Big difference on student assignment distinguishes District 6 CMS board candidates

Early voting for the Nov. 7 Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board election starts Oct. 17.
Early voting for the Nov. 7 Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board election starts Oct. 17.

Allen Smith figured he was a long shot when he decided to run for the District 6 seat on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board.

He’s an unaffiliated voter and self-described progressive in the county’s most heavily Republican district, representing south suburban towns that tend to elect conservative representatives. His opponent, Sean Strain, is a Republican endorsed by incumbent board member Paul Bailey, who decided to run for mayor of Matthews this year.

Smith’s children aren’t old enough for school. Strain has four children in CMS schools.

And here’s the big one: Strain helped organize a parent group, CMS Families United for Public Education, that lobbied to protect the neighborhood schools that are a point of pride for the south suburbs. Most of those families were relieved when the school board adopted a student assignment plan that preserved guaranteed seats in neighborhood schools while offering a wider range of options.

Smith, on the other hand, wants to move toward a controlled choice plan that would break the link between residence and school assignment, instead offering families a cluster of schools to choose from. He says that’s the best hope for relieving crowded schools, breaking up concentrations of poverty and affluence and offering all students the best shot at success.

“It’s controversial,” Smith says, “but it has gotten a bad rap in CMS. I think when people find out what it is they’re open to it.”

Smith came to Charlotte from Nashville about two years ago, and says he understood he was in a conservative part of the county and Strain would be “the clear favorite.” But after campaigning, he says he’s been pleasantly surprised by how receptive people have been to his message. “I think we have a good shot in November,” Smith said recently.

Strain says the idea of reopening student assignment and pursuing an approach that would disrupt successful schools is a no-go for many voters. During the two-year student assignment review, which moved Strain from volunteering at individual schools to getting active districtwide, he argued for improving low-performing schools without disrupting successful ones or forcing large numbers of students to switch schools.

“We can’t do anything for a child at the expense of another child,” he said.

Strain said the biggest concern he’s heard while campaigning is about the mental health needs of students, which distract from learning. That’s going to require work with county officials, who already pay for on-site therapists at many public schools.

Both candidates say they’re hearing questions and concerns about the $922 million CMS bond referendum. While the southern suburbs haven’t been as openly opposed as the northern ones, Smith and Strain say they’re fielding questions about whether the project list does enough to relieve crowding and provide opportunities for the fast-growing south.

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

District 6

The district

A strip of south/southeast Mecklenburg County that includes Pineville, Matthews, Mint Hill and the southern tip of Charlotte.

Just over 119,000 voters. 37 percent Republican, 34 percent unaffiliated and 28 percent Democrat.

Allen Smith

CMS connections: Follows local advocacy groups; co-created a south Charlotte group that raised questions about a for-profit sports complex at Robinson Middle School.

Political experience: First run for office.

Occupation: Trainer/technical multimedia producer for GitHub.

Lives in: Raintree neighborhood.

Age: 34.

Top issue: Better collaboration and transparency.


Sean Strain

CMS connections: Parent, school volunteer and a founding member of CMS Families United for Public Education.

Political experience: First run for office.

Occupation: Sales, delivery and digital transformation.

Lives in: Providence Plantation.

Age: 45.

Top issue: Better collaboration with other government bodies to improve student achievement.