When Superintendent Peter Gorman gave his “state of the schools” report last week, he took special note of the widening achievement gap between white and minority students.
The school board could soon face that challenge without George Dunlap, its longest-serving member and one of only two African Americans on the board. He won a special Democratic Party election Monday to succeed the late Valerie Woodard on the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners.
While Republican commissioners blocked an attempt to have Dunlap seated Tuesday, it appears likely that, at the latest, he will join the board in December. Woodard's name remains on the ballot, and votes cast for her will be credited to him. Meanwhile, the county's Democratic Party filed suit Wednesday asking a judge to order commissioners to allow Dunlap to take Woodard's seat.
If Vilma Leake wins her commissioners' race Nov. 4, the nine-member school board could be without an African American member, depending on whom the board selects to replace Dunlap.
Some in the black community are already suggesting the board should replace him with an African American, and do the same with Leake should she win. Richard McElrath, a retired teacher and community activist, said the board can't afford to go without African American voices at a time when black students face so many challenges.
“The dropout rate is rising, the gap between black and white is getting wider, and now we're (potentially) going to have no diversity on that board? I don't think that's a good idea,” he said.
Dunlap, who has been on the school board for 13 years, also said the board should select an African American to replace him.
“If they don't, come November of next year, (the voters) will,” he said Tuesday. “The district is a predominantly African-American, Democratic district. My guess is that (the school board) would look for someone who could garner enough support to hold the seat.”
Chairman Joe White and vice chairperson Molly Griffin said they are sensitive to such concerns.
“Race is not a qualification,” White said, “but you would be walking on pretty thin ice if you didn't take a pretty close look at that.”
He said the board might vote at its meeting Tuesday on how to replace Dunlap. The replacement must come from within the same district. The process could be completed in about a month, once Dunlap officially leaves the board. The board's rules call for a 20-day period for applications, then interviews and a vote. Should Leake win her election, White added, she wouldn't take her seat on the board until early December; a school board replacement couldn't be named until January or February. The nine-member board could be down to seven or eight members for a month or so.
The board has major votes expected within the next month on revamping magnet programs and on setting boundaries for about a half-dozen new schools.
Regardless of when Dunlap might leave, few expect his absence to affect the board's decisions on such matters. There are currently five Democrats, one independent and three Republicans.
Even if Dunlap does leave, “there's still four Democrats and one independent,” said Ken Gjertsen, one of the Republicans. “Unfortunately, it's business as usual.”