When Roberts lobbied to be appointed mayor last spring, she didn’t receive any support from council members.

In addition, the county, not the city, is responsible for the local funding of CMS. The city has played a small role in education, but council members in recent years have been pulling back from that small commitment.

The city no longer pays for school crossing guards and now makes the school system pay the full cost of having police officers in schools. The city spends about $1 million a year helping nonprofits that run after-care programs, but some council members have been saying they want to stop that as well.

A key part of Roberts’ campaign was to create a clearinghouse program to evaluate after-school programs, to give parents more information about where to place their kids once the school days end.

Some council members Wednesday were wary of making a greater commitment to CMS.

“It will be a challenge,” said Democrat John Autry, noting that the mayor can place anything on the council agenda.

“Everyone has something that they ran on, and everyone has something they have been working on for many years,” he said. “Where are the six votes to do what the mayor wants to do?”

Autry said one of his biggest concerns for the next two years is finding millions of dollars needed to move the Amtrak station uptown to a temporary site at West Trade Street. The N.C. Department of Transportation received a $25 million federal grant for the Gateway Station project last week, but the project is still short at least $8 million.

Roberts defeated Peacock with 52 percent of the vote. Turnout was lower than in 2013 and 2011, and Roberts won with 41,690 votes. Two years ago, Patrick Cannon received 9,440 more votes in victory than Roberts did Tuesday. Turnout was 16 percent.

Democrat Al Austin said education plays an “important role” in moving people out of poverty.

But he said the city shouldn’t be looking to fund after-school programs in perpetuity.

“We have dug deep, and people understand that you won’t get these dollars forever,” he said.

Republican Ed Driggs opposes the city getting more involved with CMS.

Driggs said he would support more collaboration in one area: having CMS weigh in more on the impact of rezonings on crowding at schools.

Roberts said she thought there are places where council members would agree to help CMS, such as gang prevention.

She said she would be watching closely the school board’s discussion about how to increase diversity in schools.

“There is value in diversity,” she said. “I don’t want to dictate how we achieve that.”

It’s likely the new council will consider in early 2016 expanding the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance to include gay, lesbian and transgender residents.

Michael Barnes and David Howard, two council members who were against all or part of the LGBT protections, will leave council in December. In March, council members voted 6-5 against expanding the ordinance.

The four council members who were elected to at-large seats Tuesday said they would support the expanded ordinance, which would allow transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice in public restrooms in businesses.

In theory, that gives LGBT supporters eight of 11 votes in favor of expanding the ordinance. Roberts also supports it.

Council members will also consider whether to extend City Manager Ron Carlee’s contract, which expires in April.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs