Twenty people filed to run for the six district seats on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board by the time filing closed at noon Friday.
But by mid-afternoon the list of candidates was in flux, after one first-time contender was allowed to register in the wrong district and another announced she doesn’t really want to run.
The mission of the candidates is a serious one. With the turmoil of a superintendent search and student assignment changes in the rear-view mirror, the people who win four-year terms will help chart a new path for the nation’s 18th-largest school district, with about 19,000 employees and 150,000 students.
But the logistics of the race quickly took some strange twists.
Stephanie Sneed filed Friday morning to run for the District 5 seat, representing a wedge of south/central Charlotte. After she appeared on that list another District 5 candidate, Jeremy Stephenson, looked her up and discovered she’s registered to vote in the adjacent District 4. He called the Board of Elections to inquire, and within two hours of the close of filing Sneed was removed from the District 5 list.
Sneed said Friday afternoon the confusion occurred because her children attend Eastover Elementary, which is in District 5, and during the recent student assignment review she had spoken with board member Eric Davis, the retiring District 5 representative. She assumed that was her voting district until the elections staff called her Friday afternoon to say she had to come in and correct the paperwork.
Elections Director Michael Dickerson said he was surprised that the state’s registration system didn’t reject a candidate who doesn’t live in the district. He said Sneed would be allowed to continue as a candidate in District 4, which covers east Charlotte, because she had met the deadline to file.
But as of Friday evening Sneed wasn’t listed. Dickerson said he decided the state Board of Elections should review the matter. If that board approves, Sneed will be added to the District 4 ballot list next week. If not, he’ll refund her filing fee.
Meanwhile, Amy Moon Hallman, who had filed to run in the northern District 1 on Thursday, told the Observer Friday that she will not campaign because she just learned of a family medical situation. She tried to have her name removed, she said, but Tuesday was the deadline for withdrawing from the ballot. For the last 2 1/2 days of filing, there’s essentially no way to change your mind.
“My apologies for the timing, and I hope everyone will forgive me,” Hallman said in an email. “For this race, the focus should be on the other three candidates.”
New faces and voices
The Nov. 7 election (there’s no primary for the nonpartisan school board race) is sure to usher in change, with three of the six incumbents stepping aside.
And Joyce Waddell, who won the District 3 seat in 2013, resigned after being elected to the N.C. Senate in 2014. This year six people will vie for that seat, including Ruby Jones, who was appointed to replace her but has never run for office before.
The nine-member board also has three at-large members who will be up for election in 2019.
The race is just beginning to take shape, but here are three things that jump out already.
1. Experience matters, but what kind?
The candidates include current and former CMS parents and employees, as well as several longtime activists and advocates for public schools. As always, some campaigning will focus on which blend of experience and skills would serve the district best.
This year, with school choice playing an ever-growing role across the country, you’ll also hear candidates talking about their experience with charter schools, which are governed by independent boards and report to the state. Jess Miller, who’s running for the District 1 seat, is a former charter school teacher and the founding principal of a charter school that’s been approved to open in Rowan County in 2018.
Stephenson has his only child enrolled in a charter school, which he says meets his daughter’s needs better than CMS can. And his campaign is chaired by former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, one of North Carolina’s most prominent charter school advocates.
Both face opponents with more extensive ties to the schools governed by the board: In District 1, incumbent Rhonda Lennon is a CMS parent and Annette Albright is a former CMS employee. In District 5, Margaret Marshall is a former CMS parent and PTA president who has continued volunteering in CMS, while Jim Peterson is a current CMS parent.
Miller said running a small charter school while governing a large school district would add value to both. “There really are opportunities for partnerships that can benefit everybody,” she said.
“The charter population is growing,” said Stephenson. “For too long there has been a complete lack of cooperation between charter schools and traditional public schools.”
2. You’ll hear plenty of new voices.
At least 11 candidates are making their first run for office (another apparent newcomer could not be reached to confirm that). They include Olivia Scott, a 25-year-old just entering the public arena; Sean Strain, who helped organize a CMS parent group in response to the recent student assignment review; and Blanche Penn, 66, who has been a regular public speaker at CMS board meetings for years.
3. The candidates aren’t as diverse as the students.
Of course, that would be tough in a district that has students from 165 countries, where almost 41,000 students come from homes where English isn’t the main language spoken.
Hispanic students made up 23 percent of CMS students last year, the fastest-growing demographic group.
But this year’s crowded field includes no Hispanic candidates, as usual. While immigration issues were in the news this year, with protests in streets and schools drawing attention, few Spanish-speaking adults have spoken publicly on CMS issues. Some teens and young adults, including a group organized by a Garinger High teacher, have spoken to the board about challenges for immigrant and Spanish-speaking families.
District 1: Annette Albright, Amy Moon Hallman (not actively campaigning), Rhonda Lennon (incumbent), Jess Miller.
District 2: Thelma Byers-Bailey (incumbent), Lenora Shipp.
District 3: Janeen Bryant, Emmitt Terrell Butts, Levester Flowers, Ruby M. Jones (incumbent), Blanche Penn, Olivia Scott.
District 4: Carol Sawyer, Queen Thompson.
District 5: Margaret Marshall, Jim Peterson, Jeremy A. Stephenson.
District 6: Allen Smith, Sean Strain.