Education

Northern District 1 school board candidates differ on bonds and other CMS issues

Early voting for the Nov. 7 Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board election starts Oct. 19.
Early voting for the Nov. 7 Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board election starts Oct. 19. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Voters in northern Mecklenburg County are already fired up about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ bond plan, and that’s just one of the issues that distinguish the three candidates seeking to represent them on the school board.

Incumbent Rhonda Lennon and challenger Jess Miller oppose the $922 million bond referendum, while challenger Annette Albright supports it.

Lennon, who’s seeking a third term as the District 1 representative, cast the sole school board vote against the 29 projects on the bond list. She says CMS desperately needs money for construction and renovation, but the plan doesn’t do enough to address growth and school crowding in her area.

“Our capital needs are real, they are vast and they are deep,” Lennon said. “I just don’t believe that this is the right bond for us right now.”

Miller, who’s making her first run for office, says she disagrees with Lennon on many points but agrees on this one: The process for choosing projects was too flawed to merit support. “This was a really hard decision for me, but I’m against this bond.”

Albright, also a first-time candidate, says she thinks the bond makes sense in the context of projects covered by earlier bonds and needs across the county. “This is a countywide school system, not just one area,” Albright said.

Voters will choose the school board’s six district representatives on Nov. 7. Early voting starts Oct. 19. Three at-large seats will be up for election in 2019.

The three active District 1 candidates come from different backgrounds, perspectives and areas of the sprawling district. Lennon is a Republican from suburban Cornelius. Miller is a Democrat from the northeast Charlotte section of the district, and Albright a Democrat from northwest Charlotte. (Amy Moon Hallman will also be on the District 1 ballot; she changed her mind shortly after filing but could not remove her name.)

Lennon, a CMS parent first elected to the board in 2009, got her start as an organizer of families who were upset about school crowding in northern Mecklenburg at the time.

The area traditionally has a complex relationship with CMS, mixing devotion to community schools with wariness of Charlotte-based officials. Lennon often finds herself straddling that line as both a CMS booster and a voice of dissent. During the early stages of the board’s student assignment review, for instance, she threatened to start her own charter school if her colleagues broke up northern neighborhood schools in the name of diversity.

Now Lennon positions herself as the best person to build a relationship with Clayton Wilcox, a superintendent she helped hire, and execute a student assignment plan that the board approved. She has been endorsed by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators.

Miller, a former charter school teacher who’s working to launch her own charter school next year, has attended and spoken at numerous CMS board meetings. Her biggest theme has been equity – that is, doing whatever it takes to ensure that the most disadvantaged kids have an equal shot at success. She frequently takes the board to task, starting with its failure to produce an annual equity report.

Miller is white and has no children, but she says her experience in an interracial marriage and the time she spends with African-American nieces and nephews makes her sensitive to the experience of children of color.

Miller has used social media to push CMS and the state Board of Education to make their meetings accessible to more of the public through live video streaming.

Albright worked for CMS from 2013 to 2016 as a substitute teacher, tutor and behavior modification technician. That ended badly: She was attacked by Harding High students, a video of the incident went viral and Albright was not allowed to return to CMS the following year. The nature of and reasons for her dismissal are the subject of a lawsuit Albright has filed against the district.

Albright, who has children in CMS, says her experience fuels her focus on the need for better discipline and workplace culture. But she says that while she’s frustrated by many leadership decisions, she’s not embittered toward the school system.

“People really want CMS to succeed,” she said. “They just want the right people in place and they don’t trust the board.”

Albright was endorsed by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

District 1

The district

▪ Covers Huntersville, Davidson, Cornelius and parts of northern Charlotte.

▪ Almost 126,000 registered voters, more than any other district. 36 percent are Democrats, 34 percent unaffiliated, 30 percent Republican.

Annette Albright

CMS connections: Former substitute teacher and behavioral modification technician. Has two children in CMS.

Political experience: First run for office.

Occupation: Provides mental health services for a charter school.

Lives in: Charlotte’s Coulwood area.

Age: 51.

Top issue: Repairing relationships between the board and citizens.

Contact: votealbright@gmail.com, @votealbright2017 on Facebook.

Rhonda Lennon

CMS connections: Two children are CMS graduates and one a current student. Founder of a north Mecklenburg education advocacy group. Has served on several education advisory boards.

Political experience: Serving her second term on the CMS board.

Occupation: Case manager with Genex Services.

Lives in: Cornelius.

Age: 56.

Top issue: Building relationships among a new superintendent, the school board and the community.

Contact: www.rhondalennon.com, rhonda28078@gmail.com

Jess Miller

CMS connections: Has worked as a CMS contractor with teacher recruitment and lateral entry programs. Frequently attends and speaks at board meetings.

Political experience: First run for office.

Occupation: Education consultant who has taught in charter schools and plans to be founding principal of a Rowan County charter school opening in 2018.

Lives in: Charlotte’s Mallard Creek/ Highland Creek/ Prosperity Church area.

Age: 34.

Top issue: Equity in teacher quality, discipline, facilities and educational materials.

Contact: www.jessforcms.com, jessforcms@gmail.com.

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